Herkimer Hurricane: Golden great Lou Ambers
By Mike Casey
The nickname was always something of a misnomer. It implied that
its owner was a relentless, devil-may-care slugger with scant regard for the
finer points of boxing. But Lou Ambers, the bustling, fair-haired Herkimer
Hurricane from upstate New York, was always much more than that.
Lou continues to shine out from those stark and haunting fight
films of some seventy years ago, youthful and vibrant, wearing that oddly
contradictory little expression of uncertain innocence.
Bouncing up on his toes against a vast and black backdrop, buoyed
by the excited yells and cheers from the massive crowds of the day, Ambers is
always in punching range. His judgement of distance, like so many of the ring
mechanics from the great school of his era, is uncannily and consistently
correct. He jabs, he hooks, he throws the booming left uppercut for which he is
so well renowned.
His hands are held low for maximum hooking leverage and he feints
constantly with his head and shoulders, like a wily cobra about to apply its
deadly bite. His hand speed, like that of Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross and so
many of his skilful brethren, is something to behold. Left hooks and right
crosses flash out so fast that it is sometimes difficult for the eye to
appreciate their true impact and value. He slips jabs by moving his head to one
side or by pulling it out of range by the slightest fraction.
Lou Ambers was special, a great fighter and a great and willing
student. He wasn’t the most accomplished of the lightweight champions, but his
style and attitude made him the favourite of many. According to his manager,
Whitey Bimstein, Lou was a dream to work with. Manager Al Weill, tough and
unyielding as they came, also had a soft spot for Ambers.
One day in 1950, Bimstein broke off from a hard day’s work at Lou
Stillman’s gym in New York to reflect on a long and successful career of
training fighters. Whitey had been at it for some thirty-four years by that time
and estimated that he had tutored some 7,500 boxers. Lou Ambers was his
“It was always fun working with Ambers,” Bimstein said. “You
didn’t have to drive him. My job with him was to keep him from working too much.
I remember when he was going to fight Lew Jenkins the second time that Al Weill
wasn’t sure he wanted Ambers to keep fighting. Weill said to me to watch Ambers
close. I did and I told Al he didn’t have much left.
“Weill went to Ambers and told him, ‘Lou, maybe you shouldn’t
fight Jenkins’. Do you know what? Ambers cried and said he wanted to fight. He
knew he could lick Jenkins, even if he got knocked out the first time. Cried
like a baby and Weill got soft and let him go in. He got knocked out. It was too
bad. There was the best fighter a guy could train.
“Not that Rocky Graziano was bad, but there was a difference.
Now, you take Ambers. I could put him in the ring in the gym with anybody. He
would adapt his style for the guy. Let the guy run – he would chase him. Let the
guy fight – he would fight him. This here Rocky is different. You gotta give him
guys who punch with him or he don’t like it. Give him a boxer in the gym and
it’s no good.
“Funny thing was how Ambers would get cranky when it came close
to a fight. Nice kid, but he would get so cranky you couldn’t go near him.”
Lou Ambers was a hard working, dedicated man who was loyal to his
loved ones and loyal to his chosen profession. Hurled by fate into one of the
twentieth centuries toughest eras, he toiled long and hard for glory and
suffered his share of bad luck along the way.
When Lou finally realised his dream and won the lightweight
championship, he said joyously, “Now I can buy that new home for my widowed
mother and help out my brothers and sisters.”
Ambers was born Luigi Giuseppe D’Ambrosio on November 8, 1913, in
Herkimer, New York. A tough life quickly took shape after Lou’s father, a saloon
keeper, lost his business after the great Wall Street Crash of 1929.
There seemed little doubt about what direction Lou’s life would
take. He got into regular fights as a little boy and later admitted that he
didn’t always know why. He just knew that he enjoyed scrapping and remained in
love with the fight game for the rest of his life. To his dying day, Lou never
denigrated the sport. While some retired fighters ruminate and theorise on the
sense of two men punching each other, having gladly grabbed their slice of the
cake, Ambers would only shake his head in wonderment and say, “Oh, Jesus, I
loved to fight.”
Lou cut his teeth in the bootleg shows of his day, earning
anything from five to fifteen dollars for a fight. He reckoned he fought every
two or three weeks, and when he came home he eased the pressure on his mother by
paying the family bills.
Eager to learn and improve his boxing technique, Ambers valued
the education he received from the multitude of little fight clubs frequented by
scores of young hopefuls. The going was tough, because most of the young men
possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of the game and their simple objective
was to come out punching and hurl everything in the locker. Lou admitted to
being a wild one himself, but he gradually learned to broaden his skills and
correct his technical faults.
By the time he officially turned professional in 1932, he had
already had countless fights and was ready for more serious competition. He flew
through the ranks, losing just one of more than 50 fights as he established
himself as a top lightweight contender within three years.
Then manager Al Weill went to work, as only Al could. Never the
shy or retiring sort in the art of presenting a fighter’s case, Weill began
pitching and nagging the authorities on behalf of his young sensation. The New
York Commission had installed Ambers as the number one contender for the
championship held by Barney Ross, a move that was seen by many as too premature.
Other contenders such as Sammy Fuller and Harry Dublinsky were knocking at the
door, and Lou’s critics were arguing that Ambers had yet to fight men of such
Al Weill kept hustling for his boy, and there were few better at
that game. Weill was greatly fond of Lou and took an active and personal
interest in most of the young fighters who came under his wing.
Son Marty Weill, talking of his father years later, said, “The
public is familiar with the finished product, the champion. It doesn’t know what
a fabulous job Al Weill did in taking these eighteen-year olds off the streets
and making not just men, but champions. He not only saw to it that they learned
a skill but an entire new way of life.
“When was the last time you made an eighteen-year old go to bed
at 8pm, stick to a job, let alone a rugged training routine? The man that did
those things, Al Weill, had to be a psychologist as well as tougher and stronger
than any of the fighters he managed.
“The boxers listened because they knew he was something more than
a manager to them. He was a father. As to Weill’s seeing to it that the fighters
received the money due them, and that he advised them wisely, none of his champs
were financially forced into making a comeback once they gave up boxing.
“Al Weill took his fighters in and adopted them as sons. He
supported them financially, even to giving them money to send home to their
folks. Al saw to it that new boys were given a place to stay, money for clothes,
weekly expenses and a meal ticket to a neighbourhood restaurant.
“Al would pay the trainer, gym expenses, cornermen and
transportation out of his own pocket and let the fighter keep the purse. He
didn’t want the youngsters to get discouraged.”
In his quiet and discreet manner, Weill also helped those
fighters who got themselves into trouble. Boxers in general have never been the
shrewdest of investors and Lou Ambers burned his fingers when he plunged a
sizeable chunk of his money into a bankrupt laundry. Pulling various strings
behind the scenes, Weill recouped Lou’s money. More importantly, wise old Al
would later talk Ambers out of quitting boxing after a tragic event at a crucial
time in his career.
Harry Dublinsky and Sammy Fuller were blocking Lou’s path to the
lightweight championship, so Weill made the matches and Lou took care of the
business. Both fights were held at boxing’s Mecca of Madison Square Garden, the
perfect showcase for Ambers to make his statement of intent.
Lou didn’t disappoint. Harry Dublinsky, from Chicago, was
gorgeously described by one reporter as, ‘lanky, slabsided and industrious’.
Harry tried his best to be industrious against Ambers but was hypnotised and
rattled throughout by the youngster’s accurate left hand and jarring straight
rights. Lou took a comfortable decision and now he had to knock over only one
more skittle to get his shot at the world title.
Sammy Fuller was a tough, rugged battler from Boston, but he
could barely make an impression on Ambers during their fast-paced, 15-rounds
bout before a crowd of 10,000. Reporters hailed Ambers as one of the brightest
lightweight talents to come along in years as he constantly dazzled and
outwitted Sammy with clever, two-fisted attacks.
All night long, Fuller was prevented from mounting a significant
attack by a stream of fast jabs and lightning right crosses. When he finally
found the mark in the final round, shaking Lou with some big rights and opening
a gash over his left eye, Sammy was way behind in the points tally.
Barney Ross, restless and ever ambitious, had relinquished his
lightweight crown in the meantime, but the man Ambers had to overcome was no
less talented or daunting. That man was the wonderful Tony Canzoneri. Lou and
Tony were matched for the vacant championship at the Garden in May 1935, with
Canzoneri proving too wily for the maturing youngster and posting a convincing
points victory. Lou was dropped twice in a torrid third round but showed pluck
and talent in taking Tony all the way.
That first championship failure was a valuable learning
experience for Ambers. It taught him, among other things, that hero worship
should never be taken too far. Lou had done some sparring with Canzoneri and had
come to idolise the great man. Ambers would admit that the idolatry made him
nervous on the night and prevented him from fighting to his full capabilities.
Lou would have to wait sixteen months for his next crack at the
title. It is a typical sign of his times that he engaged in fourteen bouts
during that period, seeing off the stellar likes of Fritzie Zivic, Frankie Klick
and Baby Arizmendi.
One win, however, came at a terrible price. On March 17, 1936,
Ambers stopped Tony Scarpati at the Broadway Arena in Brooklyn, knocking
Scarpati down in the seventh round. Lou and Al Weill were departing the ring a
short while later, happy with another victory after Scarpati had failed to
answer the bell for the eighth round. It didn’t seem a big deal, but it turned
out that Tony had been badly hurt. He died from his brain injuries three days
“It broke my heart,” Ambers recalled. Despondent, Lou wanted to
quit the game and it was Weill who calmed him down and told him to take a rest.
The fatherly talk worked. Ambers went back to the Broadway Arena to decision
Pete Mascia in a benefit match for the Scarpati family and was on his way again.
Lou was ready for Tony Canzoneri when the two men clashed again
at Madison Square Garden on September 3, 1936. Lou was still only twenty-two,
but now a much worldlier and more seasoned ring mechanic. Canzoneri, at thirty,
was already being described as an old man of the ring. In that tougher era,
where the competition was fierce in all weight classes, fighters became old men
It was the night that Tony’s fabulous but demanding career
finally began to catch up with him. The great little campaigner still possessed
all his old cunning and his marvellous feinting skills, but the steam was
beginning to go out of his legs in distance fights.
Ambers took full advantage of his second chance at a legend, this
time parking his admiration for Canzoneri to one side and putting pressure on
the champion from the outset. Hungry and ambitious, Lou seized the initiative
from the opening bell and befuddled Tony all the way with a steady flow of
stinging punches. Wily Canzoneri was still clever and fast with his hands and
nailed Ambers with some solid shots, but he could never balance the scales
against Lou’s flashing jabs, hooks and uppercuts. Ambers won a convincing,
unanimous decision and Tony’s face at the finish was cut and swollen. Brave and
defiant as ever, the dethroned champ said, “I needed that fight under my belt –
I’ll get him next time.”
Tony Canzoneri didn’t get Lou Ambers the next time. Lou was the
champ and in the prime of his life as a fighter. He had learned much and worked
hard to secure the prized bauble and he was determined to keep it locked in his
Lou was buzzing and everyone could see it. Writer Drew Middleton
described him as “… a rough hewn little gent with the energy of a bumblebee and
the persistency of a mosquito.”
Canzoneri tried his heart out in what would prove to be his last
throw of the dice at world championship level. But the crowd of 11,000 at the
Garden and almost everyone else seemed to know that old Tony wasn’t going to
throw a seven. The newspapers in the run-up to the fight had been lavish in
their praise of Canzoneri’s magnificent career, almost eerily so. The many
knowing articles were advanced tributes to a man about to make his last stand.
Many reporters expressed their sympathy and concern for Tony taking the bout.
Their fears were well founded.
The fight was a rout for Ambers. One official handed in a 15-0
shutout for Lou. The Associated Press score sheet awarded the verdict to the
champion by a score of 12-2-1.
Courageous Canzoneri took what many experienced onlookers
believed to be the worst beating of his long career. A closed eye and a cut over
the bridge of his nose told a different tale to the story that Tony gave
reporters afterwards. “Ambers was much improved but I can still lick him,” said
the old champ. “He hit me with a lot of backward slaps that should not have
Ambers hit Canzoneri with plenty more than slaps. Lou was
altogether faster and more aggressive, forcing the pace and showing great
accuracy with his punches. His evasive skills were often sublime as he
repeatedly made Tony miss with the famously fast and powerful right hand that
had done for so many in his heyday.
Ambers had proved conclusively that he was the world’s top
lightweight, but there was no time to bask in his reflected glory. Fighters of
Lou’s era simply didn’t have that luxury. Just take a look at any world
champion’s record from fifty or more years ago. Jammed between the championship
defences, you will invariably see any number of non-title matches. Most of these
men had day jobs. Prize money was minimal in the lower weight divisions. If a
fighter wanted to earn serious money, he kept fighting.
Ambers had ten bouts over the next eleven months and only one was
a defence of his crown. Nor was he fighting guys who were meant to fall over
After notching a pair of decisions over Howard ‘Cowboy’ Scott,
Lou retained his championship with a points win over previous conqueror Pedro
Montanez. Within two months of that triumph, Ambers was back in the ring and
going on a run that saw him rack up non-title wins over Charley Burns, Frankie
Wallace, Lou Jallos, Jimmy Vaughn (twice), Jimmy Garrison and Baby Arizmendi.
Ambers couldn’t stop winning. Then he lost. And he lost to a
whirlwind of a fighting man in Henry Armstrong. While Lou was a busy, bustling
fighter, the incredible Armstrong took the concept of work rate to seemingly
impossible levels. Homicide Hank, as he became famously known, was a furious
two-fisted warrior with a slow heartbeat who would quicken his pace and crank up
the pressure with each round. When others would be praying for their second
wind, Armstrong would just be getting into his rhythm. He was too ferocious for
Ambers on the night of August 17, 1938 at the Garden, taking Lou’s championship
on a split decision.
It was some testament to Hank’s punch rate that he forfeited four
rounds on fouls and still won the day.
Armstrong’s fouling was always a subject for heated discussion.
Hank was a wise bird who knew as many tricks as Fritzie Zivic in that
department, but the intent of many of his infractions was debatable. Like
Marciano, he set a vicious pace and was entirely in his own world for much of
the time once the wheels were rolling.
Nevertheless, Armstrong’s proclivity for winging ‘em south of the
border would play a massive part in the outcome of his eagerly awaited return
match with Ambers.
Lou had to wait a full year for the chance to regain his prized
crown, and he earned that chance in the old-fashioned way by staying busy. By
the time he hooked up with Homicide Hank again on August 22, 1939, Ambers had
posted nine successive victories.
Telling it like it is
One could imagine Henry McLemore, a staff correspondent for the
United Press, rubbing his hands and licking his chops before hitting the keys of
his typewriter after the second fight between Lou Ambers and Henry Armstrong.
When something gets under a writer’s skin, as referee Arthur Donovan got under
Mr McLemore’s, there is nothing quite so pleasurable as driving home the point
with a good old lashing of sledgehammer wit.
Thus Mr McLemore wrote: “Arthur Donovan is the new lightweight
boxing champion of the world. He is a bit fat for the title, particularly in the
head. But he won it in Yankee Stadium last night. He won it for Lou Ambers by
rendering a decision as questionable as a mongrel’s paternity.”
Never had Mr Donovan applied the rules of boxing quite so
stringently, and a lot of bemused and angry reporters and fans were left
wondering why. He took the second, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh rounds
from Armstrong for fouling, and even Hank’s prodigious industry could not
overturn so severe a handicap. Ambers became the world champion again by a
It was a great pity that the contest was marred by controversy,
as it featured two wonderful scrappers staging a magnificent fight. But for the
penalties he incurred, Hank would undoubtedly have won. Lou, however, was no
less impressive for his clever work and his fighting spirit.
Hank was ever relentless in his attacks, which just kept coming
in waves. Yet throughout the terrific milling, Ambers was meeting the champion
with a constant output of jabs, hooks and uppercuts.
Armstrong made a slow start to the fight, but found his momentum
by the third round and began firing on all cylinders. Lou was all too happy to
engage Hank and the two fighters ripped punches at each other at a formidable
rate. Their heads banged together frequently in the furious exchanges and Hank
picked up an injury to his right eye. He returned the favour when he cut Lou’s
left eye in the fourth.
Such was the pace of the battle that the two warriors began to
show tiredness in the eighth round, although only by their own exceptional
standards. The crowd at Madison Square Garden loved what they were seeing. It
was a stirring encounter between two naturally talented men whose styles and
fighting pride blended perfectly.
There were no knockdowns, but Lou was very nearly felled in the
fourteenth round when Hank spotted a fleeting opening and opened up with a
terrific volley before Ambers could raise his guard. Armstrong’s sustained
assault lasted for very nearly a minute as Lou staggered and tried to find a way
out of the storm.
Outside the ring, Al Weill and Hank’s trainer Eddie Mead weren’t
content to leave the fighting to their boys. Al and Eddie became embroiled in a
heated argument over referee Donovan’s points deductions from Armstrong. Weill
finally blew and shouted at Mead, “You’d better watch out if you keep that up!”
Up for grabs
Armstrong and Ambers knew the fight was up for grabs by the time
they came out for the fifteenth and final round. Neither man would let up as
they dug each other with body shots on the ropes. Lou tagged Henry with a right
to the face but took a solid right to the jaw in return.
Ambers suddenly had a phase where he caught Armstrong with a
succession of lefts, while Hank misfired and seemed to be losing his way. But
the wonderful Armstrong always found something when he needed to. He lost his
mouthpiece after taking a couple of stiff rights, but steamed back at Ambers and
was winging shots to Lou’s body at the bell.
The pro-Ambers crowd had no problems with the decision in their
man’s favour, but trainer Eddie Mead was raging about the treatment to his man
Armstrong by referee Donovan.
It was gorgeous grist to the mill from Eddie. “I’ll blow up
boxing in this town,” he threatened. “Armstrong was penalised for every low tap,
but Ambers was elbowing and thumbing throughout the fight and wasn’t even given
Meads, of course, didn’t blow up boxing in New York. The old
Empire State continued to flourish, the Garden continued to bloom and Henry
Armstrong went on to become a living legend.
Lou Ambers, the Herkimer Hurricane, typically blew on to the next
assignment. The Hurricane would meet a tornado of a man called Lew Jenkins
further down the road, but let us not spoil a good yarn with that sad tale.
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