Boxing Story of the real Real Raging Bull
Raging Bull is known mostly as Robert Deniro’s 1980 academy award winning tour de force performance of boxing champion Jake Lamotta.
The story of former middleweight champion boxing Lamotta is still fascinating 30 years later.
Jake La Motta’s autobiography, Raging Bull, cowritten by Joseph Carter and Peter Savage, begins in the
Bronx slums. Early on he sets the stage for us: “What’s a real tenement without rats? These were rats as big as alley cats, and if you met them at night you got out of their way….When you were a kid, you don’t think much about it.”
A few pages later, he writes: “…there are a lot of scenes in my life that I can see in front of me whenever I want just as clear as if I was looking at a photograph.”
I’m putting the camera on four of those scenes.
Scene 1: One day Jake, “maybe six-eight years old,” returns from school upset. He had been picked on by a classmate. When Jake’s father learns what happened, he “hit me a vicious slap across the face and slapped an ice pick in my hand.” Enraged, Mr. La Motta screams at his son never to “run away from nobody no more! Use that—dig a few of them! Hit ‘em with it, hit ‘em first and hit ‘em hard!” To punctuate his words he slaps his son again. It was a lesson Jake never forgot—“the only good thing I ever got from my father.”
Scene 2: Jake recalls his 1941 loss to Nate Bolden in Chicago’s Marigold Gardens. “I mean, I got beat,” he writes. “…what a pounding! If he’d been stronger he’d have flattened me.” After the fight Jake writes that his face looked like “a piece of liver that had been put on a butcher block and beat with a mallet.”
Jake’s best pal, Pete, is shaken by Jake’s appearance. As tears fill his eyes, he says, “Fighting is for bums. It’s for nuts.” And then, in one of the few humorous moments in the book, Pete adds, “Let’s get out the guns and go back to work.”
Scene 3: The conversation between Pete and Vicki, Jake’s wife, is one of the book’s most revealing. (Jake wasn’t present to hear it, but either Vicki or Pete, or both, told him what transpired.) She asks Pete how well he thinks he knows Jake, and when he replies, “Pretty good,” she stuns him by saying, “You were telling me once about how he doesn’t trust anybody, not even his own brother. Well, he doesn’t trust me either, and I’m his wife….If he even thinks I have a wrong thought he uses me for a punching bag….I want a little out of life.
I want to enjoy it….I don’t want to be locked up here and have a husband who belts me if he just thinks I looked the wrong way at some other guy.”
Scene 4 is an incident that was—pardon the cliché—stranger-than-fiction, and it happened in New York, at Jake’s victory party, shortly after he won the world middleweight 55title from Marcel Cerdan in 1949. Jake was approached by two elderly men, one “grayhaired…with a criss-cross of ugly livid scars on his forehead,” who says, smiling, “Jakela, how are you?”
Now, let’s rewind to the teenage Jake and the night he attacked Harry Gordon, a well liked neighborhood bookie. Jake repeatedly hit him with a pipe, took his wallet, and ran off, certain he had murdered him. In fact Gordon’s death was confirmed by local newspapers. But they had it wrong, printing Gordon “was dead instead of only dying.”
Fast forward to the party and guess who’s shaking the newly crowned middleweight champion’s hand? Harry Gordon, that’s who. “The old thing that happened in the Bronx,” he tells Jake. “Some schmuck it was wanted to hold me up and instead of saying give me your money, which I would have been proud and honored to do with no trouble at all, he comes up behind me and hits me over the head and the result is he gets no money at all because he doesn’t know where I keep it.”
Astounded, Jake—who for years thought he had murdered Gordon—can’t believe that Gordon is standing in front of him and “breaking himself up with how funny it is, and I’m the schmuck.”
(Did Gordon— who after the beating moved to Florida, ”went legit,” and became one of Jake’s biggest fans— know it was Jake who almost killed him? I believe he did, but he never mentioned it to Jake.)
Born in extreme poverty, for Jake La Motta physical violence was commonplace from the moment he took his first breath. A rapist, convict and wife-beater, he never makes excuses for the harm he did to others and to himself. Is he repentant for his actions? I believe he is—for the book is a confession of his misdeeds.
Raging Bull – boxing- so disturbingly honest and raw, powerful and brutal— is a work of literature, perhaps in time a classic.
Author – Boxing Hall of Fame
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