Newsreel Interview 1931
Primo Carnera vs. Ernie Schaaf 1933
16mm print Transfer
Newsreels contain a wealth of hidden historical treasures. There are hundreds of thousands of hours of film now being curated in archives around the world. But due to the amount of material and limited resources, the archives often provide limited information for each entry, with some material going undocumented. Recently I was scanning through an index of boxing newsreels made during the 1930s, looking for alternate footage not used in the officially released versions. At the bottom of one listing, I spotted the word Schaaf. When I obtained and finally viewed the film, I saw that it was a promotional reel featuring heavyweight Jack Sharkey training in May 1931 to fight Primo Carnera. Included in the footage, as I had hoped, was rare film of Sharkey’s friend and protégé, Ernie Schaaf.
Rich Man Poor Man
Sharkey and Schaaf exemplified the warrior’s bond. Sharkey, who was six years older than Schaaf, was already an established boxer when they met as Navy seamen on board the battleship Denver. The two boxed, and Sharkey, admiring Schaaf’s determination in the ring, began mentoring the teenager. After the Navy, the two remained friends as they climbed the professional ranks during the 1920s. Both experienced mixed luck with their careers. Sharkey fast-tracked during the mid-1920s, before losing to Jack Dempsey and later to Max Schmeling. But on the rise again, he defeated Primo Carnera in 1931, and then won the Heavyweight Championship in a disputed decision from Max Schmeling the following year.
Meanwhile, Schaaf’s record was spotty. So in 1930, Sharkey acted on both faith and loyalty to Schaaf when he and his manager, John Buckley, bought Schaaf’s contract. The two boxers became official stable mates and Schaaf began to prosper—with victories over a youthful Tony Galento, Paulino Uzcudun, Jim Braddock, Tommy Loughran, Max Baer and Young Stribling. There were also losses, including a rematch with future champion Max Baer, where Schaaf was battered unconscious just seconds before the final bell, suffering, many believe, permanent brain damage. By 1933, however, Schaaf was a top-ranked heavyweight, right behind his friend and champion Jack Sharkey.
Dual fighter/manager partnerships are not uncommon, but Sharkey and Schaaf were unique, remaining friends while ascending the ranks to within one fight of facing each other. There was talk of Ernie hiring a new manager in the event that he would challenge Sharkey for the title. After Schaaf’s victory over Young Stribling, The Reading Eagle reported, “The victory may have moved Schaaf into the somewhat embarrassing position of crowding his co-manager, who was in his corner, for a place in the heavyweight sun.” In The Gettysburg Times, the two reportedly joked about the prospect, with Sharkey suggesting a way “to devise some painless means of passing the crown along to him” when Sharkey tired of the title.
The Last Fight
Instead, events soon played out like a Greek tragedy. On February 10, 1933, at Madison Square Garden, it was Schaaf’s turn to fight Primo Carnera, a boxer that neither Schaaf nor Sharkey should have lost to. Ernie appeared to be having an off night during the battle, and in the 13th round, Carnera hit Schaaf with a stiff left jab. Even today, the sequence that followed is chilling to watch on the film; the sight of Schaaf tumbling to the canvas, struggling with sudden paralysis, and then collapsing. As the ring fills with Primo’s well-wishers, Sharkey drags the unconscious Schaaf back to his corner. Unable to wake him, Schaaf’s limp body is lifted out of the ring and carried off. All this under the roar of 20,000 boos raining down from the crowd calling out “FAKE.” Even the best Hollywood boxing movies would have trouble matching a scene like this.
At the hospital, belief was that Schaaf might recover. He eventually came to and was speaking. Sharkey reportedly stayed with Ernie through the night. The following morning, the doctors expressed hope regarding Schaaf’s condition. Only then did Sharkey leave town on a trip with his family. Schaaf died after emergency surgery on Valentine’s Day 1933 and Sharkey never saw his friend alive again. Carnera, it was reported, was crushed by the news of Ernie’s death, and cried for hours. For a detailed story on the circumstances of Schaaf’s death, please read the excellent article by Norman Marcus, “The Strange Death of Ernie Schaaf.”
David Loses to Goliath
The epilogue to this drama came four months later when champion Sharkey faced Primo Carnera in their rematch. This was the title challenge intended for Schaaf. Now instead, Sharkey was facing Ernie’s killer. After a competitive six rounds, an uppercut/shove by Carnera dumped Sharkey on the canvas like a beached whale. He lay motionless as he was counted out. Rumors have circulated for years that the knockout was not on the level. There were mob connections, primarily involving Carnera. Sharkey denied the loss was anything but genuine, adding famously that he was distracted by the sight of Schaaf’s ghost standing in the ring. “I had no trouble, physically fit and everything and I boxed the guy (Carnera) before . . . I looked and I see a vision of Ernie Schaaf. There’s no pain . . . like in a dream. Of course when you snap out of it, that’s when the shame comes. You know you’ve lost.”
The newsreel footage is striking in several ways. Sharkey looks impressive during the training portion. Though only 6’ tall, modest height for a heavyweight, Sharkey appears strong, well-conditioned and projects great physical intensity and humor. Schaaf, though dressed in a suit and tie for the occasion, looks impressive as well. At 6’2”, he is clearly the bigger of the two men. Despite the scripting that was common for newsreel sound bites, it’s clear that the two are friends and trying not to crack up. The image of Schaaf in this film is a sharp contrast to the man who appeared dwarfed in the ring against 6’6” Primo Carnera. The newsreel also puts a face and a voice to a man, who has mostly been associated with images of his death.
I’ve also included the Official Films abridged version of the Carnera-Schaaf fight from an excellent 16mm print. With the exposure and film speed adjusted, the action suggests that Schaaf was in trouble even before the knockout. I also have a longer version of this fight, but the print quality is poor, though it does include the post-fight footage with Schaaf being attended to and taken from the ring. I have inserted that scene at the end.