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Primo Carnera: the Italian HW Champ

Two women tell world champ's rags-to-riches tale.

Italy's only world heavyweight boxing champ, giant 1930s slugger Primo Carnera, has been feted in a new documentary.

The film - part of celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Carnera's birth - will be presented by directors Daniela Vigoriti and Flaminia Cardini in Carnera's northeastern Italian home town this weekend.

"We wanted to set the record straight about a figure who was once regarded as a figure of fun," they said in presenting the work, Me, Primo Carnera.

The documentary on Carnera (1906-'67) uses newsreel footage as well as fragments of his brief film strongman career - including The King of Africa and Casanova's Great Night - and features a montage of contemporary press headlines both eulogising and vilifying the big man.

It also incorporates newsreels about the Great War and mass emigration from Italy in the early 1900s.

Top sports journalist Emanuela Audisio and Carnera's daughter Giovanna Maria worked on the documentary for the last two years, making it a surprisingly female-flavoured project for such a male-dominated sport.

Carnera's biographer Ivan Malfatto, former star world middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti and popular heavyweight Paolo Vidoz also acted as consultants.

The centenary schedule has already included a travelling show which stopped off in Milan and Rome before returning to Carnera's boyhood home in Sequals near Pordenone, now a state-owned building.

There has also been a made-for-TV film starring Joe Pesci, numerous commemorative publications and a series of conferences about the colossus who fled dirt poverty, first taking on stevedore jobs in France before fighting his way to fortune in the United States.

Carnera was a 2.02 metre immigrant who got into the fight game to support his two children in the Depression years and rose to wrest the greatest crown of all from the fearsome Jack Sharkey in June 1933.

He lost his title the following year to the even more ferocious Jewish American boxer Max Baer.

The Carnera-Baer bout features briefly in the Oscar-nominated film The Cinderella Man, in which Russell Crowe plays the man who made a remarkable comeback to take the title from Baer, James J. Braddock.

Carnera himself appeared in several postwar Italian sword-and-sandal epics after playing himself in the 1933 Hollywood film The Prizefighter and the Lady.

He also inspired the 1956 movie The Harder They Fall starring Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger, in which his nemesis Baer did an autobiographical turn.

Nicknamed the Ambling Alp, Carnera had an unfair reputation as a lumbering pugilist with massive strength, few skills and a shortlived career.

In fact he fought from 1925 to 1945 - interrupted by wartime service in the Italian Resistance - and had a respectable 88-15 record including 68 knock-outs - 15 of them in the first round. He won 18 straight fights by KO between December 1929 and June 1930.

He was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Benvenuti, probably Italy's most popular boxing star, has been lyrical in his recollections of Carnera, whom he met at the 1960s Olympics.

"When I was a kid Primo was a legend for me. I saw him as the unbeatable giant in the fairy tales.

"After the Olympics I saw him many times and we became friends. The last time was three days before he died, at his house at Sequals. I'd just got back from winning the world championship against Emile Griffiths in the United States. He was in bed, skin and bones, but he still seemed gigantic".

Benvenuti was at pains to correct the historical record about Carnera's boxing ability.

"They used to say he wasn't skillful. That's false. He had one of the best jabs I've ever seen in a boxer of that size. And he had a very good uppercut. They created false legends about him: for example, that his fights were fixed.

That's not true, he was perfectly clean and he was very close to his family." A previously unknown autobiography by the boxer was unearthed from a dusty old trunk in Florida by Giovanna Carnera two years ago.

Also entitled "Me, Primo Carnera," it was serialised in Italy's premier sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Carnera says little of the ring and hardly mentions the one big title he won, preferring to talk about the characters he met on the professional wrestling circuit in Japan and other countries.

This second career, which finaly won Carnera economic security, also features extensively in Vigorita and Cardini's work.


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