Primo Carnera: Old Satchel Feet

By Norman Marcus on December 9, 2013
Primo Carnera: Old Satchel Feet
Da Preem sued the authors and producers for defamation of character but lost in court.

New York gangster Owney Madden was always on the lookout for a new hook to pull in the suckers. He found it in Primo Carnera…

The man had many ring monikers throughout his boxing career. They all seemed to refer to his ponderous size and weight. In his prime he was 6’6” tall and weighed in at around 265 lbs. Most other heavyweights in the 1920s and1930s were around 6 feet and in the neighborhood of 200 lbs. Time Magazine called Carnera The Monster. The newspapers coined the alias Da Preem, The Ambling Alp, and finally Old Satchel Feet. The big man couldn’t move “too good” in the ring.

Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini liked the name The Ambling Alp the best. It referred to the big Italian mountains in Northern Italy. Mussolini would often regale his crowds with stories of Hannibal and his war elephants trying to cross those big protective mountains to attack ancient Rome. Somehow he would work the Carnera character into the speech. “Il Duce” was trying to recreate a new Roman Empire and the gladiator/boxer was his link to that past. Poor Primo, he was such a gentle giant of a man. He was used by Mussolini for propaganda purposes. Heavyweights Max Schmeling and Walter Neusel were also being hyped in Germany in a similar way.

Born in Sequals, a little town just north of Venice, Primo moved to Pordenone, France, when he was fourteen years old. He grew tall and thick in the next few years and found a job as a circus strongman at sixteen. By eighteen he had reached his full size and weight and began to box. There was a freak appeal that pulled in the crowds. New York gangster Owney Madden was always on the lookout for a new hook to pull in the suckers. He found it in Carnera. Madden was a boxing promoter and owner of the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. He quickly made his front man, Lou Soresi, Carnera’s manager and brought him to the States. Madden’s PR machine told the American press that Carnera did everything in a large way. For breakfast Da Preem would drink a quart of orange juice, two quarts of milk, nineteen pieces of toast, fourteen eggs, a loaf of bread and a half pound of ham. Madden began to soak every penny he could out of the Carnera. Room, board, clothes, boxing expenses—it all went on the big man’s tab.

Carnera had a record of fourteen and one when he finally met Young Stribling at Royal Albert Hall in London, England, on November 18, 1929. Carnera had a long jab that helped keep his opponents away from his glass jaw. He also threw a weak uppercut that was mainly ineffective. That night both fighters went down in the 3rd round. Carnera won the fight on a questionable foul to the groin by Stribling in the 4th round. Stribling had been beating the hell out of Carnera up to that point. According to the press, the fight was said to be a blatant fix. You will hear the word fix many times in this story.

On June 23, 1930, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Primo faced the George Godfrey, the “Black Shadow of Leiperville.” George was also big as Primo. He stood 6’3” and weighed in at 250 lbs. He was a good boxer who could give and take a punch. Godfey was also known on occasion to carry a fighter or throw a fight for the right money. For the first four rounds of a scheduled 10-rounder, the Black Shadow was in command, getting inside and attacking Carnera’s body. In the round 5, referee Tommy Reilly suddenly stopped the fight on an unseen foul by Godfrey. The fans yelled fix and booed but Godfrey’s trainer, Jack Blackburn, said not a word in protest. The Philadelphia police were hard-pressed to stop a riot in the ballpark, so enraged were the fans at the DQ of Godfrey.

Carnera then won two out of three from the following top contenders. He defeated Paulino Uzcudun on November 30, 1930 at Estadio Montjuic in Barcelona, Spain, by split decision after 10 rounds. He lost a 15-round decision to Jack Sharkey at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn on October 12, 1931. Carnera faced King Levinsky on November 19, 1931, at Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois. Primo won it on points in 10 rounds.

Carnera’s next big fight was against Ernie Schaaf on February 10, 1933 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. (The winner of was to meet the new heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey for the title.) Carnera stopped Schaaf in the 13th. Four days later Ernie was dead. Primo cried when he heard the news. He was so innocent and trusting, he thought it was his fault.

On June 29, 1933 at the Long Island Bowl in Long Island City, New York, Carnera had his rematch with Sharkey. Jack was again way ahead on points going into round 6, when he was suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. He wasn’t stopped by Primo but by the ghost of his friend, the dead Ernie Schaaf, standing in the ring, right in front of him! At least that’s what Sharkey later told the press. Carnera stepped in, connected with a weak right uppercut to Sharkey’s chin. Jack went down and out. Da Preem was now the new heavyweight champion of the world. Again, many called this bout a tanker. After all, a ghost, and a weak uppercut KO’d Jack Sharkey?

Champion Carnera was soon recalled to Italy by Mussolini for a publicity tour. He again faced Paulino Uzcudun in Rome on October 22, 1933 at the Piazza Sienna. Il Duce was ringside for the fight. Carnera won an unspectacular 15-round decision. Mussolini was not thrilled with the action inside the ring. The dictator would soon discover that the new champion could fight no better than his Italian Army.

Primo returned to the U.S. on March 1, 1934 to face the Philly Phantom, Tommy Loughran at the Madison Square Garden Stadium, in Miami, Florida. It was another suspicious 15-round decision for Primo. He had outboxed master boxer Tommy Loughran? Really?

Now on June 14, 1934 Carnera defended his title against the Livermore Larrupper, Max Baer, at the Madison Square Garden Bowl. Owney Madden tried but couldn’t fix the Baer fight. The referee was Arthur Donovan, who was not a great fan of Max. Baer knocked the champion down 11 times in this fight, finally ending it in the 11 h round with a looping overhand right to Carnera’s jaw. Primo didn’t know what hit him. The next morning the new champ visited Carnera in the hospital. Years later Baer claimed that he could have ended this fight in the first round if Donovan hadn’t kept deliberately getting in his way. It was a real slap at the referee. The third man in the ring is supposed to do his job but be invisible. The fans do not come to see the referee.

Carnera was then taken by his handlers down to South America to squeeze a bit more money out of the ex-champ. He fought a string of second-raters but Carnera’s name was still box office.

Finally, on June 6, 1935 he was offered a shot at the big time. Da Preem faced the young Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York. Primo went 6 of 15 rounds before being TKO’d by Joe in round 6. Carnera fought on through 1937 but, minus the mob, he lost as many as he won. Primo would have to look for another line of work. He left boxing after 103 fights, with a record of 89-14 with 72 KOs.

Carnera became a professional wrestler and finally got to keep some money for himself. Max Baer was even the referee for some of his matches! He also went to Hollywood and made some movies. A few of them won critical acclaim.

Max Baer died suddenly of a heart attack in 1959. Carnera was out of the country at the time and missed the funeral in Sacramento. It was the largest turnout for a funeral that the state capital had ever seen. The streets were lined with millionaires, ex-pugs and hobos. All these folks had been touched in some way by the man from Livermore, California. The pallbearers included Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey. When Primo finally arrived back in California, it was very late at night, but he drove straight from the airport to the cemetery. The gates were locked because of the hour. The huge man climbed the fence and found his way to Baer’s grave. He spent an hour there, paying his respects to his old friend.

Many writers and filmmakers told Primo’s story. “La Strada,” Federico Fellini’s film about a circus strongman in Europe; “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” a teleplay by Rod Serling, the story of a washed up fighter; and Budd Schulberg’s “The Harder They Fall,” a story about a huge powder puff of a man who was given a shot at the heavyweight title by a mobbed up promoter were just a few.

Carnera was a proud man and was hurt by these stories. He sued the authors and producers for slander and defamation of character but lost in court. After all, it was all true!

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  1. Jim Crue 06:55pm, 12/11/2013

    just for the record.. Pordenone is in northern Italy not France, not far from Venice. I have a friend who lives there and I’ve been there many times. Nice people, neat city.
    Thanks for another great article

  2. Eric 02:37pm, 12/10/2013

    Sharkey always said that his title fight loss to Carnera was on the level. The punch that allegedly took Sharkey out didn’t look like much and Carnera was certainly not a hard puncher but why would Sharkey as an old man still insist that Carnera hurt him. A lot of people don’t realize that Carnera injured his ankle early on during the Baer fight. Now imagine trying fight the murderous punching and being handicapped by an injured ankle. How important is mobility for a light punching heavyweight no matter how big against a wild hard punching Baer? Carnera will definitely never go down as a great fighter or even a great heavyweight but he didn’t do as badly as many think when you consider he was basically just a big strong guy thrown into a boxing ring with little or no training whatsoever. Carnera’s heart can never be questioned. Sharkey and Louis both stated that Carnera’s left jab was very underrated. Sharkey also couldn’t get over how strong Carnera was when they tied up in the clinches. Good to say Carnera did make a successful go at the “rasslin” biz later on. And maybe the scum that used Carnera got their payback down the road.

  3. Ted 07:14am, 12/10/2013

    Excellent and enjoyable read that pulled no punches—pun intended

  4. Ted 07:11am, 12/10/2013

    Don’t start Irish!

  5. NYIrish 04:48am, 12/10/2013

    My money is on the kangaroo via late round stoppage. It’s not on the level.
    A Klitschko and a kangaroo ? Oops. Just sayin’.

  6. nicolas 04:26am, 12/10/2013

    In mentioning George Godfrey, Carnera would go to England and lose to a black fighter by the name of Larry Gains, A Canadian who was British Empire Heavyweight champion, and early in his career had gone to Germany and ko’d a new prospect in the second round named Max Schmelling. I have always been of the opinion from what I know had there not been the color barrier at the time, Godfrey or Gains would have been heavyweight champions. Both held the colored heavyweight championship, with Godfrey being more successful at that, and Godfrey even was recognized for a brief time as world heavyweight champion by the IBU. Godfrey was known for throwing many fights, and I have to wonder if he did not throw one against jack Sharkey. Gains was on a big winning streak when Max was world champ, but was never given the opportunity to fight for that championship.

  7. Eric 02:46am, 12/10/2013

    I’d always felt that Carnera was the better fighter between the two “giant” heavyweight champs of yesteryear, Willard & Carnera. Nowadays Willard & Carnera would be slightly above average in size but back in the day both were truly a sight. Carnera did defeat some pretty good fighters even if the victories were “questionable.” And Carnera was always in fantastic shape, and for a big man had good stamina, not bad agility, and a decent jab, and he could take shots to the body all day long. I’d pick Carnera over Willard.

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