Name: Primo Carnera
Alias: The Ambling Alp
Hometown: Sequals, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy
Birthplace: Sequals, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy
Died: 1967-06-29 (Age:60)
Pro Boxer: Record
Today Primo Carnera is a side note in the annals of boxing history, regarded more as a bizarre phenomenon than an actual person. The surface story most commonly recited about Carnera is that he was a freakishly big and unbelievably naive Italian circus performer discovered and exploited by New York mobsters who fixed fights for him and protected him into the heavyweight championship. In the end, the gangsters abandoned him, stripped him of his cash, and let him disappear back into anonymity. Ironically, most of the classic story is true, only in a much less simple manner. Carnera seems to have been an intelligent man, entirely aware that he was being exploited by less than savory business partners, but happy to return the favor by getting as much from them as he could while he could. Culturally and historically, Carnera is important for being one of the heavyweights who helped keep the sport alive after the retirement of Jack Dempsey and during the bleak trials of the Great Depression. He proved to be a thrilling curiosity for the public who set attendance records just to see him flatten overmatched local pugs. In this way he reflected the circumstances and outlook of the world during the Great Depression and the second World War.
Born on October 26, 1906, in Sequals, a village in northeast Italy, Carnera spent much of his childhood training to be a carpenter. At fourteen he moved on his own to France, where he worked as various menial jobs until joining a traveling circus as a "strong man" at sixteen. After leaving the circus two years later, he was noticed by French boxer Paul Journee, who approached Carnera about starting a boxing career. Introducing Carnera to promoter Leon See, Journee agreed to become Carnera's trainer, and See his manager. Thus Carnera appeared in his first prizefight on September 12, 1928 in Paris, France, against the more experienced Leon Sebilo. Though looking every bit the cumbersome novice, Carnera still managed to annihilate Sebilo in two rounds. He won twice more before See took him on the road, displaying his gigantic boxer in Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and England against hand-picked, pushover opponents. Carnera won fourteen of his first fifteen bouts, eleven by knockout, but had yet to face a name opponent.
That changed on November 18, 1929, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where Carnera was matched with Young Stribling, a future hall of famer and already a veteran of more than two hundred and fifty prizefights. Though he outweighed his opponent by nearly one hundred pounds, Carnera was badly exposed before the large crowd by the clever Stribling. Using body punches and constant movement, the smaller fighter made the bigger man look clumbsy and ridiculous. Though Carnera managed to score a flash knockdown in the third, Stribling returned the favor in the same round and was clearly taking a lead on the scorecards. In the fourth, Carnera went down again, claiming that he had been punched below the belt. The referee subsequently disqualified Stribling, to the disapproval of most who viewed the match. Later historians have speculated that this fight may have been fixed. Less than a month later, the pair got in the ring once more to settle the issue, this time at the Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris. Again Stribling boxed himself to an obvious early lead. But, after the bell rang ending the seventh round and the smaller fighter was making his way to his corner, the big Italian landed a haymaker blow to the back of his opponent's head. Stribling collapsed to the canvas and was declared the winner by disqualification while unconscious.
Coming to America
Before a tie-breaker could be staged, Stribling returned to his native United States. However, American boxing manager Walter Friedman, who had attended the Stribling-Carnera bouts, took an interest in the young Italian. Though Stribling had proven himself the obviously better fighter, Friedman knew that the sport of boxing could sometimes be as much about the bizarre as it could be about the sweet science itself. Friedman convinced See that Carnera's size alone could bring in huge crowds in the United States merely as a boxing sideshow, even if he wasn't a legitimate contender. At some point shortly after Carnera's arrival stateside, his career fell under the direction of one of New York City's premiere organized crime figures, Owney Madden. Using Friedman and See as his fronts, Madden had a huge portion of all profits generated by Carnera's career in the U.S. He likely orchestrated several fixes to the unknowing Carnera's benefit.
Carnera's first American fight was against veteran New York fighter Clayton Peterson. Though "Big Boy" Peterson was renowned for his size, Carnera outweighed him by more than sixty pounds. Peterson managed to last one minute and ten seconds against the hulking European invader, though newspaper writers noticed that the New Yorker "showed no inclination to fight." Less than a week later a fighter named Elzear Rioux fell down six times in the opening round of his fight with Carnera in Chicago, stunning many in the crowd who swore they never saw Carnera land a single punch. After an investigation by the Illinois Commission, Carnera was cleared of any wrongdoing, though Rioux lost his boxing license. A string of similar knockouts followed, all either potential set-ups or against no-hope opponents who were outweighed by as much as seventy-five pounds. In a period of just four months, Carnera appeared in the ring sixteen times, winning every one of those bouts by the short route.
Meanwhile, Friedman backed the Carnera spectacle with the most outrageous promotional fanfare even given to a fighter. The focus, of course, wasn't so much on Carnera's prowess in the ring as it was on his huge muscular frame. Though other fighters may have accomplished more as consummate professionals, they failed to draw the huge crowds Carnera drew as a "freak show" of the sport. Before long, big name fighters began calling out Carnera in hopes of sharing some of the big purses he brought in. The earliest among these was a burly, hard-hitting African American fighter by the name of George Godfrey. A legitimate top ten contender, Godfrey was coming off of a streak of four consecutive knockout victories. On June 23, 1930, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Godfrey looked well on his way of adding Carnera to his list of victims, when the referee mysteriously disqualified him in the fifth round. A riot broke out amid the crowd of 35,000 in the arena, with accusations of fakery flying.
Following five more knockout wins, Carnera battled Jim Maloney in Maloney's hometown of Boston on October 7, 1930. Really a B-level fighter at his best, Maloney still had enough skill to outbox Carnera over ten rounds and win a decision, Carnera's first loss since coming to the United States. In his very next match, against Paolino Uzcudun, before a crowd of 75,000 (the largest attendance to a sporting event in Spanish history), Carnera again appeared to be badly outboxed. Though reporters subsequently remembered seeing Carnera win two rounds of the scheduled ten rounds, he was awarded a dubious decision. On March 5, 1931, Carnera received a second chance at Maloney. Carnera suffered a cracked rib prior to this bout, but elected to go on with the even anyway. Outweighing the Boston fighter by nearly seventy-five pounds, Carnera managed a deserved decision over ten rounds.
Having clearly witnessed Carnera's shortcomings as a boxer, Carnera's handlers decided it best not to ruin his earning potential by putting him in with any more threatening opponents for a few months. Instead they took him on an old-fashioned barnstorming tour, matching him against hopeless pugs. Over a period of less than two months, crowds in Buffalo, Toronto, Rochester, Newark, and Wilmington watched Carnera bowl over a succession of unworthy opponents, some of whom had lost more fights than they had won. Then, supposedly at the wishes of Carnera himself, they let him fight Jack Sharkey, the leading contender for the heavyweight title held by Max Schmeling. A fast, experienced, and tough fighter, the future hall of famer Sharkey had been in the ring with the likes of both Schmeling and Jack Dempsey. On October 12, 1931, Sharkey clearly outboxed Carnera, but Carnera impressed many both by showing improvements in his boxing technique and in showing a tremendous heart in taking terrific punishment from Jack. Suffering a knockdown in the fourth round, Carnera nonetheless rose to fight on and lasted the ten round distance. Carnera further silenced his critics by taking a deserved ten round decision over contender King Levinsky in November.
After Levinsky, Carnera left America for Europe, embarking on yet another tour. In Paris, Berlin, London, and Milan, Carnera took on mostly overmatched opponents. Then, on May 30, 1932, in an astonishing upset, he lost a ten round decision Canada's Larry Gains in London before 70,000 people, the largest crowd for a boxing match in England's history to that point.
Still ranked among the top heavyweights in the world by The Ring magazine, Carnera returned to New York, winning three straight before losing a very controversial decision to Stanley Poreda in Newark. For once Carnera was on the wrong end of a bad decision, and the referee who awarded Poreda his decision was subsequently suspended from boxing by the New Jersey Commission. By the late months of 1932, Carnera was beginning to hit his stride, performing well against credible opponents and earning his status as a leading heavyweight contender. Among his victims in these months were up-and-comer Art Lasky, popular Californian Les Kennedy, and perennial contender King Levinsky. Fighting as often as four times in seven days, he won eight bouts in the month of December alone.
In early 1933, newly crowned heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey announced that he would defend the title against the winner of a box-off between Carnera and Ernie Schaaf. Though hard-hitting Californian Max Baer (fresh off of a knockout of Schmeling) was the obvious leading contender, rumors circulated that Sharkey had been paid money by men working for Owney Madden to fight Carnera. Schaaf, in whose career Sharkey had business investments, was allegedly told by Sharkey to take a dive. These accusations are somewhat proven by the film of the fight. Instead of boxing, as was his wont, Schaaf fought strangely flat-footed and uninspired. He proved an easy target for his much larger opponent, who easily took the lead in points. In the thirteenth round, Carnera knocked the beaten fighter out. Schaaf, rendered unsconscious, was rushed to the hospital where it was discovered he had suffered a brain hemorrhage. When he awoke, he was partially paralyzed and soon collapsed again, dying four days later. Doctors could not determine of Schaaf's brain damage had been incurred during the Carnera fight, or was the result of earlier illness or injury and was only aggravated by the pounding at the hands of Carnera. A crusade by anti-boxing legislators immediately began pushing for the banishment of the sport, while some Commissions proposed the establishment of a "dreadnaught" weight class for men of Carnera's size, to protect smaller heavyweights.
Tragedy or not, fix or not, Carnera had beaten Ernie Schaaf and was awarded his shot at champion Sharkey. On June 29, 1933, the clumsy contender got his second shot at Sharkey before a crowd of 40,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York. Sharkey clearly boxed his way to a decision over Carnera a year earlier, before winning the title. This time, for whatever reason, Jack seemed obviously intimidated by Carnera's size. The champion boxed and moved as he did in the first fight, but Carnera seemed to be doing much better in the rematch. In the sixth round, a right uppercut from the challenger that Sharkey never saw coming ended the fight. Stripped of his senses, Sharkey seemed to lift off of his feet before tumbling to the mat. The Carnera victory to become heavyweight champion was a tremendous upset, one of the biggest in boxing of the decade. Many speculated that Sharkey had been paid to take a dive. Though Jack denied this to his dying day, his own wife admitted her suspicions.
Because Carnera is regarded by most historians as a flash-in-the-pan fluke in the heavyweight championship, the fact that Carnera made two successful defenses of his title often goes overlooked. On October 22, 1933, in a victorious return to his native Italy, Carnera fought a rematch with ranked contender Paolino Uzcudun of Spain, winning by fifteen round decision before dictator Benito Mussolini himself. He then traveled to Miami, Florida to take on former light heavyweight champion and future hall of famer Tommy Loughran on March 1, 1934. This match produced the greatest weight disparity in world title fight history. The Italian goliath outweighed his challenger by eighty-four pounds. In his final title bout appearance, the aging Loughran gave a good showing and won several rounds with his smooth boxing style, but was nevertheless outgunned, outmuscled, and outsized by the champion. Carnera repeatedly stepped on his challenger's feet, breaking a toe. Injured and against a much bigger, younger foe, Loughran ultimately fell victim to Carnera's reach and stamina. Carnera took the fifteen round decision.
The Baer Fight
Somewhere around this point, the champion appeared in a movie titled The Prizefighter and the Lady. The popular film starred Carnera alongside several other big name boxing figures, including Jack Dempsey, James J. Jeffries, Jess Willard, and the current number one contender, Max Baer of California. The hard-hitting and charismatic Baer's recent knockout of Max Schmeling turned a lot of heads and made a match between he and the champion a highly anticipated showdown. On June 14, 1934, at Madison Square Garden, the pair finally did battle in a most unusual and chaotic affair. The champion went down in the opening round under a barrage of punches from the wild-swinging challenger. Sensing a first round knockout imminent, Baer pressed forward for the first time, putting together a ruthless series of punches that sent Carnera down twice more. Carnera showed tremendous heart in surviving the round, but was clearly unaware of his surroundings when the bell rang and he wandered into the wrong corner. Exhausted by his futile efforts to put the giant away, Baer tried desperately to finish the still groggy champion off in the second, but to no avail. The pair ended up clinching and wrestling for the next several rounds, with both men frequently tripping and falling to the canvas. During one of these tumbles, Baer got laughs from the crowd by looking over at Carnera and joking, "Last one up's a sissy!" Eventually Carnera, having steadied himself, began to use his size and reach against the challenger. The Italian was never known as a quality boxer, but, against the crude and exhausted challenger, he had had enough skills to gain a lead on the score cards as the fight entered the tenth round. Toward the end of that round a roundhouse right from Baer turned the tide once again, sending Carnera fumbling across the ring. A follow-up fusillade of blows sent the champion down. The brave but battered Carnera made it to his feet just in time to hear the bell clang to signal the conclusion of the round. The minute rest did little to revive Carnera's senses. He came out for the eleventh, but proved to be little more than a gigantic target, going down twice more before the referee stopped the contest. Including the wrestling falls in the middle of the fight, Carnera hit the deck eleven times in eleven rounds. Carnera had lost the championship.
Joe Louis & Later Years
Taking five months off to regroup following the embarrassing fiasco with Baer, Carnera returned to the ring for a tour of South America in late 1934. He fought three opponents of mediocre to poor quality, winning all four bouts. Only Victorio Campolo of Argentina lasted the twelve-round distance. Then he returned to America to knock out an unheralded giant by the name of Ray Impellittiere with a devastating left hook in the ninth round.
On June 25, 1935, Carnera took on his first top ranked opponent since Baer when he faced up-and-coming Joe Louis from Detroit. At this point the undefeated but inexperienced Louis was regarded as an untested prospect and thus many became interested in the results of a match between the ex-champion and the raw novice. But, because of the political turmoil created from Italy's recent invasion of Ethiopia, the fight took on a meaning that spread beyond the realm of sports. Ethnic tensions within New York City grew so dangerous in fact that many powerful people in the city pushed for the fight's cancellation. Despite--or possibly because of--the controversy, 62,000 paying customers showed up at Yankee Stadium to watch Louis annihilate his gargantuan foe. After the first round, Carnera's face dripped with blood, some of his lower teeth having been pierced through his upper lip. The remaining rounds only prolonged the inevitable, as Carnera proved easy target practice. A right hand in the sixth round sent the ex-champion "down slowly, like a great chimney that had been dynamited," wrote journalist John Kiernan. Exhibiting the same heart as he had against Baer, Carnera rose dazedly to his feet, only to collapse once again under another Louis attack. He bravely stood up yet again, just in time to be battered to the floor a third time. Carnera had the honor of being on his feet yet again before referee Arthur Donovan stopped the fight.
The decimation at the hands of Joe Louis was Carnera's final performance as a major contender in the heavyweight ranks. He managed a few more wins against moderate level opponents on American soil before suffering two consecutive losses to the much smaller Leroy Haynes in 1936 and returning to Europe. The change of locale did nothing to change Carnera's faltering career. Returning to his native Italy to live in peace, Carnera's financial problems prompted his return to the ring after the end of World War II. Though he won his first two comeback bouts, three subsequent losses prompted the permanent completion of his boxing career. Still in need of cash, he resorted to a semi-successful professional wrestling career in America and later starred as the villain in several low budget movies. When there was no more money to be made, he once again returned to Italy, where he died of psoriasis brought on by alcoholism on June 29, 1967, at the age of sixty.
Bak, Richard. Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope. 1998.
Cyber-boxing Zone Profile
Fleischer, Nat. The Heavyweight Championship. 1961.
Roberts, James B. and Alexander G. Skutt. The Boxing Register. 4th ed. 2006.
- Also nicknamed the "Vast Venetian"
- It has been often said that Carnera was "mob-controlled" and that many of his fights had been "fixed." But see: "Myler's (Patrick) Ring of Hate, which gives an analysis of Carnera's career and reasons Carnera's fights weren't fixed.
- Carnera was hospitalized with a kidney hemorrhage following the Zupan fight (Dec 1937); his kidney was removed in January 1938. Inactive: 1938-1943.
- Married March 18, 1939 in Sequals, Italy
- Carnera joined the Italian anti-Fascist partisans and was wounded by the Nazis near Cremona, Italy, in 1943
- Carnera became a United States citizen.
- After his boxing career, he continued his wrestling career, winning the so-called "world championship."
- Appeared in several movies: Carnera's IMDb credits
- His life story inspired Budd Schulberg's novel (and later film) The Harder They Fall (Humphrey Bogart's final movie); Carnera sued for defamation.
- "A weakness for alcohol began to take its toll on Carnera in the 1960s and, in 1967, following a collapse brought on by diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver, he returned to his hometown of Sequals." The Italian Stallions: Heroes of Boxing's Glory Days
- See also, My Father Primo Carnera and Primo: The Story of "Man Mountain" Carnera
| World Heavyweight Champion
NYSAC World Heavyweight Champion
1933 Jun 29 – 1934 Jun 14