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Boxers of Yesteryear: Henry Armstrong Jr.

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One of the greater joys of being a boxing enthusiast is the rich and interesting history that this sport has to offer. Many of the stories, lore and athletic feats surrounding pugilism are still relevant for discussion, even decades after they happened.  

One boxer from yesteryear whose achievements and exploits in the ring are most definitely worthy of discussion is Henry Armstrong Jr., considered by many to be the second greatest pound for pound fighter of all time.

Henry Armstrong Jr. One of the greatest and most relentless punchers of all time. A fighter who was always in perpetual motion

 

Al Johnson - Armstrong - Eddie  Mead (Back)

 

Henry Jr., also known by his aliases of Hurricane Henry or Homicide' Hank, was not only a member of the exclusive group of fighters that have won boxing championships in three or more different divisions (at a time when there were only 8 universally recognized World Titles), but also has the distinction of being the only boxer to hold three world championships at the same time. He also defended the Welterweight Championship more times than any other fighter.

He was among the first three men active in the ring after 1919 to be elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954. The others were Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis.

Hailing from Mississippi, Armstrong was born as Henry Jackson Jr. On December 12, 1912 and moved as a youngster with his family to St. Louis, Missouri, which is where he developed his boxing skills. He was the son of Henry Jackson Sr., a sharecropper of African American, Irish and Native American descent and America Jackson, an Iroquois Native American.

Armstrong was not a  born fighter as a youth he had a small stature and he was often the target of school bullies, this gave him an interest in boxing as a means to defend himself against the bullies. During his years attending Vashon High School, Armstrong excelled, earning good grades and gaining the respect of his peers. He was elected class president and selected poet laureate of his class. Armstrong also worked on his athletic abilities, often running the eight miles to school. After school, he worked as a pin-boy at a bowling alley. Were he gained his first boxing experience.

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Amateur Boxing Days:

Working at the "colored" Young Men's Christian Association** (As referred to at that historical point**), Armstrong met Harry Armstrong, a former boxer, who became his friend, mentor, and trainer. Taking the name Melody Jackson, Armstrong won his first amateur fight at the St. Louis Coliseum in 1929, by a knockout in the second round. After several more amateur fights, Armstrong moved to Pittsburgh to pursue a professional career. Ill prepared and undernourished, Armstrong lost his first professional fight by a knockout. He did manage to win his second fight on points; however, he decided to return to St. Louis.

In 1931 Armstrong, accompanied by Harry Armstrong, hopped trains to Los Angeles to restart his amateur career. Upon meeting fight manager Tom Cox at a local gym, Armstrong introduced himself as Harry Armstrong's brother, after which he became known by the name Henry Armstrong. Securing a contract with Cox for three dollars, he had almost 100 amateur fights, in which he won more than half by knockout and lost none. When Cox sold his contract on Armstrong to Wirt Ross in 1932 for $250, Armstrong entered the professional ranks to stay.

Standing five feet five and one half inches tall, Armstrong fought in the featherweight class. After losing his first two professional fights in Los Angeles, Armstrong began to consistently win his bouts. He became known for his whirlwind combination of constant movement and knockout punches, earning him numerous new nicknames, including Homicide Hank, Perpetual Motion, and Hurricane Henry. Because the purses were small, Armstrong fought often, usually at least 12 times a year, and supplemented his income by operating a shoe shine stand from 1931 to 1934.

Armstrong started out as a professional on July 28, 1931, being knocked out by Al Iovino in three rounds. Just like Alexis Argüello, Bernard Hopkins and Wilfredo Vazquez in the future, Armstrong was one world champion who started off on the losing end. His first win came later that year, beating Sammy Burns by a decision in six. In 1932, Armstrong moved to Los Angeles, where he started out losing two four round decisions in a row, to Eddie Trujillo and Al Greenfield. But after that, he started a streak of 11 wins in a row, a streak which expanded to 1933, until he lost again, to Baby Manuel. Then he went 22 straight fights without a defeat, going 17–0–5 in that span, including a win in a Sacramento rematch with Manuel and five wins over Perfecto Lopez. After that, he moved to Mexico City, where in his first fight there, he lost to former World Bantamweight Champion Baby Arizmendi. He had four more fights there, going 2–2 and losing to Arizmendi in what was considered by Mexico and California a world title bout (thus Armstrong losing on his first championship try) and to Baby Casanova by a five round disqualification. He then moved back to California, where he went 8–1–1 for the next ten bouts.

Title 1: Featherweight Champion of the World

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Armstrong and his managers realized that they needed to attract attention away from the rising fame of boxer Joe Louis. In an attempt to gain popularity and therefore more important fights with bigger purses, they set a goal of winning titles in three different weight divisions, an accomplishment no boxer had ever achieved. Through 1937 Armstrong entered the ring 27 times, winning every fight and knocking out all but one of his opponents. Jolson offered boxer Petey Sarron $15,000 to defend his featherweight title against Armstrong, and the two boxers met on October 29, 1937, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Armstrong won the fight, knocking out Sarron in the sixth round, thus earning his first world title as the Featherweight Champion of the World.

Title 2: Welterweight Champion of the World

Armstrong then set out to achieve his goal, in becoming the first boxer to ever hold three undisputed titles at the same time. For his second title he set his sights on the lightweight division, but his challenge to a title fight was declined by lightweight titleholder Lou Ambers. Determined to enter a title fight, Armstrong then challenged welterweight champion Barney Ross. Armstrong had to increase his weight to 138 pounds in order to qualify to fight in the welterweight division. He made the minimum weight by increasing his calorie intake, drinking beer in the days before the fight and a lot of water on the day of weigh-in.

The promoters postponed the bout for 10 days, and Armstrong accepted Joe Louis's invitation to train at Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, with Louis covering all expenses. Although Ross was favoured by the odds makers three to one over Armstrong; when the two met in Long Island City on May 31, 1938, Armstrong won convincingly on points in 15 rounds, earning his second title, Welterweight Champion of the World.

Title 3: World Lightweight Champion

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Then, he went down in weight and challenged World Lightweight Champion Lou Ambers. In a history making night, Armstrong became the first boxer ever to have world championships in three different divisions at the same time, by beating Ambers by split decision. A few days later, he decided he couldn't make the 126 pounds weight anymore and he vacated the featherweight crown.

On August 17, 1938, just three months after his fight with Ross, Armstrong took on  Lou Ambers  in front of 20,000 fans at Madison Square Garden. The fight lasted 15 rounds. Ambers opened a cut on Armstrong's lower lip, and Armstrong, afraid the referee would stop the fight, swallowed the blood throughout the fight and succeeded in winning on points. However, the fight was so brutal that Armstrong blacked out at the end and could later recall very little of what happened.

He dedicated the next two years to defending the welterweight crown, beating, among others, future World Middleweight Champion Ceferino Garcia, Al Manfredo and Bobby Pacho, before defending his Lightweight belt in a rematch with Ambers, which he lost on a 15 round decision. After that, he concentrated once again on defending the world Welterweight title, and made eight defenses in a row, the last of which was a nine round knockout win over Puerto Rico's Pedro Montañez. Then, he tried to make history once again by becoming the first boxer to win world titles in four different categories in a rematch with Garcia, already the World Middleweight Champion, but the fight ended in a ten round draw, Armstrong's attempt to win a fourth division's world title being frustrated. According to boxing historian the late Bert Sugar, many felt Armstrong deserved the decision in this fight.

The final title bout of his career was a failed attempt to regain the lightweight title in a rematch with Zivic on January 17, 1941. Armstrong was knocked out in the 12-round fight. He continued to box actively until announcing his retirement in 1945 at the age of 32.

Professional Record:

Henry Armstrong Jr. had a total of 180 fights. He won 149 of those fights and 101 of them were all knockouts, he had 21 loses, and 10 draws.

One of Armstrong’s greatest victory streaks was the 27-win bouts in a row that he won and all by a knockout. It is regarded by many boxing experts as the best winning streak in boxing history.

After In Retirement:

Armstrong may have been one of the world’s ever greatest boxers but as with many pugilists before him he was not a savvy business man and on top of that he had taken to living a playboy’s life style. Armstrong made a million dollars in his fifteen year boxing career but at the end there was precious little left to show for all his hard work.

He became a boxing manager for a time, but his increasing use of alcohol led to his arrest in Los Angeles. In 1949 Armstrong experienced a religious conversion and turned his life around. Two years later he was ordained as a Baptist minister at Morning Star Baptist Church.

In the 1950’s he created the Henry Armstrong Youth Foundation and funded the organization from the profits of two books he wrote: Twenty Years of Poem, Moods, and Mediations (1954) and his autobiography, Gloves, Glory, and God (1956).

Personal Life:

Armstrong first married in 1934. He and Willa Mae Shony had one daughter, Lanetta. After that marriage ended in divorce, Armstrong married a second time in 1960. Velma Tartt was a former girlfriend from his high school days. She died on the way to the hospital in Armstrong's arms, having suffered chest pains. After a brief third marriage, Armstrong married his fourth wife, Gussie Henry, in 1978. During his final years, Armstrong suffered from numerous illnesses, including cataracts and dementia. At the very end he was once again penniless.

He died of heart failure on October 22, 1988 in Los Angeles

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Achievements:

He was featured in three movies, “Keep Punching” (1939), “The Pittsburgh Kid” (1941) and “Joe Palooka, Champ” (1946).

In 1954 he became a charter member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, inducted in its opening year along with Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey.

Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Ranked 2nd on The Ring's list of The 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years (2002).

In his 2006 book Boxing's Greatest Fighters, historian Bert Sugar ranked Armstrong as the 2nd greatest fighter of all-time.

Information Source: Gale Encyclopedia of Biography – BoxRec - The Henry Armstrong Foundation - International Boxing Hall of Fame – Wikipedia - BoxingStars