Wednesday, November 2nd 2011
Henry Armstrong – Part One
By Thomas Hauser
Special to TopRank.com
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a three-part series by Hauser examining the Nov 12 welterweight title fight between champ Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez.
As Manny Pacquiao’s accomplishments grow, the world looks for historical parallels.
Pacquiao refrains from playing that game. “I never compare myself to anybody,” he says. “I know there are great fighters in boxing history. But I do what I do, and I’m happy with that.”
Still, as Pacquiao ascends to ever-greater heights, historical comparisons are inevitable. The name that has cropped up most often as of late in relation to boxing’s reigning pound-for-pound king is that of Henry Armstrong.
Armstrong is largely forgotten today; overshadowed by memories of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. Some boxing fans have seen bits and pieces of him on film; a barrel-chested fire-plug of a man, five-feet-five-and-a-half inches tall, with an irrepressible smile; always moving, like a kid in a playground with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy.
Boxing fans also know that Armstrong won multiple titles. But in recent decades, the concept of a “world champion” has been watered down. So let’s put what he did in perspective.
Armstrong fought twenty-seven fights in 1937 and won all of them, twenty-six by knockout. He captured the featherweight crown that year by knocking out Petey Sarron. Then, over the next nine months, he added the welterweight championship with a lopsided decision over Barney Ross and annexed the lightweight title with a victory over Lew Ambers. For good measure, he fought twelve title fights in 1939 and won eleven of them.
Armstrong held three world championships simultaneously at a time when boxing had eight weight divisions and one champion in each division. He was “pound-for-pound” before the phrase was invented for Sugar Ray Robinson. His accomplishments were almost beyond comprehension.
The details of Armstrong’s early life are shrouded in uncertainty. He gave different versions of events to different people. The Ring Record Book says that he was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on December 12, 1912. That conforms with his public statements. But British writer Bob Mee (who studied the census rolls in Lowndes County) argues persuasively that his actual date of birth was December 12, 1909.
Armstrong was the eleventh of fifteen children born to Henry and America Jackson. His mother was an Iroquois Indian. His father was black with some Indian and Irish blood mixed in. At birth, he was given his father’s name; Henry Jackson Jr.
The Jacksons were a sharecropping family. They grew cotton. Then boll weevils descended on the cotton fields, and Henry Sr went north to St. Louis with his two oldest sons (Oilus and Oscar). They found factory jobs and, when they’d saved enough money, the rest of the family joined them in a three-room house on the rough-and-tumble south side of the city.
America Jackson died young. “My mother was strong,” Henry recalled years later. “But having all those kids; you’re just human. She’d have a kid today and start working almost tomorrow. She just worked herself down and caught what you call consumption of the lungs.”
Henry’s paternal grandmother took his mother’s place in the life of the family. At her urging, he continued his education and graduated from Vashon High School. Then he took a job as a laborer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad at a salary of twenty dollars a week. After six months, he was laid off. He later claimed that, while working for the railroad, he read in a St. Louis newspaper that Kid Chocolate (then undefeated in forty-two professional fights) had beaten Al Singer at the Polo Grounds in New York and been paid a purse of $75,000.
Jackson was impressed with Kid Chocolate’s earning power. In due course, he landed another job; this one at the Universal Hat Shop, where he cleaned and blocked hats and made deliveries. He also decided to try his hand at boxing and learned some fundamentals at the “colored” YMCA on Pine Street in St. Louis. At the YMCA, he met an older fighter named Harry Armstrong, who watched him spar and offered the opinion, “You’re a good fighter, but no boxer. You can’t be good just by being willing to hit and be hit. A boxer doesn’t take hits. He slips them and the other guy gets hit.”
With guidance from Armstrong, Henry Jackson had three amateur fights in St. Louis and won them all by knockout. Then they journeyed to Pittsburgh to try their hand in the professional ranks. At that point, Armstrong decided that Henry needed a catchier name and dubbed him “Melody Jackson.”
On July 27, 1931, Jackson made his professional debut against Al Iovino in North Braddock, Pennsylvania. His purse was thirty-five dollars. The next day’s edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette told the tale.
“Al Iovino, Swissvale, 123 pounds, knocked out Melody Jackson, recent importation from the South, in the third round with two minutes and 27 seconds of the session gone. Jackson started out trading wallops and kept it up until he grew tired with both lads slugging toe-to-toe. Iovino got Melody in bad condition as round three progressed, the southern lad showing extreme dislike for body blows. When Al clipped him with a long overhand left that found its target, Jackson went face down upon the canvas.”
Four days later, Jackson had his second pro fight and won a six-round decision in Millville, Pennsylvania. But the fight was tougher and the purse was smaller than he and Armstrong had thought they would be. They returned to St. Louis. Then, in pursuit of more lucrative opportunities, they rode on the underside of trains to California, stopping in hobo camps for rest and food along the way. The trip took eleven days.
Jackson and Armstrong spent their first few nights in California with other drifters and homeless people at the Midnight Mission in Los Angeles. Eventually, they rented a partitioned area with a single bed between the laundry room and back yard of a house for a dollar a week.
At that time, amateur boxing in California was a semi-professional sport. Jackson soon signed a contract to fight as an amateur under the guidance of a manager named Tom Cox. But there was a problem. He’d fought twice professionally in Pennsylvania.
At Harry Armstrong’s suggestion, Henry Jackson became Harry’s little brother, Henry Armstrong. That was the name on the contract that he signed with Cox. The fighter later claimed that, during his first year as an amateur in Los Angeles, he had between eighty-five and ninety fights and won all of them. A more plausible accounting is that he won 58 of 62 amateur fights, earning a few dollars on the side for each fight. He shined shoes to make ends meet.
In summer 1932, “Henry Armstrong” competed for a spot on the United States Olympic Team but was eliminated in the trials. At that point, Cox sold his contract to Wirt Ross, a manger with connections in the pro game. Armstrong approved the assignment and extended the terms of the contract so that it would last for five years. That bit of business taken care of, he turned pro with Harry Armstrong as his trainer and lost four-round decisions in his next two fights. Each time, he was overmatched. Basically, he was exciting cannon fodder. But he made fifty dollars for each fight.
Henry Armstrong now had one win and three losses in four pro fights. But he was learning how to harness his natural physical gifts; strength, quickness, stamina, and the ability to take a punch. In the two years after his first four fights, he fought thirty times and lost only once. At one point during that stretch, he had five draws in six fights; a testament to judging that was biased against him. But he was fighting in an era when blemishes were an expected part a fighter’s record and didn’t doom his future.
In November 1934, Wirt Ross sent Armstrong to Mexico City to fight Mexican native Baby Arizmendi (a world-class featherweight) for a purse of $1,500. Years later, in an autobiography entitled Gloves, Glory, and God, Henry maintained that, just before the fight, Ross told him, “Don’t get too ambitious, son. You’re not supposed to win this fight.”
Armstrong responded, “I thought I’m supposed to win all my fights,” and Ross explained the facts of life to him.
“You’re a good boy, but there’s a lot you’ve got to learn about the fight game. I want you to take it easy in this fight. I gave my word that we’d fight this one the way Arizmendi’s manager wanted it. It was the only way I could get you signed. Just fight to go the full ten rounds.”
Arizmendi won a unanimous decision. Afterward, Ross told Armstrong that he wouldn’t be paid because the gate recepts had been stolen.
In 1936, Ross sold Armstrong’s contract to Eddie Mead for $10,000. Hollywood stars Al Jolson and George Raft were partners in the purchase. Later that year, Henry moved up to lightweight. By autumn 1937, he had 72 victories on his ring record.
On October 29, 1937, Armstrong returned to the featherweight division and challenged Petey Sarron for the 126-pound crown at Madison Square Garden. Making weight was a struggle; but on the morning of the fight, he weighed in at 124 pounds. Later that day, relaxing in bed, he drew parallels in his mind between what he hoped to accomplish in boxing and the exploits of George Dixon, Joe Gans, and Kid Chocolate; three great black champions who had come before him.
In the dressing room before the fight, Eddie Mead told Armstrong, “Sarron isn’t such a hot puncher. Just walk in, throwing punches hard till you give him the punch it takes to put him out.”
Harry Armstrong (who was Henry’s chief second) later recalled that both fighters “fought savagely” that night and “threw caution to the winds.”
Joseph Nichols summed up the bout for the New York Times, writing, “Sarron clearly won the first four rounds of the sizzling battle by eagerly inviting Armstrong’s attack and cleanly beating the Negro in counters. Neither fighter paid heed to the so-called finer points of boxing. They merely rushed at each other time and again, both arms swinging, and the encounter was one long succession of thrilling exchanges to the head and body. When the sixth round started, Armstrong sprang at his adversary and drove both hands to the body. One punch, a heavy right, apparently robbed Sarron of all his strength, for he was able to do nothing except cover up while Armstrong belabored relentlessly with lefts and rights to the mid-section. Recovering somewhat, Sarron jumped at Armstrong and traded willingly with him until the latter, releasing his long right, crashed it squarely against Sarron’s jaw. Sarron slumped to his knees and elbows and slowly lifted himself.”
But the beaten champion was in no condition to continue. Referee Arthur Donovan stopped the battle at 2:36 of the sixth round.
That night, there was a victory party at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Armstrong said later that he felt like “a giant firefly in a blackout” and recalled that celebrities who wouldn’t have given him a glance in passing a few days earlier greeted him “like a long-lost relative.”
The remarkable championship reign of Henry Armstrong had begun.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (“Winks and Daggers: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing”) was published recently by the University of Arkansas Press and can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com.