Becoming a two-weight, three-weight, even a four-weight world champion in the sport of boxing is considerably easier today compared to in the golden days, the great days when boxing was one of the biggest sports in the world. Why? It’s simple – there are more weight divisions today when there used to be just eight: flyweight, bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light-heavyweight, and heavyweight.
And one special, special fighter holds the unique distinction of holding THE world champion (there was, of course, only one world champ at each weight; which is how it should be) in three of these weight divisions at THE SAME TIME. Henry Armstrong, an amazing physical specimen with an unquenchable desire to fight the very best again and again and again, had won the featherweight crown, he had captured the welterweight championship and now, on a hot and humid night in August of 1938, he was challenging the unimaginably tough Lou Ambers for the world lightweight crown.
Ambers, who throughout his career would show his own greatness with wins over the likes of Baby Arizmendi (yet another great, one who engaged in a fierce rivalry with Armstrong), Tony Canzoneri, and Fritzie Zivic, would not let go of his title without a fight. A brutal fight.
The two went to war in New York at a time when boxing fans would not settle for anything but a great fight. With the hell of The Great Depression still raging, money was short, and a lack of effort on the part of a prizefighter would simply not be tolerated. Some of the non-efforts for big money we fans are “treated to” today would have resulted in a veritable lynching, or at the very least, the need for a move to another town on the part of the fighter who turned in the cash-grab. But that’s another story.
Armstrong and Ambers gave their all and then some, for 15 scintillating, often brutal rounds. The pace, set by the freakishly strong and energetic Armstrong, was as hot as the temperature inside a packed-out Madison Square Garden. Fans witnessed a genuine classic. Armstrong, almost as powerful at 135 as he was at 126 pounds, almost ended matters in the fifth, when he decked Ambers with a right hand to the head. The bell saved Ambers, and the battle raged on.
Downed again in the next round, Ambers withstood a terrible hammering from “Hammerin’ Hank,” the fight appearing to be close to its end. But Ambers was one tough, tough man. Armstrong might have come within a punch or two of punching himself out as he tore in, looking for the stoppage. The savage slugfest continued unabated. Armstrong was winning more rounds, yet he was paying the price.
Hit plenty, bleeding inside the mouth and close to real exhaustion, Armstrong had to survive a big late-rounds rally; Ambers was somehow coming on strong in the final third of the fight. Reportedly, the referee was so alarmed at the amount of blood that had soaked the ring canvas; he told Armstrong he was going to have to stop the fight. “Don’t stop it!” Armstrong begged. “I’m winning the fight.”
“The ring is full of blood, and it’s your blood,” the third man bellowed. “Then I’ll stop bleeding,” Armstrong said.
And, astonishingly, showing the kind of heart and bravery no modern-day fighter would be allowed to show should he actually have the guts to want to, Armstrong fought the final five rounds with no gum-shield in. Armstrong swallowed God knows how much of his own blood, his refusal to quit something we should forever marvel at.
Ambers, finding his third wind, maybe even his fourth, gave it all he had left in the last couple of rounds. Armstrong, his eyes banged up, managed to hold on – just. Neither man had anything left at the final bell, yet Ambers had the crowd on his side. Armstrong was the winner, yet the decision – 8-6-1, 7-6-2 for Armstrong, 8-7 for Ambers – was booed. Today, both men would be set for life, with no need to ever fight again, so heroically did the pair fight.
Instead, both men fought on for years, meeting the following August again, with Ambers regaining his title with a 15 round unanimous decision.
For now, though, on this day in 1938, Henry Armstrong was the king of kings, having become the only man to have ever held three world titles at as many weights at the same time.