Lower East Side Story
After all the punches had been thrown and all the cuts and bruises had healed, Jake LaMotta was in the mood to look back and reflect on the good and bad things about his life. He recalled a hot summer afternoon on the Lower East Side in New York, where a crowd was watching two boys fighting in the street.
“These two kids were a lot alike,” said Jake. “They were 12 years old. They were tough. In their kind of poverty you had to be tough to live and carry your head up. They fought bitterly for one solid hour, without gloves or rules, while the crowd cheered, egging them on. Only when it seemed as if they were both going to drop from exhaustion did someone in the crowd break it up and call it a draw.
“One of those kids was Rocky Graziano. The other was me, Jake LaMotta. We both became middleweight champions of the world.
“It got to be a pattern. I came to expect that in the course of a day I would get into at least a couple of fights. After a while I didn’t bother much about arguing. My fists would settle any argument. My hands got very sore from punching other guys’s heads.”
Getting to the meat of it, LaMotta said: “The road to the title almost broke my heart. To get a chance at the championship, I had to make a deal with the fight mob, the crooked managers, just as Rocky had gone along with the same kind of wise guys, just as many other fighters have gone along with a system that makes it almost impossible for a fighter to be both independent ITALICand successful.”
Rocky Graziano didn’t go quite so deep or wax quite so lyrical about the toughness of his early life. He almost parodied it. “You take a look at my face or Jake LaMotta’s face, and everybody else’s face in the fight game, and you’ll know that it’s a tough business. Anyone that becomes a fighter has got to be wacky or crazy.
“When you’re playing football, you got twenty-six guys on your side, when you’re playing baseball you got twenty-whatever guys on your side, basketball you got a gang of guys on your side. When you’re in the ring, you’re all alone, baby.”
There were several significant differences between Graziano and LaMotta. One of the most important of these was that Rocky, for all his fiery resistance to authority, was kinder at heart than Jake and had a more temperate streak. Rocky was also a curiously honorable man who drew his own special line in the sand and wouldn’t be pushed beyond its boundary.
LaMotta said that Graziano went along with the bad guys. But not to the extent that Jake did. When a certain guy called up Rocky at Stillman’s gym and offered him $50,000 to throw a fight, Graziano told him to “go take a crap.” His mistake was not reporting the matter to the boxing authorities, for which he received a suspension. When LaMotta was offered $100,000 to throw his 1947 fight with Billy Fox, Jake accepted. Reluctantly so, but he took the money in return for a title shot later on.
The difference between Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano was the difference between Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Frank was always flattered by the attention of The Mob and attracted to the gangster lifestyle and folklore. He reasoned, perhaps to make himself feel better about it, that it wasn’t wise to argue with such men.
Yet the debonair Martin coolly punched a hole that old chestnut one day at the Cal Neva Club at Lake Tahoe. Dino was having a bite to eat when a wise guy sat down at his table and asked him if he would do a favor or two for some friends who would show their appreciation. The guy reached across to grab one of Martin’s French fries and Dino slapped his hand and rebuffed the offer. The wise guy never came around again and nor did any of his friends.
Graziano never denied his wrongdoings or punching a bunch of guys along the way. But he made it a law not to hit anyone old or frail and he certainly didn’t smash or club an innocent person to the brink of death in a frenzied attack.
LaMotta very nearly nipped his boxing career in the bud after a vicious and sustained street assault on a shop owner who had done him no harm. Jake wrapped a lead pipe in newspapers and hid in an alley before springing on the man and knocking him to the ground. The badly hurt man kept moaning and LaMotta kept hitting him until the moaning stopped. The man lived but began to haunt Jake’s mind.
After a spell at the Coxsackie correctional facility in upstate New York, an obsessed LaMotta returned to the scene of his crime, repeatedly walking past the shop owned by the man he could have killed. It became a tortuous ritual, a penitence of sorts. The man was never there. Then Jake finally caught a glimpse of him.
“He was paler than I remembered him, grayer and weak-looking, but alive. I stopped and stared, unable to believe it for a moment. Then I thought, ‘Maybe he’ll look up and recognize me.’ I went away, trying not to run. I have never passed that shop again.”
Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).