Thursday, October 12, 2017

Commentary: Remembering Jake LaMotta -- from the boxing ring to the Borscht Belt to the Hall of Fame

Editor's note: The recent death of boxing legend Jake LaMotta left American athletics without one of its most commendable -- and captivating -- figures. Paul Gottfried, chairman of this publication's editorial board, requested that a passage from Revisions and Dissents: Essays, his latest book, be republished as a tribute to LaMotta's life and legacy.

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1950, and my parents had packed me off to an overnight camp in the Catskill Mountains that was adjacent to a body of water surrounded by hemlocks, called Sackett Lake. On the other side of the lake stood a resort, The Laurels, where the affluent parents of some of our campers went to do whatever grown- ups did at such places. Presumably they were there to dine, dance, and enjoy the well- groomed golf course and evenly lined tennis courts. But being in such surroundings was not my destiny that summer. I was not at camp to revel in sumptuous pleasures. My parents sent me there because I was neither sociable nor physically dexterous, and they may have hoped that once out of their sight I would acquire characteristics that I never manifested at home ….
   One event that I still remember fondly from my summer at Camp Winston was a visit by the former middleweight champion of the world, Jake LaMotta. This later boxing legend was training across the lake for his forthcoming bout with Sugar Ray Robinson. Although the scheduled bout would not take place until the following February in Madison Square Garden, Jake was making an unaccustomed effort to train properly. He had already fought Robinson, who was a more gifted boxer, five times and prevailed only once. Jake’s strengths were his grit and iron jaw, but it was questionable whether these qualities would suffice to overcome the pugilistic skill of Jake’s opponent, who pound for pound may have been the greatest middleweight of all times. Whereas Ring Magazine rates Jake fifty-second among the eighty greatest boxers of the last eighty years, Robinson invariably places near the top in such listings. Since our first meeting, I have had a warm spot for LaMotta, although Robinson remains the boxer I admire more than anyone else in his sport.
   Many years later I saw Robert De Niro playing LaMotta in Raging Bull, which was one of the two nicknames the boxer employed, the other being the “Bronx Bull.” There was a seamy side to LaMotta’s life, which is now continuing into its ninety- third year, and his stormy temper and his equally stormy multiple marriages belong to that narrative. LaMotta kept his career going much longer than he should have and took a beating in the fight with Robinson for which he was pre- paring at the time of our meeting. That fight had to be stopped in the thirteenth round, lest LaMotta suffer long- lasting injuries from the pounding. This match has been characterized as the second “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” The first of the two massacres famously took place in Chicago, Illinois, on February 14, 1929, and entailed the shooting of rival gangsters by the henchmen of Al Capone.
   What I remember most about LaMotta’s visit in August 1950 was that he play- boxed with me and then called me in a jovial manner “champ.” That gesture revealed his nicer side and made an awkward eight-year-old feel better about him- self. Years later I could not imagine that the LaMotta whom I watched committing mayhem against his family in the De Niro movie was the person who came to Camp Winston and play- boxed with me. As someone who had trouble hanging up his gloves, LaMotta continued to box as a light heavyweight with waning suc- cess until 1957. Once out of this sport, he plied other trades, such as selling real estate in Florida and playing minor roles in movies.
   But Jake found a cause in 1990 that has occupied his time and energy ever since. He became closely associated with the International Boxing Hall of Fame, which was set up in Canastota, New York, about twenty miles east of Syracuse. On the outskirts of this scenic village— about a stone’s throw from the New York Thruway and within sight of the restaurant- motel owned by former boxing great and Jake’s contemporary, Tony Graziano— stands the boxing museum that Jake helped establish and visits periodically. He is also a regular at annual events, including a gala dinner held by the museum and its sponsors, which was sched- uled in 2015 for mid- June.
   The museum is not at all accidentally near the spot where another famous middleweight, Carmen Basilio, had grown up, on an onion farm in dire circumstances amid multiple siblings. Basilio, who also lived into his nineties and who bestowed his name on the civic arena in Syracuse, joined his fellow former middleweights (of Italian American origin) in raising money for the museum. Like Jake, Basilio fought Robinson, albeit with more success, wresting the middleweight crown from the aging champion in 1957— in one of the most exciting fights in boxing history. He then lost his crown the following year after a shattering blow to his eye.
   As fate would have it, I planned to be near the museum in June, since my wife was attending a family reunion in nearby DeWitt. Since I wasn’t eager to listen to the childhood memories of my wife’s family, I chose to do something more to my liking while in Upstate New York. I signed up for the Boxing Hall of Fame dinner on June 13, 2015, which would be held at the Oncenter in downtown Syracuse, and went to the festivities specifically to renew my relations with Jake.
   Although I had doubts that my boyhood hero would remember me, I would recognize him from the advertisements for the event. Jake would be a guest of honor at the dinner, and it would be hard not to identify him sitting at the table reserved for retired “modern boxers.” By the curious definition established by the commission that approves entries into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, “modern boxers” are the ones who have retired since the 1940s. The “old- timers” are no longer in this world unless they’ve managed to live into their hundreds ….
   Some may wonder why I have chosen to end this anthology, which is otherwise filled with bookish material, by describing my relationship to a nonagenarian former boxer and others in his perilous trade. In a strange way that I have rarely thought about, my life has been enriched by my interest in boxers, going back to the primal experiences of meeting Jake and later watching Gillette’s Friday Night Fights with my father on our antediluvian TV set with a ten-inch screen. I can’t say that I was ever much of a boxer myself. Moreover, the only connection that I have to the sport is through my father, who once punched out someone who was breaking into our house at night. My passion for boxing matches irritated a longtime friend, who recently passed. This friend and colleague lived for the Republican Party and was annoyed that I cared more about boxing than the candidates who ran for president. I even dared to express this unsettling view to my students, when I contrasted the courage of pugilists to the slithering cowardice of career politicians.

Paul E. Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe. He serves as head of the editorial board of the San Francisco Review of Books.