The Great Henry Armstrong

18.11.05 - By Craig Parrish: Featherweight Champion of the World. Welterweight Champion of the World. Lightweight Champion of the World. All at the same time? Impossible, you might think. But this indeed was accomplished by the great Henry Armstrong, one of the most fascinating fighters of all time.

He was born as Henry Jackson in 1912 on a plantation in Mississippi. He was the eleventh child of a family of fifteen. The Jacksons were farmers and struggled to survive in the years following World War I. Henry’s Father, finally fed up with the struggle, relocated the family to St. Louis, where young Henry dreamed of someday being a Doctor. He worked low paying jobs to help his family, and to someday make his dream a reality. Henry realized eventually though, that he would never make it this way. One day, he found a newspaper that featured an article about the great Cuban boxer, Kid Chocolate. As Henry read the article, he realized that the Kid was a small man, like himself. He read of the money and cars that the Kid had. The die was cast. From that day forward, Henry was a fighter.

He met Harry Armstrong, a fight trainer at the local YMCA. After sparring a few rounds, Harry was convinced that Henry has what it took and set him on the path of his amateur career. Henry started fighting in 1929. The opportunities were scarce for a young Black man, as most promoters preferred that they fight in the ‘Battle Royal” style, which he detested. This consisted of putting multiple fighters in the ring blindfolded and the last one standing won the prize. Realizing that he would have to move on to follow his dream, he headed out to Pittsburgh.

Needing money, Henry turned Pro. After a few fights in Pennsylvania, he moved onto Chicago. He pursued multiple trainers, but nobody was interested. Dejected, he returned to St. Louis. Once home, he decided that the place he needed to be was California. Henry and Harry hopped on a freight car and headed to the coast. This time, they got lucky. He signed with a Manager and started to fight Amateur under the name Henry Armstrong, as he had formerly fought as a Pro under the name Mellody Jackson. He quickly established himself as a hard punching knockout artist. After a failed bid for the Olympics, he went Pro again in 1932.

He fought up and down the West coast for several years, and multiple fights in Mexico City, establishing his reputation. He fought as a Featherweight. Eventually, he drew notice from the Hollywood crowd that was interested in Boxing. His contract was then bought by Al Jolson, Eddie Mead, and George Raft. Raft had tried to be a fighter earlier, and was still very interested in the game. With these Celebrities behind him, the big fights started rolling in for Henry. He knocked out Mike Belloise in the 5th round at Madison Square Garden. But Jolson, Raft, and Mead had a grander scheme in mind. They had decided to try to go after 3 Championships at the same time. Henry, game as usual, went along.

They started the quest in 1937. On October 9th, Henry knocked out Petey Sarron in 6 rounds for the Featerweight title. He fought 27 times that year, knocking out 26 opponents. He then set his sights on Barney Ross and moved up to the Welterweight class at 147 pounds. In order to make the weight, Henry spent weeks drinking beer and eating, and still had to drink gallons of water before the weigh-in to make the cut. He weighed 139 ½ pounds. By fight night, he was 133. Ross was probably closer to 160. Henry pummeled Ross so badly that his Handlers asked Henry to carry him for the last 4 rounds, which he did. Ross retired after the bout. Henry was now Welterweight Champion of the World, in addition to his Featherweight strap.

Three months after the Ross fight, Henry went for the trifecta. He challenged Lou Ambers for the Lightweight Championship of the world. Henry had cut his lower lip sparring, and the cut re-opened during the fight. In the thirteenth, the Ref was tempted to stop the fight, as the mat was covered with blood from Henry’s bleeding lip. But they congealed the cut and the fight continued. As he swallowed more and more blood, he began to feel sick. Fourteenth Round. Fifteenth Round. Henry woke up in the Dressing room and asked Harry when he had been knocked out. Henry was surprised to learn that in the 15th he had backed Ambers against the ropes and nearly KO’d him. He had won the fight. Henry Armstrong was the Featherweight, Welterweight, and Lightweight Champion of the World, lying on his back in a dressing room in Yankee Stadium. He had done it.

He continued to fight for several more years, winning titles and losing titles. He lost a decision to a young Ray Robinson in 1943, in what Henry would later call a “disgusting fight”. He was upset that Robinson wouldn’t trade punches with him, and ran all night. He won 16 of 19 fights in 1944, but his career was winding down and he retired for good in 1945. That year, he did a goodwill tour overseas for American GI’s. It was on this trip in Egypt that Henry decided he was going to go into the Ministry and was ordained in 1951. He spent the rest of his life as the assistant Pastor of the First Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri, his boyhood home. He passed away in 1988.

Henry Armstrong’s career record was 151 (101 KO’s)-21-9. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He is still the only fighter to hold Championships in 3 weight classes at the same time. His was an inspiring story, a tale of determination and grit from whence legends are born. He truly
was The GREAT Henry Armstrong.

Article posted on 18.11.2005

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