Raging Bull opens with a scene showing Jake LaMotta backstage at a seedy entertainment venue rehearsing his “act” which basically consists of quotes from his favorite movies, recitations of Shakespearean monologues, recollections of his boxing career and very bad jokes made all the worse as a result of Jake’s distinctly amateurish on-stage skills. The rehearsal ends with the repetition of the phrase that pays homages to a popular Hollywood musical song title: “That’s entertainment.” Jake has not transformed into middle age with great style or distinction: he is old and flabby. On the repetition of “That’s entertainment” there is a smash cut to a very different appearing LaMotta.
1941. Jake is a svelte, muscular boxer in his prime in danger of losing a bout in Cleveland he should by all rights have already won. At the almost violent and very profane urging of his brother and manager Joey, Jake seems to suddenly wake from a somnambulistic dream state and proceeds to give his opponent Jimmy Reeves a pummeling. Unfortunately, it is too little too late as the bell rings and—despite the fact that Reeves has to be physically removed from the ring—Jake suffers his first professional defeat. Upon returning to New York City, Joey LaMotta is walking down the sidewalk with Salvy Batts, an organized crime thug working in the employ of Tommo Como, the undisputed mob controller of the boxing industry in the Empire State. Salvy is trying once again to convince Joey that Jake can never get a shot at the title without playing ball with Tommy; a situation Jake resolutely refuses to consider. Joey lets Salvy know he already knows this.
Meanwhile, Jake is about to reveal for the first time how his violent behavior is not restricted to what takes place inside the ring. He gets into a heated argument with not only his wife, but an unseen neighbor through the window over his steak not being cooked to his precision. The argument ends with his upending the entire kitchen table; Jake’s first wife is never seen again. Into this hornet’s nest arrives Joey with the news Jake already knows is coming and doesn’t want to hear. His reaction to the idea that he must go through the mob control of boxing in New York to get a shot at the title is to lament how he his small hands and middleweight physique means he will never get the chance to fight greats like Joe Louis. The conversation over how Jakes is relegated forever out of the heavyweight division takes a weird turn when Jake provokes his brother into hitting in the face as hard as he can, bare-fisted. What is learned from this sequence is actually quite vital to understanding the rest of the movie: Jake can take as good as he gets and more; his capacity for masochism is the equal of his capacity of sadistic behavior toward others. Jakes and Joey are then seen at the neighborhood public swimming pool where Salvy and his low-life cohorts are hitting on a very beautiful and very young blonde name Vickie. Jake asks Joey if he or they go with Vickie and Joey responds nobody goes with her because she’s just fifteen. Jake thus sets his sights on the teenager and is stimulated to ramp up the chase one night after watching her drive off with Salvy from a charity dance at the church. The very next day he shows up again at the pool and gets Joey to introduce him. Vickie is impressed by Jake’s convertible and agrees to go off with him. After a game of miniature golf cut short by the disappearance of a ball, Jake takes her to the apartment he bought for his parents with the money he made from boxing in a continuing effort to impress her with his modest, but notable financial success. He manages to get her into the bed, but not into bed.
1943. Jake is about to hand future legend Sugar Ray Robinson the very first loss of his career and launch what will become the greatest middleweight rivalry of the 1940s. After the fight it becomes clear that Jake and Vickie are now together, though what has happened to the wife who had trouble cooking steak is never made clear. Vickie begins kissing his bruises still lingering from the Robinson fight until Jake becomes sexually aroused; a situation deemed untenable as ejaculation would serve to suck the vigor, stamina and energy he will need for his rematch with Sugar Ray a mere three weeks after their last bout. Despite this sacrifice, Jake loses the rematch in a unanimous decision for Robinson, but the fact that he has beaten him and take him to the limit has elevated Jake into the realm of the best of the middleweights. The only color footage in the otherwise B&W film arrive in the form of 8mm home movie camera footage silently tracing the line of Jake and Vickie’s romance through marriage, moving to the suburbs and pregnancies. This footage is intercut with still photos showing Jake plowing through the list of other contenders for the middleweight title.
1947. Jake has gained some weight, although he is still a far way from being the obese former boxer seen in the opening segment. Jake is ticked with Joey for the deal he has made to fight a young comer named Tony Janiro. The agreement requires Jake to lose fifteen pounds, but that anger is nothing compared to the slowly seething jealous rage stimulated by Vickie’s utterly innocent repetition of Joey’s description of Janiro as good-looking. Face with the realization he must commit to a full time training regimen away from home, Jake charges Joey with keeping an eye on Vickie while is off getting into shape. Joey suggest a night on the town before Jake heads to training camp. All three show up at the Copacabana nightclub where it just so happens Tommy Como and his gang are also at. Salvy invites Vickie over for a drink and Jake is utterly embedded within the paranoid world of his jealous rage as he looks at everything taking place in slow motion. Jake finally agrees to pay his respects to Tommy and amid concern that he may not be in good enough shape to beat Janiro proudly predicts that when he gets done the kid, nobody’s going to be calling him “good-looking” anymore. Shortly thereafter, he makes good on his promise, delivering one of the most vicious beatings to an opponent of his career.
Jake prepares for another fight by being away at training camp and Vickie takes advantage of his absence to go out of a night on the town with Salvy. Joey happens to spot her and proceeds to ask her what in the hell she is thinking as he starts dragging her out of the club. Salvy follows after, but Joey ambushes him and winds up beating the side of his head in with the door of a taxi. The next day, Joey is forced to apologize for violent reaction by Tommy who then makes it clear that no matter how many fights he wins, Jake will never get a shot at the title if he doesn’t play ball with the mob. Jake finally agrees to the one thing his own bizarre code of conduct places at the very top of the list of the worst thing he can be asked to do: go down for somebody. Maintaining what little honor he still has turns out to be a disaster, however, as the manner in which he throws his fight with weak-hitting Billy Fox becomes a farce simply because Jake refuses to hit the canvas.
1949. Jake has been out of the ring for two years because of his participation in the fixed bout with Fox. Nevertheless, Tommy stands up to his part of the deal and arranges for Jake to finally get his shot at the middleweight championship of the world against current title holder Marcel Cerdan of France. Tommy stops by before the fight to offer words of encouragement, but Jake is still seeing things in slow motion such as Vickie kissing Tommy and Joey on the lips. Jakes beats Cerdan to gain the title, but the joy is short-lived.
1950. Jake’s jealousy toward Vickie is about the reach the boiling point of no return. Jake confronts Joey about what happened that night at the club when he banged Salvy’s head with the door of the taxi. Enraged with a jealousy utterly out of control, Jake immediately sets his sight on Vickie and physically attacks her only to be greeted by Vickie’s own tumultuous explosion of emotion in which she seems to admit to an affair with Joey. Jake heads back to Joey’s house next door and actually physically drags him away from his home before he starts beating him up. When Vickie shows up to try stopping Jake, she becomes the target of his fists. Husband and wife reconcile, but Joey and Jake become estranged.
1951. February 14th. The St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Filled with self-hate and masochistic desires, by the end of his final bout with Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake can barely hold himself upright against the ropes. Within that willingness to take everything that Robinson can deliver is Jake’s final grasp for honor and integrity. While he managed to send Ray down, nobody—not even Robinson—ever managed to get Jake down to the canvas. Jake urges Ray on without raising his arms to defend himself and becomes a punching bag for Robinson until the referee steps in to end the right. Amidst the victorious celebration in Robinson’s corner arrives a LaMotta beaten to a pulp on wobbly legs. As he is helped to his own corner, he reminds Robinson that “You never got me down, Ray. You never got me down.”
1956. Retired and flabby beyond any recognition of the former middleweight boxing champ he was, Jake and the family now call Florida home with Jake in the nightclub business. Finally fed up with Jake’s womanizing, Vickie files for divorce and takes the kids with her. Jake, meanwhile, wakes up one day barely able to breathe from the crushing weight of his flab to learn that he is being arrested on charges stemming from allowing underage girls into his self-named nightclub. On his way down to the lowest point of his life, Jake resorts to prying loose the jewels encrusted in his middleweight boxing championship belt in an effort to raise money for his defense only to be told that without the belt itself, the jewels are nearly worthless. Jake hits rock bottom when he finds himself placed in solitary confinement, howling that he is not an animal as he beats his fist and bangs his head against the cinderblock block of the cell.
1958. Jake has served his prison sentence is now married to a stripped named Emma and back living in New York City. One night he sees Joey coming out of liquor store and attempts to reconcile with him. A reluctant Joey allows Jake to hug him, but reveals no desire to reconnect with the brother who beat him to a pulp over an imagined adulterous affair with ex-wife Vickie.
1964. The film ends where it began: in the dressing room where Jake is rehearsing his act. Standing in front of the mirror in all his flabby glory, Jake recites the famous scene from On the Waterfront where Marlon Brando’s character famous insists that he could have class and he could have been a contender instead of a bum. An off-screen voice informs Jake it’s time to hit the stage and after a quick bit of shadowboxing—thematically significant since this is the act of boxing against your shadow by yourself with no actual opponent—the film ends.