At his peak, an act of God.
The Third God of War: Henry Armstrong
By Springs Toledo from Sweet Science
“Batten down the hatches…!”
~ Chambers Journal, 1883
Henry Armstrong’s grandmother was a slave in Mississippi. She was owned by his Irish grandfather whose eyes twinkled at the sight of her. Their son grew up and married a woman who was half-Cherokee. Her name was “America.” The couple had fifteen children. The eleventh, Henry, inherited his father’s short stature and his mother’s strength and work ethic.
The family moved to St. Louis when he was still a small child. At sixteen years old, he put on his father’s cap and overalls and walked down to the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and got a job –driving spikes with a sledgehammer like John Henry. One day a fateful gust of wind carried a discarded newspaper to his feet: “KID CHOCOLATE EARNS $75,000 FOR HALF HOUR’S WORK,” the headline declared. He quit the job, ran home, and told his grandmother that he was fixing to be a champion of the world. She looked him up and down and said “you ain’t no Jack Johnson!”
And she was right. The kid with the baggy overalls and a hammer in his hand would become something else, something greater than Jack Johnson.
Henry Armstrong would become a force of nature in the boxing ring. Like those boll weevils that came up and under his family’s crops back on the plantation, he’d come up and under his opponent’s guard and do to ribs what those critters did to crops. Like the Tombigbee River that overran its banks and killed their cattle, he’d flood his opponent. Press row would watch his relentless attack and compared it to a hurricane…
It began as a tempest in a teapot in 1931, when the underfed teenager lost three out of his first four professional fights. Over the next five years he fought seven draws and suffered eight more setbacks, but stronger frames were getting knocked over. Quite suddenly his elements converged with swirling momentum, and the forecast turned severe for anyone in his path. Between January 1937 and October 1940, Armstrong posted 59 wins, 1 heavily disputed loss, 1 heavily disputed draw, and 51 knockouts. In only three years and ten months, Armstrong fought 61 times. That’s exactly how many fights Muhammad Ali had over the length of his career; and they weren’t scale versions of “bums of the month” either –his blows had multiple contenders and seven Hall of Famers spinning sideways in the ring.
Armstrong reached peak intensity the same year that one of the most powerful natural events in recorded history slammed into the east coast of the United States.
The Great Hurricane of 1938 made landfall on September 21st and cut a swath through Long Island, New York, and New England. Only a junior forecaster saw it coming, but his frantic relay was slapped down by his superiors at the U.S. Weather Bureau who wrongly expected the storm system to continue on a seaward path. So there was no notice, no preparation. It hit Long Island at a record speed and changed the landscape of the south coast forever. Over the next three days, the Blue Hills Conservatory in Massachusetts measured peak gusts at 186 mph and 50 foot waves crashed into the Gloucester shoreline. By the time it was over and the statistics were computed, seven hundred people had died, 63,000 were left homeless, and 2 billion trees were uprooted.
“Hurricane Henry” cut another kind of swath –through three weight divisions. His three managers, the famous Al Jolson, film noir actor George Raft, and Eddie Mead, came up with an idea to pilot him toward three crowns. In an era where boxing recognized only eight kings, toppling three of them would be an unparalleled feat …if he could do it.
This is what it would take, they told Henry, to compete with the rampaging Joe Louis in a depressed market. “It sounds pretty good to me,” he replied.
THE WORLD FEATHERWEIGHT TITLE, 29 October 1937
Petey Sarron had been a professional for a dozen years and looked it, wrote Paul Mickelson, “his eyes are cut, his ears are hard and flat, and he’s broken his left hand three times, his right once.” He also happened to be the National Boxing Association featherweight champion, and in his prime at twenty-nine.
Madison Square Garden’s 1937-1938 boxing season opened with Sarron matched up against the twenty-four-year-old Armstrong for recognition as the world featherweight champion. Sarron trained at Pioneer’s gym in Manhattan while Armstrong trained at Stillman’s gym, which may partly explain the 2˝ to 1 odds favoring the challenger –that or the fact that he was on a fifteen fight knockout streak. “This talk don’t scare me,” Sarron said, “I’m used to it. I found out in America, Africa, and Europe that nobody can beat me at 126 pounds.” Sarron was confident that Armstrong would fade. He reminded all and sundry that while he himself had gone fifteen rounds fifteen times, the challenger never had. “Armstrong isn’t fighting a punk this time,” he said.
The veteran may have been expected to let youthful joie de vivre sap itself and then take over, but he defied that idea and waded boldly in to meet Armstrong on his own terms. He even managed to outland him with left hooks in the first round. He won the next few as well by inviting Armstrong to open up and then countering him. Armstrong made the mistake of trying too hard against a man who knew too much –he got stars in his eyes, went for a spectacular knockout, and got stars in his eyes. His wound-up shots breezed by the moving target although when they did happen to connect, they hurt. Before long, Sarron’s ribs began rattling like wind chimes under the blustering body attack, and by the fifth round his shutters were blown open. Armstrong mercilessly lashed him in a corner until the bell rang.
A heavy right landed downstairs to begin the sixth and Sarron faced another surge. “Recovering somewhat,” The New York Times reported, “Sarron jumped at Armstrong and traded willingly with him.” His pride only preceded his fall. Armstrong shot a left to the body and then launched an overhand right that crashed on the champion’s jaw. Sarron “slumped to his knees and elbows” as if looking for a storm cellar under the ring, and was counted out.
Petey Sarron fought a total of 151 times. The record indicates that he was stopped only once. Armstrong called the signature shot that did it “the blackout.”
THE WORLD WELTERWEIGHT TITLE, 31 May 1938
Armstrong’s managers intended to take the three world championship belts in an orderly fashion, but Al Weill, manager of the lightweight champion Lou Ambers, asked for a rain check. Welterweight king Barney Ross wasn’t about to give up a payday because of stormy weather.
With a record of 72-3-3, Ross was an established master-boxer who, like Sarron, was never stopped. Born in New York City’s lower East Side, he stood second only to Benny Leonard among the celebrated Jewish champions who reigned from the 1910s through the 1930s and virtually disappeared after that. Barney Ross (nee Barnet David Rasofsky) was the last of the great ones.
As a welterweight, he had not lost since the “Irish Lullaby” Jimmy McLarnin defeated him in 1934 –and Ross beat him before that bout and again after it. By the time he signed to face Armstrong, ennui had settled in because of the lack of challenges. He’d sneak tokes of a Chesterfield in the rubdown room and swig straight vodka at night after training. Not this time. Ross’s best fighting weight was 142 lbs and that was precisely what the scale said at the weigh-in. It was also the contractual limit for this match.
Armstrong was having problems with the scale; simply put, he was no welterweight. In a sport where boxers ritualistically dried out, weighed in on the day of the fight, and then gorged at supper, Henry hurried to the scale with a belly full of water and beer, weighed in at only 133 lbs, and made off for the nearest toilet.
The vast Jewish contingent in New York bet heavily on Ross, who entered the ring as a 7 to 5 favorite. The fistic fraternity was polled and Ross was favored by Jew and Gentile alike, 50-36, to outbox the smaller man.
Every radio in the lower East Side was blaring as Barney Ross glided out of his corner at the opening bell. Working behind a varying jab and boxing at angles, Ross’s eyes were wide open in the early rounds as he strained to measure the bobbing and weaving whirlwind. Armstrong’s body attack was withering –he turned his fist around, crashed it into the champion’s ribs, and mixed it with left hooks and overhand rights. Ross’s strategy was to step inside the eye of the storm –inside the looping shots, and shift Armstrong off balance. The strategy was masterfully executed and Ross can be seen on film pivoting and turning Armstrong, but two problems soon became painfully clear. First, Ross assumed that his superior size would matter. It didn’t. The second was a question of pace. Henry could keep a hellish pace indefinitely. Barney could not. By round seven, the featherweight champion was overpowering the welterweight champion. Ross was still throwing that right uppercut-left hook combination, but he was wavering like a weather vane in November.
It has become a convention among boxing historians to accede that the twenty-eight year old Ross got old in that bout, that he could no longer move as lively as he once did. That claim ignores what the film confirms –Armstrong’s physical strength and pressure wore Ross out, just like it did Sarron. By the end of the tenth round, Barney Ross was in big trouble.
Only his heart and Armstrong’s favor allowed him to finish on his feet. Late in the fight, arguments abounded in both corners. Ross’s chief second had the towel in hand and was ready to throw it in when Ross warned “–don’t do it. I’m not quitting.” The referee came over and Barney had to make a promise to alleviate the official’s conscience. “Let me finish like a champion,” he said, “and I promise I’ll never fight again.” In the other corner Armstrong wanted to knock him out. “I don’t want to crucify him,” he said, “I don’t want to hurt him no more.”
Armstrong would later claim that his seconds had gotten a signal to carry Barney for the last four rounds, and that the two champions had a conversation during a clinch that went something like this:
Armstrong: “How you feel, Barney?”
Ross: “I’m dead.”
Armstrong: “Jab and run, and I’ll make it look good.”
As the last bell clanged, Barney embraced Henry. “You’re the greatest,” he said. Close to it… Armstrong emerged from a battle against one of the finest boxers of the Golden Era with nothing more than a bruised knuckle.
THE WORLD LIGHTWEIGHT TITLE, 17 August 1938
New York’s own Lou Ambers was as tough as old boots. Known as the “Herkimer Hurricane,” he was a trainer’s dream, sighed Whitey Bimstein, because the closest thing he had to a vice was going to the movies. Ambers was also a supremely skilled in-fighter whose pride still swelled his chest decades later, “Oh Jesus,” he said in retirement, “I loved to fight.”
Ringside seats for the Ambers-Armstrong title fight at Madison Square Garden cost $16.50, same-day admission was $1.15, and soon eighteen thousand were fidgeting in the seats. A collision of two hurricanes was imminent. Would Armstrong emerge with three simultaneous crowns? The odds said 3 to 1 that he would.
Al Jolson plunked down a grand that said Ambers wouldn’t even see fifteen rounds. But Ambers was ready. “I’ll cut up Henry Armstrong so badly,” he predicted, “the referee will have to stop the fight.” Reporters chewed on their pencils at this. “Don’t worry about me,” he snapped, “wait until we’ve gone 15 rounds and then ask Armstrong how he liked it.”
The two champions were standing toe-to-toe and slugging it out for a full minute by round two as the crowd screamed and hats flew. Ambers clinched effectively inside and landed sneak shots, but it was Armstrong who caught him pulling back in the fifth round with a long right. Ambers tumbled down. The referee counted to three when the bell rang and his corner men rushed out to revive him. In the next round, Armstrong threw combinations that didn’t end. Down went Ambers again.
He took an eight count but nodded to his chief second, who by now had the spit bucket over his head.
Then Ambers found an answer; as Armstrong bent forward and barreled in, he stood his ground and shot uppercuts one after another. Armstrong hurled punches low and the referee penalized him four rounds while Ambers knocked his mouthpiece out twice and severely split his lip. It was a war. In the fourteenth, Armstrong landed a right and Ambers reeled across the ring like a drunk chasing his hat, but he wouldn’t go down again.
Armstrong said it as the “bloodiest fight I ever had in my life.” The canvas, according to Henry McLemore in press row, “resembled a gigantic butcher’s apron” and the fight was almost stopped. “I’m not going to bleed no more,” he promised the referee, and then spat out his mouthpiece and got back to work. He ended up swallowing about a pint of his own blood along with the iodine and collodion used to congeal the cut in his mouth. Delirium set in sometime in round fifteen.
In Lou Amber’s dressing room, McLemore suspected that the fighter’s screws were punched loose. Lou sat naked, covered with welts, his eye an egg, croaking the old favorite “I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad” –and talking ragtime. Swaying to and fro, he was still ducking overhands that weren’t coming anymore. “Whoop-a-doopy!” he said as McLemore made tracks for the other dressing room. Armstrong couldn’t even remember the fifteenth round. His handlers would tell him later how they had to peel him off of Ambers. A strange calm swept over him as he sat nursing a swollen left eye, five cuts over both eyes, and a mangled lip that would take fifteen stitches. Flashbulbs exploded in his face.
Hurricane Henry had reached his peak –the fistic equivalent of a category five. After storming three divisions and dethroning three champions in less than a year, the man was spent …and the boxing landscape would never be the same.
On 52nd Street the next morning, yellow cabs honk their discontent and clusters of pedestrians bustle to work outside Madison Square Garden. A gust carries a newspaper through space and time, sailing, swirling until it lands at the feet of a tall and rangy teenager in Central Park. “TRIPLE CHAMPION!” he reads, and his eyes flash with ambition. He finishes stretching and starts running down the winding bicycle path, against the wind.