- William Dettloff
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Henry Jackson, who came to be known as Henry Armstrong, never wanted to be a prizefighter. When he was a 17-year-old kid driving spikes into the ground helping grown men build the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, he wanted to be a doctor.
Then he got his first paycheck and realized that he would never make real money driving railroad spikes. He needed enough to go to college and also to take care of his grandmother, who had raised him in St. Louis after his father died. He needed more -- a lot more.
"[I was] just thinking, and all of the sudden one of these big winds come up and somebody threw away a newspaper," Armstrong told author Peter Heller in 1970. "The paper read, 'Kid Chocolate Earns $75,000 for Half Hour's Work.' He beat Al Singer. That particular sheet was just twirling around in the air and it's coming right at me. Then all of a sudden, bip! It just fell on the ground in front of me, and the wind just stopped. It was a miracle. And I read across the paper. I said, 'That's for me.'"
It was 1929. The Great Depression had already begun, but Armstrong quit on the spot and hit the road to become a fighter. He met up with a trainer and former fighter named Harry Armstrong, adopted his surname and went 58-4 as an amateur.
Eight years later he beat Petey Sarron for the world featherweight title, thus beginning the most remarkable string of championship fights in the history of modern prizefighting.
It is a testament to Armstrong's legend that 63 years after his last fight, it's not just the old heads who know what he did. The young heads know, too. Everyone who's ever cracked open a book about boxing or explored its significant past on the Web knows Armstrong is the only fighter in history to have simultaneously held world titles in three weight classes.
It almost certainly will never happen again. Although it would be easier to accomplish with the additional weight classes the modern game employs, the various governing bodies that run the game prohibit a fighter from holding a title in more than one division at a time. (Only The Ring magazine has no such mandate; it currently recognizes Joe Calzaghe as the champion in both the light heavyweight and super middleweight divisions.)
The feat is remarkable on its face. Try to picture even such a star as Manny Pacquiao simultaneously holding the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles, after having beaten, say, Robert Guerrero, Antonio Margarito, and then Joel Casamayor in the span of a year.
That might be comparable to what Armstrong did in 1937 and '38, when he whipped Sarron, Barney Ross and Lou Ambers (beating Ross and Ambers back-to-back). And Ross and Ambers are in the Hall of Fame. Armstrong is too, of course.
That wasn't all. Toward the end of his welterweight title reign, Armstrong jumped to middleweight and challenged champion Ceferino Garcia. He had already beaten Garcia in a 1938 welterweight title defense, so it was no surprise to him when before the fight he was offered $75,000 to take a dive. He turned it down and according to most accounts outworked Garcia, but the referee and sole judge, George Blake, called it a draw.
"I beat him eight out of 10 rounds in that fight," Armstrong said. "He was afraid to throw his bolo because I had a counter for it. I hit him over [the bolo punch] every time. I had him cut up. I beat him so bad, that was the fight that really started his downfall."
It is a disservice to Armstrong, who retired in 1945 with a record of 151-21-9 (101 knockouts) to remember him solely for his triple-division heroics. He was one of the more prolific and ambitious fighters of his era, when even the least industrious fighters fought a half-dozen times a year.
In 1935 and '36, Armstrong fought 11 and 12 times, respectively. In '37 he fought 27 times (winning a remarkable 26 by knockout). The following year? Fourteen more fights. In 1944, his last full year as a fighter, Armstrong entered the ring 19 times. Between March 1936 and May 1939, he went 57-1, with the lone defeat a disqualification loss.
In the pantheon of great fighters, only Archie Moore, Harry Greb, Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep can claim to have been as industrious.
Also easy to overlook is Armstrong's dominance as a welterweight champion. He made 19 successful defenses (still the welterweight record), including 11 in 1939. It wasn't until the devilish Fritzie Zivic upended him twice, in 1940 and '41, when his days as a championship-level fighter ended. And those fights were no walk in the park for Zivic, another Hall of Famer.
"The first five rounds he beat me up more than the next 20 guys," Zivic, talking about their first meeting, said in 1971.
Armstrong clearly would be recognized as the greatest 147-pound fighter ever were it not for the unfortunate presence in the same division of the ethereal Sugar Ray Robinson, who is seen generally as the greatest fighter ever.
As much as Armstrong accomplished at welterweight, Robinson was his better, and not just because Robinson decisioned him in 1943 in New York, when Armstrong was well past his prime.
Robinson's record at welterweight was 128-1-2, with 84 knockouts. Still, Robinson said before their bout that Armstrong was his idol, and he didn't want the fight. He took it to give Armstrong, who had gone through most of his ring earnings -- estimated to be between $500,000 and $1 million -- a good payday.
In the eyes of many, Robinson and Armstrong are linked forever not because of their meeting, but because of their respective places in boxing history. Reflecting general consensus, historian Bert Sugar, in his book "The 100 Greatest Fighters of All Time," rates Robinson and Armstrong Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.
Armstrong died of heart failure in Los Angeles in 1988 at the age of 75. Toward the end, he and his wife Gussie lived on a monthly $800 Social Security check. Relatively speaking, it probably wasn't much more than he'd have made driving railroad spikes. And he never did make it to college.
But he lived the high life for a long time, and generations of fight fans know the name Henry Armstrong. It's hard to ask for more than that.
The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.