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Kevin Cook
April 11, 1988
The Bronx Bull puffs theatrically on a Don Diego cigar, then delivers the punch line.
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April 11, 1988

Jake La Motta Now Hits 'em With His Punch Line

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"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.

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