Breathtaking: The 10-Month Triple Title Blitz of Homicide Hank
By Mike Casey
A man asked me
recently how great Jack Nicklaus was. Pressed for time, I told him to look up
Jack’s record, study it carefully and put it into perspective with regard to the
tools he had at his disposal in a far less technical era.
My answer is
pretty much the same when I am asked about Henry Armstrong. I do not dole out
such advice willy-nilly, since we know that the record book is not always a
wholly accurate judge of a sportsman’s talent and achievements. In boxing, this
is particularly the case.
It’s just a nice
fact of life that the truly great fighters have truly great records that do not
generally mislead us. Now look at the sprawling record of Henry Armstrong and
look at the names of the men he fought and defeated. If you do not know those
names, if you do not know the circumstances and cannot be bothered to acquaint
yourself with their significance, then you really shouldn’t ask the question.
In the days of
eight traditional weight divisions and only one world champion presiding over
each of them (yes, junior, such a pleasant state of affairs did once exist in
our violent and unprincipled little arena), Henry Armstrong won the
featherweight, welterweight and lightweight championships in that order. In
doing so, he defeated Petey Sarron, Barney Ross and Lou Ambers respectively in
the space of ten months.
Not bad for a
starting reference point, eh? But before we start throwing around the names of
Henry’s many other illustrious opponents, let us revisit that important word,
the almost unanimous opinion of my esteemed fellow historians, was never a more
destructive force in the ring than when he reigned in his natural domain of the
featherweight class. I concur fully. Henry never truly stopped being a
featherweight, hence the magnitude of his achievements. He blistered his way
through that division before wrecking Petey Sarron with a single punch to win
the world crown.
Yet more often
than not, Armstrong is classified as a welterweight in the various all-time
rankings due to his multiple defences of the 147lb crown. Winning that
championship from another all-time ace in the wonderful Barney Ross, Henry
defended it eighteen times in the stunningly short space of seventeen months
before he finally ran out of gas and bowed to Fritzie Zivic in two brutal
In the midst of
his barnstorming welterweight reign, Armstrong gave Lou Ambers the chance to
regain the lightweight crown. Lou did so on a highly controversial decision,
snapping a 46-fight win streak for Henry.
especially low blows, would cost Henry a great many penalty points throughout
his career, and he was punished severely by referee Arthur Donovan in this
return match with Ambers. All of five rounds were taken away from Armstrong, yet
neutral observers still had him winning the fight handily.
ranks was the steaming Henry McLemore of the Associated Press, who handed
referee Donovan the following prosaic pillorying: “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
Why are these
latter achievements of Armstrong’s so stunning? Because in the opinion of many
writers of the day, Henry was on the wane when he stepped up to begin that grand
and prolonged assault on bigger men. He had already campaigned with almost
ridiculous regularity against umpteen world class opponents. By the time he
graduated from the featherweights, he had compiled what would now be regarded as
a career’s worth of fights and then some.
style of relentless attacking required him to work virtually flat-out for every
round. That many fights and that brand of commitment eventually erode the skills
and durability of even the hardest cases. The old-time writers felt similarly
about Mickey Walker when he graduated from the welterweights to the
middleweights. Mick was jaded, they said, shop-worn, over the hill. That is hard
for us to believe when we examine Magnificent Mick’s achievements thereafter.
Such was the extraordinary toughness and resilience of men like Walker and
Henry, like most
fighters of his era, quite probably had more fights than his official career
count of 180. Of those we know, courtesy of those admirable and tireless
gentlemen from BoxRec, Armstrong won 149 and achieved a knockout total of either
100 or 101. When Henry was way over the hill, he was outpointed by his young
admirer, Sugar Ray Robinson, at Madison Square Garden. Robinson waged a
retreating battle out of respect to his idol, claiming that he didn’t wish to
hurt Armstrong. The compliment wasn’t greatly appreciated by Henry, who argued
that Robbie retreated out of fear!
As to the
overall quality of Armstrong’s opposition, well, if some of the aforementioned
names aren’t enough for you, there are plenty of others to pick from. Henry’s
ongoing series with the fiery and dangerous Baby Arizmendi was loaded with
thrills, controversy and sub-plots, which cannot be done justice within the
confines of a general feature. Then there were victories over the sterling likes
of Frankie Klick, Benny Bass, Chalky Wright, the clever Ernie Roderick, Pedro
Montanez, Ceferino Garcia, Lew Jenkins, Tippy Larkin, Beau Jack, Sammy Angott,
Willie Joyce and the Brownsville Bum with the killer left hook, Al (Bummy)
style was all his own, even though it is easy at first sight to group him with
other famous fighters of a similarly relentless attack. Henry bobbed, weaved,
ducked, rolled, jinked and fired a constant hail of punches from all angles, but
always in his uniquely herky-jerky way. One writer described Armstrong’s
perpetual motion as a ‘quiver’. When the referee broke the action, Henry would
jig and jog straight back into the fray like a tenacious little pre-programmed
robot. It was a style that won him many colourful nicknames, but perhaps
Homicide Hank was the favourite of most. It sounded so much meaner than Homicide
Henry or other imaginative inventions.
fighter as a ‘whirlwind’ and many get the impression of a man who flails away at
random and hits the target by the law of averages. Armstrong’s style was often
frenetic and he could certainly miss the target. But Henry was a canny and
educated puncher and expert at hunting an opponent and cutting him off. Henry
could jab, hook, cross and throw uppercuts with damaging speed and force. He was
also deceptively adept at slipping punches, as was Roberto Duran. Fighting the
peak Armstrong could crush a man’s spirit and will, because Henry was simply
unstoppable. The little dynamo just kept boring in all night long, seemingly
impervious to return fire.
He was a
punishing puncher who said of his third and final fight with Fritzie Zivic, “I
made him bleed inside. I hit him to the body, oh, how I hit him.” Armstrong was
on the slide when he delivered that merciless beating to Zivic in their
non-title confrontation at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco in 1942.
Henry’s equation for success was blissfully simple in his own mind: “I hit you
in the middle, your chin comes down. I hit you in the chin, you go down.”
Rollan Melton met up with Armstrong in 1958, when the long retired Henry was
still in pretty good shape. Here is what Melton wrote: “Henry Armstrong, for the
benefit of the young generation, was a fighter of extraordinary talent and
action. He campaigned in the 1930s (and early 40s), when some folks stood in
line for bread and salt pork or told a guy at the bar entrance, ‘Joe sent me’.
As far as many of the young generation’s elders are concerned, Henry was just
about the finest thing that happened since Prohibition.
TV diet looks like love-making. Today, if a writer is among the more gentle set,
he writes, ‘It was a scientific bout’. Invariably the winner, be he a bum or no,
will immediately call for ‘a shot at the champ’.
wasn’t a vocal champ. He just fought – all comers. He won three world titles –
featherweight, lightweight and welterweight – from October 1937 to August 1938
and held all simultaneously. No other fighter has accomplished the same.”
Melody Jackson Jnr. on December 12, 1912, America was teeming with hungry
fighters when Armstrong left high school and decided he would join the great
fistic gold rush. The year was 1929, America was reeling from the Wall Street
crash and Henry recalled, “It was jumping-out-of-the-window season. I was a $15
a week railroader. One day I picked up a wind-blown Global-Democrat newspaper
and saw where Kid Chocolate got $30,000 for a half hour’s work against Al
Singer. That did it. I quit on the spot. It was boxing from then on.”
friends Eddie Foster and Harry Armstrong, Henry began his ring career as Melody
Jackson and travelled all over the country looking for fights, starting in
Pittsburgh, moving on to Chicago and then out to Los Angeles.
hold fond memories for the future triple-weight champion. The drinking water
gave Henry a bad stomach and then he was rebuffed by a famous manager.
Armstrong’s pal Eddie Foster tried to talk Jack (The Deacon) Hurley into taking
a look at Henry, but Hurley replied, “Take the kid back home, send him back to
school.” The rejection of Armstrong was one of the few mistakes of The Deacon’s
Henry ditched the name of Melody Jackson and Henry Armstrong was officially
born. His progress through the ranks in the years to follow would prove to be
every bit as fast and sensational as his non-stop style of fighting.
In 1936, singer
Al Jolson and actor George Raft bought Armstrong’s contract for $10,000
(believed to be the most accurate of the many sums quoted), just as the days of
milk and honey were approaching. Henry was shrewdly steered by his worldly
manager, Eddie Mead, whose salty friends and associates included the likes of
Bugsy Siegel, Frankie Carbo and siren Ruby Keeler.
didn’t disappoint anyone. There was no such thing as a boring Armstrong fight.
His fists would keep pumping relentlessly and many of his shots would stray
south of the border or conveniently jam thumb-first into an opponent’s eye. It
was a tough old game in Henry’s era and every seasoned pro knew all the tricks
and committed similar offences. Fritzie Zivic’s hyperactive thumbs would give
Henry permanent cataract problems in his right eye.
Petey Sarron: October 29, 1937
It was somehow
fitting that Henry Armstrong’s three world championships were all won in
boxing’s one-time capital city of New York. It was the perfect stage for gods
and greatness. In the humble opinion of this writer, it still is. Henry was the
4 to 1 underdog against Petey Sarron before a crowd of 12,000 at Madison Square
Garden, but the feeling among those in the know was that Sarron, fast pushing
thirty-one, was ready to be taken after campaigning busily abroad in England and
One punch was
enough to win the fight for Homicide Hank in the sixth round, when Sarron’s legs
caved in under the force of the payoff blow and sent him to the floor for the
first time in his career. Struggling on his hands and knees, Petey appeared to
lose track of referee Arthur Donovan’s count in the great roar of the crowd.
Sarron argued later on that he could have continued fighting, but his uncertain
movements on rising betrayed him. Dazed and unsteady, he had to be assisted by
The two fighters
were involved in a tremendous exchange when Armstrong pulled the trigger and
uncorked the overhand right that unhinged Sarron and finished his evening. Petey
had fared well through the first three rounds of the scheduled 15-rounder. An
awkward and unconventional fighter, described by one reporter as having “… an
eccentric, pin-wheel style”, he fired in punches from strange angles that
knocked Henry off balance and seemed to have him puzzled.
noticed the snarl on Armstrong’s face and more significantly the menacing glint
in his eye. While Sarron’s volume of punches was making life difficult for
Henry, the quality blows were coming from the relentless little challenger.
Armstrong opened the third round by doubling the right hand to body and head and
clearly hurting Sarron. Henry would lose the round on a foul, but the sufferance
of penalty points for stray blows had already become meat and drink to him. That
second right to the head sent Petey careering into the ropes and drained him of
his speed and evasiveness.
now in the ascendancy and Sarron could only enjoy his brief moments of success
and delay the killer wave that would swamp him. It was a game show of resilience
from Petey, especially after being lashed with a right to the head and a
debilitating left to the body in the fifth round.
to spit defiance in the fateful sixth round. The balding little champ from
Alabama always had a look of fragility about him and now he began to look
frighteningly vulnerable. Armstrong trapped him on the ropes and larruped him
for a good minute before Petey fired back. His revival did not last for much
longer. Henry’s constant pressure was forcing Sarron to make mistakes, and Petey
committed the cardinal error in the frantic exchange of punches that preceded
the knockout. He dropped his left hand and Armstrong finished him in a flash
with the booming coup de grace.
Barney Ross At The Long Island Bowl: May 31, 1938
Barney Ross was
a fabulous fighter and the proud owner of a spectacular career. The gifted, New
York-born Chicagoan was the reigning world welterweight champion who had also
worn the junior-welterweight and lightweight belts. He had lost just three of
his 80 fights and had never been knocked out. Somehow he wasn’t knocked out or
even knocked down against Armstrong. But what a dreadful shellacking Ross
received. He never fought again after those fifteen hellish rounds against
To this day,
when we see the film of that brutal encounter, we marvel in equal measures at
the ferocity of Armstrong and the fighting courage of Ross; a form of extreme
courage that today’s referees probably wouldn’t permit.
It is said that
Henry took to the scales for the Ross fight with lead in his boots. Many
onlookers might have been forgiven for thinking it was Henry’s gloves that were
loaded. Armstrong was jumping straight from featherweight to welterweight for
this audacious challenge, which presented him with a problem in the run-up to
the fight. A naturally small man, he had to puff himself up from 126lbs and get
as near to 147 as he could. At his training camp at Pompton Lakes, he began to
drink copious amounts of beer, which, in turn, would galvanise his appetite. So
went the theory, which a great many journalists have tested through the
centuries for no practical purpose.
The pounds piled
on, but Armstrong was still short of the mark on the day of the fight. He had to
weigh in at noon, and at nine o’clock in the morning he and trainer Eddie Mead
asked their doctor, Alexander Schiff, for advice. The solution was simple,
albeit intense: a steak breakfast with plenty of potatoes, followed by the binge
drinking of water.
Henry was nearly
floating at the weigh-in, where he claimed he hit the scales at 139 1/2 lbs (he
was a reported 133 1/2 for the fight). Even Eddie Mead couldn’t believe it,
while Commissioner Phalen was aghast. Phalen asked Armstrong if he had weights
under his feet or if Eddie Mead was perhaps performing some crafty magic with a
magnet. Both men laughingly dismissed foul play. The room was cleared, Henry was
weighed in private and the result was still the same. It was a good thing that
Commissioner Phalen didn’t stick a pin in Armstrong to see what would happen.
Phalen would have likely been drowned.
In a serious
vein, Armstrong’s weight-making ability, much like that of Archie Moore, was a
constant source of fascination. Drastic measures never seemed to affect Henry’s
performance, and he produced a real lulu against Ross. It was a wonder that
Barney was able to stay upright through the torrid 45 minutes of action. Twice
his handlers pleaded with him to let them stop the fight. Even hardened referee
Arthur Donovan wanted to halt the one-way traffic.
have none of it. At the end of it all, the big crowd at the Long Island Bowl was
almost silent when the inevitable decision was announced. Ross was hugely liked,
to the point of being almost a saint in many people’s eyes. Much like a kindly
priest, he was not supposed to get so viciously mugged.
Before the storm
broke and the leather rained down, Ross battled Henry on even terms. For six
rounds, the fight was competitive and exciting. Then Armstrong began to move and
punch in earnest, scaling those giddy heights that few others could reach.
Outweighed by more than nine pounds, he seemed immeasurably bigger and more
powerful than Barney as the one-sided contest rumbled on. It is a constantly
intriguing mirage of boxing that a beaten fighter shrinks in physical stature by
began in the seventh round, even though Barney won that session after a point
deduction from Henry for a low punch. Ross was all at sea thereafter, a man cut
off from his sunny little island and tossed into a violent maelstrom. His right
eye was banged shut for the last eight rounds, representing just a percentage of
the facial damage he inherited from Armstrong’s whirring fists. At the finish,
the right side of Barney’s face was horribly swollen, the left side covered in
welts and his nose and mouth were leaking blood.
It was a minor
miracle to most how he had managed to navigate his way through the last three
rounds, for in the twelfth he seemed to be on the verge of total collapse. His
knees sagged and his body bent fully over after Armstrong had battered him with
a volley of rights to the head.
fourteenth round, Ross was spun around by a big left hook and the air turned to
a red mist from the spray of his blood. Henry closed in on Barney, weaving,
hooking and slamming away for the knockout, but the fighting instincts of Ross
again prevailed as he tucked up and blocked many of the follow-up blows.
close the fight out like a champion, Barney somehow found the reserves to rally
back at Henry in the fifteenth and final round. But while Armstrong was finally
tiring, there was no steam in the fading champion’s punches. Henry, once again,
had proved himself a master of short-range punching. He missed his share of
blows, but the majority that hit the target were withering in their force and
accuracy. Barney couldn’t box Henry and he couldn’t fight him. There were not
too many men who could.
Lou Ambers: August 17, 1938
It was a split
decision win for Henry Armstrong over Lou Ambers at Madison Square Garden. Henry
had made history. The magnificent little titan was the simultaneous holder of
three world championships. But he had needed to summon up all his phenomenal
energy and determination to dethrone the fiery Ambers in a bloody and
spectacular fight for Lou’s lightweight belt.
Such was the
intensity of Henry’s effort, he finished the fight with leaden arms and close to
exhaustion. He looked terrible in his dressing room, with cut and bruised eyes
and a damaged lip that required stitches. It was some time before he could haul
himself off the rubbing table and walk to the shower.
three rounds for low blows and then had to contend with a mighty rally from
Ambers down the stretch. Henry benefited from a barnstorming start, in which he
compiled a significant points lead. Few writers disputed that he was a deserving
winner, even though Ambers survived near disaster to charge back and whittle
down Henry’s points advantage.
Lou was nearly
bowled out of the fight near the close of the fifth round, when he was saved by
the bell after being hammered to the canvas by an explosive right to the jaw.
Things scarcely improved for Ambers in the sixth, when he was cut down again for
a count of eight. Both knockdowns occurred as Lou was trying to escape from
close quarters, where Armstrong was in his element as he dug away with his
favoured combination of a left to the body and a right to the jaw.
But Ambers was a
tough and clever man, a great champion in his own right, who could tilt with the
best of them. The so-called Herkimer Hurricane from upstate New York never did
know how to blow out gently.
punching. He always did. Failure to finish an opponent after an early success
never dispirited Armstrong. He believed that if you chop at a tree for long
enough, it will eventually fall. In a ferocious eleventh round, he tossed
everything he had at Ambers, but Lou would not go and was still full of fight.
He fought back to take the next three rounds, two of them due to Armstrong’s
infractions. But then Lou faced another major onslaught in the fourteenth as
Henry raced for the wire. A right hand catapulted Ambers into the ropes, which
saved him from his third trip to the canvas.
In the fifteenth
and final frame, Armstrong butted and pounded Ambers into the ropes as blood ran
down Lou’s right leg from Henry’s cut mouth. The crowd of 18,240 was roaring as
a right to the jaw shook Ambers, but it was Lou who came on strong in the final
seconds as the two great warriors traded punches beyond the bell in the bedlam.
again, had shown himself to be a remarkably durable and determined man with
excellent recuperative powers. But his brave resistance and spirited counter
offence were not enough to save his championship. Most people in the pro-Ambers
crowd booed the decision. They had been particularly swayed by Lou’s stirring
comeback from adversity, which had resulted in Armstrong walking groggily to the
wrong corner at the final bell. Lou said that he had suffered no damage from
Henry’s low blows, though manager Al Weill was sufficiently riled to complain to
referee Billy Kavanagh at the end of the tenth.
Press awarded Armstrong a decisive victory.
Armstrong a physical freak for his amazing stamina? This little ‘dusky fellow’
sure was something! What with Jesse Owens and Joe Louis also running riot, there
seemed no end to the athletic capabilities of these sepia supermen. Did the rest
of us need to worry and retire to underground bunkers? Doctors and scientists of
various capabilities were asked to investigate.
Well, I can’t
say what else Homicide Hank might have had in his genes, but he did have the not
unique gift of a slow heartbeat. Vicente Saldivar, another superb featherweight
champion of later years, was similarly blessed.
In May 1939,
Henry travelled to England to defend his welterweight championship against Ernie
Roderick at the old Harringay Arena in London. It was a good chance for the
eggheads to probe this American destroyer of men.
examined by various medics, including a doctor hired by the Daily Express, who
concluded: “Armstrong is a freak of a generation. He is so perfect a human
dynamo that he is scarcely a fair opponent for any normal man near his weight.
He must have an oversized heart, not to the point of pathological enlargement,
but above normal.
“His pulse beat
is fifty-nine, compared with the normal of seventy-two, which makes him capable
of astonishing endurance. This was the secret of the runner, Paavo Nurmi of
Finland. Both Nurmi and Armstrong should will their bodies as cadavers for
research workers to examine.”
outpointed Ernie Roderick over fifteen rounds and went back home. He didn’t live
forever, dying at the age of seventy-five in 1988. What instructions he left for
his cadaver, your writer doesn’t know.
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