A Boxing Memory: Henry Armstrong
By Brendan McComish
Henry Armstrong (1912-1988) became the first boxer in history to hold world titles in three separate weight classes at the same time. After retiring from boxing, Armstrong became an ordained Baptist minister, working with disadvantaged youth.
He also wrote the autobiographical “God, Gloves, and Glory” (1956).
Born Henry Jackson, Jr., on December 12, 1912, in Columbus, Mississippi, Armstrong was the eleventh of the family’s 15 children. His early childhood was spent on a plantation owned by Armstrong’s grandfather, an Irishman who had married one of his slaves. His father, Henry Jackson, Sr., was a sharecropper and a butcher. His mother, America (Armstrong) Jackson was an Iroquois Indian. When Armstrong was four years old, his father moved the family to St. Louis, where he and Armstrong’s older brothers found work at the Independent Packing Company. Armstrong’s mother died of consumption in 1918, leaving the six-year-old under the care of his paternal grandmother. Like his mother, his grandmother hoped that he would pursue a career in the ministry. Armstrong, however, displayed no interest in fulfilling these wishes.
While attending Toussaint L’Ouverture Grammar School in St. Louis, Armstrong acquired the nickname “Red” due to his curly sandy hair with a reddish tint. Small in stature, he was often the target for teasing. In defending himself against bullies, he discovered his interest in boxing. 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, which provided him the opportunity to read a valedictory poem at his graduation ceremony. Armstrong worked on his athletic abilities, often running the eight miles to school. After school, he worked as a pinboy at a bowling alley. Here he gained his first boxing experience, winning a competition among the pinboys.
Pursuit of a Boxing Career:
By the time Armstrong graduated from high school at the age of 17, the Great Depression had arrived. His father, suffering from rheumatism, struggled to provide for the family. With no money for college and the need to care for his family weighing heavily, Armstrong lied about his age, claiming he was 21 years old, in order to gain employment as a section hand on the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Well aware that his meager pay would never be sufficient to attend college, Armstrong’s life changed one day when the sports section of a discarded newspaper landed at his feet. Reading that a boxer named Kid Chocolate received $75,000 for one bout, Armstrong quickly abandoned his railroad job to pursue a career as a boxer.
Working at the “colored” Young Men’s Christian Association, 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.
The Road to Three Titles:
The road to becoming a champion was not entirely smooth. Armstrong fought his first major bout in November 1934, losing the world featherweight championship in a close decision to Baby Arizmendi. In January 1935 he lost to Arizmendi for a second time. But the tides turned later in the year when he won against former flyweight champion Midget Wolgast. Facing Arizmendi once more in August 1936, Armstrong secured his first title as the new featherweight champion, beating Arizmendi so badly that he was forced to take six months off. Armstrong went on to win his last 12 fights in 1936. Entertainer Al Jolson, who had witnessed the final bout between Armstrong and Arizmendi, was so impressed with Armstrong that he convinced New York manager Eddie Mead to take on the boxer, and Jolson supplied $5,000 to buy out Ross’s contract rights to Armstrong. In a publicity stunt, Jolson and Mead falsely advertised the buy-out price as $10,000. When Ross demanded the full amount as publicized, entertainer George Raft put up the additional funds and became the third member of Armstrong’s management team.
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.
In 1938 with 14 consecutive wins, 10 by knockout, Armstrong achieved his goal, becoming the first boxer to ever hold three undisputed titles at the same time. He first 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 boldly offered to challenge welterweight champion Barney Ross. Having competed as a featherweight at 126 pounds, Armstrong had to increase his weight to 138 pounds in order to qualify to fight in the welterweight division. He met the minimum weight by upping his calorie intake, drinking beer the days before the bout and a lot of water on the day of weigh-in. When the promoters postponed the bout for 10 days, Armstrong accepted Joe Louis’s invitation to train at Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, with Louis paying for all expenses. Ross was favored by odds makers three to one over Armstrong; however, 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.
To pursue his third title, Armstrong dropped back a weight class to compete as a lightweight. The title bout came August 17, 1938, just three months after his fight with Ross, when Armstrong faced lightweight champion Lou Ambers before a packed house of almost 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. Nonetheless, Armstrong had achieved his goal, becoming simultaneously the undisputed champion of the featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight divisions. The Ring, a boxing magazine, named Armstrong Boxer of the Year for 1938.
Soon after his fight with Ambers, Armstrong, unable to meet the 126-pound limit, relinquished his featherweight title. However, he successfully defended his two other titles 12 times during 1939. Having gained the fame and fortune that was his goal as a young man working on the railroad, Armstrong was able to produce and star in an autobiographical movie, Keep Punching, released in 1939. On August 22, 1939, he lost his lightweight title in a rematch with Ambers, and in 1940 he defended his welterweight crown six times before losing the title to Fritzie Zivic on October 4, 1940. During the fight Armstrong suffered an eye injury that required surgery. In the same year, he fought for an unprecedented fourth title in the middleweight division, but lost to Ceferina Garcia in a controversial decision. 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. His final professional record stood at 174 recorded bouts, 145 wins with 98 by knockout. Of 26 title fights, Armstrong won all but four (three losses and a draw). He lost by knockout only two times in his 15 years of boxing.
Entered the Ministry:
Over the course of his career, Armstrong earned more than $1 million. However, upon his retirement he found the vast majority of his money had been lost to bad investments, management fees, and extravagant spending habits. During the final years of the 1940s he traveled to China, Burma, and India with Raft as part of a group sent to entertain soldiers. Upon his return, 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. His preaching drew significant crowds to revivals and other meetings. Desiring to help at-risk youth, 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). He returned to St. Louis in 1972 to become the director of the Herbert Hoover Boys Club. He also continued his ministry as an assistant pastor of the First Baptist Church. Six years later he moved back to Los Angeles.
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, commonly attributed to the punishment he took as a boxer. 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. He died of heart failure on October 22, 1988 in Los Angeles. In 1990 his name was added posthumously to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.