A Fox in the Henhouse: Carnera vs. Chevalier (1930)
By Aaron Lloyd
Primo Carnera, the 13th lineal heavyweight champion of the world, known disparagingly as the “Ambling Alp” (perhaps as much for his naiveté as his lumbering giganticness), fought his entire career without knowledge that the majority of his fights were not “above board.” More side-show curiosity than top tier pugilist, Carnera, standing 6’6” and routinely weighing more than 260 pounds, was an attractive commodity for the unscrupulous sorts looking to derive profit out of “stage-managing” a heavyweight to the championship in the 1920s and 30s. While many boxing pundits are divided on the exact degree of fraudulence that defines the legacy of Primo Carnera, most would agree that without the right underworld connections he would never have made it to the pinnacle of the sport solely on his own merits. In fact, it is widely believed that most of Carnera’s fights (including his championship victory over Jack Sharkey in 1933) were manipulated by his manager Leon See and New York mobster Owen “the Killer” Madden, a claim that is substantiated by the inordinate number of investigations, and withheld purses, sprinkled throughout Carnera’s record. More snake oil salesmen than a reputable management team, Carnera’s merry band of pranksters hastily made a bee line out of town after each fight before the stench of the hoax had time to settle in, hitting 22 different cities in 1930 alone. It was quite a show, and everywhere Carnera went there was a throng of fans eager to witness the spectacle of the “strongman-turned boxer,” and there was no shortage of individuals willing to take a dive for the right compensation. However, on one occasion, a 32-year journeyman named Leon “Bombo” Chevalier nearly sabotaged the whole racket when, after a change of heart, he decided to go “off-script” and fight Carnera on even terms.
Chevalier, outweighed by 60 pounds and sporting a very modest 19-11-4 record that including 11 knockout wins, was a convincing candidate to become Carnera’s 26th knockout victim when the two met on April 14, 1930 in Emeryville, California. Before the fight, Chevalier and his manager Tom McGrath had reportedly agreed to the terms of the “prearranged” outcome (which involved him ultimately lying prone on the canvas at the fight’s conclusion) and seconds before the opening bell there was little doubt that Carnera would record his 16th straight stoppage victory. Unfortunately, Chevalier, overcome by a combination of emotion, poor judgment, and an overwhelming sense of Carnera’s ineptitude, decided that a signature win over Carnera would be more beneficial to his career than a few instant gratifying dollars in his pocket. So, in an interesting turn of events, Chevalier began to take on the qualities of a real opponent, and to the astonishment of those supposedly “pulling the strings,” the fight was taking an unexpected and rather precarious turn. Chevalier was having success getting to Carnera, and were it not for some calculated “Plan-B” thinking by Madden and his cronies, Carnera might have incurred a major setback on his path to the championship. Being the prepared mobster that he was, however, Madden had the wherewithal to plant a “mole” in Chevalier’s corner before the fight, on the off chance that just such an event might transpire, and in between the 5th and 6th rounds, one of Chevalier’s chief seconds, a man named Bob Perry, emerged to become an indelible part of boxing lore.
With Chevalier showing no signs of conceding, Perry responded by taking a sponge soaked in resin and red pepper and raking it across Chevalier’s eyes moments before the start of the sixth round. He then forced his impaired fighter out for the sixth frame, anticipating a Carnera knockout and an end to this “fix gone awry.” Instead, Chevalier continued his assault on Carnera, wildly and blindly inflicting damage on his oversized counterpart for the next three rounds. In the ninth round, however, Chevalier suffered a flash knockdown, and despite rising instantly and showing no outward signs of duress, looked on in disbelief as the towel from his corner came cascading onto the canvas. Perry, sensing his opportunity, had sprung to the apron and thrown in the towel, and the referee, as surprised as everyone else, had no choice but to call a halt to the action and award Carnera the victory by way of a 9th round TKO. Instantly, the crowd, many of them pro-Carnera supporters, protested the abbreviated outcome and a full scale riot erupted, with the corner-turned-con at the epicenter of the fury, suffering a laceration over his right eye as he made a hasty retreat back to his dressing room. Once there, Perry was questioned by the California Boxing Commission (CBC) about his involvement in the so called “plot” and the purses’ of both fighters were withheld pending a more thorough investigation. Eventually the commission relented and both fighters were paid accordingly, but not before Carnera suffered the indignation of having his license revoked by the CBC as well as the New York State Athletic Commission. Speaking on the matter of lost potential revenue, sportwriter Grantland Rice later opined, “That towel may be the most costly piece of tapestry ever known.” Fortunately, Carnera enjoyed many more years of sustained profitability on his path to the heavyweight championship, but the financial exploitation and mistreatment he endured by his handlers caused Carnera to offer up this bit of advice regarding the manager-fighter relationship: “He who goes slow, goes surely. He who wants to travel far is kind to his horse.” As for Chevalier, who crossed the double-crossers and literally “lived to fight another day,” he fought an additional 19 times through 1934, officially retiring with an overall record of 25-20-8, including 14 knockouts. The rest is boxing history…