He was 'Homicide Hank' for a reason
Henry Armstrong, a 5-foot-5½ buzzsaw, accomplished what no fighter before or since has ever been able to do -- he simultaneously held three world titles. And he managed this unique feat before inflation hit boxing, back when there were only eight weight classes with no junior-this or super-that divisions.
Armstrong had a 151-21-9 record in his 15-year professional career. With his aggressive attitude and incessant windmill style, he was all over opponents, as evidenced by his 101 knockouts and his nickname of Homicide Hank.
First, he knocked out featherweight champion Petey Sarron in the sixth round on Oct. 29, 1937. He won 14 fights before bypassing the lightweight title and challenging welterweight champion Barney Ross for his crown on May 31, 1938. It was no contest, with Armstrong's rapid-fire attack overwhelming Ross to gain the 15-round decision.
Taking away Lou Ambers' lightweight crown on Aug. 17, 1938 in Madison Square Garden proved more difficult. Ambers had Armstrong spitting blood from a torn bottom lip, and he cut the challenger's eyes as well. Despite almost blacking out in the 15th round, Armstrong won a split decision to make history.
Born Henry Jackson on Dec. 12, 1912, in Columbus, Miss., he was the 11th of 15 children. His father, also named Henry, was a mix of Indian, Irish and black blood. His mother, America, was half-Cherokee Indian. When Armstrong was 4, the family moved to St. Louis. His mother died a year later, and he was raised by his grandmother. As a youngster, he got into neighborhood street fights. But there was a sensitive side, too, as he showed at his high school graduation when he read an original poem.
As an amateur Armstrong fought under the name of Melody Jackson. He quit his job working for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, figuring he could make his fortune fighting for pay. His debut as an 18-year-old pro was inauspicious, as he was knocked out in the third round by Al Iovino on July 27, 1931, in Pennsylvania. It was one of only two knockouts Armstrong would suffer in his career. His next fight was four days later, and he won a six-round decision.
Armstrong moved to Los Angeles, where he resumed his amateur status. He teamed up with -- and took the surname of -- a trainer and former boxer named Henry Armstrong. He officially turned pro a year later after failing to make the 1932 Olympic team, and he lost his first two fights, both four-round decisions in Los Angeles in 1932. Boxing as a featherweight, he gained quite a bit of experience from 1933 to 1935, fighting 46 times, mostly in California and Mexico.
In 1936, he won something called the California-Mexico version of the world featherweight title, winning a 10-round decision from Baby Arizmendi, who had beaten him in their first two bouts. Legendary singer Al Jolson saw the fight and purchased Armstrong's contract. Jolson's front man was manager Eddie Mead, who showed the fighter the road to Title Town.
The next year was an incredible one for Armstrong as he fought 27 times -- and won all of them. Twenty-six of the bouts were ended by a knockout, including that of Sarron in their 126-pound fight.
But 1938 was an even better year for Armstrong, as he took the two more championships. Although Armstrong was outweighed by at least 15 pounds by Ross, he dominated their fight in Madison Square Garden, pounding the champion unmercifully for 11 rounds. "I carried him the last four rounds," Armstrong said. "I was asked to do it, and he thanked me."
Ten weeks later, Armstrong's fight with Ambers was a war. Armstrong knocked down the champ in the fifth and sixth rounds, but Ambers cut him severely. "If you spit any more blood on that floor," referee Billy Cavanaugh told Armstrong, "I'm going to stop this fight.
Armstrong had his cornermen remove his mouthpiece so he could swallow the blood flowing in his mouth the last five rounds. Despite losing three rounds on fouls, having both eyes cut and swollen, and needing 37 stitches later to close the wound inside his mouth, Armstrong won a split decision. He had fulfilled his goal -- he reigned as champion over three divisions.
But not for long. He voluntarily relinquished his featherweight crown, and the next August he lost the lightweight title back to Ambers on a unanimous decision. That fight, before 29,088 fans at Yankee Stadium, was another brawl as the fighters pounded each other for 15 rounds. Armstrong was penalized five rounds for low punches, and that cost him the fight as two officials had Ambers winning by only an 8-7 margin.
After the decision was announced, the second fight started; both managers and the New York State Athletic Commission were the participants. Mead was suspended 13 months after accusing commissioner Bill Brown of favoring Ambers. Al Weill, Ambers' manager, was suspended four months for his unsportsmanlike behavior
On March 1, 1940, in Los Angeles, Armstrong sought to become the first-ever four-division champion when he attempted to wrest the middleweight crown from Ceferino Garcia, whom he had decisioned in a welterweight defense in 1938. Fighting true to form, Armstrong applied pressure throughout the bout. But Garcia shut the challenger's left eye and gained a draw, enabling him to keep the title.
Seven months later, a fading Armstrong finally lost his welterweight title after the 19 successful defenses, including six in 1940. Fritzie Zivic, a veteran journeyman best known for questionable tactics, worked Armstrong's eyes, which were scarred and vulnerable to cutting, and took a unanimous decision. Armstrong fared even worse in their rematch in 1941, suffering a 12th-round TKO. That was the last time Armstrong would fight for a championship.
After taking 16 months off, he came back and stayed around until 1945, fighting 49 times although he had lost most of his skill. He finally did beat Zivic, by decision in 1942, but Zivic was no longer champ. In 1943, Armstrong lost a 10-round decision to an up-and-coming Sugar Ray Robinson, who had idolized the three-division champion.
Armstrong's purses had totaled between $500,000 and $1 million, but most of the money was gone when the Hall of Famer retired at age 32. Armstrong won his most significant fight when he overcame alcoholism. He became an ordained Baptist minister in 1951. Returning to St. Louis, he founded the Henry Armstrong Youth Foundation and directed the Herbert Hoover Boys Club.
He died at age 75 on Oct. 24, 1988, in Los Angeles. After his death, his heart was found to be one-third larger than average. That didn't surprise anybody in boxing.