Born with the birth name of Henry Jackson Jr. in 1912 in Columbus, Mississippi, Armstrong was the eleventh of fifteen children. After losing his mother at a young age, Henry was raised by his father alongside his grandmother. They decided to relocate to St. Louis, in search of a better life and living conditions to raise the children.
This is where a youthful Henry would learn to defend himself against the gangs on the rough streets of St. Louis, displaying an early natural ability for wrestling and boxing. He was a high achieving student at school, graduating from Vashon High School with honours in 1929. Whilst studying, he worked evening shifts at the local bowling alley as a pin boy.
Armstrong’s dream was to go to college, but those plans were scuppered by the Great Depression and his father becoming ill. This meant he had to stay in St. Louis and help provide for his family. His part-time job at the bowling alley provided him with a modest wage but wasn’t sufficient to stabilise the family’s financial situation.
Whilst evaluating his options, Henry saw an article in the local newspaper that stated a professional boxer had earned $75,000 for a single fight. This coincided with him crossing paths with former boxer Harry Armstrong, who encouraged him to take up the sport, with a view to pursuing a career as a fighter. Harry would later become his mentor and trainer; as well as a lifelong companion.
Operating under the name Melody Jackson, Armstrong won his first amateur bout with a second-round knockout in 1929 at the St. Louis Coliseum. He then picked up a couple more victories before moving to Pittsburgh to begin his career in the paid ranks.
The change of scenery proved to be a rash decision, as he was under-prepared for the challenge that the professional game posed, compared to the amateur game ranks. He fell to a knockout defeat in his first professional outing, followed by a razor-thin point’s decision in his second fight, which prompted a rethink and a return to St. Louis.
After weighing up their options, Henry and trainer Harry realised that the decision to dive into the professional ranks had been premature and that they needed to take a more considered approach to prepare for the harsh realities of the ‘sweet science’. In 1932, the decision was made to relocate to Los Angeles, where, unlike St. Louis, interracial bouts were permitted, and dedicate himself to the sport.
When they arrived in LA, they met local fight manager Tom Cox. Henry introduced himself as Harry’s brother, which is where the name Henry Armstrong was born – a name that was subsequently used for the rest of his career. After a short conversation, Cox signed Armstrong and promised him 3 dollars for every bout.
He would fight over 100 times between 1932 and 1936, picking up more wins than losses but struggling to maintain any consistency. It wasn’t until 1937 that his career really took off and he began to forge a fearsome reputation.
After being disqualified against Tony Chavez in December of 1936, he defeated Rodolfo Casanova a month later in a fight that would spell the beginning of a 22 fight win streak, with 21 of those wins ending inside the scheduled distance. The destruction of former world champions Frankie Klick and Benny Bass caught the eye of movie star Al Jolson, along with co-manager Eddie Meade, who purchased Armstrong’s contract for $10,000.
With financial backing and an upward trajectory, Armstrong had all the credentials required to become a world title contender. In October 1937, he was rewarded with a dream opportunity to compete for the world featherweight championship, against Peter Sarron.
Although Henry was an established name in the Los Angeles area, Jolson believed that to attain national recognition, he would need to fight on the opposite coast – specifically in New York. So the fight was made at the “Mecca of Boxing”, Madison Square Garden. The challenger was ruthless, battering Sarron into submission inside six rounds to claim the World Featherweight Championship, before closing the year out with another four knockouts.
Having accomplished his goal of securing world honours, his next step would be to pursue titles in multiple divisions. His next move would be to jump to lightweight and pursue champion Lou Ambers.
Ambers’ manager Al Weill felt that his client had nothing to gain by fighting Armstrong and made negotiations incredibly difficult, resulting in the talks collapsing. When asked why the fight never materialised, Ambers evasively said ‘Let Armstrong do something else.’ So an inspired Armstrong moved up to 147lbs and took on the seemingly invincible Barney Ross.
Ross had wiped out the competition at welterweight and welcomed oncoming challengers with open arms. When offered the fight against Armstrong, he dismissively replied ‘I’ll fight the shrimp.’ A deal was struck between the two camps and the fight was made for the 31st May 1938, in Long Island City.
The key talking point in the build-up to the clash was the weight and size advantage in favour of Ross. On the scales, Ross had a five-pound weight advantage, which many people thought an insurmountable obstacle to Armstrong’s ambition.
Armstrong defied the doubters and put on a 15 round master-class, swarming the champion and not allowing him to catch a moment’s rest. He claimed a unanimous decision victory and retired Ross from the sport in the process.
The American was now at the pinnacle of his profession and everyone wanted a piece of him, from featherweights up to welterweights. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the aforementioned Ambers had a change of heart and expressed a desire to defend his lightweight crown against Armstrong.
Three months later the pair met at the Garden in New York, in what was an enthralling encounter. In an interview during his retirement years, Henry admitted, “That was my toughest title fight – Ambers cut me up pretty bad.” The fight was competitive from the offset with the challenger nicking a split decision over fifteen hard-fought rounds, acquiring the 135lbs crown in the process.
Armstrong had achieved what many fighters can only dream of achieving, becoming a three-weight world champion and the first man to hold those titles concurrently. He subsequently relinquished his 9st belt, to focus on the more prosperous welterweight division.
Now recognised as the best fighter in the world from 126 to 147 pounds, he travelled the globe in search of fresh competition. He made his first visit to the UK in 1939 to defend against Ernie Roderick. After punching his way to a wide points decision win, the British press praised the effectiveness and uniqueness of Armstrong’s style – describing him as the “complete fighting machine.”
Now at the peak of his career, Armstrong was to succumb to his first major setback for many years. Lou Ambers had been chasing an opportunity to gain revenge on the champion and was granted that chance in late 1938. Armstrong struggled to build early momentum and made matters worse by being deducted points for multiple low blows. The challenger frustrated the champion and reclaimed his title with a unanimous decision.
Despite the upset, Armstrong still possessed the welterweight crown and remained a considerable box office draw. He defended the title against a variety of challenger’s – some worthy and some not-so-worthy. But, the 147lbs division would temporarily take a back seat, as Armstrong jumped up to middleweight to take on Ceferino Garcia for the 160lbs strap.
It was an ambitious move from Armstrong, who was looking to become a four-weight world champion. Despite Garcia being the middleweight king, his physical advantage was not considered too significant, as the Filipino boxer had previously campaigned at welterweight and resembled a light-middleweight in size. The pair had actually fought at welterweight two years previously at the 147lbs limit, with Armstrong taking home a unanimous decision.
However, this fight wasn’t as one-sided and the two combatants were more evenly matched at the higher weight. Garcia retained his title after the bout was scored even after 10-rounds. Armstrong felt the scoring was harsh and said: “My score sheet got taken away from me and was torn up by some kids.”
This disappointment motivated Armstrong to drop back down to welter, where he successfully defended his championship four more times, before clashing with Fritzie Zivic in 1940.
The Pittsburgh fighter was tough, rugged and he often employed dirty tactics. Against Armstrong, Zivic was the aggressor and restricted the champion to fight off the back foot. Characteristically, Armstrong gave everything but ultimately found the challenger too strong. After nearly stopping his man in the final round, Zivic settled for a unanimous decision victory.
Battered and bruised, this spelt the beginning of the end for Henry, who was struggling to perform at the level he was accustomed to. In the rematch, three months later, his decline was evident and the result was a defeat by stoppage.
Aware that his world title days were over – but not willing to retire from the sport that he loved, he continued to compete. In 1943 at the Garden in New York, he was matched against an extremely talented youngster named Sugar Ray Robinson. Armstrong was defeated comprehensively by Robinson, who would go on to achieve a phenomenal career and is now widely considered as the greatest fighter in the history of the sport.
After eight more fights with mixed results, he returned to the West Coast to conclude his career in the place where his journey began, with another loss. Retirement was a bitter pill to swallow for Armstrong. Despite earning a rumoured $500,000 over the course of his career, he had problems financially during retirement and resorted to alcohol to help him cope with his troubles. He fell out of love with the sport and felt it lacked the glamour and competitiveness of his decade.
Fortunately, he did not venture down the same path of self-destruction as other former champions and instead redirected his energy into helping the youth of Los Angeles. He would eventually return to St. Louis to become a Baptist Minister and also became the assistant director for the Herbert Hoover Boys Club.
As he grew older, the cumulative effect of head trauma began to take its toll and his health steadily deteriorated. Battling dementia and impaired vision, he eventually passed away aged 75 on October 22 1988, in Los Angeles.
Armstrong was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, with a final record of 151 Wins (101 KO’s), 21 Losses and 9 Draws in a whopping 181 fights. Holding three world titles in different weight classes simultaneously undoubtedly cements his status as one of the greatest of all-time.