- Primo Carnera: The Life and Career of the Heavyweight Boxing Champion
Joseph Page, though a non-historian, has produced a serviceable biography of Primo Carnera by contextualizing the boxer’s rise and fall within the era of Fascism, the Great Depression, the New Deal, the political symbolism of his match with Joe Louis, and the turmoil of World War II. The author disrupts the monotony of match-by-match summaries by interspersing biographical sketches of opponents, promoters, and the gangsters involved.
An entire chapter is devoted to the 1933 death of Ernie Schaaf shortly after his fight with Carnera. Another chapter focuses on Carnera’s dubious skills as a boxer and yet another on the reputedly fixed fights. In the process Page serves as an apologist for Carnera with reasoned arguments to support his opinions. He cites the medical reports that indicate Schaaf’s case of flu and meningitis as a cause of the brain swelling that caused his demise rather than any onslaught at the hands of Carnera. He reasons that Carnera’s rise to contender status, augmented by a string of twenty-four straight wins (twenty-three by knockout or technical knockout) against mediocre opponents compared well with the careers of other noted champions of the era. Only five of Gene Tunney’s first thirty-six opponents carried a winning record, and eleven had no wins at all when they met. Half of all his fights were against opponents with losing records. Likewise, only six of Jack Dempsey’s first twenty-two opponents had winning records.
Page exonerates Carnera in the matters of his suspensions by state boxing commissions for dubious or likely arranged outcomes, as well as his political activities in support of Fascism. He faults more critical assessments of such scholars as Jaffrey Sammons in Beyond the Ring and Lewis Erenberg in The Greatest Fight of Our Generation as overly negative, claiming the young, apolitical, and naïve Carnera was duped and manipulated by promoters, his managers, the Mussolini government, and the Nazis, an unsophisticated pawn in a series of larger struggles. Carnera is painted as guilty by association rather than compliance.
The author’s opinions, however, too often rest upon selective quotations by the hyperbolic sports media of the era and his own assessments of fight films. While the helpful appendices provide detailed data relative to all of Carnera’s documented boxing matches, the bibliography is largely limited to newspaper accounts. Page’s narrative inadvertently draws attention to a globalized boxing network of fighters, managers, and promoters, but he fails to analyze such a development. The text is somewhat littered with repetitious material and errors, such as Tex Rickard referred to as Ricard and Ritter on the same page (p. 72).
Throughout the book the reader learns much about Carnera as a boxer; but less so of Carnera the man. A chapter on his early life is covered in two-and-a-half pages, his post-boxing career as a wrestler in four pages, and his career as an actor in three pages. He suffered an ill-fated early romance, a later fortuitous and happy marriage that produced two successful children, but not until page 214 does the reader learn that an advanced case [End Page 520] of cirrhosis of the liver claimed Carnera’s life. Perplexingly there is no mention of a drinking problem.
The book presents a quick and interesting read and an opinionated summary of the subject’s boxing career that serves as a counterpoint to most other assessments of Primo Carnera. A more complete story of the subject, however, remains to be written.