Primo Carnera: Reexamining His Ring Career - Part 2
26.07.06 - By MIKE DUNN: It is impossible to separate Primo Carnera the boxer from Primo as a pawn for the mob. That makes it difficult to determine just how much Primo accomplished on his own merits in the ring and how much was accomplished through mob enforcement. It also makes it hard to say how far Primo would have gone up the heavyweight ladder without any outside help.
Article posted on 27.07.2006
This much is clear. Primo took terrible beatings in legitimate ring battles with the fearsome punching Max Baer and with the young KO sensation from Detroit, Joe Louis. In fairness, though, Primo wasn’t the only one to suffer at the hands of those two power punchers. And it’s important to note that Primo did win some important fights with apparently no mob interference. En route to his title shot, he defeated decent contenders such as Art Lasky, Hans Birkie, Kingfish Levinsky and Ernie Schaaf, all apparently legitimate victories. (The 13-round KO over the ill-fated Schaaf on Feb. 10, 1933 will always be tainted by Schaaf’s unfortunate death four days later from an inter-cranial hemorrhage suffered during the bout.)
On the other hand, Carnera won the championship with a one-punch KO of Jack Sharkey on June 29, 1933 in a fight that is still shrouded by controversy. There has never been any actual proof that the fight was fixed, but Carnera’s surprising sixth-round KO victory over Sharkey, a rugged fighter who had beaten him previously by decision, has always been suspicious. Perhaps Carnera caught Sharkey perfectly with a hard right uppercut as Sharkey was coming off the ropes and knocked the champ stiff … and perhaps not.
As champion, though, Carnera successfully defended the title twice, beating two pretty good fighters in Paolino Uzcudun of Spain and erstwhile light-heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran of Philadelphia. Both of those fights were on the level. It must also be added that both challengers were past their prime.
The bout with Uzcudun took place in Rome on Oct. 22, 1933. The 35-year-old burly Basque woodchopper had been a top contender and had been in with the best of them in the 1920s. Uzcudun and Carnera had fought three years before, in fact, and Carnera had won a clear-cut decision before 70,000 spectators in Spain. This time around, in front of about 55,000 of his countrymen, Carnera the champion dominated from start to finish, winning almost all 15 rounds.
Carnera took a 15-round decision from the much lighter Loughran on March 1, 1934, in Miami. Carnera outweighed Loughran by 84 pounds (270 to 186) and was accused of stomping all over poor Loughran’s feet and putting his heavy garlic breath to good use during the clinches as a form of atmospheric warfare. Loughran was the type of flashy boxer who frequently gave Carnera problems, but Tommy was too much lighter and too far beyond the glory years to give Primo a significant battle. Over the course of 15 rounds, the bigger man prevailed.
Although this fight probably did more to shatter the myth of Carnera as a hard puncher than any of his other bouts, it also revealed that Carnera did have some genuine ring skills. If Carnera was as bad as some say, he wouldn’t have beaten a clever boxer like Loughran. It was only two years before this that Loughran had given Baer a boxing lesson over 10 rounds and six months before that Loughran had decisioned Sharkey over 15 rounds.
To those who see the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Italian behemoth as an inept imitation of a prize fighter, there are at least some indications that he could fight a little. He did beat some decent fighters of his day. To his credit, he did improve considerably as the years went by, learning to use his long left jab and his overwhelming size to good advantage at times. He did score some legitimate kayos and win some hard-fought decisions. It’s true that he could never overcome his own awkwardness and inability to punch with leverage, let alone his own docile nature, but in his defense it can be said that he did the best with the tools he had.
He never laid down in the ring and he showed rather remarkable courage, especially in the latter stages of his career. He was always in good physical condition when he entered the ring and he never avoided anyone. That can’t be said honestly for a whole lot of fighters who were much more talented than Carnera.
From the time that Gene Tunney retired in 1928 until Louis ascended to the heavyweight throne in 1938, there were five champions: Max Schmeling, Sharkey, Carnera, Baer and Jimmy Braddock. Carnera successfully defended the title more than any of them.
And consider this. When Primo went down in the opening round from Baer’s first hard overhand right to the chin on the night of June 14, 1934, the big Italian must have known right then that he was going to lose. He could have taken the easy way out. He could have stayed down and let the ref toll the fatal 10 count. Instead, he got up. He was hammered down two more times in the first round. He kept getting up. He would be knocked down a total of 12 times in all during the miserably one-sided affair. Even Baer, who had been openly disdainful of Carnera before the fight, showed grudging admiration for Carnera’s gritty effort afterwards. When referee Arthur Donovan finally, mercifully stopped the fight in the 11th round, Carnera was still on his feet.
In the dressing room after the massacre, Carnera cried, huge tears rolling down his bruised cheeks. Even the most hardened sports writers of the day were moved by the sight of this hulking man, his face battered, weeping and attempting to speak in his broken English. He kept saying over and over again that he didn’t quit. For this man who just had the heavyweight title unceremoniously wrested from him while the world watched, it was a source of pride that he took his beating like a man. It was important to Primo that the public understood that he didn’t surrender.
The story of Primo Carnera as a mob-backed giant from northern Italy who came along at the right time in history and ascended to the heavyweight crown is well-known and oft-repeated. It is incomplete, however. Yes, he was left penniless and discarded like yesterday’s newspaper after his usefulness to the mob ended. And, yes, his plight was exposed through the book and the movie, The Harder They Fall.
But the tale doesn’t end there, thankfully. Carnera employed the same kind of resourcefulness and perseverance that were evident in the battles of the ring to achieve a measure of success when his fighting days were over.
After World War II, he became a professional wrestler and was a huge box office attraction. Here, his size and natural brute strength, along with his fame as a boxer, were all in his favor. He continued wrestling into the 1960s in spite of having a kidney surgically removed.
But that wasn’t all that the enterprising Carnera did after he hung up his gloves. Primo had originally been exposed to Hollywood in the 1930s. While he was champ, he appeared in The Prizefighter and the Lady (in a supporting role with Myrna Loy and Max Baer) and Mighty Joe Young (where he boxes in a cameo role against an overgrown ape). In the 1950s, Carnera returned to Hollywood and appeared before the camera in a number of mostly B movies. In 1955, he received critical acclaim for his appearance in the British film "A Kid for Two Farthings."
In 1953, Carnera married Giusseppina Kovacic and settled in Los Angeles, where he opened a restaurant and liquor store. The couple became American citizens that same year and went on to have two children, one of whom became a medical doctor.
Carnera died on June 29, 1967, of a combination of diabetes complications and liver disease. He was only 60. Ironically, he died on the 34th anniversary of what would be considered his greatest ring triumph, his six-round KO of Jack Sharkey in 1933.
Mike Dunn is a boxing historian and writer living in northern Michigan.
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