The Story of Primo Carnera

The Story of Primo Carnera

By Simon Graham

The decade is the 1930s, the USA has been hit by the great depression, law enforcement is tightening its grip on prohibition and unemployment is at its highest level ever in the country’s history, poverty and crime went hand in hand.

If you had friends or mixed with the likes of Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll or Owney ‘The Killer’ Madden, it was pretty nailed on you lived on the wrong side of the law, mob rule was rife in all forms of life from gambling, protection rackets the import and export of liquor and of course prizefighting.

1930s boxers were hard men, many prizefighters during this era would find themselves fighting almost weekly for very little pay for little or no recognition, so in order to get ahead in their careers, get championship bouts and title shots your best bet was to become a ‘mob managed fighter’

Italian Primo Carnera was a giant of a man by 1930s boxing standards standing at 6’6” and weighing in at 260llbs, he was a mob manager’s dream, the only problem was he was clumsy, had no skill, and had a glass chin but what he had was a marketable value for the likes of Coll and Madden who managed him.

Carnera’s road to the top was beset with behind-the-scenes corruption, opponents were bribed, physically intimidated, or susceptible to any number of dirty tricks. What made this all the more staggering was he had no idea his career was manufactured, he actually thought he was a top heavyweight contender. So when he beat Jack Sharkey in June 1933 at Madison Square Garden for the heavyweight title this only fuelled his own air of invincibility.

In truth, Carnera fought well in his title win but it still had that smell of fix in the air. Sharkey was clearly the better boxer, a quick look at his record will tell you Carnera’s knockout ratio was exceptional but in reality, he fought journeymen and handpicked fighters for a quick record of wins to boost his stats and ranking, his sheer size would overawe many of his opponents who would be much lighter and smaller.

His cumbersome style and ease at getting tagged by lesser opponents would result in the man mountain stumbling around the ring seemingly on the brink of being stopped only to come back with an easy knockout of his own.

This had boxing fans raising eyebrows on numerous occasions, the mob knew their man had run his course so decided to throw him to the Lions or in this case a bear, Max Baer.


In June 1934 almost a year to the day after winning the heavyweight title, the supremely confident Carnera climbed through the ropes at Madison Square Garden to face what he thought would be an easy title defence.

Midway through round one, Baer caught the Italian champion flush on the chin with his first meaningful punch sending the bigger man to the canvas. Once up Carnera stumbled around the ring bouncing from one set of ropes to the other trying to keep himself upright while warding off Baer’s wild swings and attacks.

In a fight that lasted 11 rounds, Carnera was floored a further 10 times, Baer administered a brutal beating in what was a total mismatch. After surviving a savage barrage of punches in the 10th round Carnera’s reign as champion came to an end midway through the 11th round, after taking some heavy blows and picking himself up from the canvas yet again, the big man turned to the referee asking for him to stop his own fight, the referee duly agreed and obliged.

Although totally out of his depth Carnera’s courage and heart won over the crowd that night, however with his title gone and of little use to his mob management team his fight career quickly went on a downward spiral, winning a few and losing many.

In an era of boxing when so many fighters were wheeled out into the prizefighting ring for the racketeers to make a fast buck, Carnera who came from humble poor beginnings, found fame in the circus but would ultimately become just another cog in the dirty and soiled machine of 1930’s underworld boxing.

In the end, he had very little to show as did many others for his time in the ring.

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