27. Primo Carnera, Champion of the World

Romeo Gregori (1900–1940)
Rome, 1934
Size: 40 cm high
Carrara marble

Primo Carnera qualified as a contender for the world title when he knocked out Ernie Schaff in thirteen rounds in New York City on February 10th 1933. Schaff died four days later from the effects of the beating he took that night. On June 29th at Madison Square Garden he faced the world heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey and knocked him out with an uppercut in round 6. Despite questions raised by fans and sportswriters as to whether the uppercut actually connected with Sharkey’s chin, his win was confirmed. He became Italy’s most famous athlete, and was declared a national hero by Mussolini. After successfully defending his title twice in 1934, he was defeated by Max Baer, who knocked him down eleven times before the fight was stopped in round 11. Another famous defeat came at the hands of Joe Louis in 1935 at the end of six rounds. In all he fought 103 professional bouts: 89 wins and 14 losses. Seventy-two of his wins were by knockout.

He also pursued a film career that began in 1931. In 1933 he starred as himself in The Prizefighter and the Lady, opposite Myrna Loy. In the 1949 movie Mighty Joe Young he fought a giant gorilla. Carol Reed gave him a role in A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), and his last appearance was alongside Steve Reeves in Hercules Unchained(1959).

The sculptor of this remarkable bust, Romeo Gregori, was born in Carrara, where he learnt his craft as apprentice to several of the master sculptors there. He moved to Rome in 1921 and became known for a series of heroic sculptures in a style typical of the Fascist era. This bust is something quite different, and undoubtedly his masterpiece. He prepared for it by making a version in terracotta, today in a private collection in Ferrara. It is a unique tribute to the nobility of a boxer, and the brutality of his profession.

On loan to the exhibition.