Henry Armstrong had an abnormally slow heartbeat that allowed him to throw punches at an incredible pace, beyond the range and capability of most fighters. He produced the impossible by winning, and holding at the same time, the world featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles. There were only eight weight divisions during Armstrong’s peak in the late Thirties and just one world champion in each, making the feat all the more remarkable.
Armstrong was born into extreme poverty as Henry Jackson in Columbus on December 12, 1912. He was the youngest of 11 children and his parents worked as cotton pickers in old Mississippi before moving the family to St. Louis. He became fascinated with boxing and turned professional under the name of Mellody Jackson, but made an inauspicious start losing three of four before moving west to Los Angeles and changing his fight moniker to Henry Armstrong, after singer Al Jolson found him a new manager.
His non-stop, perpetual motion style brought him many admirers and Henry soon earned the nickname “Homicide Hank” for the incredible number of punches he threw in every round. In August 1935, Armstrong was on a long winning run when he dropped a points verdict to all-action Mexican Baby Arizmendi, but it was just a case of experience and he later won a rematch. Henry took his world title chance when it came in October 1937, crushing Petey Sarron in six rounds in New York for the featherweight title, which he never defended.
Armstrong couldn’t make the weight, but leapt up to welterweight to batter world champion Barney Ross into a painful retirement after 15 hard rounds in May 1938. Three months later, Armstrong won his third title dropping down to lightweight to oust champion Lou Ambers in a savage battle which was eventually decided on points. Ambers won a rematch and Armstrong decided to concentrate on his welterweight title, which he continued to defend with startling regularity.
He even challenged previous victim Ceferino Garcia for the world middleweight crown in March 1940, but the contest was declared a draw. But the fights were taking their toll on the phenomenal Armstrong and he lost his world title in his seventh defence of 1940 to hardened Pittsburgh veteran Fritzie Zivic who stopped him again in a rematch, but famously remarked, “Hank, you’re the greatest champ that ever walked.” Zivic would know, he fought 12 of them.
Few would disagree about Armstrong’s greatness although he didn’t retire until five years later. He won another battle, against alcoholism, before finding solace as a Baptist Minister in later life. He died, aged 75, in Los Angeles in October 1988.
Henry Armstrong: Fights 181, Wins 152 Losses 21 Draws 8 (Knockouts 100).
By Mark G. Butcher