Primo Carnera: Reexamining Primo's Career - Part 1 of 2

21.07.06 - By MIKE DUNN: There is one thing that everyone would agree upon on the subject of former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera. That is, the powerfully built son of a stonecutter from Sequals, Italy, was not made for the prize ring.

Carnera was simply not built for the ring, physically or temperamentally. His great strength and huge, magnificently structured body were perfectly crafted for the sport of wrestling; in the boxing ring, those physical attributes actually worked against him. He was awkward in his movements and he had difficulty getting leverage on his punches. He was not difficult to hit.

His disposition was not right either. He wouldn’t look over a fallen opponent, as Sonny Liston did decades later, and say that the fallen foe “looked good.” Primo did not want to hurt anyone. He did not enjoy the savageness of the ring. Nor did he possess the killer instinct necessary to be a great champion.

Carnera, who was born on Oct. 26, 1906, held the heavyweight title from June 29, 1933 when he knocked out Jack Sharkey with a single right uppercut in the sixth round until June 14, 1934 when he was unceremoniously hammered to the canvas 12 times by the vaunted right fist of Max Baer en route to an 11th round knockout. He successfully defended the title twice during his year-long tenure as champ, earning 15-round decisions over Paolino Uzcudun in Italy and over former light-heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran in Miami.

In all, the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Carnera had more than 100 fights and won 88 times. He recorded 71 knockouts along the way. In spite of those impressive numbers, he is not known for his exploits in the ring. He is remembered instead for his connections with the mob. Indeed, Carnera’s manager of record, Owney Madden, had his tentacles in the underworld and was a known mob figure in the 1930s. It is alleged that before the title fight with Baer, two of Madden’s henchmen, armed with revolvers, visited Baer’s dressing room to relay the message that Madden preferred that Carnera retain the title that night.

Because of Carnera’s mob connections, it has long been speculated that most of the giant Italian’s fights were fixed and that Carnera himself was nothing more than a pawn of the underworld, a money-making machine during his prime years whose fate was to be used up and then cruelly discarded.

Paul Gallico, a respected New York sports writer, was an eyewitness to Carnera’s rise and fall. He said “there is probably no more scandalous, pitiful, incredible story in all the record of these last mad sports years than the tale of the living giant, a creature out of the legends of antiquity, who was made into a prize fighter.”

In his insightful “Book on Boxing,” Gallico wrote this about Carnera’s sad legacy: “Poor Primo! A giant in stature and strength, a terrible figure of a man, with the might of ten men, he was a helpless lamb among wolves who used him until there was nothing more left to use, until the last possible penny had been squeezed from his big carcass, and then abandoned him. His last days in the United States were spent alone in a hospital. One leg was paralyzed, the result of beatings taken around the head. None of the carrion birds who had picked him clean ever came back to see him or to help him.”

Gallico wasn’t the only writer watching what transpired. The book written by Budd Schulberg in 1947, “The Harder They Fall,” and the subsequent 1956 movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart were clearly based on Carnera’s journey from contender to champion to ex-champion. The fictional central character from South America, Toro Moreno, is big and strong as an ox but can’t fight a lick and has a glass jaw on top of it. Literally all of the fights leading up to him winning the title are fixed, though Moreno himself is not aware of this.

After gaining the title, Toro must defend against the former champion, played in the movie by none other than Max Baer, and Toro takes a terrible thrashing in his final fight.

The book and movie made Toro out to be a sympathetic figure, one to be pitied rather than scorned. This may have gained Primo some sympathy, but it also underscored the public’s perception of the Italian as an unworthy champion, someone who climbed the ladder only through illegal means, who was crude and inept in the ring and didn’t have the ability to beat even third-rate fighters on his own merits.

But has history been fair to Primo? Was he as inept as is commonly believed? A closer inspection of Primo’s record may tell a somewhat different tale.

Mike Dunn is a boxing historian and writer living in northern Michigan.

Article posted on 21.07.2006

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