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Written by Timothy Sexton
"I don't go down for nobody."
Jake LaMotta did not retire undefeated. Jake LaMotta did not hold the middleweight boxing titles for years. Jake LaMotta did not win every fight through a knockout. The singular distinction of his boxing career that separates him from almost every one of his peers is that no boxer ever sent LaMotta to the canvas. This quote has resonance in that literal sense, but it is also the quintessential thematic quote of the film in that no matter what happened in his life either inside or outside the ring, LaMotta bullishly kept raging onward, never giving up and never backing down and—most importantly from his perspective—never giving in.
Except, of course, for the one disastrous time that he goes down for somebody.
“So gimme a stage
Where this bull here can rage.
And though I can fight,
I'd much rather recite
The film opens not with a young, sinewy Jake boxing in the ring, but with the older, flabby LaMotta reciting from his script as an “entertainer” who performs on cramped stages in small time nightclubs. With the end of the slightly softer and quieter repeat of the line “That’s entertainment” there is a smash cut to that lithe young boxer from a couple of decade of earlier and this quote serves to unite the distinctly divergent physiques of LaMotta in two distinctly divergent settings. Boxing, live theatrical entertainment and film are all about entertainment. Just a few lines earlier, LaMotta directly references Shakespeare’s Richard III, but this entire monologue is really a subtle allusion to Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It and the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue.
"He ain't pretty no more."
Pity poor Tony Janiro. After Jake’s wife, Vicki makes a completely innocuous reference to Janiro being “pretty” Jake decides to take out his deep-rooted insecurities exhibited as jealousy on the up and coming young fighter. By the time he finishes with him—as the underworld figure who essentially ran the boxing industry in New York during the 1940s observes—Janiro ain’t pretty anymore. Tommy’s terse observation is a succinct summing up of how the boxing ring serves as a physical location to legitimize the inner demons that drive boxers to extremes of violence that would be considered assault and battery on the other side of the ropes.
"Who's an animal? Your mother's an animal!"
A motif that runs throughout Raging Bull is the reference to human beings as animals. The first occurrence happens during the only scene in which he sees Jake’s first wife. A shouting match with an unseen neighbor through an open window is instigated as a result of a domestic quarrel inside the apartment of the LaMottas. Both Jake and his neighbor refer to each other as animals shortly before Jake’s animalistic overreaction to his wife’s preparation of the heated animal anatomy commonly known as steak.
"If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win."
Here is the logic that convinces Jake to stop bellyaching about the seemingly bad deal he made for him to fight Janiro. The argument that finally convinces his brother the deal may not be as bad as he thought is that whether he beats Janiro or loses to him because he’s so out of shape, the result will put Jake on exactly the same path to his shot at the middleweight title.
“He could beat all the Sugar Ray Robinsons and the Tony Janiros in the world, but he ain't gonna get a shot at that title. Not without us he ain't.”
And there it is. A showdown between Jake’s code of honor about never going down for nobody, and his lust for a shot at the title is about to approach event horizon. The film is remarkably factual and authentic in its portrayal of the reality of the New York boxing scene of the time. The character upon whom Tommy is based really did possess the power of a despotic tyrant who got to say who could fight for the title and who couldn’t as well as range the process leading to that bout. That process for a guy who has thumbed his nose at the mob while maintaining a code of never going for down inexorably leads to just one place: the concerted rape of dignity by forcing Jake to take a dive against one of the weakest opponents he would ever face.
"I'm not an animal."
Jake has hit rock bottom. Vicki has divorced. He’s estranged from his brother Joey. He was arrested on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He’s packed on 60 pounds of blubber over his prime fighting weight. He’s in a tiny jail cell and punching a bare fist and forehead against its concrete blocks. Is he making an assertion or posing a question? It’s hard to tell and that is the whole point, of course.
"You never got me down, Ray."
Following his fifth and final loss to Sugar Ray Robinson after their epic six-bout war for supremacy of the middleweight boxing class, Jake is not just beaten, but bloody and utterly defeated. He has just one point of victory to claim over his nemesis, but that point is, as has become quite clear by this point, everything. LaMotta was the first boxer to ever Robinson to the canvas. Over the course of their six fights—including what would become known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—Robinson never managed to knock Jake down. Beat him to a pulp, sure, but never knock him to the canvas. You take your victories where you can on the brutal stage of the boxing ring.
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