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We talked in our first episode on the Irish mob about Owney Madden getting into promoting and managing and gambling on professional boxing. Like professional criminal activities, for young Irish and Italian guys, professional boxing was a manly way out of their crushing poverty. Many people during this time observed that Madden became a different person at a boxing match. He would jump up and scream advice, shadow box and generally become just like any other crazed fan at any athletic match. We talked in our first episode on the Irish mob about Owney Madden getting into promoting and managing and gambling on professional boxing. Many people during this time observed that Madden became a different person at a boxing match. He would jump up and scream advice, shadow box and generally become just like any other crazed fan at any athletic match.
Owney Madden purchased the contract of a boxer named Primo Carnera. He was born in 1906 in Venice Italy, he weighed 15 to 20 lbs at birth. The Carnera family soon realized the potential of their broad-shouldered son. The Carnera family were poor peasants and they did their best to ensure that their son earned good money. As a teenager, Primo had moved to France and got a job as a strongman in a circus. He went into professional boxing and fought many fights in Europe. From his earliest matches, many were rumored to be fixed fights. Primo was a simple gentle young man who was easily manipulated by his handlers. He was ill-equipped for the limelight of the boxing world. He grew to be 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighing in at 275 lbs, an imposingly large man by any standards. He became a celebrity in Europe and in 1929 he came to the US on a well-publicized series of fights against American boxers. Primo was an instant media attraction. He was like the Andre the Giant of boxing. His language struggles caused him to be unintentionally funny and he was once asked how old he was and he replied with his weight, 275.
During the 1920s and 1930s New York gangster Owney Madden financed several Hells Kitchen amateur boxing clubs and was credited with keeping many young men out of problems with the law. He bought out Carnera’s contract and started setting up fights. He and his partner in crime, Frenchy LeMange became corner men at Carnera’s fights and could be seen giving fight advice during the breaks in the rounds. Carnera was the unwitting participant in a series of fixed fights. This corruption in professional boxing was continually investigated by the New York State Boxing commission. But during this time, a lot of control over the fight game was given to gamblers like Owney Madden. After Carnera arrived in the U.S., he triumphed by KO in 89 of 103 professional fights. Madden and his gang bribed, physically intimidated, or used other dirty tricks to ensure that Carnera won each fight. They had to because Primo Carnera had a glass jaw, he could be knocked out by even the lightest tap to the chin. In his defense, Carnera’s size became his key defensive trait. It never made him a popular fighter and he always drew crowds—even when it seemed obvious that his fights were fixed. he had the reputation of a dumb oaf and the newspapers nicknamed him the ‘Ambling Alp’ for the way he staggered around the ring.
An interesting note, Primo Carnera’s story has been told a few times in the movies. His early life as a circus strongman was told by the famous Italian Director Frederico Fellinni in La Strada, released in 1954. In 1947, Bud Schulberg, a boxing columnist and Hollywood screenwriter published a slim novel about prizefight corruption entitled The Harder They Fall. This was loosely based on the career of Primo Carnera. He wrote the screenplay by the same title and it depicted a giant immigrant who spoke broken English who is taken advantage of by hustling fight promoters and gangsters. In the plot the gangsters sent him, unknowingly, to fight with the fix in and then siphoned off most of his money. The mob was able to make large bets on when they knew the fix was in. The film, The Harder They Fall , was released in 1956, with a starring role for Humphrey Bogart as one of the men who helps to con the young boxer.
Another connection to Hollywood was that one member of this Owney Madden team was a movie star named George Raft. In 1932, the NYC native was given a breakout role in Howard Hawks’ classic Scarface: Shame of a Nation. He plays the big-time gangster’s right-hand man—a role, it turns out, that Raft was well accustomed to in real life. Around the time of Primo Carnera’s rise, Raft had one foot in Hollywood and one foot firmly back in the New York underworld where he’d been raised. His lifelong friend—Owney Madden—was a murdering, bootlegging Hell’s Kitchen gang leader with a tight grasp on the city’s illegal rackets. This included prizefighting—and Raft, who had once dabbled in boxing (he lost 10 of his 21 fights by KO), was a natural choice to help out. He could slip into the Madison Square Garden dressing rooms relatively unnoticed, and later told the story of how he did so one night in 1930, prior to a Carnera bout.
As Raft’s biographer James Robert Parrish tells it, Carnera’s opponent that evening—’Big Boy’ Peterson, another oversized contender—refused to throw the fight. Owney Madden’s vested interest in his Italian fighter—not to mention all the money that had been wagered on his win—meant that this was a major problem for the criminals who handled Carnera. Raft was the perfect one to fix the problem; and so he slipped into Peterson’s dressing room, chatting and laughing. Somehow, he managed to spike the fighter’s drink. Peterson came into the ring so woozy that Carnera knocked him out in the first round. It was in this way that George Raft, the dapper onscreen tough-guy, helped Primo Carnera make a spectacular Madison Square Garden debut.By the time of this incident, Raft had done worse things than tamper with boxing matches. He’d grown up rough in the tenements of turn-of-the-century Hell’s Kitchen, running with a vicious street gang. He later said of his upbringing: ‘In my neighborhood, a boy without a knife was like Babe Ruth without a bat.
On 29 June 1933, Carnera’s shot at the title had come. His opponent was Jack Sharkey, a popular heavyweight champ who was the only fighter to ever face both Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Sharkey had faced Carnera before in 1931. Sharkey dominated that fight as Carnera wobbled like a mighty tree in a hurricane. In this title bout, a crowd of 40,000 gathered in Madison Square Garden. Primo Carnera had developed some boxing skill since he’d started his career, and had some awareness of how to use his size to his advantage. By the 6th round, Carnera’s reach seemed to be genuinely getting the better of Sharkey, opening him up to uppercuts from the Italian. Sharkey landed many right-hand blows throughout but in the end a clean uppercut from Carnera put the champ down. The “Ambling Alp”‘ became the heavyweight champion of the world. Sharkey always insisted that he had not “thrown” this fight and it had been a fair win for Carnera. His wife and many others doubted this claim that it had been a fair loss. If it was a fix, they say it was a convincing fix. In the fight footage, Carnera is filed lifting an one of his corner men off his feet like a rag doll in a celebratory embrace.
Carnera maintained his World Championship belt for just a year. He became a huge celebrity and his toothy grin had was seen on the cover of TIME magazine. He played himself in a Hollywood film, The Prizefighter and the Lady. Carnera continued to struggle with money, probably due to his crooked managers, and he was forced into bankruptcy. the next year, Max Baer challenged Carnera for the title. Baer was a popular crowd-pleaser himself, making for an exciting title fight. Max baer proved more than a match for the champ, by the end of the first round, he had already crumpled the big fighter against the ropes. He pummeled Carnera for 9 more rounds before the fight was stopped and Baer won by TKO. He knocked Carnera down to the canvas at least 10 times. After this loss, Carnera’s career took a downward path. Owney Madden had troubles of his own with rival mobsters and the immigration and naturalization services. He left for Hot Springs that year and he dropped Carnera. Madden said he was sick of defending him against reporter’s claims of crookedness. But in fact, immigration and naturalization was looking at Carnera and Madden wanted to stay away from them because he was not an American citizen.
Carnera lost several more fights over the next 4 years years. In 1938, at age 32, he returned to Italy with kidney problems and diabetes and next no money. He was given parts in several Italian films until the war came along. In the 1950s, he made a comeback and actually made money and had a successful career as a professional wrestler. The 1962 movie Requiem for a Heavyweight starring Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney told the story of a wrestling giant who was once a champion boxer and was later exploited by an unscrupulous manager.
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