The Bronx Bull puffs theatrically on a Don Diego cigar, then delivers the punch line.
"She divorced me because I clashed with the drapes."
Jake La Motta is back in Detroit, his lucky town. He won the world middleweight title here in 1949, when he beat Marcel Cerdan, and he defended it here in 1950, knocking out Laurent Dauthuille with a furious last-minute charge. Here, too, he beat Sugar Ray Robinson in 1943—his only victory in six bloody Robinson-La Motta bouts. Today he is back in town to tell jokes.
La Motta has been a stand-up comic for 34 years. He lives in a studio apartment in Manhattan with his sixth wife, Theresa—next door to his boyhood pal and fellow ex-champ Rocky Graziano—and ventures out to do three or four shows a month, telling fight jokes, drunk jokes, wife jokes and Italian-father jokes. He averages $2,500 and a standing ovation per show.
He weighs 190, 30 pounds over the middleweight limit he once sweated to reach. Manicured, resplendent in a dark blue suit, pink shirt and striped tie, La Motta looks fitter than many members of the Detroit Athletic Club, for which he is today's headliner.
"I'm in great shape for a man of 65," he says. "Every artery in my body is hard as a rock."
The news that any part of the La Motta anatomy is inflexible should not surprise his former opponents. He was the ultimate stand-up fighter, as close to invulnerable as any boxer could be. Rocky Marciano called him "the best I ever saw." La Motta's comic routine is laced with self-deprecatory boxing stories, but there was nothing funny about fighting him. He could not be knocked down. On Feb. 14, 1951—the St. Valentine's Day massacre—Robinson pounded La Motta to death's door but never knocked him down.
There's too much violence in the world," La Motta says to the Detroit A.C., "most of it perpetrated on me by Sugar Ray Robinson."
"I came at that guy with a vengeance. He came at me with punches. Robinson opened everything I had that was closed, and closed everything that was open. But there was one thing you could say about me as a fighter—I kept my head. I lost my teeth, but I kept my head."
One of his favorite topics is the plight of the punchy ex-fighter, personified by his old buddy, Graziano.
"Manager says to Rocky Graziano, 'Rock, how would you like to fight for the crown?' Rocky says, 'Uhh, I can take Queen Elizabeth in three!' "
Call it borscht championship-belt humor. Or call it comedy of an older sort—dramatic narrative with a happy ending.
In 1954 La Motta—who by then, he says, was not unlike the lout played by Robert DeNiro in the movie Raging Bull—retired from the ring. He had held his title for nearly two years before losing it to Robinson on Valentine's Day, then stuck around for three more years, going 5-4-1, and hung up his gloves after a loss to the otherwise undistinguished Billy Kilgore. At that point La Motta was a 31-year-old ex-champ. A street fighter whose single-minded ferocity had helped him keep his head in battle. he was unsuited to the complexities of life outside the ring. He was nearly broke. Too bullheaded to compromise, he had always insisted on managing his own career; he had managed to give, gamble and drink away almost a million dollars.
"The doctor said to me, 'Jake, if you don't stop drinking, you're going to lose your hearing,' " says La Motta. "I said, 'Doc, the stuff I'm drinking is better than the stuff I'm hearing.' "
"My wife didn't know I was an alcoholic until one night I came home sober."
It wasn't so funny back then. In 1953, he opened a nightclub in Miami Beach. It failed. He did a six-month prison term in Florida, including a stint on a chain gang, for encouraging a minor female to prostitution, a crime he says he did not commit. His second wife divorced him.
"You all remember Vickie, my second wife," he says. "Vickie was always complaining that she had nothing to wear—I didn't believe her until I saw her in Playboy magazine."
In subsequent years wives No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 ditched him, too.
"One of my wives was a very peculiar woman. She liked to make love in the backseat of a car. The only problem was, she wanted me to take care of the driving."
Testifying before the Kefauver organized-crime committee in 1960, La Motta admitted throwing a 1947 fight to Billy Fox. Throwing the Madison Square Garden fight—and paying the local don $20,000—earned him the right to fight Marcel Cerdan for the middleweight title in 1949, but his testimony made him "La Motta non grata" 11 years later. In those 11 years he had lost his title, wives, money and good name.
He still had his jokes, though. He had first done stand-up comedy in his Miami Beach club, and found he could make people laugh. Now he went into training for a second career. He entertained in smoky dives. He landed a guest shot on TV's Martha Raye Show, playing Margaret Truman's boyfriend. He made a long-running Muriel Cigars commercial (Hey, Big Spender); appeared onstage in Born Yesterday, Splendor in the Grass and Guys and Dolls ("Surprisingly good"—Walter Winchell); and played bit parts in a few movies, including The Hustler. He wrote his life story and saw it turned into an Oscar-winning film.
"I told the producers I'd like to play myself in the picture. They said, 'Jake, you're not the type.' "
He trained DeNiro for the role of La Motta, sparring more than 1,000 rounds with the actor.
"Bobby could hit," La Motta says. "I used to tease him—make him mad so he wouldn't hold back. I'd say, 'You can't hit me. You can't show me up.' So one time we're going bang, bang, and he's throwing good left hooks, throwing rights, and naturally I pick off nine out of 10 of them, but one gets through, and he knocks two of my teeth out."
The movie made La Motta a star again. He married the former Theresa Miller, his sixth "and forever wife, in Las Vegas in 1985. Sugar Ray Robinson served as best man.
He waits for the laughter to subside in the Detroit Athletic Club, puffs his cigar and tells a Rocky story. "I tease the Rock, but he never shoulda had that last fight. The other day he said, 'Uhh, Jake, everybody these days is going to the moon. Let's you and me go to the sun.' I said, 'Rock, how can we get to the sun? We'd fry to death before we get there.' He said, 'Uhh, I got it all figured out, Jake. We go at night.' "
He finishes with a flourish of his stogie. The men of the club applaud as he returns to his table. They gather around him, and he signs autograph after autograph as they tell him about his own fights.
Relaxing in his suite upstairs, wearing only red boxer undershorts, he pats his gut. The hair on his chest is still black. Fresh out of cigars, he borrows a cigarette.
"Sure, I wish I was fighting today," he says. "What a picnic I would have. But I've done it all. I went from the top to the bottom, from champion of the world to a chain gang. Then I picked myself up. I made a lot of mistakes, but I tried to correct them. I took one step forward, then another one, and it's been a steady grind like that right up to this day. I realize today—I've been realizing this for a while now—that everybody needs peace of mind. And I needed peace of mind, too."
Downstairs, where he told his jokes earlier, is a blowup of the Jan. 23, 1943, Detroit News: JAKE LAMOTTA SCORES SIX-ROUND KNOCKOUT AND SMILES FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HIS CAREER.
"Back then, I never smiled. I was always worried about somebody coming up behind me. Now I stand up there and joke around and enjoy it as much as the audience." The Bronx Bull smiles. "I guess, today, I got peace of mind."
Kevin Cook, of Newport Beach, Calif., says he could take Queen Elizabeth in five.