Jake had little contact with his sons when they were young, and Joe always felt overshadowed by his father's fame and damaged by his neglect. Joe boxed a little as a young man, flitted from job to job and, in 1987, tried to score big by helping to arrange a cocaine deal worth $152,500. "He could've been killed, he was involved with guns...but he made it," Jake says. "It wasn't meant for him to die that way. He was meant to die in a plane crash." Everyone involved in the coke deal got caught, and Joe served half of a five-year sentence in a federal work camp before being paroled.
Joe's friends remember him as a big, dependable, emotional bear of a man. Bob Brichler, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Joe, says he was no hard-core criminal. "He was in love with this girl [who was behind the coke deal], and that had a lot to do with it," Brichler says. "As I remember, he was pretty much a gentleman."
It wasn't until the final months of his life that Joe began to shine. He traveled with Jake to autograph shows and cooked up the concept of LaMotta's Tomato Sauce. In July 1998, Joe and Jake went to Geneva to gauge prospects for the sauce in Europe, where Jake is popular. Joe was gaining confidence. "He had always been in the shadow of his father," says Fell, Jake's lawyer and Joe's best friend, "but now he was psyched. If the sauce had done well, he would've moved to Geneva. He was already asking me to find somebody to manage his dad. I think he just wanted to start living his own life."
The only people Jake truly trusted were Joe and Jack. "Now that my sons died, I do my own managing," he says. Every morning he wakes up in his midtown Manhattan apartment and shadowboxes for 15 minutes, sometimes 30. "I still like sex," he says. "I can function pretty good."
"You know what people do now?" he says. "They think I'm the godfather. They kiss my hand, women and men! Men come over and kiss me on the forehead. When my son died? More people were stopping me in the street. They hugged me, women, men."
LaMotta turns to the bartender. "What do you say there, Tony! Where's the broads?" He slaps down his hands. "This is my table. Wednesday and Friday nights I come here. Everybody comes over, and I never complain. I hope to god, if I ever complain, I get shot in the head. My public made me a living while I was fighting, and they're making me a living now."
He goes silent, but that mention of the lawsuit has stuck with him all night. "Let me ask you a question," he says. "What do you think of the first guy to file? I asked my lawyer the same thing. 'I'm going to be the first? That's ridiculous.' He said, 'Jake, you got to get there ahead of people'... uh ... what'd he say?"
"We said that you want the answers," Fell says. "You filed because you wanted answers to why Joe is no longer here."
"If you don't do it, somebody else will."