June 14th 1960. A warm summer’s day in Washington DC. The air is sweet with the city grind and the hustle of a country racing toward adolescence and the associated rebellion. Chatter spills from sidewalks, shoes are shined, a soft percussion to the chaotic jazz horn of taxicabs and the clatter of the capital’s iconic street cars. Morning sunshine glints from a mile of Buick chrome.
This commercial idyll, stretching out beneath the blue sky of the star spangled dream belies the political tension that pulses under the skin of black and white America. It is a time of ideology too, the battle for civil rights, of JFK, Cuba, missiles and crusaders for truth and equality.
Former Middleweight champion Jake LaMotta is in the capital. A face from the smoke and shadows of the monochrome America of the 1950s. One uncomfortable with technicolour progress and the dawn of an age more recognisable to us today.
LaMotta is present at the request of the State Senate Sub-Committee on Anti-Trust and Monopoly in Professional Boxing, an endeavour led by Tennessee’s tenacious Senator, Estes Kefauver. Keen to question LaMotta about his fight with Billy Fox in ‘47 and the influence of the Mob in the fight game, Kefauver’s questions are part of a wider Congressional initiative to expose and destroy the influence organised crime holds over American commerce. Sports, particularly boxing, one such avenue.
Boxing had been fertile ground for the Mafia. Interconnecting and competing criminal empires had been built on the supply of illegal liquor during the Prohibition era. Al Capone’s the most infamous among them. When prohibition came to an end in 1933, after more than a decade of lucrative and bloody endeavour for the Mob, they needed an alternative revenue stream. Access to the machinery of boxing, a willfully unfettered anarchy still ripe for abuse today, proved remarkably easy to acquire.
By its nature, one to one sport, as opposed to the team sports of baseball and football that the country obsessed over, is inherently more malleable to the whim of those looking to control betting markets. The scandal that followed the Chicago White Sox in 1919, the team was accused of throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, though found Not Guilty in court, was sufficient evidence of the pitfalls present in trying infiltrating team sports that it has, as far as public account shows, discouraged subsequent interference.
Boxing was different. Exert control over one participant and the mob could dictate outcomes. If the meritocracy of who fought who could be controlled too, as it was in the post war era when connected men bought up the rights to the major venues, then manipulating the sport to suit betting syndicates became ever easier. Championship boxing became to all intents and purposes, a closed shop.
Two decades on from the Kefauver hearings, as they would become known, LaMotta was peeled from the noir pulp post war America had consigned him to, and the truth of a hermit’s existence in 1970s Florida, to be the muse for Martin Scorsese’s 1980 Raging Bull biopic. A piece of such searing ferocity and unabashed truth, that LaMotta’s renown grew as a result and he would, perhaps unjustly, become the face for all that was wrong in boxing in the 1940s and 1950s.
The son of an Italian immigrant and encouraged to fight by his Sicilian born father, often against older children, and for money, LaMotta grew up in the Lower East Side, the toughest area of New York and a melting pot of immigrant cultures and poverty. His life was a battle long before he embarked on his boxing career in 1941 aged just 19. LaMotta fought the last of his 106 professional contests 15 years later, a tired fighter and a shadow of the man who bested Fritzie Zivic and whipped Sugar Ray in 1943.
In 1960, he was six years into a retirement that had, unsurprisingly, offered no more contentment, in the places Jake had pursued it at least, than the purgatory of his battles in the ring. A six-month stint on the chain gang in ‘58, the punishment for introducing men to an underage girl at a club he ran in Miami, something LaMotta would strenuously deny, had further blackened his reputation. Those who had seen him climb the steps to the Senate building that morning noted he was heavier, a little slower and looked every day of his 37 years. Only a solitary, ‘Hey champ‘ broke through the hubbub of an otherwise normal Tuesday morning in the wide, airy corridors within.
This was an unusual stage for the kid from the Bronx. A battle of wits, wrestling for ownership of the truth with men of learning rather than his own comfort zone; the ring, in a primeval battle of will, of perseverance over pain, with some other grown up kid from the slums was a daunting prospect. LaMotta, the headline act at the Kefauver Hearings that day, would describe his current occupation, in all seriousness, as, “Actor”. A Freudian revelation for the gathered inquisitors judging his answers but nevertheless reflective of a post fight career LaMotta was pursuing. The following year LaMotta appeared as a bartender in ‘The Hustler’ starring Paul Newman. It proved a modest peak to his time as a thespian.
Jake was never cast as the romantic lead or the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’, if the pun can be forgiven, even in his own life. People didn’t buy tickets to see his guile, his flair, pathos. They came to see the monster, the unrelenting, unrepentant all-action wrecking machine. It wasn’t an affected persona. A truth Scorsese would play with in his critically acclaimed study. Despite the physical prowess of his 20s, the thick Italian locks and a parade of beautiful women suggesting otherwise, he was, for most of the people he encountered, the villain. A dark and foreboding cloud. Not the sunshine and rainbows of the pugs more commonly depicted on the silver screen.
On that balmy June day in 1960, those domestic truths were not yet known, other than to those who lived through the reality Scorsese tried to capture. Within the marbled coliseum of the third floor Caucus Room, and to a watching America, he was still Jake LaMotta, the man who fought Sugar Ray Robinson six times. And won one of them. The iron will that couldn’t be bent, the Bull who couldn’t be tamed.
There remained many who couldn’t reconcile The Bronx Bull, as he was known during his professional career, ‘going into the tank’ for money. That he would ever ‘lay down’ seemed unthinkable, given his defiance at the fists of the great Sugar Ray in their final bout; one which became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1951, such was the beating LaMotta sustained.
LaMotta pulled back the chair. The television camera tracked his steps, his famous face loomed into view. The room fell silent, save for the tick of a clock toward 10.15, the hum of the ventilation system and the feint click of shoes as clerks and typists filed back from their coffee break. A final figure stole through the closing door, the draft parting the smoke that swirled from a baker’s dozen of ash trays, and proceedings commenced. For those watching on television and in the cinemas hosting screenings, it was a familiar setting. The room had history of its own having provided the backdrop to the Titanic enquiry in 1912, and the watching public had seen the testimony of Jimmy Hoffa in 1954 and, just five months earlier, John F. Kennedy had announced his candidacy for the presidential elections. As it had been for those tumultuous events, the room was filled beyond its capacity. Nat Fleischer, Ring Magazine Editor, who would eventually be called as an expert witness in the hearings, may have scribbled that ‘LaMotta can still put bums on seats.’
Adrenalin bristled across LaMotta’s thickening frame, like an old friend LaMotta embraced its familiar warmth. A wry smile threatening his lips.
He flattened the breast of his suit, as if preparing to eat, and sat. The creases of his tailoring stretched to the insulation he’d gathered in the decadence of retirement. His oil black hair had thinned, whispering middle age, his iron jaw had been absorbed like melting wax into his thick neck. The proportions of which were exaggerated by the narrowness of his wise guy tie and the starched white noose of his collar.
His fingers interlocked. His arms, bent at the elbow, laid heavily on the rich, mahogany table. A morass of contradiction. His face a mask of penitence, but the cocktail of arrogance and fear were barely concealed beneath. LaMotta ran over the lines he’d practiced. Reminded himself off the traps and feints they would lay. Physically, LaMotta couldn’t disguise the conflict, his body half-cocked between a familiar boxer’s guard and that of a tentative child kneeling for his first communion.
A dangerous man, LaMotta was rendered helpless by the process and the impending dissolution of his character. The one he had earned for himself in the ring, under the lights. The one that meant something. To him at least. Not the one veiled behind the curtains of domesticity. Who he really was had long been revealed to those who knew him, those he claimed to love. Contempt furrowed his brow. Narrowed his dark glare. He was frustrated by his lack of options. Of being told what to do. Of not being able to hit that which he must overcome, of competing in a world he didn’t understand. ‘These grey faces, these briefcases, these ‘regular Joes’ would never dare to tread in mine. They didn’t understand boxing. Pain. My world.’
He looked toward the faces of the commission, Senators Philip Hart and Kefauver central, flanked by legal counsel John G. Bonomi, and swallowed hard. A small piece of folded paper appeared in his hands, unconsciously he toyed with it, like a wistful bar fly drinker with his last dollar. He was alone. No cornerman. No brother in arms. Nobody urging him on. He took a sip of water, the glass cradled delicately in his right hand. A right hand that had clubbed countless contenders to defeat but one surprisingly small, the hands of a painter not a prize fighter. He waited for the questions.
Confession was LaMotta’s only available path to absolution. But the words burned. The reality hurt. He would explain; ‘Make these city boys see. It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t cowardice. It wasn’t even money. It was the only way. The only way to get my shot. What was mine. I’d earned it. Nobody would give me a chance. Five years as the uncrowned champion. I deserved that shot. I did what needed to be done.’
LaMotta tried hard to justify his actions and would tell the commission, “I’m not afraid of none of them rats!”. It was a forlorn line from a man on the ropes, playing to the cheap seats, scared of the darkness, of what defeat, and the truth, could mean. The terror that would be wrought by those that Hart and Kefauver were really in pursuit of was evident in the precision of his other responses. Revisions in his story from pre-trial statements, the vagueness, the selective amnesia and loudest of all, though some of his answers needed to be repeated to be audible, the denials about the people involved in organising the fix.
Names like Frankie Carbo, Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo and Gabriel Genevese. Notorious men who made things happen, organised title fights, and, when things went wrong, made problems, obstacles, ‘rats’, disappear. Men with hearts blacker than their overcoats cliche may insist.
LaMotta was sincere in his justification, that he only did it to get a shot at the championship, that he had turned down more money to lose to Tony Janiro months before he agreed to lose to Billy Fox. He lost the fight with Fox in exchange for a fight with Michel Cerdan, the Middleweight champion and had paid $20,000 to sweeten the deal. It was a story he would repeat until his death in 2017, aged 95. Still belligerent, but with the rage dulled by time, seven wives and the accrued humility of old age.
No matter the sincerity of LaMotta’s performance, in the end, the response that would glow in the history books, in the folk lore of boxing and into the living rooms of America in 1960, had to be uttered.
Bonomi: “That’s the truth, you faked the knockout, is that correct?”
LaMotta: “Yes sir.”
And in those two words, though their significance was not fully appreciated at the time, the racketeering and organised crime machine that ran boxing, in the mafia guise with we most associate the phrase, began to unravel. It would take enormous courage from those same ‘regular Joes’ that LaMotta felt such contempt for, to unpick the world LaMotta had inhabited, alongside illustrious greats like Ike Williams, Rocky Graziano and Joe Louis.
In 1947, Jake ‘threw’ a fight with Billy Fox. He admitted it in 1960.
Why? Because the reward for doing so was the offer he couldn’t refuse.