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Backstage with Ron Onesti:

‘The Raging Bull,’ a sweet guy deep down

Each week, so many of you turn to Page 6 of the Daily Herald’s Time Out section to see what rock ‘n’ roller Backstage story I will have. But my behind-the-scenes escapades are not solely limited to the field of music.

There are many “celebs” from other worlds that I happen to cross paths with on a regular basis. Especially in sports!

This week, middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta passed away at the age of 95. He was a colorful guy with a checkered boxing career and a more checkered personal life.

And yes, I had my moments with him, too.

You have heard me reference the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame on numerous occasions in this column. I have been an active member in this organization for more than 20 years as I was the lead designer for the museum, editor of its magazine and producer of the group’s special events. It was through this group that I was able to meet this intense yet lovable guy known as “The Raging Bull.”

We were unveiling a statue of the great “Brockton Bomber,” undefeated heavyweight champion of the world Rock Marciano, in front of the museum located on Taylor Street in Chicago’s Little Italy. LaMotta was the guest of honor to unveil the great statue. Earlier that week, Jake had told me all about his love for Muhammad Ali. “I would love to see him. I haven’t seen him in years,” he said.

George Randazzo, the founder of the Hall, made all that is pretty much impossible, actually become possible. With the help of a friend of a friend of a friend, legendary pop culture icon and boxing champion Muhammad Ali was also going to attend as a surprise for LaMotta!

The morning came and Jake was a bit tired. His health wasn’t great and he was starting to wear down. “Hey Jake,” I said, “what would you say if I told you Ali was coming?” He looked at me in disbelief. “Now that was the greatest fighter of all time,” Jake said. “I fought ’em all. I even fought Sugar Ray Robinson seven times. Clay (referring to Ali’s original name, Cassius Clay) could have beat us both at the same time! He ain’t comin’, is he?”

I shrugged my shoulders and started to put the event together. I began putting our guests of honor in their seats. We were all assembled on a platform outside the Hall of Fame next to the Marciano statue covered in a red, white and green satin covering. Still no sign of Ali as I found ways of dragging the opening statements on in the event that he truly would show up.

All of a sudden, a black stretch limousine pulled up across the street. After a long three- or four-minute delay, the door opens and there he was! Muhammad Ali!

Now this was about 10 years ago, and Ali’s illness due to Parkinson’s disease was just then getting severe. He was being escorted by his daughter, Rasheeda, and her husband, Bobby. He was walking slow, and had big, Harry Caray-style sunglasses on.

Jake was just sitting there watching Ali walk over to the platform. He seemed almost saddened to see his pugilist compatriot. Keep in mind that Jake was about 85 at the time and he himself was also slowing down a bit.

I welcomed the Champ to the platform and brought Jake over to say hello. Jake took both of his hands and cupped them around Ali’s face. “I love you Champ, it’s Jake,” LaMotta said. Ali responded with, “You da champ!”

Jake had tears in his eyes.

We did the unveiling, and it was magical! All along I was watching these two legendary figures interact, both with failing health. Both were so strong with massive personalities to match their massive punches. Now reduced to almost tragic figures.

The next day, as I was taking Jake to the airport. He asked his assistant to stop the car and get something out of the trunk. It was an actual replica of his championship belt.

He autographed it and said, “I made just a few of these. I want you to have one because of what you did for me,” he said.

I was dumbfounded. I now have a piece of Jake to keep as a memento in honor of our day together. He was tough, and pulled no punches, but with me, this “Bull” of a guy was far from “Raging.”

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email [email protected].