When a true boxing giant wowed fans in Lancashire

Primo Carnera who performed for the crowds in Lancashire
Primo Carnera who performed for the crowds in Lancashire
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Morecambe's own Tyson Fury is not the first heavyweight boxing king to take to the ring in Lancashire. Author Larry Braysher recalls the day one of the big hitters of the pre-war area stepped through the ropes in the county

Boxing has always been attracted to the big men of the sport. Deontay Wilder (6ft 7ins), Anthony Joshua (6ft 6ins), Wladimir Klitschko (6ft 6ins) and of course Lancashire’s own Tyson Fury (6ft 9ins) are all examples of the fascination the giants of the sport install among the media and the public. However, if you were to return to the 1930s, the interest in heavyweight confrontations was even far more compelling.

Primo Carnera in training

Primo Carnera in training

This was understandable because during this period the average height of a male in this country was under 5ft 7ins and a boxer of 6ft or over immediately attracted attention and enthused the sports followers with excitement, and in the case of one Primo Carnera, curiosity.

This giant Italian was a former circus strongman, who at 6ft 5ins and almost 20 stones, was sometimes referred to by some inspired promoters as ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ , but even allowing for the showbiz hype, by the standards of the day he was a very big man indeed.

Becoming a professional boxer in 1928 he had been taught the rudiments of boxing by experts and over the next couple of years had cut a swathe through many of the best heavyweights in Europe. An excursion to America had announced his arrival to this boxing Mecca with more victories and now he was in England on a promotional tour.

This type of tour was something many high profile boxers had engaged in over the years, as it was easy money and a good public exposure exercise for his growing number of fans. After stopping off in London to dispose of the future British Heavyweight Champion Reggie Meen in two rounds, Carnera was now in a position to relax a little and enjoy his tour before returning to America to launch his campaign for the world heavyweight title.

Primo Carnera was a giant of the boxing ring

Primo Carnera was a giant of the boxing ring

This was when the ever enterprising Harry ‘Kid’ Furness, who was matchmaker at the Morecambe Winter Gardens, enters the tale. By using some of his multitude of connections within the sport he ensured that one of Carnera’s engagements would be at the Winter Gardens, owned and operated by the Broadhead family.

It was a major coup for them – and the resort – when the special appearance by the aspiring heavyweight champion of the world on January 2, 1931 was confirmed in the local press. The visit itself was a spectacular success for Morecambe with the town turning out in great numbers to welcome the Italian sportsman.

Accompanied by a small party, which included his manager Leon See, a civic reception was held in his honour at the Battery Hotel on the promenade and which was attended by many local dignitaries. Many of the people attending had no idea of how close the boxer had been to missing the event altogether.

En route he and his manager had decided to call in and see a mutual acquaintance of theirs, Jim Harris who was the licensee of the Wagon and Horses, in Lord Street, Preston. Unfortunately, the news Carnera was there spread quickly and a vast crowd engulfed the boxer and his manager (who only stood 5ft tall).Eventually the police had to attend and clear a path for the party to escape and continue their journey to Morecambe.

Primo Carnera, second left, with the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Morecambe, Morcambes Carnival Queen Alys Milner and Kid Furness, fourth left

Primo Carnera, second left, with the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Morecambe, Morcambes Carnival Queen Alys Milner and Kid Furness, fourth left

On their arrival a large crowd welcomed them and Carnera’s polite demeanour and impressive grasp of the English language made an immediate impression on the locals. Leaving nothing to chance, though, the organisers had arranged for an interpreter in Joe Brucciani, a member of an Italian family who had a coffee house on the front almost next to the Winter Gardens (which is still run by the same family to this day).

The boxer had a healthy appetite and consumed his meal followed by a cigar and the signing of a mountain of autographs for all and sundry. Then he, and many of those in attendance, left the reception and proceeded to the Winter Gardens where a crowd of more than 4,000 people was arriving to watch his impending performance. Several boxing contests were engaged to keep the crowd, which included the Mayor and his deputy, entertained while they waited for the main attraction, and they were not to be disappointed.

The big moment arrived when the MC Jack Smith entered the ring and announced Carnera as the next heavyweight champion of the world. There was thunderous applause as the Italian also entered the ring, but this changed to a collective gasp as he removed his dressing gown to reveal an outstanding physique and muscular development. To the onlooker he was a sight to behold.

Four professional heavyweights had been engaged to spar with him. The boxers were, Ted Brookes, of Bradford; Billy Wells, of Sunderland; Jim Bradley, of Tunstall, and Dave Forbes, of Glasgow. They were all six footers themselves and were decent performers in their own right. They all did a brisk round each with him, and besides handling them all with ease Carnera also showed the crowd that despite his size he carried his giant frame and moved his feet with a lightness which surprised many. It had certainly been a memorable night for the sparring partners, being chosen to appear with someone of his repute, and certainly for the Bradford boxer Brookes it was a never forgotten experience.

Primo Carnera top of the bill in Lancashire

Primo Carnera top of the bill in Lancashire

Many years later he had a shop in his home town and in pride of place in the centre of the window was a photo of him and Carnera boxing at the Winter Gardens.To sign off the boxing side of the performance, Carnera was then confronted by the diminutive 4ft 10ins Harry ‘Kid’ Furness and the astounded audience were treated to a comical sparring session between the two.
The show’s finale was Carnera performing a series of poses to illustrate his physique to its best effect which drew more gasps of adoration from the auditorium.

With the applause and cheers at the conclusion everyone leaving the Winter Gardens must have felt their entrance money had been well spent. The boxer’s visit had been hugely anticipated and this gentle giant had not let anyone down, in fact his self- effacing manner and charm had won him a legion of new fans. Both Carnera and Leon See expressed a desire to return to Morecambe one day, but alas it never transpired as the Italian’s life took some sad twists and turns.

He did win the world title from Jack Sharkey, but at a cost, as American gangsters had bought their way into his contract and sidelined manager Leon See. The genial Italian was then ruthlessly exploited by the mob and after losing his title to the playboy Max Baer and subsequently retiring from the ring, he was left with very little of his ring earnings.
Fortunately, he did bounce back in the post war years and ran his own liquor store, wrestled and appeared in several features films. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in Italy in 1967, surrounded by his loving family.
* Boxing by the Sea and Boxers from the Bay by Larry Braysher are available from the author on 015395 35459.