This year is the 100th anniversary of Primo Carnera’s birth. The Ambling Alp was born on October 26, 1906 in Sequals (in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy) and died there on June 29, 1967. Many events are being scheduled to celebrate his birthday, which may sound strange if you think about the low consideration that the giant always received from journalists and most people in the boxing business. They always said that Carnera was a joke who was thrown into the ring like an attraction because of his size (6’5½, 260 pounds) and origin (he would be welcomed by the millions of Italian immigrants in the United States).
While it is true that Carnera was launched into the hands of the media right after his arrival in America and was hyped so much that everybody wanted to see him fight even before he gave any proof that he was skilled, it is also true that a bum couldn’t have convinced huge crowds to pay good money for a ticket. On June 23, 1930 in Philadelphia (PA) 35,000 people filled the Baker Bowl to see Primo Carnera battle George Godfrey. Okay, it was more a brawl than a boxing match and it ended with Godfrey’s disqualification for a low blow during the fifth round, but the fighters exchanged many hard punches and it wouldn’t have been the case if it was fixed. The ugliness of that contest, didn’t diminish the interest of the fans toward Carnera.
In his following fight, the Italian KOed Ed Wright with a straight right to the head in the fourth stanza. Wright was sent hurtling out of the ring. The United Press wrote: So terrific was the impact of the blow that Wright snapped the middle strand clean as he went down and out. On November 30, 1930 in Barcelona (Spain) Carnera defeated on points Paulino Uzcudun drawing 75,000 people. On May 15, 1932 in Milan (Italy) Carnera made short work (TKO 3) of Hans Schonrath to the joy of 20,000 fans. Only two weeks after that, more than 70,000 Englishmen filled the White City Stadium in London to see local favorite Larry Gains outbox Carnera to get an unanimous decision after ten rounds. None of those fights had a title on the line, so why did so many people came out to see Carnera if he was a joke?
Assuming that so many fellas in the United States, Italy, Spain and England cannot be all stupid, the answer must be that Primo Carnera was a good heavyweight with an exceptional size (for his time) that added excitement to his fights. I have tapes of Carnera’s fights against Godfrey, Jack Sharkey and Ray Impelletiere and I can legitimately say that Primo was much better than he was credited for: he was effective with his jabs and straight hands, delivered serious damage with his hooks and uppercuts and could punch while back-pedalling. How many boxers can do that? I have a tape of Muhammad Ali’s knocking down Cleveland Williams while moving backward, but I haven’t seen any of today’s champions doing that. Some boxers even tell to reporters that real warriors must always come forward and that’s what they do (yeah, and that’s why they get KOed).
Besides, if Carnera’s size was the only reason for hyping him why the top dogs of the boxing world didn’t hype Ray Impelletiere who was even bigger than Carnera? Because Impelletiere was just a big bum; in fact, his career lasted only 16 bouts (9 won and 7 lost). Another common story about Carnera is his lack of courage. When he lost the title to Max Baer, Carnera went down eleven times before the referee stopped the massacre. This means that The Ambling Alp got up eleven times: did anybody have the courage to call it a lack of guts? How many so called champions went down after one not-so-devastating blow? At least three heavyweight champions come to mind…
And now let’s take into consideration the fight which turned Primo Carnera into a world champion: the one against Jack Sharkey. It happened on June 29, 1933 in Long Island City (New York State). If that match was a fix, the two boxers would have exchanged light blows until Sharkey would have put down one of his hands to let Carnera hit him with a clean hook to the jaw (or to the chin). Instead, Carnera and Sharkey hit each other many times with heavy punches until Carnera delivered a huge uppercut at the American’s chin sending him down for the final count. If you see the tape, you will notice that Carnera’s uppercut came in a confused moment when Sharkey was just trying to stay away from the Italian. Looking more closely, you’ll see Sharkey’s head going up because of the power of Carnera’s uppercut. If you doubt that such a blow could knock you out, let a 260-pounder hit you at full force (and Carnera’s uppercut was delivered after a large swing).
In defending Carnera’s power, I won’t mention the death of Ernie Schaaf (February 10, 1933) because we all know that a boxer can be killed by anybody, by just one punch. Besides, it’s not certain that Carnera’s blows where the reason of Schaaf’s death. On October 5, 1931 Time magazine put Carnera on its cover. That was seven days prior to his first battle with Sharkey, which the Italian lost on points (and he went down in the fourth round). Do you think that the editor in chief of Time couldn’t tell the difference between a legitimate fighter and a bum? I don’t think so. Then, why we have heard for so many decades a lot of people underrating Primo Carnera? Probably because of the large number of fights which were fixed in the 1930s and 1940s. Was Carnera involved in some fixes? Maybe, but everybody says that he didn’t know about it. The second-best reason to fix a fight is giving a boost of confidence to the winner. Was the title match fixed?
Humprey Bogart’s character in “The Harder They Fall” says that you can’t fix a champ. About that movie, based on Carnera’s life: it is unrealistic the way the main character (Toro Moreno) gets hurt after just one light shot to the face. Such a fragile guy would never get anybody investing money in him. The people who don’t believe that Carnera was good have a point if you look at the last part of the Italian’s career. Primo Carnera’s last fights were poor showings. He shouldn’t have had those fights because he just added losses to his record. He understood it was time to hang up the gloves after he lost three in a row to Luigi Musina, but Musina was a fighter good enough to win titles in two weight divisions: he became Italian and European light heavyweight champion and won the Italian heavyweight belt. Musina closed his career with 38 wins (18 KOs), 9 losses and 5 draws. He KOed Carnera in seven rounds and beat him on points twice. Probably, Musina would have given trouble to Carnera even when The Ambling Alp was in his prime.
All in all, the best answer to Carnera’s critics is the fact that 73 years after he won the world title we are still talking about him. Do you think that 73 years from now somebody will be talking about today’s heavyweight champions? I don’t think so.
Born in Sequals (Italy) on October 26, 1906
Pro debut in 1928
Last fight in 1946
He fought in the United States, France, Germany, Spain, England, Canada, Italy, Argentina, Brazil and Hungary. He always drew large crowds proving to be an international star.
Record: 88 wins (70 KOs) and 15 losses
On June 29, 1933 in Long Island City (NY), he defeats Jack Sharkey (KO 6) and becomes world heavyweight champion.
On October 22, 1933 in Rome (Italy), he beats on points Paulino Uzcudun and retains the title. This is Carnera’s second win against Uzcudun and the most difficult: after 15 rounds, Italian judges gave him just a split decision. So much for partisan verdicts.
On March 1, 1934 in Miami (FL), he retains the belt with a unanimous decision over Tommy Loughran.
On June 14, 1934 in Long Island City (NY), he loses the title to Max Baer (TKO 11). Carnera gets knocked down eleven times before the referee stops the bout.