On the fifth floor of the Los Angeles City Youth Athletic Club, in a graffiti-sprayed warehouse district, Stephanie LaMotta shadowboxes in a ring, feinting and jabbing so skillfully that even her trainer, Tony Rivera, occasionally forgets she isn’t preparing for a real fight. “Sometimes I wish she was a guy,” he says. “I’d have a helluva contender.”
LaMotta, 33, clearly has the breeding for it. She is, after all, the daughter of Jake LaMotta, 68, the former middleweight champ whose life was depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film, Raging Bull. Like her father, she has taken some hard knocks, and like him, too, she has never gone down for the count. For more than a decade, her opponent has been multiple sclerosis, an incurable, potentially disabling disease of the central nervous system that affects 250,000 Americans.
This spring she will release Stephanie La-Motta’s Boxersize Workout, a video featuring the fitness routine she developed from boxing techniques her father taught her. Then she will marry her boyfriend of one year, French-born guitarist Jacques Dreyfus, 26. “You’re born and dealt a hand of cards and have no choice but to play them,” LaMotta says. “MS doesn’t affect me because I don’t allow it to.”
Growing up in Manhattan with her dad and her mother, Dimitria (the fourth of Jake’s six wives), LaMotta had her own first fighting tutorial when she was 12, after losing a schoolyard face-off with a girl who accused her of trying to steal a boyfriend. Jake quickly decided on some first hand instruction. “He taught me how to box right then and there.” ‘ she says, “He said, ‘You have to know how to defend yourself.’ ”
But Jake couldn’t do anything to prepare her for her biggest bout a few years later. In 1979. while working in London as a guitarist, actress and model, LaMotta began suffering fatigue and a loss of coordination. Soon after, on a trip to Vienna and Greece with her then boyfriend. Ringo Starr, her eyesight began to fail. LaMotta rushed back to New York but soon found herself both completely blind and paralyzed on the left side of her body.
Because MS can resemble other diseases, doctors initially had trouble diagnosing her illness. Dunitria stood by her daughters bedside urging her not to give up. (“The woman never lost it for a second until it was all over,” says Stephanie.) Jake, who broke down in tears when the disease was finally diagnosed, also stood watch. “I told her to believe.” he says. “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”
After about a year, the illness suddenly started into remission. Stephanie regained sight in her right eye and started gym workouts with her father. Later she began taking walks in Central Park—at first with her mother and then by herself, dragging her left foot. Today, with her sight fully restored. Stephanie is mostly free of serious symptoms, though she occasionally suffers weakness in her knees, numbness and slurred speech.
Despite these difficulties, LaMotta isn’t complaining; she says she has had plenty of good times in her life. She thought Raging Bull, which taught a whole new generation about her father’s triumphs, was a great film, but insists her dad is nothing like the brute played by Robert De Niro. “He’s the kind of guy who would help an old lady across the street,” she says. “He used to cook dinner for the family.”
And then there’s Jacques, whom she met after moving to L.A. in 1986 to resume her acting career. He was between gigs and temporarily working at the stable where LaMotta keeps her horse. Even before they’d been introduced, he announced to his coworkers that he planned to marry her. “I thought, ‘What an arrogant Frenchman! I will never go out with this guy. Never!’ ” she recalls. A few months later they were dating. Late one night, after a fully clothed swimming pool romp, Jacques lacked dry attire and stayed over. Soon they were living together. Now they share a two-bedroom Hollywood Hills apartment where LaMotta keeps a couple of punching bags and her gloves in the living room.
And anytime she needs him, he is at her side. When she falters from fatigue, he says, “I carry her to bed and I give her a cup of tea.” Usually, though, LaMotta acts more like a dynamo. She rises at 5:30 A.M. to tend her horse. She auditions regularly for acting parts in commercials (she has appeared in ads for Taco Bell and Agree Shampoo, among others), and she trains about 45 clients in Boxersize—a regimen she developed six years ago. Between rounds, she serves as a spokesperson for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Last year, while taking part in the annual MS Walkathon, she finished the 15th and final mile on her knees rather than quit.
That was typical of Stephanie, who is looking forward to having kids and a home in Connecticut where she can both stable a horse and pursue an acting career in nearby Manhattan. “I celebrate every day,” she says. “Because of the blindness I suffered. I appreciate every color, tree and flower. I don’t take anything for granted, not even one hour.”
—Charles E. Cohen, Lyndon Stambler in Hollywood