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Dining with Jake LaMotta

Jake LaMotta
PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images
Steve Bunce recalls the night he dined with the 'Bronx Bull' at an Italian restaurant in New York in 2001

JAKE LaMOTTA never got to dine with royalty in Dubai and that makes me very happy. He did get to dine with me one night in 2001 and that makes me even happier.

It was at an Italian restaurant called La Maganette on New York’s 3rd Avenue; the Bernard Hopkins and Felix Trinidad fight was a couple of days away. LaMotta was there with Denise, who was soon to be the seventh Mrs LaMotta.

He had been sitting at the same table on the same night for 20 years, a small round table with a red rope separating it from the rest of the dining room. We entered to expectation and a lot of ‘Hey, Jakes.’ We took our seats, he ordered, I was paying.

He told tales of fights with Sugar Ray Robinson, of dark nights in the ring, of juicy affairs, women he lost, loved and abused; he admitted to wrongs, tried to put things right and sighed; then he pinged a glass with a fork, put the fork on the tuna, reached over and tapped my hand, adjusted his cowboy hat and stood up. There was silence in La Maganette.

He started; you know the routine. It brings a lump to my throat each time I hear it; any version, any time. It’s LaMotta and it’s a zillion other fighters talking to a wall, a friend, the inside of their head, an ex-lover; it’s the same desperate cry just about every fighter has made in some form at some point in their life. It’s a scream for what they lost and left behind.

It was Jake playing Robert De Niro playing Jake playing Terry Malloy talking to his brother, Charley, in the back of taxi in the scene from Bud Schulberg’s On The Waterfront. It was the contender speech. It lasted a few minutes, he pulled the faces, fought the tears, left it high, took it low; nobody moved or spoke in La Maganette. “Every word was perfect, I can guarantee you that,” LaMotta whispered to me as he sat down and everybody else stood up to applaud. He was probably right. Denise was unimpressed, I think she had heard it before.

In the warmth and emotion of the night, the piano player dedicated another song to Jake. It was like being in the movie, any movie where a 79-year-old icon dines behind a red rope and a man wearing a bow-tie, tinkling a piano, plays My Way.

And then the real stories flow. Fights and the suffering and his perfect memory of wins and losses over 50 years earlier. It had been 50 years exactly since the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre against Sugar Ray Robinson. In the movie version of the end of that fight in round 13, De Niro says something to Robinson. That never happened, according to LaMotta. “I never said a word. I was tired,” insisted La Motta. “In the movie, Bobby talks to the guy playing Robinson, taunts him; I never did that; Robinson was a class act.” I swear he drifted away for a few seconds, just a few seconds, but he was back in that fight.

“You know I made a good fighter out of De Niro, he could have been a pro,” LaMotta told me later that night. “And they made a good movie out of me, they did.” He then pulled an odd, reflective face and I realised it was a De Niro face. The night was certainly complex; I now had LaMotta playing De Niro playing De Niro. Whew.

LaMotta talked about throwing a fight, working with the mob and getting the title shot. “You know people never understand what makes a man do desperate things. I was desperate; I was the uncrowned world champion for six years and back then I could have got killed by the Mob because I refused to play along,” LaMotta told me. Sure, he had said it before, but so what? It was an Italian restaurant in New York and he was talking about being made an offer he simply couldn’t refuse. The men making the offers back then had luscious names like Tony Big Cheese Parmigiana and sure enough, a bottle of red arrived from Big Tony. “Which Big Tony?” “You know, your friend, Big Tony.” This stuff is hard to invent. Jake also had his enemies and was famous for making a move on your wife. It’s the truth, sorry.

At one point, Jake LaMotta, my dinner guest, stood up and showed me the left hook that hurt Sugar Ray Robinson and then showed me how he staggered when Robinson caught him. He told me, and showed me, how he finished Laurent Dauthhuille in the 15th and last round of a world middleweight title defence; there was just 13 seconds left on the clock and he was losing on points.

La Motta won the middleweight world title in 1949 in his 89th fight; Marcel Cerdan, who he beat for the title, had won it in his 111th fight.

After the boxing came the pimping. The drinking. The stage act. The lows. The strip clubs. The arrests. The nights in cells. LaMotta was lost, make no mistake. It is what makes the movie so compelling. And then there are the marriages and the gags. Hey, they still make me laugh.

LaMotta walked away from the ring in 1954 and into the darkness. He was a lost soul until after the movie, the Oscars and the fame at the start of the Eighties. LaMotta finished with 106 fights and seven wives. He was 95 when he died in 2017.

Back on that night at La Maganette, Jake settled down, ate away, drank his red wine. And it was nice not having to ask him a question about one of boxing’s soap operas. La Motta knew a thing or two about selling his soul; I wish I had listened a bit harder.

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