The Mountain and The Skyscraper

By The Fight Film Collector on February 2, 2016
The Mountain and The Skyscraper
The two heavyweights were more than willing to engage, trade punches and work in close.

The idea that weight differentials, let alone the laws of physics, become irrelevant between men heavier than 200 pounds is a flat earth mentality…

Primo Carnera vs. Ray Impelletiere
Madison Square Garden, NY
March 16, 1935

Size has always mattered in boxing. The weight class system has been a foundation of boxing’s success for over a century. Countless matches and the greatest fights in boxing history have taken place because the proportional size of the opponents were respective, ensuring the contest did not favor the bigger man, and the results were based on each fighter’s individual training, conditioning, skill and heart. The heavyweight division, once the crown jewel of sports, has become boxing’s problem child. During the last century, the heavyweights were only so big in size. The elite talent pool for the heavyweight class ranged over time between 190 and 230 pounds was rich and competitive. There even appeared a limit to how big or tall a fighter could be and still have the speed and agility that boxing requires. Or so it seemed. Thanks to advances in nutrition, training, conditioning and modern chemistry, big and tall athletes are thriving today as never before. In fact in the last decade, boxers near or over six and a half feet in height and weighing up to and beyond two hundred and fifty pounds are no longer the exception. They’ve become the rule. 

Today the concept of an “unlimited” heavyweight division is outdated. The idea that weight differentials, let alone the laws of physics, become irrelevant between men heavier than 200 pounds is a flat earth mentality. The height and weight spectrum of today’s heavyweights has stretched the division past the point of fairness and brought us into an era of mismatches. Smaller heavyweights are being wasted and the biggest heavyweights are not being challenged. Never in boxing history have the top ten ranked heavyweights been as collectively inexperienced as those now.

Decades ago, the few giant men of boxing were seen as anomalies.  There just weren’t enough of them to form their own division. Some were skilled and successful, but history remembers their defeats much more than their victories — Dempsey’s destruction of Jess Willard, Baer crushing Carnera, and Louis’s beatdown of Abe Simon. We love to watch David defeat Goliath. But in recalling these fights over and over for decades, fans have forgotten how rare it was/is that smaller men actually prevail against such odds. Mismatches are forgettable.

Not only were boxing giants few in number, they also rarely fought each other.  An exception was the Primo Carnera vs. Ray Impelletiere fight in 1935. Primo “Man Mountain” Carnera has been, little by little, gaining credibility with historians. Movies have been made about him and a documentary on his life is currently being produced. The 6’5” Italian, born in 1906, was a true giant boxer in his day when the average American was 5’7”. Primo was not a naturally large person. He suffered from Acromegaly, a disease that results in abnormal and disproportional growth, and the exaggerated size reduces mobility for most who suffer from the illness. Primo compensated for this handicap by building muscle and becoming an athlete. He began boxing professionally in 1928. At first he was not a good student of boxing, but his size made him a spectacle and a big draw. Controlled by organized crime, many of his wins were allegedly fixed, but as his career progressed, Primo improved. Climbing the ranks, even if artificially, Carnera learned on the job. In those fights where the mob had no influence, Primo would sometimes lose, but he was very tough fighter and hard to hurt. His defeats, rather than being setbacks, became master classes with the best heavyweights of the day. It’s impossible to know for certain which of Carnera’s fights were fixed during his championship years in the mid-1930s, but by that time he had become a more capable fighter than he’s been given credit for.

Ray “Skyscraper” Impelletiere was a New York based heavyweight who fought between 1931 and 1936. He was a natural 6’7” who, like Carnera, was distinguished for his size rather than his skill. He had a modest record, but one that included fights with top ranked Tommy Loughran and Bob Pastor. 

After losing the Heavyweight Championship to Max Baer in June 1934, Carnera came back at the end of the year to win three fights in two months. Primo was then scheduled to fight Impelletiere at Madison Square Garden on March 15, 1935. Carnera weighed 268 pounds and Impelletiere scaled at 258 pounds, weights that are comparable to the biggest heavyweights today. The fight between these giants began competitively, but by the third round Carnera’s “well planned” (Daily Journal-World) strategy began to work. For the next six rounds Carnera threw everything at Impelletiere as the two fought, mauled and dragged each other around the ring. By the ninth round only Impelletiere’s Chuck Wepner-sized heart kept him on his feet. Referee Jack Dempsey finally stopped the contest in the 9th round awarding Carnera a TKO victory. The fight wasn’t technical or pretty by any standard, but they delivered plenty of action and drama for a contest between two big men. If there’s any comparison between this fight and the fights we see today between the heavyweights, it’s that Carnera and Impelletiere were more than willing to engage, trade punches and work in close. A contrast to today’s heavies who often box exclusively, and cautiously, from the outside. 

The fight was big enough to be shown in the theaters. A surviving, but poor copy of the film has been circulating among collectors for years. The version I show here is an upgrade. The dubbed commentary is distracting, but I included it anyway for reference, and sharpened the picture as well.

I believe there’s some renewed hope for the current heavyweight division. Shakeups are good for boxing. The Championship has just changed hands for the first time in a decade, and several new contenders appear title worthy. The ex-champion himself may yet come back. There’s no shortage of colorful personalities. But for any genuine return to glory for the heavyweights, the best big men will have to start fighting each other.

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Primo "Man Mountain" Carnera vs. Ray "Skyscarper" Impelletiere March 16, 1935

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  1. nicolas 12:08pm, 02/08/2016

    ERIC: Just read your last comment today, and how right you are on many counts. First about Spinks’ victory over Mercado, and yes perhaps he was rushed too quickly, but then I would wonder if he would have ever been heavyweight champion. Also when I saw the Max Baer win over Schelling, definitely he fouled Schmeling a lot. Though he was also probably lucky he got the German at that time, as he was on the down side. This of course was before his win over Hamas in the second fight, and of course the big upset he would pull over Louis.

  2. Eric 05:23pm, 02/03/2016

    Nicolas…I think the movie, “The Harder They Fall,” isn’t a fair assessment of Carnera. Primo wasn’t that good, but neither was he near as bad as portrayed in that movie. I think the movie was good, but the boxing scenes were ridiculous. Jack Sharkey went to his grave saying that the knockout loss to Carnera was on the level and that Carnera’s jab had some pop to it. Da Preem’s courage can never be questioned, although hopelessly overmatched against Louis, the big guy went out on his shield instead of quitting like Max Baer. Baer should have been disqualified in his match with Schmeling. Max hit Schmeling with backhand punches, rabbit punches, held and hit the German and was never once warned about it. I think Leon was brought along way too fast and could have been much better if he was managed properly. Spinks was fighting a seasoned pro like Scott Ledoux in his 5th or 6th professional fight and still managed a draw. I think Spinks best year was 1980. Spinks knocked out Evangelista and kayoed the number one contender Bernardo Mercado. I think the Mercado fight was Spinks best performance next to his upset against Ali. Mercado was a big, powerful heavyweight, much larger than Spinks. This was the same Mercado who just few months earlier had taken Earnie Shavers best shots before stopping Earnie in an entertaining fight. Spinks could have been much better if he had been brought along slower, trained a little harder and lived a little bit cleaner lifestyle.

  3. nicolas 03:59pm, 02/03/2016

    ERIC: The first person to suggest that Carnera was not as bad as many suggested was Jack Fiske of the San Francisco Chronicle. He compared him to Leon Spinks and suggested that Carnera would have beaten Spinks. Also remember that Michael Spinks was also under 200 pounds against Holmes in the first fight, though he was a little heavier than his brother Leon. remember also that styles make fights, and that is perhaps somewhat why you are not impressed with Carnera here, remember also this guy was taller than Carnera, and it was after his loss to Baer, who knows how much that took out of him. As far as critics being kinder to him, perhaps the movie THE HARDER THEY FALL, had something to do with Carnera’s reputation, he and Marvin Hart are heavyweight champions who are not in the hall of fame, of course along with Leon and Michael Moorer. The movie was based on Carnera, and was perhaps, if people look at it has a true representation of Carnera, not very fair.

    Nice also to see an article, which does go against the common thread often that a great little man beats the big man. It was rare, yet of course Dempsey over Willard, Baer over Carnera is so often hyped. People forget that Carnera beat Tommy Loughrhan, and though the later may have been past his best years, it was still very lopsided. Certainly though pound for pound, Loughran was the better man.

  4. Jim Crue 12:10pm, 02/03/2016

    Probably both. He did not explain when he accepted the award. I’m sure he’s long dead.

  5. peter 12:05pm, 02/03/2016

    @ Jim Crue—I’m not exactly sure why the son would not have used his father’s name. Embarrassment? Anonymity?

  6. Jim Crue 10:16am, 02/03/2016

    I should have made it clear it was the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame

  7. Jim Crue 10:15am, 02/03/2016

    I attended the first induction ceremony for the Italian American Hall of Fame in Chicago in 1977. The family of Primo Carnera attended. If I remember correctly his elderly wife was there as well as his son who was an MD. His son did not use the Carrera last name for obvious reasons.
    Basilio, LaMotta, DeMarco and a long list of other attended. The only inductee that did not make it was Graziano. Jake said Rocky did not like to leave NYC.

  8. Eric 08:01am, 02/03/2016

    Oops. Forgot about Jimmy Ellis, but everyone knew Frazier was the real champ.

  9. Eric 08:00am, 02/03/2016

    Carnera actually looked better in his loss to Louis than he does here beating Impelletiere. The clip of the Louis fight looks like it might have been sped up a tad bit, so I’m sure that helps both fighters appear better. Carnera did have heart, he lasted until the 11th round with Baer despite a bad wheel, Carnera had hurt his ankle early on. There has only been one legitimate heavyweight champ that weighed under 200lbs since 1964, and that was Leon Spinks, (Roy Jones beating Ruiz doesn’t count), and Spinks was nearly 200lbs, weighing 197lbs for his first fight with Ali. Last “small” champ was Holyfield and Evander roughly weighed about 210lbs in his prime. I think it is safe to say that there will never be another heavyweight champ under the 220lb mark again. In all reality a fighter weighing 200-220lbs in 2016 is a cruiserweight. A 200lb fighter is no longer a heavyweight just as a 220lber is no longer capable of playing middle linebacker in the NFL, or a 6’10” guy would be hard pressed to play center in the NBA.

  10. Eric 08:51pm, 02/02/2016

    It is strange how many boxing experts are now saying that Carnera wasn’t as bad as they said back then. Looking at the video provided, I have to say that Carnera was every bit as bad as they described him. He was always in shape, I’ll give him that much, good stamina for a man that size, but not much of anything else. Hard to believe that on this site, Carnera was included in the top 100 heavyweights of all time while Tommy Morrison didn’t make the cut!?

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