By Matthew Baker
In the small Italian town of Sequals, in 1906, Giovanna Carnera gave birth to a baby weighing a staggering 22 pounds. Because he was her first child, she named him Primo. Looking like an adult at age 12, he went on to become a carpenter’s apprentice before making a living in a traveling circus as a “strong man”. While performing in the side shows, young Primo learned to wrestle, not knowing that combative sports would come to define his life.
Fighting his first bout in Paris, at age 21, Carnera’s massive size soon caught the eye of American fight promoters. In little over a year, he was brought to the U.S., where he quickly fell into the wrong hands. The dark days of the Great Depression had thrust boxing into the claws of the mob and gangland boss Owney Madden was one of the most feared sharks of the ring. Madden made money off the Italian giant by convincing him he was unbeatable, using Carnera’s limited knowledge of English to his advantage. Once, when asked “What do you think of Hollywood?” Carnera replied, “I knock ‘im out in da second round.”
For the next four years, Carnera rose to the Heavyweight Championship of the World on a pile of fixed fights and cherry-picked challengers. In Chicago, he “knocked out” Elzear Rioux apparently without ever landing a clean punch. In Philadelphia, George Godfrey was disqualified in five for a foul nobody saw. In Miami, he outweighed Tommy Loughran by 84 pounds (still the all-time weight disparity record). By the time he beat Jack Sharkey for the title, the set-ups had become so blatant that some boxing writers even suspected honest fights of being dirty.
In 1934, an unprotected Carnera lost the championship to the clown prince of boxing, Max Baer. The mobsters who handled Carnera owned such large pieces of him that, while they raked in millions, he barely had over $300 to his name the day after he won the belt. Later, as he declined, he found himself alone and abandoned.
Down and out, Carnera returned to Italy, where he became an anti-Fascist partisan during World War II. Later, he embarked on a successful career as a champion wrestler and gained far greater respect and prominence in that field than he ever had in pugilism. He also performed in movies and was the inspiration for Budd Schulberg’s novel and subsequent film, The Harder They Fall, featuring Humphrey Bogart in his last role. During this time, he also became a U.S. citizen, which had been his lifelong dream. He enjoyed the status for 14 years before his death at age 60.