IT IS difficult to know where to start a tale about Primo Carnera, the Ambling Alp, the hapless Italian stooge of the fight game. There are so many glorious tales, so many inventions, so many lies and so much horror in a life spent trying to survive.
His height is not a bad place to start. He was, as we all know, a giant. Some said freak. He was either six-feet-five-and-a-half, six-six or even possibly six-seven. He weighed over 19 stone in his loincloth kecks and that made him a man-mountain during his career that began in 1928.
Before the boxing, he was a strongman in France and Spain. A human attraction on a tour with the bearded woman, the man with 10 toes on each hand and the dancing triplets of Constantinople. He wrestled men in the audience, pulled tractors and carried lions. And then he was made an offer he simply could not refuse. He became a boxing freak.
He fought 102 times. It was probably more, and it is likely that most were fixed, or the endings were heavily rehearsed. And, yes, he was managed by well-known hoodlums once his ship landed in New York. The list of the syndicate in charge of exploiting him and sharing millions of his dollars, is rich and varied. The bootlegger, the killer, the enforcer, the strangler, the armed robber, the kidnapper. There was even a crooked Italian banker to make sure that the money was wonderfully divided; it was probably 90 per cent to the syndicate and 10 per cent to the Ambling Alp. It went on and on.
He fought for nearly 20 years. None of it, looking back now, makes any sense. The audacity involved in the deeply comic compilation of his record is impossible to believe. The testimony of the participants is mind-boggling to read. Just when you think you have a handle on Big Primo, you find another golden item and are left shaking your head in dismay, disbelief and disgust.
Carnera’s record was compiled with a blatancy that is still shocking. He took care of the hired hands, catching them with glancing blows to the air somewhere near their chops. Others rolled over in seconds, feigning agony and winking at the men sitting at ringside. He bashed and slashed away at men named Big Boy, KO, King, Cowboy and Bearcat. Down they went, making sure not to land too heavily on the wad of used notes tucked down their underpans for safe keeping. There was always a little extra in the packet and Carnera always paid that little extra out of his end. Well, he never knew he paid, but he did.
Sure, various commissions suspended boxers, trainers, managers, fixers and associates and banned the circus. Men were held in cells overnight. There was occasional indignation at the con. However, the syndicate simply moved on, found another city and sent their men to make sure the next stop went smoothly. I have lost count of the boxers who were shown a gun before the fight or during the fight. It seemed the flash of big, fat calibre pistols were more than enough to remind a man that he had to fall over and under no circumstance connect with a punch on Carnera’s enormous chin.
In one fight, an opponent was refusing to follow the pre-arranged script. The fighter’s own trainer sliced the boxer’s eyebrow with a razor, concealed the cut under Vaseline, sent him out and hey presto, Carnera landed and the cut burst open. On another occasion there was clearly a shortage of guns because one of the associates appeared at ringside with a lengthy dagger; it was flashed as a reminder and the opponent swiftly jumped on the canvas. As I said, a lot of the tales are enhanced or just invented, and a lot are true.
Sadly, for Primo, men did connect and when they did it was ugly. More on that in a minute.
In 1933, in Carnera’s 82nd fight, he won the world heavyweight title with a sixth-round stoppage. I know, it seems like a joke. Well, Jack Sharkey was the champion and then Jack Sharkey was not the champion. The boys with the guns and backing and protection were very happy. Incidentally, 40,000 watched it live and, in theory, not one of them saw the punch that finished it. What a business, and you thought last week was a carnival!
Carnera’s first defence was back in Rome, outdoors in front of 70,000 and he beat the Spaniard, Paolino Uzcudun, on points over 15. That’s a genuine homecoming, make no mistake. It’s one of the contradictions in the Carnera story; here is a real homecoming hero getting rinsed by a few men in big suits from a different country. How did it continue? There was one more defence and then it was the end.
In 1934, in New York, it all came crashing down. Carnera met Max Baer and was dropped 12 times and rescued from his own bravery in round 11. The cash-cow was wounded and exposed. It is possible he had made as much as three-million dollars for the men in overcoats that ran his life. Carnera, obviously, would soon be skint. He would fight for another 12 years and then wrestle on the circuit. His health in decline, his mind damaged, his soul blasted, his body broken. His innocence lost.
There was a horrible beating from Joe Louis in 1935. There are awful images of a ruined Carnera, holding the ropes, looking for safety and his face distorted with fear. Louis was savage.
That is just part of the story. Primo Carnera, our first sad giant. Abused and abused and abused. I have long planned a pilgrimage to his grave. I might just do it in the spring.