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Number One–Primo Carnera.

A birth occurs commonplace on every moment, on everyday in every corner of the earth. The spinning planet offers few explanations of life, tragic or heralded. On Christmas day, we receive a reminder of an ancient metaphor of birth. Although birth appears ordinary, no person replicates another. Birth never repeats the same pattern of the soul, ever again. The wonder of birth turns not this world of the billions of shapes, not of the flesh and blood. The nature in all of us gives us blessings, and torment. Might we ever rise above abandonment, abuse, cruelty and ignorance? How we handle this in life allows us to transcend the commonplace, and show the miracle of life. On October 26, 1906, the first Italian stallion boxer felt life in northern Italy. He weighed twenty-two pounds, and grew up to reach nearly six-feet-six-inches. When his mother realized the child of enormous size, she called him “number one,” or Primo. Mother Giovanna or father Sante never realized this out-sized baby was already set apart in many ways. Most of Primo Carnera’s life represented mocking of his freakish size and shape. His entire family and village saw the giant baby and later a monstrous man, standing out.

The town of Sequals rests in the foothills of the Alps with 3000 people. They apply to the craft of stonecutting. With such a giant walking amongst them, the mountainous Primo reach manhood at age eight and stood over six-feet tall. After seeing him singled-out, gawked at, prodded, exhibited, and forced along paths not of his choosing, Primo worked hard and hungry most of his life. He joined a circus as an ogre and monster, and toured Europe. As a young boy, he toured France in a circus as a giant, mocked and ridiculed most of his life. From Europe, some managers found him and started him on boxing. He then moved to America to fight for pay.

From 1928 to 1937, he fought over one-hundred times. Primo toured tank towns in America and Europe. Promotions built him up more like a circus act than a boxer. Most of the fights appeared to be set ups. He never hit hard. His glass chin allowed anyone to knock him out with a single punch. The managers and the mobs sucked him dry repeatedly for all the money he made them. Budd Schulberg’s best selling novel, “The Harder They Fall,” depicts the sorry stage of Primo’s then promotion and fake fights. The last movie Humphrey Bogart starred in was a movie with the same name as the book. The novel and movie tell the story of the gangsters, fighters, gamblers, politicians, bankers, bums, trainers and crooks that infected his entire life. Primo lived this life and even filed bankruptcy after his last fight. Such cruelty never befell another boxer in any generation or time.

Today, his height seems average for a heavyweight, with Lewis and Klitschko tipping this height. Perhaps if born during these times, fate might twist a different tale of this mighty sized man. Other dimensions for him appeared more massive, than even, Jess Willard of the Dempsey era. Jess Willard hit his height back in 1919. His reach continues as the longest on record, however, and nearly eighty-seven inches. This extends almost twenty inches more than Rocky Marciano's reach. Throughout his career, his kindness prevailed and good sportsmanship. No one ever saw a mean streak in his gentle demeanor.

In 1933, he stopped Jack Sharkey with a powder puff punch that the boxing commission questions to this day. Sharkey got a bundle to take a dive. Most of the sports writers wrote scathing articles on the fight in disbelief of Jack’s integrity and the fight business. When he won the heavyweight championship of the world, the gate receipts showed over two million dollars, and Primo walked out with only $360. In 1934, Max Baer beat Primo Carnera to a bloody pulp and the fight was stopped in the eleventh round. Max Baer always displayed a furious assault, even Joe Louis believed Max as his most difficult foe.Carnera fought Joe Louis in 1935 and Carnera his the canvas three times before being stopped in the sixth round. Joe administered the coup de grace of his career, and a year later, he quit the fight game.

Primo Carnera held the heavyweight boxing and wrestling championship of the world, the only person ever to accomplish this deed. In later life, he wrestled and discovered his true element. He made money from the hand-to-hand sport of wrestling. He made as little as twenty cents a day most of his life, including his time in the boxing ring. With wrestling after World War II until the late 1960’s, he made large sums of money. He made a life finally with a home, a wife and kids. He died happy as always, and not broke. Not even the idealistic weavers of words, those that create ancient tales designed solely to point out some moral, might improve this true-life story. The ending shows how we rise above the ruthlessness, shame, cruel mocking and greed of men. Those that tricked him later asked him for money and served jail time. The humiliations of the ring and circus never made him bitter. Primo never altered to the environment of hatred and cheating

An old Jack Sharkey, the surly gob, another of the sluggers who pasted him to the deck, finally benefited from the giant’s affection. The Boston gob got the heavy dough to lose to Primo. Primo got a pocketful of stones in 1933 for the title. In one of his final wrestling matches, an old and a poor Jack Sharkey refereed and received only $300 for the night, while Primo acquired 40% of the gate. The odds stacked against the big guy all his life. A world that never shared anything but mocking opened up to him. Wearing a self-deprecating smile on his death, he lifted himself above the impressive auditoriums, large cities and smelly, smoky tank towns. His skyscraper height, massive shoulders and reaches, chest, legs, and the powerful arms sent a thrill rather than a shudder through the crowds who watched him. He transcended his simple twist of fate. On Christmas day, we realize how many of us move above earthly births, and display kindness even on moments of brutality and cruelty.

Joseph de Beauchamp can be reached at joedebo@wfnn.info

About Joseph de Beauchamp

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