WARREN, Arizona (Reuters) - Jake LaMotta learned to fight with an ice pick in his hand in a Bronx schoolyard, battering all the way in later life to a world middleweight title in an era of 15-round fights.
But now when he watches mixed martial arts fighters slugging away in circular cages, he says it is far too brutal -- even for a brawler known as “The Raging Bull.”
“When they hit you on the floor? That doesn’t make any sense, it’s savage,” LaMotta, now in his late 80s, said as he sat down to talk about the fight business at his vacation home.
“It’s out of control, I still think the regular way is the best way.”
LaMotta won the title 60 years ago with a furious, two-fisted style that landed him in the International Boxing Hall of Fame and turned him into an American icon.
Speaking to Reuters about his long career of 106 fights (83 wins, 30 knockouts) and the aggression that was captured in Martin Scorsese’s film “Raging Bull,” he said much had changed since he first laced on the gloves.
“Nobody stands out any more,” he said of today’s champions in a sport characterized by multiple boxing organizations and waning interest.
It was different when he started out back in the Depression years when baseball and boxing dominated the U.S. sporting landscape.
The boys at his school were so poor they would beat him up to steal the sandwich his mother would make him for lunch. Then one day his father gave him an ice pick and told him to stand up for himself.
“Maybe I came home crying or something, and he puts this ice pick in my hand and he says: ‘If they do anything, go after them with an ice pick,'” he recalled.
”And when I went after them with an ice pick, they ran away. I thought that was part of life. I was young, very young.
“When you’re young you don’t know any better. Then I realized I didn’t have to use an ice pick any more, I was good enough with my fists.”
LaMotta parlayed the schoolyard aggression into his own ferocious style of boxing -- leaning low and forward, while throwing punches, a trait that earned him the nickname “The Bronx Bull” and then “The Raging Bull.”
“I’d never back up. I don’t know how to back up. I was always going forward, forward, forward,” he remembered as he smoked a cigarette and sipped a cup of coffee.
“Even when I was hurt I was always the aggressor no matter what. My greatest defense was my offense. Very few guys did that.”
He remembers the aggression, the drive and focus that took him up through the ranks and gave him a shot at the title in 1949 -- when he stopped French-Algerian Marcel Cerdan in Detroit in 10 rounds to win the middleweight crown.
”I was obsessed, it was the only thing in my life that I knew a little bit about. I had to be a little bit crazy to do the things that I did.
“That’s the way I had to be, that’s the way I felt. I wanted nothing else but to become champion, the day I won the title was the greatest day of my life, I had accomplished something that very few people could do.”
LaMotta went on to fight Sugar Ray Robinson six times in battles that riveted fans watching at ringside and gathered around televisions and radios around the world.
“Sugar Ray was by far the greatest, he had everything. There was no comparison,” LaMotta said. “I fought him twice in three weeks.”
He joked: “I fought Sugar Ray so many times it’s a wonder I didn’t get diabetes.”
After retiring back in the 1950s, he bought bars, did stand-up comedy and appeared in films.
Raging Bull won an Oscar for actor Robert De Niro who trained with LaMotta to portray the boxer.
“We boxed over a thousand rounds together,” said LaMotta. “He could have turned professional. I don’t know how great he would have been, but he was good enough to be a professional fighter. He was great.”
In his long retirement he has watched as the sport that raised him to glory from poverty has slipped into a decline as interest in other sports has grown.
He rates Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson as great fighters but now he sees no stand-outs.
“Maybe there’s a lull in the business,” he said. “There hasn’t been anyone outstanding for a long time.”
As boxing vies for attention with other sports such as mixed martial arts, which he clearly dislikes, it will ultimately be the fans who decide if it has a future.
“It’s whatever catches on, whatever the public wants,” LaMotta said, with equanimity. “Whatever the outcome will be, will be -- whichever prevails.”
Editing by Dave Thompson. To query or comment on this story email email@example.com