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Thursday, August 2, 2007
Updated: August 9, 3:57 PM ET
For the Raging Bull, the price was worth it

By Wright Thompson
ESPN.com

Before he was a movie, Jake LaMotta was an athlete with a choice.

To get a shot at the boxing title LaMotta coveted, the mafia wanted him to take a dive. If he'd do them a favor, they'd see to it he got his chance at the belt. He was confronted with a lot of questions. Should he throw the fight? Is that always wrong? What if cheating was the only way to win?

That was 60 years ago. LaMotta is 86 years old now. He's world-famous, mostly because the movie about his life, "Raging Bull," is considered one of the best films ever. He still has his sense of humor. And, yes, for a time, he was the champion of the world.

Jake LaMotta
In June of 1949, Jake LaMotta and his wife, Vicky, proudly displayed the middleweight championship belt that LaMotta's dive several years earlier helped him win.
He took the dive and got in good with the mob, which made sure he received a title fight.

So what does the 86-year-old LaMotta think about the 26-year-old LaMotta's decision?

"I regretted it the rest of my life," he says. "But it happened, and I had a good reason for it. All I wanted to do was become a champion. I wanted a shot at the title, and I finally did after I did what I did. "

Every boxing fan and every movie buff knows his story. They know he took the dive in the 1947 fight against Billy Fox, and they know he became the champ two years later. They know about his six legendary bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson. They know he testified before Congress after he retired about throwing the fight.

He insists that lying was never an option. Neither was pulling a Mark McGwire. So he stood up and told the truth.

"I couldn't lie about nothing like that," he says.

After his fighting career, and after his stint as an actor and comedian, and especially after "Raging Bull," he has found he is beloved despite what he did six decades ago. That might be the greatest gift life has given him. So often, cheating follows a man. Brands him for eternity. LaMotta somehow escaped this fate.

"They forgave me," he says. "They overlook it. They don't think about it anymore."

His voice is slurred by age now, and he doesn't like to have strangers come visit. Not long ago, he took a farewell trip to visit fans in England; soon, such a trip will be simply too hard. But before he gets off the phone, he asks what you think about the dive he took. Was I wrong? Would you have done it?

He's willing to hear your opinion; wants it, even. But in the end, he's sure of his own.

He knows what he thinks.

"I think I was wrong," he says. "It could have ruined my whole life."

A little time goes by. He takes stock of that life that could have been ruined but wasn't.

"If I had it to do over again," he says, "I think I'd do it again."

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.