Primo Carnera was a former boxing heavyweight champion of the world turned pro-wrestler.
In his crossover, Carnera proved that his worth was in the numbers…or gate receipts. He
was a consistant earner for promoters all over the country and his size and overbearing
precence may have played a big part. Primo was 6’6’’ and weighed in at more than 250
pounds. At times, his abilities allowed him to dominate both boxing and wrestling at certain
times. After World War II and during a time of wrestling turmoil, Carnera was one of a
handful of “larger then life” wrestlers who took the country by storm. The Italian’s mammoth
size and agility captured audience’s attention quick and the word spread. Fans paid money
to see him, larges amounts in certain regions. In his travels, Carnera took regional titles and
later claimed the World Wrestling Title. Through the man’s career, Primo was often on top
of the card and on top of the sport he ventured into. Whether it was with gloves or
Carnera began boxing in France in 1928. Carnera made his American boxing debut in New
York at Madison Square Garden in front of 17,896 with a gate of $61,141 on January 24,
1930. Carnera knocked out Big Boy Peterson in the first round. He weighed 269 and a half
pounds. Many were divided over his most anticipated first U.S. bout. Carnera was
immediately billed for matches all over the country. From St. Louis to Los Angeles. From
Newark to Chicago. He fought later that month on January 31st in Chicago against Bzear
Rioux. Carnera scored a 47-second knockout with six knockdowns. 17,349 paid $59,625 to
attend the Chicago Stadium event. The crowd was upset at the outcome, tossing
newspapers and programs into the ring to express their disapproval.
Frederick Gardner, a member of the Illinois State Boxing Commission announced
immediately that they were holding up both purses until an investigation was held. Rioux did
not land a single punch in the match, nor did he throw one. Carnera’s opponent was solely
on the defensive. The Illinois decision was going to impact the Italian’s life. If the
commission suspended him from fighting in their state, Missouri was going to cancel the
February 11th bout in St. Louis. Talk spawned about a Carnera-George Godfrey bout in
New York for February 13th, but due to Godfrey’s suspension in Pennsylvania, the bout
wasn’t going to immediately take place. New York and Pennsylvania were on a working
Even bigger than that attainable goal was the disclosure of the possibility for a match
between Carnera and the former World champion, Jack Dempsey. Detroit, Chicago and
New York promoters promptly scrambled at the data, all bidding for the meet. His twelfth
knockout came on March 21, 1930 in Jacksonville, Florida. It was a first round victory over
Frank Zavita of Newark. Talk began of Carnera’s Denver debut on March 28th at
Stockyards Stadium. Jack Dempsey offered Carnera $50,000 to meet George Godfrey on
April 12, 1930 in Chicago. Also, Carnera would receive a percentage of the gate from an
outdoor bout in Chicago during the summer. The Godfrey-Carnera bout never did happen.
Carnera fought Monday, April 14th against Leon Chevalier in Oakland. The match brought
the California State Athletic Commission out, and the body did not hesitate to formally
question the participants of the controversial match. Rumors of possible repercussions.
The investigation found that Chevalier claimed that between rounds, an irritant had been
rubbed into his eyes and prevented sight. Also attempts had been made to reduce his
breathing. Chevalier’s second, Bob Perry, who had thrown in the towel to end the contest,
had threatened to kill him if he didn’t go down in defeat to Carnera. Also that a larger purse
would be given to him if he did lose.
During the match, the Commission was told that a California Representative of Primo was
sighted in Chevalier’s corner, speaking to one his managers. Charles F. Traung, a member
of the Commission, ruled on April 18th from Frisco, that he would recommend that Carnera’s
license be revoked as well as Leon See, Bill Duffy and Walter Friedman, all members of
Carnera’s managerial crew. Also that the state ban him from boxing forever within it’s
territory. Members of Chevalier’s staff would also be suspended indefinitely, including
Perry. The verdict came back on the 22nd of April. Carnera was formally barred from
California. His held-up purse of $13,239, was returned to him. Chevalier was not liable.
The New York State Commission was going to further review the situation out of California
before deciding whether it too was going to ban him from fighting within the confines of the
Primo was 15-0 at this time, all knockout wins, in America. The night of the decision,
Carnera was in Portland to fight Sam Baker. On April 30th, he was barred from boxing in the
state of New York, the sight of his first U.S. match and his biggest draws. Primo was the
central focus of the 1930 National Boxing Association Eleventh Annual Convention in
Omaha. The meeting began on September 15, 1930. Carnera was managed by Bill Duffy.
Things were going to get even more controversial.
Ernie Schaaf died after a match with Carnera on February 10, 1933. Promoters scheduled
him in a title match versus Jack Sharkey for the World Championship. He knocked Sharkey
out during the summer of ’33 on June 29th. He was the heavyweight champion of
professional boxing. Carnera, in February 1934, was in Miami preparing for a scheduled
World Title defense against Tommy Loughran. Although the title was on the line, the Florida
State Commission refused to recognize such. A law was on the books preventing
championship prize fights in the state for forty years, since Jim Corbett knocked Charley
Mitchell out in Jacksonville. Rain prevented the boxers to train as they had prepared
themselves to, and a situation over an assigned referee also drew in some controversy.
As the days drew closer to the match, only three referees were in good relationships with the
Miami Boxing Commission. The managers of both boxers were going to meet with the
committee and decide on a referee. Carnera was 26 years of age at the time of the bout
and Loughran was 31. The champ outweighed his opponent by 86 pounds and the
difference effected the outcome. Carnera defeated Loughran in 15-rounds, gaining the
unanimous decision of three officials on March 1, 1934 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl
in Miami. 8,624 fans witnessed the match, quite a difference from the 50,000 predicted. But
rain kept some of those fans away from the outdoor arena. The receipts marked the lowest
point in boxing heavyweight championship fighting since 1897.
After the bout, Max Baer had comments for the champion, disgusted with his tactics against
a man much smaller then he was. He also said that he lost all respect for Carnera. Baer’s
statements seemed to lead no where but to a challenge against the champion. And the
match was set. June 14, 1934 at the Madison Square Garden Long Island Bowl in New
York. Carnera vs. Baer for the World Championship. Primo lost the title in the 11th round.
In the middle months of 1935, Carnera was preparing for his match with Joe Louis on June
27th. He told reporters that he planned to jab his way to the winner’s circle. He married in
1939 at Glorizia, Italy.
One report stated that during World War II, Carnera was robbed of $40,000 as a gang held
his family against a wall and threatened them. Also, that he lost 45 pounds. Carnera
served Italy during the war and survived. Upon return to the private world, Carnera
continued to make waves. He tossed the gloves aside and began to wrestle. Carnera
traveled to the United States in 1947, ready to lace up the boots and take his brand of
wrestling to the mat. He appeared in Denver on Monday, October 27, 1947 for the first time
as a wrestler and tossed Chris Zaharias before 4,000 spectators. He beat Roland Meeker in
two-straight falls at Colorado Springs two nights later.
Carnera was billed as a claimant to the World Wrestling Heavyweight Title by the Colorado
Springs Gazette on March 17, 1949 in a preview for his match against Joe Millich. In
another preview, Carnera was said to have already toured the country once and this being
his second without a single loss and that he was turned onto the sport by Joe “Toots”
Mondt. Carnera faced Millich on March 23, 1949 in Colorado Springs’ City Auditorium.
Millich was Promoter Abe Marylander’s and the region’s representative, being the Rocky
Mountain Champion, to face the incoming Carnera. He beat Millich with the second and
third falls. Carnera did not win the regional title.
Two days earlier, Carnera had been in Denver to beat Sing Sing Talun with the final two-
falls after conceding the initial. 4,000 fans in Denver watched Carnera defeat the Swedish
Angel at Mammoth Garden on January 2, 1950 by disqualification in the third fall. The Angel
had won the first in 6:50, but Primo rebounded to capture the second in 5:03. He traveled to
Omaha for a January 9th card and an important match against Ernie Dusek. Carnera was
defending both his Omaha Regional Title and his Italian Crown against the local favorite at
the City Auditorium. 3,126 fans came out to watch referee Pat McGill disqualify Carnera
after the bout had been tied 1-1, and give Dusek both championships.
In early 1950, he wrestled legendary champion, Jim Londos in Chicago. The match was a
huge spectacule. Carnera met Gene “Mr. America” Stanlee on May 15, 1950 at New York’s
Madison Square Garden in a bout in which the winner was to meet Antonino Rocca later on
in the season. Carnera battled Stanlee to a draw in the semi-final under Rocca’s main even
win over Leslie Carlton. The event also marked the death of the promoter of the card,
William F. Johnston, who died the night earlier. With Mike DiBiase as his partner on October
23, 1950 at the City Auditorium in Omaha, he lost to Emil and Ernie Dusek. Carnera had the
second fall victory over Emil and DiBiase was beaten twice. With a second former boxing
heavyweight champion in the ring, Carnera was matched up against Joe Stalin on April 23,
1951 in Denver. Max Baer was enlisted as the special referee for the contest. Carnera won
the first, but lost the second to Stalin. When the Russian refused to release a strangle hold,
Baer stepped up and was swung upon. Baer punched Stalin, and Carnera was awarded the
Carnera retired in 1960 to the West Coast. He had 86 boxing wins with 66 by knockout and
captured the heavyweight boxing championship. He successfully entered the wrestling ring
and was often said to have had a one-hundred fifty-plus match winning streak. He was a hot
commodity and promoters were always looking to sign the big man.
Although he never captured one of the major World Heavyweight Wrestling Titles, his
achievements stack up against the top men of the era.
Other Notes and History:
Carnera was reportedly discovered by Frenchman Leon See as a circus strongman.
When Carnera was a boxer, one of his "managers" was Bill Duffy, who reportedly split his
earnings with reputed mobster Owney Madden. He began to amass a winning record in the
ring, but little did many people know that many of the "losers" in those fights had been
motivated by the mob or pressured to go down to Carnera in short time. He was pushed all
the way into heavyweight title contention. His massive size and quick victories gave him
credibility, but he was not a champion caliber fighter.
The Los Angeles Times reported on June 27, 1935 that Los Angeles promoter Lou Daro
had wired Primo Carnera a $10,000 offer to wrestle Man Mountain Dean in July or August. It
was said that Carnera was a circus wrestler before becoming a pro boxer.
The United Press reported (11/23/43, Omaha World Herald) that Carnera had been taken
prisoner in Northern Italy and faced a summary execution by axis officials. He was said to
have been shot in the leg while fighting German patrols near Cremona and was considered
to be a traitor. The Omaha newspaper remembered Carnera's July 17, 1930 bout against
Ed "Bearcat" Wright, which drew the second largest boxing gate in city history, nearing
$14,000. Carnera won that bout in the fourth round by knockout.
The Montreal Gazette (5/7/45) stated that Carnera claimed to only have one kidney. He was
said to be the wrestling champion of Italy. The article was written by the AP with the British
8th Army at Sequals, Italy.
The Associated Press (11/4/45, New York Times) reported that Carnera applied for a
wrestling permit to meet heavyweight Luigi Musina in Milan on November 20 or 21. His
application went to the Italian Boxing Federation. The IBF wanted Carnera to undergo an
examination to determine his health. Carnera had "recently turned to wrestling." However,
things didn't go as he planned. The Italian Boxing Federation, on November 7, announced
that Primo was barred from wrestling, stating that such a performance would be a "disgrace"
to the world boxing championship he once held.
Carnera arrived in New York City by plane on July 29, 1946 from Italy, and the United Press
reported that he wanted to become a citizen. He was going to begin a wrestling tour for six-
months under the management of Harold Harris of Los Angeles. The UP stated that he
"currently claims the heavyweight wrestling championship of his native land."
On August 16, 1946, Primo Carnera was issued a license to wrestle in California. Carnera
was managed locally by Floyd Musgrave. Musgave was fined $500 for billing Carnera as a
wrestling attraction before Primo even had a license to appear.
Harry Grayson, the NEA Sports Editor, wrote a column about Carnera on November 10,
1946, stating that if the wrestling moguls could decide on a single champion, Carnera might
become the first man to hold both the wrestling and boxing titles. He wrote that the
"clowning crown is variously claimed by Frank Sexton, Babe Sharkey, Dave Levin, Joe
Savoldi, Dean Detton, Jim Londos, and Ali Baba." Carnera admitted doing some wrestling
when he was younger, saying, basically, "I did a little wrestling in my kid days and like it,
always preferred it to boxing, as a matter of fact."
Grayson stated that Carnera was "a vastly better boxer than a lot of people imagine." He
learned English "quicker than any foreigner I ever knew," and quoted Carnera as saying
"I've got all my marbles."
Carnera noted that "I wish I knew then what I know now," regarding the "American Sucker
Tours" that took place en route to the boxing championship. He added, "Things would have
been different. But I was only a big sap kid in a strange land." He also told Grayson that he
wasn't broke. He was making $2,000 a week "and I can keep it," Carnera claimed. That is a
debatable fact seeing that Babe McCoy and "Toots" Mondt had their hands in his pockets.
Sec Taylor of the Des Moines Register devoted a column to Carnera on Monday, February
2, 1948. He'd met with Carnera for an interview. Carnera appeared on the Truth of
Consequences radio show in Hollywood, then flew with "Toots" Mondt to Des Moines to
wrestle "tonight" against Joe Dusek. Taylor noted that Carnera was a different person from
the guy he had seen back in 1934 when the latter was a boxer. Carnera was "happy, almost
to the point of gaiety." Carnera reportedly had bought a home in California with his wife and
two children and was about to become a citizen of the U.S. Mondt was at their meeting, as
well as E. Romano of Carnera's hometown in Italy, Sequals.
Carnera explained: "It is not true that I got no money from my boxing. They gave me
enough to get by on, amounts that seemed large to an Italian who'd never had anything and
who had lived where the standards of living for poor people were very low. So I had some
money when the war came along, owned my home, had an American automobile, a Lincoln,
and a lot of clothes. I guess I had something like 125 suits, all made to order of course, and
nearly as many pairs of shoes. I was robbed of everything except my home, in 1942, and I'm
always going to keep that even if I do live over here. We Italians are sentimental and that
home is the first thing I ever really owned.
"I was gon gto buy some property in Sequals and one day drew my money from the bank -
1,600,000 lira it was, almost $50,000 in American money. That night about 2 o'clock
someone rapped at the gate and told me to come down. I refused but they yelled back that
I'd better. I opened the gate and there were four hoodlums with machine guns. I can't say
whether they were Germans, Italians, or what, for they spoke several languages. First they
insisted on having some food, but we had nothing but a few dry pieces of bread. They
seemed to think there was more food somewhere and ordered me to bring my wife down.
Later they insisted that I wake the children up and bring them down
"Then they lined us up against the wall and demanded my money. Someone had tipped
them off that I'd taken it from the bank. I'm a big target, no one could miss me with a gun,
and those machine guns caused me to hand the money over to them. Eight days later, they
came back and took my car, and still later, they returned and carried off my wardrobe. In
the end, they had everything but the house, my wife, and two kids. I'd have been set for life
in Italy if it hadn't been for the war. Later the Germans took me and made a slave labrorer
out of me. They paid me 15 cents a day for 10 hours' work."
Carnera admitted that, "I was a wrestler and weightlifter before I ever fought. This wrestling I
Bobby Bruns, who was helping with the booking in Honolulu for Al Karasick, wrote a letter to
Sam Muchnick on November 5, 1952, and said that Carnera was "here for 3 Sundays, but is
a disappointment, inside, as well as outside of the ring and is only drawing fair houses, even
with the greatest support. For the percentage he receives and the extra man he includes
with him, it is a losing proposition along with two round-trip fares."
The New York State Athletic Commission, on February 3, 1953, announced its indefinite
suspension of Carnera, effective January 30, for "acts detrimental to the best interest of
During the latter months of 1954, Ted Thye had an offer from his associate promoter in
India to have Carnera come over for an eight-week tour. Primo's pay was going to be $500
weekly, but other benefits, and, as described by Thye in a letter to Muchnick dated
December 3, 1954, Carnera initially asked for more money. Shortly thereafter, Carnera's
manager Hardy Kruskamp called him telling him "that they were not interested in my peanut
offers and for me not annoy his man." Kruskamp told Thye that "they feared being censured
by the Alliance should they work for me."
Carnera missed a wrestling date in Spokane on April 12, 1956 and Tex Hager told the press
that he had sent Primo plane fare to Los Angeles, and didn't know why he failed to show.
Hager was forced to offer fans their money back and 40 took it. Louis August of the local
commission wanted Carnera suspended in both Washington and California until he was able
to appear locally.
Robert Daley wrote a piece on Primo that was featured in the March 8, 1960 edition of the
New York Times from Nice, France. He talked about a recent show at the Palace of Sports
in Paris in which 6,000 saw Carnera wrestle with another 1,500 outside the venue. Daley
wrote: "When he was boxing many years ago, Carnera was considered the dupe of
gangsters who fixed most of his fights and maneuvered him into the title. He always
maintained he knew nothing of this. Then he was fed to Max Baer and Joe Louis, who tore
him to pieces. He returned penniless to Italy."
But now Carnera was worth $250,000 as a wrestling hero. Daley described his battle in
Paris with a masked "bad guy," and how he came out the victor. He noted that Primo was
"no longer the peasant he was when he boxed in America. He sips cognac with his coffee
and answers questions in a big, gruff voice in Italian, French, English, and Spanish."
There was mention that Carnera was going to write his autobiography.
Carnera died in his birthplace, Sequals, Italy, on June 29, 1967 at 60 years of age. He had
been suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. According to his New York Times obituary
(6/30/67), Carnera's boxing career was evidence why the fight business had become known
as the "rackets." The paper stated: "Rarely has anyone been victimized as thoroughly by
criminal elements in this field as he was." It stated that "Carnera was never a very good
fighter." Instead, he had large fists and had an ability to withstand punishment - added the
fact that he had manipulators behind-the-scenes pushing him, he rose through the ranks to
the boxing championship.
He reportedly deserted from the French Army during World War II - he had been a citizen of
France at that time - and returned to his homeland in Northern Italy where he worked as an
inspector of local civilian labor for the Nazis. He once said that the Germans "paid us 15
cents a day, and you had to sign a receipt for it, too."
Carnera became a U.S. citizen in 1953. He was buried in Italy.
Research by Tim Hornbaker
|Primo Carnera Boxing & Wrestling History
Legends of Pro Wrestling