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End of the Line: Remembering Jake LaMotta’s Championship Ring

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Knockout Blow
How I had—and lost—Jake LaMotta’s championship ring.

I’ve had a few bouts with the boxing world. In this corner, the inquisitive writer. In the other, the scintillating, always fruitfully seedy science. It’s never failed to deliver a sweetheart of a story. But at what price?

With the Dec. 22 debut of Rocky Balboa (aka Rocky VI), it’s time I share the one bout I lost. Generously, I could call it a draw, but only because I draw upon the regretful experience for motivation from time to time.

This boxing story rose and fell not in Philly, like so many, but in Phoenixville, where I once befriended Jake LaMotta Jr., the namesake son of Jake LaMotta, the world middleweight champion from 1949 to 1951. The family’s rocky relationships hit the big screen in the tell-all 1980 classic Raging Bull. Jake Jr., unmarried and retired, was pedaling his famous father’s signed memorabilia from home in Phoenixville in the mid-1990s. He called it his business Raging Bull Enterprises, Inc.

It hooked me.

Once in Jake Jr.’s sordid ring, one of his first jabs nearly knocked me out. “When pop gave me his [championship] ring, I married pop,” he told me. Jake also said I could be his “psychiatrist,” which both attracted and repulsed me—just as boxing always has. I was to report to his couch side and hear his life’s troubles. In return, I’d have a sort-of sequel, “Raging Bull Revisited,” and a spot on Oprah.

Jake Jr. was raging. His father’s screwed-up life ruined his, and he wanted to tell all. Like in the Rocky sequels, Jake wanted to pick up where the last movie left off, when the LaMotta children were young.

I listened for months, but it wasn’t working. Jake Jr., a nightclub manager in his day, was a raging alcoholic. Also, he wouldn’t let me speak with his mother, Vicki LaMotta, who made history in the movie as the boxer’s embattled and later divorced wife (Rocky’s Adrian), and also for posing, at age 51, in Playboy. His younger brother, Joey, was also off-limits.

Our sessions dwindled, then died. Now, so have almost all the LaMottas, including Jake Jr. Only 85-year-old Jake Sr. and five daughters from various marriages remain.

I didn’t know Jake Jr. died until I was ready to be his psychiatrist again. When I rang the bell at his house, the new owners told me cancer consumed him a year before. He was 50-ish. He couldn’t afford treatment, and apparently neither could his father. He kept drinking, too—to help with the pain and angst. Neighbors said he heaved his guts over the deck every night.

Earlier in 1998, Jake’s brother, Joey, died in the Swissair Flight 111 crash in Nova Scotia. In Jake Sr.’s rocky life, both his boys died months apart. Vicki, 75, died Jan. 25, 2005. Jake’s house sold for dirt-cheap. The remains of the raging family ravaged the house, putting holes in every wall, looking for the champ’s ring—and I heard the line again: “When pop gave me his ring, I married pop.”

Jake never took that ring off his wedding finger. After his worst rounds, someone else did. What rings true is how life is full of seized—and lost—opportunities. I had Jake Jr. on the ropes, but let him, and his story, go. I said “no mas.”

It was my title fight, and I threw it, too. In the end, no one won—except someone who didn’t deserve a prize.

That ring.

Frequent Main Line Today contributor J.F. Pirro hopes to one day find LaMotta’s ring. Then he’ll call Oprah and see if she’ll still have him on the show.