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How ‘Bronx Bull’ Boxer Jake LaMotta Got His Nickname and Inspired Raging Bull

2 minute read

In the decades after his boxing career came to an end, Jake LaMotta — who has died at the age of 95 — was perhaps best known for having inspired the 1980 film Raging Bull.

The acclaimed movie “canonized and cauterized” the boxer, in the words of TIME’s film critic Richard Corliss, as filmmaker Martin Scorsese translated onto the big screen the “nostalgic nightmare” of LaMotta’s 1970 memoir. The two also shared a title, a reference to the nickname that followed the boxer throughout his career.

In the book, LaMotta wrote that he had earned the moniker for his style in the ring: “charge out of the corner, punch, punch, punch, never give up, take all the punishment the other guy could hand out but stay in there, slug and slug and slug.” And in 1951, when LaMotta lost his middleweight championship title to Sugar Ray Robinson, TIME explained how the name had gained extra meaning as the fighter’s career progressed: “Jake LaMotta, middleweight champion of the world up to last week, is a stolid, truculent fighter with a good punch and a Gibraltar jaw. In 95 fights, deep-chested Jake has never been knocked off his feet. For this combination of qualities, Jake is nicknamed ‘The Bronx Bull.'”

His strategy in that fight, the story noted, was the same one he used in every fight: “wade in and throw punches.”

A later cover story about Robinson’s success added that “the Bull of the Bronx” was “a stolid, crowding fighter with menacing strength and a stubborn pride in never having been knocked down” — and that his nickname fit him well even in that fateful match, as he continued to charge while Robinson, in the early rounds that left LaMotta worn down, stepped out of the way like a bullfighter.

Robinson, however, was able to elude their impact. After 13 rounds — LaMotta had specifically asked the referee not to intervene — a technical knock-out meant the end of LaMotta’s reign, though not his streak of ending a match standing. “The finish found a pulp-faced vacant-eyed Jake LaMotta backed to the ropes and holding on—but still on his feet,” TIME observed.

Though the match was a loss for the boxer, that feat would inspire one of the more famous lines from Raging Bull line: “You never got me down, Ray!”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com