Jake LaMotta, the Real-Life Raging Bull, Dies at 95
The former middleweight champ battled Sugar Ray Robinson six times, admitted to throwing a fight and was portrayed by Robert De Niro, who won an Oscar.
Jake LaMotta, the tough-as-nails middleweight champion with the granite chin who was immortalized by Robert De Niro in the revered Martin Scorsese drama Raging Bull, died Tuesday in a nursing home in Aventura, Fla. He was 95.
A member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, LaMotta fought professionally from 1941-54 and had a record of 83 wins, 19 losses and 4 draws, with 30 knockouts. He was sent to the canvas just once in his career and was known for absorbing great punishment while stalking his opponents around the ring.
"I was able to convince my body that I could take it and nobody could hurt me," he told Esquire in 2012. "I might've gotten cut, stitches over my eyes. Broken nose. Broken hands. But I never really got hurt."
The ferocious brawler had a fabled six-bout rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson, knocking him down in round one of their first fight in 1942 and handing one of history's greatest boxers his only loss in 131 career bouts a year later. (Incredibly, the two battled twice in a 21-day span in 1943.)
Their final fight, at Chicago Stadium on Feb. 14, 1951, was known as boxing's version of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Robinson clobbered the champion before the referee ended things with a dazed LaMotta pressed against the ropes in the 13th round. LaMotta, though, never hit the deck.
In 1960, LaMotta testified that he was paid $20,000 by the mob to take a dive in a 1947 match against Billy Fox in order to get a title shot. He got his chance in 1949 and defeated Frenchman Marcel Cerdan at Briggs Stadium in Detroit to capture the middleweight crown.
De Niro was sent a copy of LaMotta's 1970 memoir, Raging Bull: My Story, and became obsessed with starring in a movie about the former champ, who was then working as a bouncer in Manhattan. Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff agreed to produce the 1980 film, but only if the actor could get Scorsese to direct.
Meanwhile, executives at United Artists said they would bankroll the $13 million movie if Winkler and Chartoff would sign off on a sequel to Rocky, their 1976 best picture winner.
In preparation for the film, LaMotta schooled De Niro on the sweet science. "He would say, 'Hit me, don’t worry, don’t worry,' " De Niro recalled in a 2013 interview with Time magazine. "He was 55, but he was really tough. I didn’t realize until I got to his age [how hard it is to] still take a punch."
The actor famously gained 60 pounds during the course of filming — production was stopped for three months so he could gorge himself in Paris restaurants to put on the extra weight to portray LaMotta post-boxing — to win the only best actor Oscar of his career.
“Rest in Peace, Champ," De Niro said in a statement.
William Forsythe played LaMotta in another film, The Bronx Bull (2016).
A son of Italian immigrants, Giacobbe LaMotta was a native of New York City. (The biography on his website says he was born on the Lower East Side on July 10, 1922.) His father forced him to fight other children in the neighborhood, and adults tossed their loose change at the kids in appreciation. That money helped pay the rent.
LaMotta spent time in reform school before turning pro in 1941. He fought 20 times that year.
After he retired from boxing, LaMotta ran a popular nightclub in Miami Beach in the 1950s and worked as a stand-up comedian. He was seen as a bartender in Paul Newman's The Hustler (1961) and appeared as thugs named Duke, Bugsy and Muscles on episodes of the NBC sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?
LaMotta also co-starred with O.J. Simpson in Firepower (1979) and had top billing in a 1989 film called Mob War. In 2012, he starred for two weeks in a biographical off-Broadway show, Lady and the Champ, in which he recited the "I cudda been a contender" speech from On the Waterfront.
His survivors include his co-star in that production, fiancee Denise Baker, who was 30 years his junior. His second of six wives was Vikki LaMotta, memorably portrayed by Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull.
TMZ first reported the news of his death.