Jake LaMotta, ‘Raging Bull’ in and out of the ring, dies at 95

Mr. LaMotta (right) fought and knocked out Marcel Cerdan in 1949 to become the world middleweight champion.
Associated Press/File 1949
Mr. LaMotta (right) fought and knocked out Marcel Cerdan in 1949 to become the world middleweight champion.

NEW YORK — Jake LaMotta, boxing’s “Raging Bull,” who brawled his way to the middleweight boxing championship in a life of unbridled fury within the ring and outside it, and whose life became the subject of an acclaimed film, died Tuesday in Miami. He was 95.

His fiancée of 25 years, Denise Baker, said he died of dysphagia pneumonia at Palm Garden Nursing Home, where he been admitted for hospice care recently.

A “good-for-nothing bum kid” with a terrible temper, as he later described himself, Mr. LaMotta learned to box in an upstate New York reformatory, where he had been sent for attempted burglary. After going undefeated as an amateur after his release, he turned pro in 1941 and unleashed his enmity on dozens of ring opponents.


He ultimately became a pop culture symbol of rage when the director Martin Scorsese told his story in his 1980 film “Raging Bull,” based on Mr. LaMotta’s 1970 memoir of the same title, written with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage. Robert De Niro won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mr. LaMotta.

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Mr. LaMotta was able to absorb a flurry of punches only to unload a more brutal barrage on an opponent.

Ray Arcel, one of boxing’s most renowned trainers, said of Mr. LaMotta, “When he was in the ring, it was like he was in a cage fighting for his life.”

Best remembered for his six bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson, Mr. LaMotta won 83 fights (30 by knockouts), lost 19 (including a “fix” to which he belatedly confessed), and had four draws. He captured the middleweight championship in June 1949, stopping the titleholder, Marcel Cerdan, and was knocked down only once in his 106 fights.

Scorsese made his film long after Mr. LaMotta had squandered his money — he said he made $1 million in the ring — and had gone through a series of stormy marriages, been sent to prison once more, and ballooned into obesity.


“I would think that Jake thinks it’s a movie about himself,” Scorsese told The New York Times shortly after “Raging Bull” was released. “But those who think it’s a boxing picture would be out of their minds. It’s brutal, sure, but it’s a brutality that could take place not only in the boxing ring but in the bedroom or in an office. Jake is an elemental man.”

Mr. LaMotta boxed more than a 1,000 rounds with De Niro, tutoring him for a role that brought him the Academy Award for best actor.

Mr. LaMotta had mixed feelings about the film. “I kind of look bad in it,” he told the Times. “Then I realized it was true. That’s the way it was. I was a no-good bastard. It’s not the way I am now, but the way I was then.”

Giacobbe LaMotta was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on July 10, 1922, one of five children. He recalled that his father, a Sicilian immigrant who peddled fruits and vegetables, frequently beat his wife and their children.

The family moved to Philadelphia and then to the Bronx, where they lived in a rat-infested tenement. Mr. LaMotta attacked bullying schoolmates with an ice pick, and he beat a neighborhood bookie into unconsciousness with a lead pipe while robbing him.


He emerged as a leading middleweight in the early 1940s.

In February 1943, he dealt Robinson the first loss of his career in Robinson’s 41st fight, winning a 10-round decision after knocking him through the ropes. Robinson won their other five fights, but Mr. LaMotta also defeated prominent fighters like Fritzie Zivic, Tony Janiro, and Bob Satterfield.

Mr. LaMotta had been favored to defeat Billy Fox of Philadelphia in a light-heavyweight bout in November 1947, but the odds swung 3-1 in Fox’s favor shortly before the fight, evidently because of an infusion of organized crime money. Mr. LaMotta was pummeled by Fox, and the bout was stopped in the fourth round.

The New York State Athletic Commission looked into suspicions that Mr. LaMotta had deliberately lost the fight, but he claimed he had been impaired by a ruptured spleen he incurred in training. He got away with a $1,000 fine and a seven-month suspension for hiding an injury.

But in 1960, when the Senate Antitrust and Monopoly subcommittee held hearings on organized crime’s influence in boxing, Mr. LaMotta admitted that he had agreed to lose the Fox fight in return for gaining a long-sought shot at the middleweight crown.

Mr. LaMotta had received his opportunity a year-and-a-half after the Fox bout, and he stopped Cerdan on a 10th-round technical knockout to become middleweight champion.

Mr. LaMotta successfully defended his title twice, then lost it to Robinson when their bout at Chicago Stadium on Feb. 14, 1951, was stopped in the 13th round, Mr. LaMotta a bloody mess.

Mr. LaMotta’s career slid downhill after he lost the title, and on Dec. 31, 1952, following a six-month layoff, he was knocked down for the only time in his career, losing to Danny Nardico in a light-heavyweight fight. He retired, then came back in 1954 for a few bouts before quitting for good.

His perpetual rage led him to beat his first wife, Ida. He married again, in 1946 — his new wife, Vikki, was a teenager — but that marriage, too, descended into turmoil amid Mr. LaMotta’s drinking and womanizing. She filed for divorce in 1956. He was married six times.

In 1957, while operating a nightclub and bar in Miami Beach, Mr. LaMotta was convicted of encouraging a minor to be a prostitute. He spent six months in jail.

Encouraged to try show business by Rocky Graziano, also a former middleweight champion, who had turned to acting and had been his friend since their time together in reform school, Mr. LaMotta later worked as a stand-up comic and an actor. He appeared as a bartender in the Paul Newman film “The Hustler” (1961) and played the mobster Big Julie in a production of the musical “Guys and Dolls” at the City Center in Manhattan.