Robinson, Sugar Ray
Sugar Ray Robinson
Five-time middleweight champion of the world, Sugar Ray Robinson is remembered as the greatest boxer ever produced by the sport. He won Golden Gloves championships in both featherweight and welterweight classifications and retired undefeated as the world welterweight champion in 1952. He managed also a brief career as a tap dancer, and his Ray Robinson Enterprises spanned the better part of a city block in New York City on 7th Avenue, between 123rd and 124th Streets. Known also for his great generosity and his concern for children, Robinson holds a special place in boxing history.
Walker Smith, Jr.
Born Walker Smith Jr. on May 3, 1921, Robinson was the son of Leila (Hurst) and Walker Smith Sr. The Smiths had moved from Dublin, Georgia, to Detroit, Michigan, along with their two daughters, Marie and Evelyn, just weeks before Robinson's birth. In Detroit, Robinson's father worked as a ditch-digger and moonlighted laying sewers. Leila Smith, who found work as a chambermaid at Detroit's Sheraton Hotel, later supported her family by working as a seamstress. Robinson attended Balch Elementary School where during his early years he was known by all as Junior.
When his parents separated in 1927, Robinson's mother took him and his sisters to stay with their grandmother in Greenwood, Georgia, then returned to Michigan to handle the divorce. She returned after one year and brought the children back to Detroit where the four of them lived on Palmer Street, pending finalization of the divorce. In Detroit, Robinson spent his free time at the Brewster Recreation Center, where he met and idolized the young Joe Louis , still an unknown at that time.
With the divorce papers finalized, in November of 1932 Robinson's mother brought her children to live with her in New York City. There the family rented an apartment near Times Square, at 419 W. 53rd Street. The neighborhood, an ethnic ghetto, was known during the Great Depression as Hell's Kitchen. To stay busy after school Robinson and his sisters went to the Ray Scott Studio for tap dancing lessons. After a year the family moved to Harlem, where Robinson attended Cooper Junior High School; he earned spending money by working at a fruit stand.
Smitty the Flyweight
In June of 1936, at the invitation of Reverend Frederick Cullen, Robinson began to frequent the Salem-Crescent Gym and Athletic Club in the basement of Salem Methodist Church, at 129th Street and 7th Avenue. At the club Robinson learned to box under the guidance of George Gainford, the top man of the time on Harlem's amateur boxing scene. Boxing, according to Robinson, was the only youth sport that could be played in those days without costly fees. Equipment and facilities were all available free of charge.
At age fifteen Robinson weighed 111 pounds and qualified as a flyweight boxer. He was known to his friends as Smitty. He traveled regularly to meets and tournaments with other amateur boxers from the area, but according to his mother's wishes, never fought a match.
Finally one day in Kingston, New York, Gainford needed a fill-in fighter for a flyweight bout. Although qualified by weight, Robinson was not registered with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and could not fight for Gainford as a result. Determined to remain in the competition, Gainford resolved the issue by flipping through a stack of AAU identification cards that he held
for his fighters. He turned up a card belonging to Ray Robinson, a fighter who had been inactive on the boxing circuit for some time. Gainford then submitted the card to the officials and instructed fifteen-year-old Walker Jr. to answer the call for Ray Robinson to fight. Smith Jr.—fighting under the name of Ray Robinson that day—won his first-ever boxing match by a unanimous decision.
Sugar Ray Robinson
Using Ray Robinson's AAU card, Smith Jr. continued to fight on the so-called bootleg circuit. It was a bootleg operation because the fighters, who were presumed to be amateurs, pocketed $10 per win. Still fighting under the alias of Ray Robinson, Smith Jr. picked up the nickname of Sugar when a local sports editor in Watertown, New York, remarked of Robinson "That's a sweet fighter you've got there…," to which a fan rejoined, "As sweet as sugar." Still growing, and training in earnest, Robinson brought his weight up to 118 pounds and continued undefeated throughout his years as an amateur boxer. Thus, the career of Sugar Ray Robinson was born.
In 1939 then eighteen-year-old Robinson, weighing just under 116 pounds, defeated Louis (Spider) Valentine for the featherweight championship in the Golden Gloves competition. In 1940, at 126 pounds, Robinson won his second Golden Gloves championship, this time as a lightweight. Leaving behind an amateur record of eighty-five undefeated bouts, including sixty-nine knockouts—with forty in the first round—he hired Curt Horrmann as a manager and turned professional that year. Sugar Ray Robinson made his debut as a welter-weight on October 4 at Madison Square Garden in a bout against Joe Echeverria. Robinson won by a knockout in the second round of the scheduled four-round fight, and took a purse of $150. Just four days later he defeated Silent Stefford in Savannah, and once again it was a second-round knockout for Robinson.
Robinson earned a modest reputation and on July 21, 1941, he fought in a main event for the first time, in a contest with Sammy Angott, the reigning lightweight champion of the National Boxing Association. Angott had agreed to the fight only in a non-title bout. Robinson as a result had to weigh more than 136 pounds in order to be heavier than a lightweight. After tipping the scale at 1361/2 pounds at weigh-in, Robinson won the ten-round decision and pocketed a $6,000 purse for the affair. He finished the calendar year with three more knockouts and two ten-round decisions in his favor.
In 1942 Robinson signed with agent Mike Jacobs who wasted no time in contracting a fight with Jake LaMotta on October 2, 1942 in New York City. Robinson took the 10-round decision but four months later suffered the first loss of his career, in a re-match with LaMotta in Detroit on February 5. After defeating Jackie Wilson two weeks later in New York, Robinson dealt LaMotta a second defeat on February 26 in Detroit in a ten-round decision. On February 27 Robinson reported for induction to the U.S. Army as Private Walker Smith Jr., in compliance with a call to the draft.
After basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Robinson reported for duty as a corporal and was assigned along with Joe Louis to entertain the troops. It is worthy of note that Robinson, because of his forthright manner and conscientious regard for fair play, successfully accomplished the integration of otherwise segregated troops during those military exhibitions in which he appeared. He received an honorable discharge from the army on June 3, 1944, after taking a fall and suffering amnesia for more than one week. Robinson by the end of his military career had attained the rank of sergeant.
Six months after his induction, on August 27, 1943, Robinson went up against former three-way world champion Henry Armstrong, then thirty years old. Robinson, at age twenty-two, was greatly honored to box against one of his own boyhood heroes. The ten-round fight, arranged by Jacobs, would be the final contest of Armstrong's career. Although Robinson won by decision and was later accused of holding back in the bout, he retorted ambiguously that, "The only guys who went the distance with me were the guys I just couldn't knock out.… And I just couldn't knock out Henry Armstrong either."
Won the Welterweight Belt
Robinson racked up a fourth and fifth defeat of LaMotta in February and September of 1945, after which a scheduled title bout between Robinson and world welter-weight champion Marty Servo was cancelled when Servo retired unexpectedly. Robinson subsequently prevailed in a ten-round decision against Angott in March 1946, and that fight proved instrumental in setting the conditions for a December 20 title bout versus Tommy Bell in New York City for the vacant welterweight championship. Robinson won the title in a 15-round decision.
|1921||Born on May 3 in Detroit, Michigan|
|1932||Moves with mother and sisters to New York City|
|1936||Trains with George Gainford at Salem-Crescent Gym and Athletic Club; assumes the name Ray Robinson as an alias in order to compete in AAU|
|1940||Makes a professional debut, against Joe Echeverria on October 4 at Madison Square Garden|
|1941||Fights in a main event for the first time, against Sammy Angott on July 21|
|1942||Beats Jake LaMotta for the first time in New York City on October 2|
|1943||Loses first fight ever on February 5, to LaMotta in Detroit; enters basic training as a U.S. Army draftee; marries Edna Mae Holly on May 29; beats Henry Armstrong in New York City on August 27|
|1947||Knocks out Jimmy Doyle (who dies from injuries) in round 8 of a title bout on June 24 in Cleveland|
|1950||Beats Robert Villemain in Philadelphia, for Pennsylvania middleweight title; beats Charley Fusari in final welterweight defense, on August 9 in Jersey City; tours Europe in November and December|
|1951||Knocks out LaMotta in 13 rounds in Chicago, on February 14 for the middleweight championship; loses middleweight title to Randy Turpin in London on July 10; beats Turpin by a knockout for the middleweight title, on September 12 in New York City|
|1952||Loses to Joey Maxim in New York City on June 25 in a light heavyweight title bout; announces retirement on December 18|
|1954||Returns to ring in an Ontario exhibition against Gene Burton on November 29|
|1955||Beats Carl "Bobo" Olson for the middleweight title, on December 9 in Chicago|
|1957||Loses middleweight title to Gene Fullmer on January 2 in New York; beats Fullmer for the middleweight title, on May 1 in Chicago; loses middleweight title to Carmen Basilio on September 23 in New York; beats Basilio for the middleweight title, on March 25 in Chicago|
|1958||Loses middleweight title to Paul Bender on January 22 in Boston|
|1965||Retires on December 10 after 202 total bouts, 109 knockouts, 66 winning decisions, 6 draws, 18 losses by decision and 1 loss by knockout|
|1989||Dies on April 12|
After knockouts of Bernie Miller, Fred Wilson, and Eddie Finazzo, Robinson won a ten-round decision against George Abrams in New York City on May 16, 1947. All were non-title bouts, with Robinson's first welterweight title defense scheduled against Jimmy Doyle on June 24 in Cleveland. On the day of the fight Robinson tried to cancel the bout because of a dream he had the night before. In the dream, according to Robinson, he dealt a fatal blow to Doyle. Representatives from the boxing commission, and even from the Roman Catholic clergy, counseled Robinson and urged him to consider that the dream was a mere nightmare. Reluctantly he agreed to proceed with the fight.
In an eighth round knockout by Robinson, Doyle hit the mat. He raised one arm momentarily, instinctively seeking the rope, but never regained consciousness and was transported to the hospital. Jimmy Doyle died on the day after the fight, after undergoing surgery. Robinson was shaken by the event and considered ending his career. He came back cautiously over the course of that year, with five knockouts, including a sixth-round knockout in a title defense against Chuck Taylor in Detroit.
Despite a busy fight schedule, title bouts for Robinson were increasingly sparse due to a dearth of contenders. After a title defense against Bernard Docusen in June 1948 and a July 1949 defense against Kid Gavilan, Robinson gained weight and moved into middleweight contention. After a June 5, 1950, defeat of Robert Villemain for the Pennsylvania middleweight tile, Robinson just barely lost the weight necessary to defend his welterweight crown on August 9 in Jersey City against Charley Fusari. The match would be the last welter-weight fight of Robinson's career.
Five-time Middleweight Champion
After defeating Fusari and subsequently defending the Pennsylvania middleweight title against Jose Basora and Carl "Bobo" Olson, Robinson spent the final weeks of 1950 on a European tour. On the Continent he fought a series of middleweight opponents and drew an immense following. During the tour he knocked out Jean Stock and Robert Villemain in Paris, Luc van Dam in Brussels, and Hans Stretz in Frankfort. He fought also in Geneva, winning a ten-round decision against Jean Walzack.
Robinson returned to the United States prepared to challenge then middleweight champion LaMotta for the belt. On February 14, 1951, Robinson defeated LaMotta by a technical knockout in the thirteenth round. He returned to Europe—more triumphant than before—in possession of the middleweight belt.
In a title defense in London on July 10, 1951, Robinson relinquished the middleweight title to Randy Turpin in a 15-round decision. After reclaiming the belt in a rematch against Turpin on September 12 in New York City, Robinson defended the title in San Francisco on March 13, 1952, against Olson. He won by a unanimous decision, and fought a second defense on April 16 against Rocky Graziano , defeating the contender by a knockout in the third round.
After suffering the second defeat of his career at the hands of Joey Maxim in a contention for the light heavyweight title on June 25, 1952, Robinson retired from boxing on December 18. He spent 1953 tending to a series of business enterprises and entered the performing arts as a tap dancer.
Robinson announced his return to boxing on October 20, 1954 and fought a six-round exhibition bout against Gene Burton in Hamilton, Ontario on November 29. He spent 1955 making the steady climb up the ladder of worthy opponents, in an effort to position himself in contention for a middleweight title bout against Olson, who held the belt at that time. Robinson's sixth-round knockout of Joe Rindone in Detroit on January 5 was followed by a loss to Ralph "Tiger" Jones on January 19 in Chicago. Robinson then won a ten-round decision against Johnny Lombardo in March, knocked out Ted Olla in April, and won a ten-round decision against Garth Panter in May. After defeating Rocky Castellani on July 22 in San Francisco, Robinson was scheduled to challenge Olson on December 9 in Chicago. The fight was a route, with Robinson reclaiming the title in a second-round knockout.
After successfully defending the title in a rematch with Olson in Los Angeles on May 18, 1956, Robinson lost to Gene Fullmer in New York on January 2, 1957, after fifteen rounds. Robinson reclaimed the middleweight belt for a fourth time, knocking out Fullmer in five rounds in Chicago on May 1, only to lose to Carmen Basilio in New York on September 23, in the first defense of his fourth middleweight title.
On March 25, 1958, in a rematch against Basilio, Robinson—at age 36—regained the middleweight title for an unprecedented fifth time in a 15-round decision. With no contenders, he held the title for nearly two years, until January 22, 1960, on which day he lost the belt to Paul Bender.
Related Biography: Boxer Henry Armstrong
Born Henry Jackson, on December 12, 1912, in Mississippi, and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Armstrong was the only boxer ever to hold simultaneous world championship titles in three classifications: featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight.
Armstrong boxed professionally in two bouts in 1931, scoring one win, and one loss by knockout. At that time he appeared under the assumed name of Melody Jackson in order to maintain the amateur status necessary to compete in the 1932 Olympics. As it happened, he failed in his bid for the Olympic team, went to California instead, and embarked on a professional career, changing his name to Armstrong in the process.
After losing his first two professional bouts, he improved steadily and went 52-10-6 in 1936. His 27-0 record in 1937 included twenty-six knockouts. He took the featherweight title on November 19, 1937, by a technical knockout in round six, over Petey Sarron. In 1938 he went 14-0, winning the welterweight title from Barney Ross in a 15-round decision on May 31. Just weeks later, on August 17, he took the lightweight crown from Lou Ambers, also by decision after 15 rounds.
Armstrong, who earned the nicknamed Hurricane Hank for his all-out boxing style, attempted a comeback in 1943 at age 30, but retired soon after losing to Sugar Ray Robinson on August 27.
Although he never held another title, Robinson fought nearly fifty times more over the course of the next five years, losing in only twelve of these contests. When he celebrated his final retirement from boxing on
December 10, 1965, at age forty-four, he was joined ceremonially in the ring by Basilio, Fullmer, Olson, and Turpin—four of the five men who relinquished the middleweight belt to him.
Robinson, in his 1969 autobiography, professed to drinking beef blood for vitamin fortification. Perhaps it worked, because he endured a 25-year career, having fought a total of 202 bouts, of which 109 ended in knockout. He won sixty-six by decision, posted six draws and only nineteen losses—with only one loss by knockout. Critics concur that he was the most capable boxer in the history of the sport.
Robinson, who stood 5-feet-11-inches tall, never finished junior high school, having slowly abandoned his studies as his amateur boxing career materialized. Just before he dropped out of school altogether, an adolescent fling with a schoolmate led to a teenage marriage and the birth of his first son, Ronnie. The marriage was later annulled according to the wishes of the girl's parents.
On May 29, 1943, soon after his induction into the Army, Robinson married Edna Mae Holly, a dancer, in Chicago. Holly, a college graduate, proved to be a great asset for Robinson. In addition to her attractive appearance and sincere devotion to him as a partner, she encouraged him to become well spoken, an asset that greatly enhanced his public image. Their son, Ray Jr., was born on November 19, 1949. Although the two stayed together for many years, Robinson by his own admission was not the most faithful of husbands. In 1963 Holly obtained a Mexican divorce. Robinson married Mildred Wiggins Bruce on May 25, 1965.
Over the course of his professional career Robinson earned an estimated $4 million dollars and was known for his generosity as much as for his fighting ability. Following his ill-fated bout with Doyle in 1947, he gave several thousand dollars to Doyle's mother and later set up a small annuity for her. Similarly, on August 9, 1950, he donated all but one dollar of one prize purse to cancer research, in memory of Valentine, who had died of cancer and was a friend and Golden Gloves opponent to Robinson.
After a final farewell to boxing in 1965, Robinson retired to Los Angeles where he founded the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation in 1969. He died from heart problems on April 12, 1989, having suffered from Alzheimer's disease for several years prior. He lays buried in Inglewood Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Awards and Accomplishments
|Robinson retired on December 10, 1965, after 202 total bouts, 109 knockouts, 66 winning decisions, 6 draws, 18 loss by decision and 1 loss by knockout|
|1935-40||Fought in 85 amateur bouts; scored 69 knockouts, including 40 in the first round|
|1939||Won Golden Gloves (featherweight division)|
|1940||Won Golden Gloves (lightweight division)|
|1946||Won vacant World Welterweight Championship|
|1950||Won the Pennsylvania middleweight title; won final welterweight defense|
|1951||Won the world middleweight title for the first and second time|
|1955||Won the world middleweight title for the third time|
|1957||Won the world middleweight title for the fourth and fifth time|
SELECTED WRITINGS BY ROBINSON:
(With Dave Anderson) Sugar Ray, Viking Press, 1969.
Markoe, Arnold, ed., and Kenneth T. Jackson. Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.
Robinson, Sugar Ray, with Dave Anderson. Sugar Ray. New York: Viking Press, 1969.
"IBHOF/Sugar Ray Robinson." www.ibhof.com/robinson.htm (February 3, 2003).
Sugar Ray Robinson: Pound for Pound. Big Fights Inc. (1978) (video).
Sketch by G. Cooksey
Jake LaMotta grew up a street kid whose skills with his fists earned him the amateur light heavyweight championship's Diamond Belt. At nineteen, he began a pro career that would include eighty-three wins (including thirty by knockouts), nineteen losses, and four draws. After retiring from boxing, he developed a comedy routine that drew on his fighting experiences and his failed relationships.
The "Bronx Bull"
Jake LaMotta was born Giacobe LaMotta on July 10, 1921 on the Lower East Side of New York, and was first encouraged to fight at a very young age by his father, who collected the coins thrown into the street by enthusiastic onlookers to help pay the family's bills. LaMotta spent time in reform school after a failed jewelry store robbery and had an estimated 1,000 street fights before beginning his pro boxing career at age nineteen, a career most remembered for his six fights with Sugar Ray Robinson .
LaMotta first fought Robinson in New York in 1942 in a fight that Robinson won on a decision. In 1943 they met twice in Detroit in fights that were held twenty-one days apart. In the initial fight, Robinson experienced his first career loss in forty-one professional fights, then took a decision in the second match. Robinson won in a
ten-round decision in 1945 in New York, but LaMotta was beating other top fighters from the welterweight to light heavyweight divisions. They included Fritzie Zivic, Tommy Bell, George Kochan, Bert Lytell, Jose Basora, Holman Williams, Bob Satterfield, and Tony Janiro. "He was not a special talent," wrote Steve Bunce in Scotland on Sunday, "just a 'tough, young punk,' as he was once referred to by the former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey , whose restaurant on 51st and Broadway was the last resort for the fight fraternity in New York. His initial nickname, before the Bronx Bull stuck, was 'One-man Gang.' That is exactly how he fought."
LaMotta refused to become a pawn of the mob and for years was prevented from getting the matches that could lead to a title. He finally won the middleweight championship from Frenchman Marcel Cerdan on June 16, 1949, with a technical knockout. Cerdan, who had beaten the legendary Tony Zale to win the title, was killed in an airplane crash while flying back to the United States for a rematch. LaMotta later admitted to the Kefauver Committee, a panel investigating corruption in boxing, that he had thrown a 1947 fight with Billy Fox to get that title shot. Earlier in 1947, LaMotta had been offered $100,000 to throw a different fight, an offer he refused. He accepted only that part of the deal for throwing the Fox fight that guaranteed him a chance to win the title and refused the money that went with it.
In beating Tiberio Mitri, LaMotta retained his title, and again successfully defended it in a fight against Laurent Dauthuille which ended with a knockout in the fifteenth round. The judges who scored the fight round by round had given it to Dauthuille, and if the fight were played by today's rules, which limit a fight to twelve rounds, LaMotta would have lost. And he did lose his next defense of his title to Robinson the following year. In the famous "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" of 1951, he lost the crown to Robinson. LaMotta, who himself had brutalized so many opponents, was being beaten so badly that the referee stopped the match in the thirteenth round.
A Fall from Grace
LaMotta had one more fight in 1951 and six in 1952. He had no matches in 1953 and fought his final three in 1954. By then he bore the scars of his career, including a nose that had been broken six times. LaMotta then quit the ring and settled in Miami, Florida where he opened a club and dated a string of movie stars, including Jayne Mansfield, Ginger Rogers, Jane Russell, and Hedi Lamar. He fell from grace with the sportswriters and most of his friends because of his violent behavior. He drank too much, pursued the wives of his friends and admitted to raping the wife of one. He was arrested and served time on a chain gang for acting as the pimp of an underage girl, although he has maintained that he was innocent.
Bunce, who wrote of meeting LaMotta, said that "there are so many tales of LaMotta groping a friend's wife or girlfriend at social events that it would be impossible to start listing them. It seems that retaliation was left to the women, presumably the men were too scared, and LaMotta was variously hit with full ice buckets or else doused with cocktails."
|1921||Born July 10 in New York, New York|
|1947||Throws fight with Billy Fox|
|1949||Wins world middleweight title from French champion Marcel Cerdan|
|1951||Loses title to "Sugar" Ray Robinson|
|1954||Final fight, a loss to Billy Kilgore|
|1950s||Becomes owner of a Miami Beach bar|
|1958||Serves six months on a chain gang in Dade County, Florida for corrupting the morals of a minor|
|1960||Testifies before Kefauver Committee, admitting to taking dive in 1947|
|1970||Publishes autobiography Raging Bull: My Story|
|1970s||Begins to perform standup comedy routines in New York|
|1981||Film adaptation of Raging Bull, is released|
|1998||Son Jack dies of liver cancer|
|1998||Son Joseph killed in crash of Swissair Flight 111|
|1998||Sues Swissair, Delta, McDonnell-Douglas, and Boeing for $125 million|
LaMotta's earlier loss to Bill Fox had been suspect since the event, and in 1960, he confessed to the Kefauver Committee that he had thrown that fight. His honesty degraded his reputation even further, and when Robinson quit boxing, LaMotta was barred from attending his farewell dinner.
Washington Times writer Thom Loverro, who caught LaMotta's comedy act at Café Milano in Georgetown, wrote that his one-liners "would have made Henny Youngman proud: 'I'm in great shape, every artery in my body is as hard as a rock…. We're going to talk aboutthe art of self-defense tonight. In order to defend yourself you need two things, a good lawyer and a good alibi….My doctor told me once if I didn't stop drinking I'd lose my hearing. I told the doctor so what, the stuff I'm drinking is better than the stuff I'm hearing.'" The line that LaMotta is famous for is his, "I fought Sugar Ray so many times, it's a wonder I don't have diabetes."
Always a storyteller, LaMotta performed his comedy routine for many years, and his minor celebrity received a boost when the movie Raging Bull was released. Married seven times, his marriage to his second wife, Vickie, is an integral component of the film based on his autobiography. LaMotta regularly abused Vickie, the mother of his sons, Jack and Joe, and one of his four daughters. Robert DeNiro won an Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta in Raging Bull, a Martin Scorsese film that pulls no punches in depicting the life of one of the toughest boxers ever to step into the ring.
Roger Ebert reviewed Raging Bull in the Los Angeles Times, saying that the film "is the most painful and heartrending portrait of jealousy in the cinema—an Othello for our times. It's the best film I've seen about the low self-esteem, sexual inadequacy, and fear that lead some men to abuse women. Boxing is the arena, not the subject. LaMotta was famous for refusing to be knocked down in the ring. There are scenes where he stands passively, his hands at his side, allowing himself to be hammered. We sense why he didn't go down. He hurt too much to allow the pain to stop."
Personal Tragedy and the Later Years
Jack LaMotta, who had managed his father, died of cancer in February 1998. LaMotta's other son, Joe, had been convicted of trafficking in cocaine and served half of a five-year sentence. When he was paroled, he did his best to take his brother's place in helping his father. S.L. Price noted in Sports Illustrated that "it wasn't until the final months of his life that Joe began to shine. He traveled with Jake to autograph shows and cooked up the concept of LaMotta's Tomato Sauce. In July 1998, Joe and Jake went to Geneva to gauge prospects for the sauce in Europe, where Jake is popular. Joe was gaining confidence. 'He had always been in the shadow of his father,' says [Joseph] Fell, Jake's lawyer and Joe's best friend, 'but now he was psyched. If the sauce had done well, he would've moved to Geneva. He was already asking me to find somebody to manage his dad. I think he just wanted to start living his own life.'" On September 2, 1998, Joe died in the explosion of Swissair Flight 111, which had departed from Kennedy Airport and was bound for Geneva. LaMotta, who claims that he never earned more than a million dollars in his lifetime, filed a lawsuit against the airlines and Boeing for $125 million because of the death of his son. He was the first relative of a victim to file.
After the death of his sons, LaMotta retired to his Manhattan apartment and returned to managing his own life. "You know what people do now?" he said to Price. "They think I'm the godfather. They kiss my hand, women and men! Men come over and kiss me on the forehead. When my son died? More people were stopping me in the street. They hugged me, women, men."
Robert DeNiro received an Oscar for his stark portrayal of LaMotta in the film directed by Martin Scorsese. To portray LaMotta, DeNiro learned the sport from the champ. The film was true in its depiction of LaMotta's ruthlessness, and DeNiro was applauded for his performance. The black and white film received seven other nominations, and it is considered by many to be the best film of the 1980s. It showed how LaMotta's jealousy and passions fueled his intensity in the ring. He once beat an opponent to a pulp because his teenaged wife Vicki (Cathy Moriarity) called him "good looking."
Nominations went to Joe Pesci, who plays LaMotta's brother, for supporting actor, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The brutality of the fight scenes is emphasized by the sound and visual effects. Tubes containing simulated sweat and blood were hidden in the boxers' hair, realistically releasing the fluids when blows were landed. Scorsese slowed the speed in filming scenes in which LaMotta became angry or paranoid, and the scene most remembered is when DeNiro/LaMotta, sitting before a dressing room mirror, repeats Marlon Brando's line from On the Waterfront, "I coulda been a contender." LaMotta's autobiography was adapted for film by Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1949||Wins world middleweight title from French champion Marcel Cerdan|
|1990||Elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame|
Stephanie, daughter of LaMotta and his fourth wife, Dimitria, is a fighter like her father. An actress and boxing and fitness instructor, since 1979 she has also battled multiple sclerosis (MS), the disease of the central nervous system for which there is no known cure. In spite of bouts of paralysis and near blindness, Stephanie trained dozens of clients, including celebrities, at the Los Angeles Youth Athletic Center gym and created a video, Stephanie LaMotta's Boxersize Workout, before MS confined her to a wheelchair. She developed boxing workouts for women during the 1980s, but she was ahead of her time. Gym owners couldn't envision women hitting the bag, jumping rope, and shadow boxing, programs that are now enjoyed by women who have found that these routines are not only enjoyable but an excellent way to stay in shape.
Stephanie LaMotta was able to manage her symptoms until she was involved in an automobile accident that collapsed one of her lungs. In an interview with Earl Gustkey for the Los Angeles Times, she said, "I have a heavy bag in my garage and I punch it as part of my therapy." Speaking of her MS, Stephanie said, "I'm fighting this with all my heart. I'm like my dad in that way—we're both fighters. We talk about once a month and he inspires me."
LaMotta has been an inspiration to young boxers who have, like him, risen from poverty to grab championship with both hands. Sadly, LaMotta's admission that he threw a fight in order to achieve that chance has tarnished his image, but his refusal, except for that once, to cooperate with the mob bosses who controlled the game must be viewed as an act of extreme bravery. Boxing was a different game when LaMotta fought—dirty around the edges and taking a tremendous toll on young men who fought hundreds of fights without ever getting their big chance. That the Bronx Bull survived all this and can still laugh about it, is truly a story of courage and survival.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY LAMOTTA:
(With Joseph Carter and Peter Savage) Raging Bull: My Story, Prentice-Hall, 1970.
(With Chris Anderson and Sharon McGehee) Raging Bull II, Lyle Stuart, 1986.
Hickok, Ralph. A Who's Who of Sports Champions: Their Stories and Records. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
LaMotta, Jake, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage. Raging Bull. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
LaMotta, Jake, Chris Anderson, and Sharon McGehee. Raging Bull II. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1986.
Markoe, Arnold, editor. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Sports Figures, (two volumes). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.
Roberts, James, and Alexander G. Skutt. The Boxing Register. Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press, 1997, 1999.
Bunce, Steve. "Raging Bull was released twenty years ago this month." Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland) (November 25, 2002): 33.
Gustkey, Earl. "Body Blow." Los Angeles Times (July 14, 2001): D1.
Loverro, Thom. "Rageless Bull." Washington Times (February 12, 1997): 1.
Price, S. L. "After the Fall." Sports Illustrated, (September 6, 1999): R24.
Ebert, Roger. Review of Raging Bull. Chicago Sun Times. http:www.suntimes.com/ (January, 1999).
Raging Bull. United Artists (1981).
Sketch by Sheila Velazquez
(b. 10 July 1921 in New York City), middleweight boxing champion from 1949 to 1951, portrayed by Robert DeNiro in the 1980 film Raging Bull, who is best known for his six bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson.
The eldest of five children of the Italian immigrant Giuseppe LaMotta, an impoverished peddler, and his Italian-American wife, Elizabeth, Giacobe LaMotta was born on New York's Lower East Side but spent most of his troubled childhood on the mean streets of the Bronx, New York. As a young boy, LaMotta once came home crying after having been beaten up by some bullies. His father, a violent man who often abused his wife and children, slapped LaMotta across the face and thrust an ice pick into his hand, admonishing him to learn to defend himself with the advice, "Hit 'em first, and hit 'em hard." It was, LaMotta later said, the only good thing he ever got from his father. Soon an accomplished street fighter, LaMotta quit high school and drifted into delinquency. At the age of fifteen, he was convicted of attempted burglary and sentenced to three years at the state reform school at Coxsackie, New York, where he began boxing.
Upon his release he trained at the Teasdale Athletic Club in the Bronx and launched a successful amateur career, winning the light-heavyweight championship in the 1940 New York State Diamond Belt competition. LaMotta made his professional debut at age nineteen in 1941, winning seventeen and losing three. In 1942 LaMotta won eleven of fourteen bouts, one loss being to the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson, who would become LaMotta's arch rival. "I fought Sugar Ray so many times," LaMotta later quipped, "it's a wonder I don't have diabetes." On 5 February 1943, in Detroit, a more confident LaMotta fought in typical bullying style, sending Robinson sprawling through the ropes in the eighth round. He won a unanimous decision and handed Robinson his first defeat in forty-one professional fights. In a third dustup, LaMotta again dropped Robinson but lost a close decision.
Nicknamed the "Bronx Bull" for his headlong charges, the stocky LaMotta fought out of a low crouch, constantly bending and weaving as he bulled his way forward while unleashing barrages of punches. In 1943–1944 he fought the former welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic in four sensational battles, of which he won three. In 1945 he resumed his rivalry with Robinson, losing two hotly contested decisions. LaMotta, however, remained a brooding loner plagued by personal and professional problems. Distrustful of everyone, he fired his manager, Mike Cipriano, and assumed control of his career. He also divorced his first wife, Ida, with whom he had one child, and on 9 November 1946 married Vikki, whom he often beat during fits of jealous rage. Although he was rated the top middleweight contender by 1947, LaMotta was denied a shot at the championship because he refused to cooperate with the mobsters who controlled boxing. Out of desperation, he agreed to throw a fight in exchange for a title bout. On 14 November 1947 he took a dive against Billy Fox in New York City. Barely defending himself and refusing to go down despite a dreadful beating, LaMotta suffered a technical knockout in the fourth round as the crowd jeered. He was fined $1,000 by the New York State Boxing Commission and suspended for seven months. As a result of this incident, LaMotta was to become one of boxing's most unpopular champions. The sportswriter Jimmy Cannon reflected popular opinion in calling him "the most detested man in sports."
LaMotta received his title shot against the Frenchman Marcel Cerdan on 16 June 1949 in Detroit's Briggs Stadium. In the first round Cerdan fell into a clinch, and as the fighters tussled, he was thrown to the canvas, injuring his right shoulder. LaMotta won the middleweight championship when Cerdan was unable to answer the bell for the tenth round. A rematch was precluded by Cerdan's death in a plane crash. Instead, in 1950 LaMotta successfully defended his title on 12 July against the Italian Tiberio Mitri and on 13 September against another tough Frenchman, Laurent Dauthuille, who had decisioned LaMotta the previous year. In the rematch, LaMotta absorbed a brutal beating and was behind on points, playing possum along the ropes, when he unleashed a crippling left hook that knocked out Dauthuille with only thirteen seconds remaining in the fight. LaMotta's final defense was against his old nemesis, Sugar Ray Robinson, in Chicago Stadium on 14 February 1951, a bout known as the "Saint Valentine's Day Massacre."
The fight followed the pattern of their earlier encounters, with LaMotta forcing the fight, tramping forward and flailing from a low crouch while Robinson, eluding the most punishing blows, landed explosive jabs and counter-punches. The fight was even after ten rounds, but in the eleventh a tiring LaMotta took his last best shot. Springing off the ropes, he cornered Robinson and unleashed a blistering two-fisted attack. Robinson outlasted the barrage and took control of the fight, punishing a defenseless LaMotta with savage combinations. Bloodied and battered in the thirteenth, the defiant LaMotta wrapped his arms around the top ropes to ensure he would not go down and endured a terrible beating before the referee mercifully stopped the slaughter. LaMotta continued fighting but rapidly declined. As a newspaper headline exclaimed, "LaMotta NoGotta!" In 1952 Danny Nardico became the first man to topple LaMotta to the canvas; two years later LaMotta hung up his gloves after losing to unheralded Billy Kilgore.
LaMotta moved with his wife and their three children to Miami Beach, Florida, where he opened a saloon, "Jake LaMotta's." There his life spun out of control as he succumbed to boozing and philandering, prompting Vikki to file for divorce in 1956. In March 1957 LaMotta was convicted of aiding and abetting prostitution when a fifteen-year-old girl was found soliciting in his bar. He was fined $500 and sentenced to six months in the Dade County Stockade. Following his release he married the model Sally Carlton, with whom he had two children before the marriage ended in divorce, as would LaMotta's three subsequent marriages. Returning to New York City in 1958, LaMotta worked haphazardly as an actor and launched a marginally successful career as a stand-up comic, lampooning the boxing racket and his marital woes. Soon broke and drinking heavily again, LaMotta worked as a trash collector in Central Park and a bouncer at Robbie's Mardi Gras, a topless go-go bar on Broadway. LaMotta's autobiography, Raging Bull, was published in 1970 and later turned into the critically acclaimed film of the same name starring Robert DeNiro as the loutish anti-hero. The film's success re-kindled LaMotta's celebrity. He remains in demand as an after-dinner speaker, continues to perform his stand-up routine, and frequently attends sports and boxing memorabilia shows, signing autographs for a fee.
LaMotta was one of the most controversial champions in boxing history. Roundly despised for throwing the Fox fight, he was nevertheless a colorful fighter who drew large crowds because his nonstop swarming style made for action-packed bouts. Had not the popularity of the film Raging Bull rescued him from obscurity, he might be best remembered for that infamous fight and for his rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson, arguably the best boxer in history. Instead, the film creates a disturbing yet compelling portrait of LaMotta as a deeply troubled loner who sought relief from his own feelings of worthlessness through punishment absorbed in the ring. As LaMotta told the writer Peter Heller, "I fought like I didn't deserve to live." LaMotta's official record stands at 106 bouts, 83 wins, 19 losses, and 4 draws with 30 knockouts. He was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1986 and into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
LaMotta's autobiography Raging Bull: My Story (1970), written with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage, covers his life up to his release from jail and contains vivid descriptions of his major bouts, including his final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson. Raging Bull II (1986), by Chris Anderson and Sharon McGehee with LaMotta, continues LaMotta's story through the mid-1980s. Peter Heller, "In This Corner … !": Forty-two World Champions Tell Their Stories (1994), contains an informative profile. See also the film Raging Bull (1980), directed by Martin Scorsese.