Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa

By Pete Ehrmann on December 24, 2015
Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa
When Santa fought Primo Carnera it was derided as a match for the “Freak Championship.”

“The people are intrigued by his mammoth proportions and they flock to gaze at his huge shoulders, his mastadonic feet, his huge hands…”

This Santa arrived on Christmas Day, but not in a reindeer-guided sleigh. Born December 25, 1902 in Oval, Portugal, Jose Santa grew up to measure almost 6 feet 9 inches from north to south pole, and in the early 1930s was one of the “dreadnaughts” that captivated boxing fans until it became dreadfully clear that, as Bob Fitzsimmons first declared, the bigger they are the harder they fall.

If I’m not mistaken, Fitz said that apropos of Ed “The Human Freight Car” Dunkhorst, whom he felled like a sequoia tree. In ’31 Max Baer said and did the exact same thing about and to Senor Santa. But he also called the Portuguese giant “the gamest man in the world” with a “heart as big as a house,” though it might have been out of relief at not having killed him.

Accounts differ about how Santa’s pursuit of ring glory began. One is that the son of a fisherman chose boxing after winning a marathon pier-six brawl on the docks. Another goes that Santa accepted a challenge from a carnival champion and knocked him out. Both reek of fumes from a press agent’s overheated keyboard, and my money is on the simpler version that he was snared in a dragnet for imposing hulks cast by veteran manager Bertys Perry, who discovered but then let Paulino Uzcudun slip through his fingers and convinced Santa there was more money in boxing than fishing.

From 1925-’30, Santa plied the heavyweight waters in Europe and Brazil, creating more of a ripple than a tsunami. He lost a 15-round decision to Pierre Charles for the European title in ’29, and by the time he came to America his greatest renown was from his role in the 1930 movie “Love in the Ring,” which preceded Santa here by a few months. The German-made melodrama starred then-heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, who stirringly conquered Santa — “a mountain of muscle … big enough to make almost two Schmelings,” said the New York Times review — in its championship finale.

Also preceding Santa to America was Primo Carnera, the 6’5½” Italian, whose January 24, 1930 New York debut against Big Boy Peterson drew 17,000-plus customers lured by Carnera’s alpine dimensions. “The people are intrigued by his mammoth proportions and they flock to gaze at his huge shoulders, his mastadonic feet, his huge hands,” wrote Ed Sullivan in The Ring magazine.

When Santa arrived six months later, declaring he had come to beat Carnera and “any really good fighters in America,” not even his greater height and size-10 purple hat (Carnera wore a mere 8½, Santa proudly pointed out) got him much attention in the wake of the deafening publicity tornado swirling around Primo.

It didn’t help that in a couple of his early U.S. bouts Santa had to climb off the deck to smite down nondescript opposition. When shopworn King Solomon, about 70 pounds lighter, lasted 10 rounds with him, Santa alibied that he couldn’t bring himself to knock Solomon out because he was old and had an invalid wife to support. What kind of fearsome giant talk was that?

Santa’s glaring shortcomings didn’t diminish his allure with the substantial population of Portuguese immigrants living in southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and that’s where Perry steered him.

“The outstanding move of matchmaker Sam Price during the autumn season,” wrote Fall River, Massachusetts correspondent Tom Brindly in the December 1930 issue of The Ring, “was the bringing of Jose Santa, giant Portuguese, to this city and its environs. The Portuguese heavyweight champion was idolized by his countrymen, being feted on all sides. His first fight was at Mark’s Stadium, Tiverton (Rhode Island), and for three days before the bout, which drew 12,000 people, and which ended in one minute and 14 seconds when he flattened Pedro Lopez … he was given receptions on all sides. At a soccer pitch, 15,000 fans watched him kick off the ball and nearly mobbed him. Police had to escort him from the field. At Bristol, he was greeted by 5,000 people at an impromptu reception, and at Taunton he broke up a clambake when he appeared.”

Santa’s Chicago Stadium clambake with Knute Hansen on February 4, 1931 broke up in the second round when the referee suspected funny business and ruled it No-Contest after Knute went down without being hit. A month later Salvatore Ruggirello kayoed the tallest heavyweight in captivity in two, and a month after that Perry and Santa relocated to Oakland, California to bask in the warmth of the extensive expatriate Portuguese community thereabouts. As on the opposite coast, Santa was endlessly feted at picnics and testimonial dinners, and his Portuguese fans packed the local auditorium to whoop when Santa dispatched two hoary canvasbacks in a total of three rounds.

The California commission demanded sterner opposition for Santa’s third Oakland outing, and veteran Hans Birkie outpointed him in 10 rounds, exposing the giant as, in the words of Birkie manager Ray Carlin, “a fair country fighter (who) cannot box a lick on earth.” Nevertheless, when 53-year-old Jack Johnson signed for a three-round exhibition bout with Santa, the commission nixed it on the ground that the giant might kill the former heavyweight champion with an unintentionally mighty blow. To which Oakland Tribune boxing writer Bob Shand snorted that Johnson “could probably stand on a dime and let Jose fire at him all evening without landing.”

His huge Portuguese following made Santa a goldmine for Oakland promoter Lou Parente. “The big fellow draws his countrymen out in hordes,” noted one article. “They come from miles around, like flies on an excursion to a pot of honey. Every time Santa appears on an Oakland fight card, the huge auditorium houses a near-capacity load.”

The other big local drawing card was Max Baer, from nearby Livermore. A record 9,000 fans turned out when he and Santa met on October 21, 1931, in what Shand called “as hectic a heavyweight fight as was ever witnessed in any ring.”

For a few rounds Santa gave Baer trouble with his mauling tactics, but in the tenth Max chopped him down. The finishing right hand put Jose out for almost 20 minutes, and Baer, who’d killed Frankie Campbell the year before, was almost hysterical with fear that he’d done it again. (Later in his dressing room, vain Max was equally upset to discover that Santa had given him a cauliflower ear.)

After that Santa both boxed and did some wrestling. Fellow giant Ray Impellittiere stopped him in nine rounds in ’32, and when Jose finally did get in the ring with Shorty Carnera at Madison Square Garden later that year what was derided as a match for the “Freak Championship” drew a disappointing 6,000 fans. Santa was knocked down twice and it was stopped in the sixth round.

By 1935 he was back in Portugal and out of boxing for good. How much of the money Perry had dangled like visions of sugarplums Santa ended up with, I don’t know. But at least he had the Queen of the Portuguese Fiesta. Marie Oliveira was crowned that at the big annual ethnic celebration in Alvarado, near Oakland, in ’32. Santa, the guest of honor, met her there; they were married the following September. The birth of their first child in mid-’35 made news in America because the blessed event made Marie’s mother back in Oakland a grandma at age 30. Alice Ennes, it was reported, had married Frank Oliveira when she was 11 years old, and gave birth to Marie at 12. Marie, it turned out, was only 14 herself when she and Portugal’s nearly 30-year-old Man Mountain were hitched.

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Max Schmeling vs. Jose Santa (1930)

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  1. peter 06:38pm, 12/27/2015

    Interesting article and video. I never heard of Santa, and I don’t know why. His ring record is full of well-known fighters…He towered over Schmeling!

  2. Clarence George 04:42am, 12/26/2015

    Perfect title, by the way, which I neglected to mention in my initial post.

  3. Pete 08:13am, 12/25/2015

    Many thanks, Clarence and Bob, and best wishes to you and all our compadres today, for the new year and always.

  4. Bob 05:57am, 12/25/2015

    Another good one, Pete. Had always heard Santa’s story, but didn’t know the back story. Merry Christmas.

  5. Clarence George 03:00am, 12/25/2015

    Nice work, Pete, on the utterly forgotten Jose Santa.  I had known nothing about him, except that he once fought the even taller Victorio Campolo, which, given the era, must have been considered a real freak show.

    His fighting in Fall River had to have been the biggest thing to happen in that town since the death of Lizzie Borden in 1927.

    Merry Christmas, me auld warrior!

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