Standing 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighing in at 260lbs, Primo Carnera was an imposingly large man by any standards—but in his native Italy, he was a giant. Said to have weighed 22 lbs at birth, the Carnera family soon realized the potential of their broad-shouldered son—both as a laborer and a local attraction. In the early 20th century, rural Northern Italy was beset by deep poverty, and the Carnera family—little more than peasants—did their best to ensure that their son earned good money. By the age of 18, Primo had worked as a farm hand, and a circus strong-man. But those humble origins hardly left him well-equipped for the limelight—and they left him even less equipped to be the beneficiary of one of the most crooked title fights in heavyweight boxing history.
In 1947, a longtime boxing columnist published a slim novel about prizefight corruption entitled The Harder They Fall. The author, Budd Schulberg, was also a screenwriter and son of a movie magnate—making it the perfect material for a Hollywood adaptation. The story concerned a giant foreign heavyweight who is taken advantage of by hustling fight promoters and gangsters—unknowingly sent into fixed fights and having his profits quietly siphoned away by his greedy entourage. In truth, it was a thinly-veiled retreading of the Primo Carnera story. It was finally committed to film in 1956, with a starring role for Humphrey Bogart as one of the men who helps to con the young boxer.
So Primo Carnera, like his loosely fictionalized screen iteration, was surrounded by ne’er do wells and thieves—and likely with much less charm than Bogart. After arriving in the U.S. around 1930, he triumphed mainly by KO in 89 of 103 professional fights. But he had risen to the top through behind-the-scenes corruption—opponents were bribed, physically intimidated, ….View full article