Former heavyweight champion of the world, Primo Carnera of Italy, was born exactly one hundred years ago this coming October. Born in Sequals, Italy on 26 October, 1906, the man known as “The Ambling Alp” remains one of the best known and most fascinating off all heavyweight kings. And not always due to reasons that could be called flattering. With many of his fights now pretty much accepted as having been set-ups, due to the huge influence the American mob had over the naive and unsuspecting Carnera, the huge Italian’s place in history is that of a curiosity, more so than as a great and legendary champion.
This is not to suggest that Primo was without courage though, for he very definitely had guts. His merits and accomplishments as a boxer, however, are fully deserving of the questionable way in which they are looked upon by historians. Quite simply, no one can be sure which of Primo’s fights were on the level and which were not.
Due to his freakish height and overall size, Primo was instantly seen to be a potential money spinner by the less than scrupulous characters that were orbiting around the boxing world in the United States at the time of his 1930 arrival - namely the Mob. Whether he could fight or not, they knew Primo would make them vast amounts of cash. With his gigantic size and perceived strength, Carnera was a dead-cert to fill the arenas. He was snapped up on this premise almost as soon as he stepped off the boat.
Primo never had a chance. With his friend and manager, Leon See, reduced to a mere spectator and unable to match wits with the quick minded members of the Mafioso that had decided to control his fighter, Primo was entirely in the hands of selfish and uncaring individuals. With no concern whatsoever for his health, Carnera was eventually thrown into brutal beating after brutal beating. After all his use had been expended, that is. But first, they
wanted “The Ambling Alp” to win as many fights as possible and then fight for the world title.
Sure enough, the big crowds came to see the gigantic boxer from overseas (Primo stood six feet, five and one quarter inches tall), and sure enough the team behind him saw to it that he came through his first twenty-odd fights without a loss. Some of the bouts were outright farces, while others looked to be legitimate. For example, Primo’s fight with one Elzear Riouz was subject to an investigation afterwards, the action had looked so suspicious. Indeed, Riouz’s licence was revoked and he was also fined.
Another fight that looked decidedly bogus was Carnera’s match with Leon Chevalier. The crowd were extremely unhappy when the action was halted in round six, with Chevalier seemingly in no worse shape than was Carnera, whose purse was withheld afterwards.
There were more bouts that had a definite sinister feel to them, including Primo’s tussle with George Godfrey, where a near riot broke out after the controversial stoppage in the fifth.
There were also, however, performances by Carnera that looked to have been legit. His fourth round KO over Bearcat Wright, for instance, impressed many. So, were all Carnera’s early fights fixed? Probably not. But more than a fair share of them certainly were.
What is also certain is the fact that his handlers were wasting no time in reaping the rewards their fighter could earn them. Twenty six times in the year 1930 alone, Primo boxed. With this breakneck pace, the money was rolling in. Not that the man fighting saw much of it.
There were early setbacks in the form of points defeats, to guys like Jim Maloney and Jack Sharkey (who Primo would meet again, soon after his fifteen round points loss) but mostly, aside from the negative press that followed some of his more obviously less than genuine encounters, the plan was working out fine. Carnera was soon a household name in America. It wasn't too long, however, before tragedy struck.
After a short time spent fighting in European countries again, including his native Italy, Carnera was deemed ready to make his move on the world title. Upon totting up yet more early KO wins, some visually impressive, others not, Primo was matched with a fighter named Ernie Schaaf.
This is where the tragedy came in to the Carnera story. Ernie shockingly passed away four days after his fight with Primo, more than likely due to injuries he had sustained in some previous contest. Nonetheless, Primo was devastated and for a time wanted to hang up his gloves. But he fought on, probably given little or no choice by his handlers, and challenged for the heavyweight title.
Now with genuine respect accorded his punching power due to the Schaaf incident, (an event the uncaring mobsters managing Primo probably thanked their lucky stars for, garnering more press as it did for their fighter) Carnera signed to box current ruler, Jack Sharkey, the same man who had handily out pointed him almost two years before. This time it was different.
Sharkey had been good friends with Schaaf, even working his corner at times, and had been greatly upset at his friend's tragic death. His second fight with the man who Ernie had fought his last against was a strange affair as a result.
Controlling the action for the first five rounds, Sharkey was suddenly taken out in the sixth with a huge right uppercut, left hand combination to the head. Jack crashed face first to the canvas and Primo was the new champion.
In the years that followed, given the definite shady side to his career up until then, some questioned the validity of Carnera’s win over Sharkey. The way Jack fell caused doubts in certain people’s minds as to whether or not he had been genuinely KO'd.
For his part, Sharkey later said to have been affected by his friend’s death going into the fight, and even went so far as to claim that he had seen a vision of the deceased Schaaf just before the KO.
So, was the Carnera-Sharkey fight fixed? We will never know for sure, but the events that unfolded the night the two boxed for the title in 1933 do not sit right with a good many boxing people, that much is sure.
Regardless, Primo was now the champ and he was back in the ring defending the title in pretty quick time. A fifteen round points win over the Spaniard, Paolino Uzcudan in Rome, Italy was his first successful defence, while his points win over Tommy Loughran, eighty-four pounds lighter than Carnera, in a fight staged at Madison Square Garden the following year was his last.
Then Carnera ran into Max Baer. Fighting one of the hardest hitters the heavyweight division has ever produced, Primo was ruthlessly and brutally beaten up. Eleven times he was sent crashing to the canvas, in as many rounds. And while Carnera’s courage was evident to all in this fight, so too were his many shortcomings in the art of pugilism.
He was utterly bewildered and Max never let him off the hook, intent instead on inflicting hurt on the clumsy Italian. The fight was a huge hit with the audience, many of whom were laughing out loud at the bizarre action. Never before had a defending heavyweight champion been made to look so foolish and Carnera would never contend for the title again.
His fighting days, however, were not over yet. Used only as fodder by handlers that treated him in a way that went beyond mere cruelty, Primo was thrown in with the new star of the division, the murderous punching Joe Louis.
In June of “35 Carnera was subjected to a most hideous beating over six painful rounds. Again and again Joe’s lethal fists smacked into Carnera's defenceless head and jaw. Three times he hit the mat before the referee put a stop to the carnage in the sixth. Primo was very lucky not to have been seriously and permanently injured. Still, he was to fight on.
After four meaningless wins, Primo was battered to defeat on two occasions by the big punching Leroy Haynes, losing in three rounds the first time and in nine gruesome rounds the second. Finally, after these two humiliating and hurtful experiences, Primo escaped to his native land, by way of France and Hungary, for good. He was out from the clutches of his evil handlers at last.
After a handful of bouts in his home country, mostly losses, Primo found some happiness in the sport of wrestling. A sport where, with his huge size and strength, he was quite successful. He then retired to run an off licence in the town of his birth, Sequals.
Before his death, in 1967, there was yet more heartache for the huge boxer. In his final film, Humphrey Bogart starred in a boxing movie that was clearly based on Carnera and the time he spent fighting in America.
Although the character’s names were different, the similarities were so apparent that a blind man could see them. With his permission not even asked for, let alone granted, Primo unsuccessfully sued the filmmakers.It really is somewhat ironic that a film that evokes such sympathy for a lead character, that is so obviously based on Carnera, also both insulted and failed to benefit the used and abused man who inspired its very story line.
Primo Carnera: 1906-1967. Heavyweight Champion of the World 1933-1934. Final record: 88-15-0 with 71 knockouts