The adults at the flower shop talked of Louis and Dempsey, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, and always Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep, the featherweights who fought four times. I think I heard their names the most.
I don't remember hearing Jake LaMotta's name too often, despite his fighting Ray Robinson six times. In those days you didn't have the alphabet soup of sanctioning organizations with their bank accounts out for replenishment. You had one champion in each division, and the rest of the boxers were "contenders." And who got to be a contender was often determined by which gangster owned a piece of who.
Boxers and thoroughbreds competed what would now be considered an ungodly number of times. Jake fought professionally 106 times. Sugar Ray fought 199 times. Each would often fight just weeks apart from their last fight. Thoroughbreds could have over 100 starts in their lifetime. And why wouldn't they? Those were two popular spectator sports, with boxing starting to be televised as the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports on Friday nights, a broadcast I can remember hearing come on as I was supposed to be sleeping in the 50s.
LaMotta fought Marcel Cerdan, the French middleweight, who he beat for the title. Cerdan was killed in a plane crash as he was coming back to the States for a rematch. Cerdan was married to the French singer Edith Piaf, who on hearing her husband was killed in the plane crash still went on with her night's performance in France. Marcel's son, Marcel Jr. was a boxer for a while, and carried his father's bloody gloves in his equipment bag after his father's death.
From the movie 'The Raging Bull' we learn of LaMotta's nightclub and acting career. What I didn't know until I read the obituary was that Jake played Big Jule in a revival of 'Guys and Dolls' at New York's City Center in 1965. Big Jule's character famously plays Nathan Detroit craps with his own dice, dice with no pips on them. Big Jule wins whenever he wants to because he knows where the "spots" are.
I saw that revival when I was in high school. Jake must have either just finished playing the part, or hadn't yet assumed the role, because the night I saw the show B.S. Pully played Big Jule, the original actor from the Broadway show.
Not hearing LaMotta's name too often may have been because he was rough around the edges, to say the least, in and out of the ring. His boyhood friend Rocky Marciano, also a middleweight champion (they never fought each other) seemed to be more the man-about town, appearing on the Johnny Carson show and doing commercials for Breakstone's yogurt, where he turned a punch drunk patois into plummy English because eating Breakstone's gave you culture.
On a Carson show I remember Rocky remarking he wouldn't get work doing commercials unless he spoke in "dee and does" speech. He also said that growing up with Jake they used to steal anything with an "a" in front of it. A car, a bike, a truck...
As if to prove what he said, consider a Wikipedia entry that goes:
"A couple of weeks into amateur fighting, Graziano was picked up for stealing from a school. He went to Coxsackie Correctional Facility where he spent three weeks, with boyhood friend Jake LaMotta and then he went on to the New York City Reformatory where he spent five months. After he..."
"A school." The man didn't lie.
What I learned about Jake LaMotta I learned from the movie 'Raging Bull,' a movie I did see in the theaters. It is one of Scorsese's best, coming from his knowledge of the era and the characters, growing up in Little Italy after moving from Long Island at an early age.
I never saw Jake LaMotta anywhere, but a neighbor described seeing him at a Local 3 IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) gathering, signing autographs. I did see Graziano though, at his pizza place on Second Avenue in the Kips Bay apartment complex. One lunch hour I saw him just about dancing behind the counter, reaching up with the paddle to handle the pies, in and out of the oven, all the while bouncing on the balls of his feet, as if he was skipping rope. He was still in the ring.
Before leaving, Rocky was at a table showing someone's young son who he knew a boxer's hand exercise, alternately flipping either hand on the table and and using the other hand to hit it when the palm was up. Boxers have very fast hands, and Rocky still had something in the tank.
Why I didn't get an autograph I'll never know. Probably just didn't want to bother him at work.