Heavyweight Primo Carnera, Italy’s gentle giant

MARIELLA RADAELLI

In 1933, Primo Carnera won the world heavyweight boxing title with a surprise knockout of Jack Sharkey. The Italian giant became the heavyweight sensation of the early 1930s. His fame continued both in wresting and in the movies for decades.

The legendary boxer’s daughter, Giovanna Maria Carnera, is now honoring her father’s life and legacy on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Primo died at the age of 61 in 1967 in Sequals, his hometown in the Friuli region that he loved as much as life itself.
Heavyweight boxer Primo Carnera
At 1.97 m (6 ft 6 in) and 120 kg (265 lbs) Primo Carnera was one of the biggest heavyweight champions of all time.

“My father respected the US and was extremely proud when he became a US citizen,” says Giovanna. “However Italy was always in his heart. He loved both countries and both countries loved him and still remember him to this day.”

Q: Primo was a man of extraordinary strength, which was equal to his goodness, said writer Nantas Salvalaggio. Can you describe your dad's kindness of heart?

GC: My father did so many acts of kindness but he preferred that they remain anonymous. One example I can give you is that when he heard that an orphanage in Italy was going bankrupt, he sent them enough money to cover their costs. He was especially tied to Italian immigrants when they arrived in New York, giving them money, helping them find jobs and housing, never asking for anything in return.

Q: Villa Carnera at Sequals has become a museum dedicated to your dad. What did Villa Carnera mean to him?

GC: In its humble way, Villa Carnera stood as the symbol of what my father worked so hard for. It was a beautiful home, always filled with friends and laughter. It was a home that my father loved deeply.
Primo Carnera family
From a desperately poor background, Carnera was an exemplary father, says daughter Giovanna Maria.

Q: Do you still feel his presence when you go in that beautiful Liberty house?

GC: I feel my father's presence not only when I go into that house but just by driving in front of it. When I enter the villa, I sense my father's spirit in every room, especially the study. That was my father's room, which I consistently invaded. When he was behind his huge desk (remember I was about 4 or 5), I brought out my own little chair and desk and sat right next to him until he was through. It's still hard for me go into that room and not remember with nostalgia of days that are no longer.

Q: You grew up in the Los Angeles area, in Beverly Hills, then you lived in Tampa, Florida where you were director of a psychiatric institute. In 2010 why did you decide to go back to Italy?

GC: I always wanted to return to Italy and when my brother, Umberto, died in 2009, I felt the timing was right. I gathered my two grown children around me and told them of my plans. They were both positive about it and encouraged me to follow my heart.

A: What is the best advice Primo gave you as a father?

GC: Always be kind to others and especially to never give up when the going gets tough. Remember always that you're Italian!

Q: Is there anything you regret not asking your dad during his lifetime?

GC: My father was always honest with us. I guess what I would have wanted to know more about was his childhood.

Q: What can you tell me about Primo Carnera the family man?
Primo Carnera
Also known for his good-natured showmanship, Carnera was friends with John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin and many others in early Hollywood.

GC: Family was everything to my father. Since he traveled so much, when he was home it was like Christmas. He tried to be severe, especially with me, but he just couldn't do it. One time my mother told my father to spank me for something I had done. He took me in my room and told me to pretend I was crying. Being the little diva I was, you'd think he was beating me! He told me that this was a secret just between him and me. He never did spank me!

Q: Your father was a heavyweight champion, but many people seem to have taken advantage of him. Do you feel he was too ‘soft’ on the inside, which led to certain individuals to take advantage of him?

GC: I think that in many ways my father was naive and judged people by his own morals. He certainly was taken advantage of, which was one of the few times I saw my father's anger.

Q: What do you think is the best way to honor his memory?

GC: Before he died, my brother and I set up the Primo Carnera Foundation with the mission to help children being raised in dysfunctional homes find hope for their future. When Umberto died so did the foundation. I'd like to bring it back to life in honor of my father.

Q: Primo said: “I took so many punches in my life, really many ... but I would do it again because all those punches helped my children go to school.” He sounded like a great parent. Were you happy kids with him?

GC: He had a tremendous way of both making us laugh and letting us know how much he loved us. He was extremely affectionate and I have never felt as safe with anyone as much as with him.

Q: What did he consider his most memorable fight?

GC: I consider his most memorable fight the one he lost to Max Baer. I say that because he truly lived what he taught us — never give up. It takes a lot of courage to be knocked down 11 times and get up each time, all the while fighting on a broken ankle. His courage and stamina astounded me. Even though I wasn't born yet, I recently saw films of that fight and I can't tell you how proud I was of him.

Q: Were the promoters were fair to your fathers?

GC: Absolutely not!

Q: He spent quite a good period in Hollywood. Any good stories?

GC: Making films was something my father really enjoyed. He wasn't beaten up anymore and was home every night. Umberto and I met several stars including as Bob Hope, John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin and many others. They were all friends of my father and many times they'd be at our home for dinner.