When Joe Louis knocked out Mussolini’s boy

Joe Louis Primo Carnera Yankee Stadium heavyweight boxing

At their pre-fight weigh-in, Primo Carnera makes Joe Louis look small.

The sports world was hungry for a great boxing champion in the mid-1930s. Detroit’s Joe Louis satisfied their hunger with a string of impressive victories that launched him to the status of Heavyweight Champion of the World. In 1935 he fought one of his most important fights, defeating a former champion and striking a blow for American democracy.

After turning professional the previous year, Joe Louis had a very busy 1935 – he fought 13 times. As he dispatched opponent after opponent, Louis’ legend was growing, as was his list of nicknames.

Newspapers of the day were fond of catchy monikers for sports heroes. “Chocolate Chopper,” “Mahogany Mauler,” “Coffee-Colored KO King,” and “Saffra Sandman” were a few that were set in ink. But the name that took hold was “The Brown Bomber,” the label he’s most known by to his fans.

On June 25, 1935, Louis met his toughest match yet in his climb to an eventual shot at the title. He would face Primo Carnera, a giant Italian fighter who stood nearly 6-feet, six-inches tall, or roughly a foot taller than most of his countrymen. Due to his freakish size (he was also listed at 265 pounds), Carnera was nicknamed “The Ambling Alp”. His size wasn’t the only intimidating thing about the Italian. In 1933, Carnera knocked out Ernie Schaaf in the 13th round of a bout. Schaaf was so badly beaten that he died two days later.

One publicity release about Carnera read in part: “For breakfast, Primo has a quart of orange juice, two quarts of milk, nineteen pieces of toast, fourteen eggs, a loaf of bread and half a pound of Virginia ham.”

Louis was giving up nine inches of reach and about 65 pounds to Carnera, who was the personal favorite of dictator Benito Mussolini, who saw the boxer’s greatness as a symbol of Italian strength and a sign that the nation would return to the glory of the Roman Empire.

Louis and Carnera met at Yankee Stadium for their bout, Louis just fresh from his 21st birthday. Both men were big punchers who liked to stalk their opponent and deliver the fatal blow. But “The Brown Bomber” displayed a lot more footwork and speed. Though Carnera staved off Louis with a jab for the first few rounds, Louis worked to the Italian’s body, realizing he couldn’t reach the much taller and bigger Carnera’s head.

In the sixth round, Louis’ body work paid off, as he caught Carnera with a series of punches to the head, flooring the former champ. Louis floored him again, but Carnera got up, which resulted in Louis pummeling Primo with punches to the rubs and upper body. Carnera fell once more – the third time in the round – and when the referee waved off the fight, it was as one reporter put it “an act of humanitarianism.”

Louis had dispatched Carnera after felling the giant former champ three times in the sixth, improving his own mark to 20-0, 17 by knockout.

“I thought I’d get him,” Louis said after the fight, “but I wasn’t sure when his big arms would drop and I’d get to his chin.”

Two years later, Louis would win the heavyweight title, a belt he would successfully defend 25 times and hold for an amazing 140 months.

Carnera moved to the United States where he and his wife became citizens. He later entered the ring as a wrestler in the 1950s.

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