A hurricane can appear without warning, starting out as a soft breeze carried on a warm day, an eerie tension peaking the senses but nothing to alarm.
A outline of a swirl in the distance looks way off with the suggestion from locals that it could change course or even amount to nothing.
An assumption that could be detrimental to the individuals wellbeing as minutes pass the sense of danger is heightened, now etched on the face of all who scurry to baton down the hatches, nail everything of worth down before rushing into a house in the hope it will remain in one piece at the end of it all.
Minutes that feel like hours pass, families cling to one another, some with closed eyes whilst others pray for salvation.
The hurricane swirls its way through the latest unfortunate town, taking with it rooftops, cars or even the family pet before as quickly as it announces itself, it disappears in the distance, the still of the day bringing back its presence with the readiness of all to see what has been salvaged from the natural disaster.
Henry Armstrong was give that specific moniker because of this fact, like the Hurricane he was quiet, unassuming to start but once an unlucky opponent found himself in his path, it was usually too late as Armstrong would relieve the champion of the time of his title just as the Hurricane would a rooftop.
A Railroad that led to Greatness
One of fifteen children, the eleventh to be exact, Armstrong was always in a hurry to make money for the family, pushed on by the hardships that life had dealt his family, knowing a quick solution was needed he donned some baggy overalls and a flat cap aged sixteen before making his way to the railroad where he was offered a job of driving spikes with a sledgehammer, a job role shared by other great champions of the past.
Working hard in tiresome heat, Armstrong upon wiping the sweat from his brow one day happened to look down at a newspaper heading that had travelled along a gust of wind, the headline read ‘KID CHOCOLATE EARNS $75,000 FOR HALF HOURS WORK’
Armstrong sensed it was an epiphany or more apt was that he tried to convince himself of the fact, deciding in that moment to hang up his overalls with intentions on switching careers to the pugilistic arts, thoughts now fleeting of its financial benefits but first he had to break the news to his mother who was less than enthusiastic, ‘Boy you arent no Jack Johnson’ shot back the reply upon him telling her his plans of world domination, little did she know at the time that her son wasn’t set to become another Jack Johnson but instead would go on to eclipse the achievements of the first black heavyweight world champion, not only him but almost all that had come before or afterwards.
Witnessing Armstrong in action was like poetry in motion, a non-stop force of nature that would sweep opposition away with a mixture of relentless stamina and power, reporters would watch on from ringside mouths agape with inability to find the superlatives needed to compare what they were witnessing.
That would come later, in his infancy to boxing its fair to say that it was far from the idyllic picture he had conjured up in his memory, brought back down to earth with a bang, quite literally.
A mid-summer breeze that lingered at that time was nothing to alarm, his introduction witnessed Armstrong lose four of his five fights with the feeling that he may have been a tad bit hasty in turning his back on the baking hot shifts the railroads presented, lucky for us, order was restored with a victory extinguishing such rash thinking, a win over Max Turley was enough to put him back on track kickstarting a twelve fight unbeaten run.
Over the next five years more disappointment had found itself heaped onto the broad shoulders of Armstrong, gaining seven draws and eight losses on his record but the signs of change were evident for all to see.
Between January 1937 and 1940, Armstrong proved the naysayers wrong with his handing out of an incredible 59 wins against one loss and one draw, each of which were disputed. Now what was once a lingering breeze was now forming to become a hurricane that almost no one could stop.
It was in 1938 that Armstrong had really hit his groove, the same time the Great Hurricane would batter Long Island, New York and New England with gusts of 186 mph winds and fifty foot waves leaving 600 dead and sixty-three thousand homeless.
To put into context the magnitude of Armstrong’s achievements, boxing at that time housed eight titles throughout all divisions, Hank wanted to own three of those simultaneously, just let that sink in for a while.
Managed by an all star cast of Al Jolson, along with George Raft and Eddie Mead they plotted a outrageous plan to outshine the great Joe Louis who at the time was the face of the boxing world, it was due to his high profile that drastic measures needed to be taken.
Featherweight, lightweight and welterweight were the targets, each with inviting champions such as Petey Sarron, Lou Ambers and Barney Ross, the stakes were stacked high and the spoils of victory even higher but as great as Armstrong had shown even up until this point, many were still sceptical that he could pull off such a feat.
Proposed with the blueprint to greatest, without hesitation, Hank said ‘Sounds pretty good to me”
29th October 1937 – Vs. Petey Sarron- Madison Square Garden, New York
Before the realisation of this impossible dream, Sarron was ready to become the storm shelter to Armstrong’s Hurricane ‘I found out that nobody in America, Africa or Europe at a hundred and twenty six pounds can beat me’ said the champion proudly.
Sarron’s intentions were clear, he wanted to drown Armstrong in the later rounds, believing that the challenger didn’t have the necessary stamina to match his own, confidence exuding in the belief that he had been tested at the fifteen round limit more than Armstrong had previous.
‘He’s not fighting a Punk now’ Sarron claimed, mirroring the statement as both men met the other in the centre of the ring, taking turns to inflict the most damage.
Sarron was winning the lions share of the action early on, countering over the advancing Armstrong. The trouble was that Armstrong was trying to score the highlight reel knockout but on doing so was leaving gaping holes in his defence which Sarron did well to exploit.
A talk between rounds got Armstrong a clear vision of what was needed to gain victory, finding a home for his famed hooks to the body which reddened the ribcage of the champion, by the sixth Sarron looked a beaten man but showed a champions pedigree with one last hurrah, pushing back the advancing Armstrong until a left to the body, right to the head dropped the champion for the full count.
Glimpsing to the sky’s in the hope the weather had changed gave no indiction, the forecast was that he would be relieved of his title and fourteen men would be dealt the same fate in his march towards a second weight world championship, just one of those making it the distance in Baby Arizmendi.
31st May 1938 – Vs. Barney Ross – Madison Square Garden, New York
Lou Ambers was the next logical step but a spanner was thrown into the works, wanting more time before accepting his challenge, so instead Hank decided to jump up another weight class to face the great Barney Ross at the 142 Pound limit.
Ross was a master boxer who at the time hadn’t tasted defeat as a Welterweight since Jimmy McLarnin accomplished the feat in 1934, a fighter who Ross had beaten before and after the fact.
Ross was the obvious betting favourite in the contest, the bigger man with a great skill-set who stood second to only Benny Leonard as the most celebrated Jewish champions to have reigned from 1910 to 1930.
Coming to the scales Ross looked a solid Welterweight too whilst Armstrong not so much, needing to fill his belly with water and beer just to make the weight.
The contest kickstarted with Ross looking to gauge distance using the jab but in this instance found a non-stop moving target, one who’s continuous throwing gave the champion a difficult time to counter.
Ross needed to adapt and employed the strategy of stepping inside the guard of Armstrong to land before stepping to the side, a tactic that momentarily worked well, unfortunately for him it was temporary, you see Ross had envisaged his size being a big advantage, it wasn’t, so was thoughts that the challenger would wear down in the later rounds, the same thought process shared by Sarron before him, again he was wrong. By the tenth, Ross had all but spent his energy reserves.
In fact, for the Ross following it was beginning to be a hard watch, seeing the great Barney Ross hang on the way he did but even so, his corner was told not to throw in the towel, a plea from the champion of ‘Let me finish like a champion and I’ll promise I’ll never fight again’
Armstrong sympathised for Ross, telling his corner ‘I don’t want to crucify him, I don’t want to hurt him anymore’
Later reports emerged that Armstrong’s corner was given a signal to carry Ross the remaining rounds, with the two champions talking of such inbetween a clinch.
· Armstrong ‘How you feeling Barney?’
· Ross ‘I’m Dead’
· Armstrong ‘Jab and Run and I’ll make it look good’
The two men embraced after the contest had come to it’s close with Ross claiming Armstrong to be ‘The Greatest’ and who could argue on what he had just achieved?
TWO DOWN, ONE TO GO….
17th August 1938 – Vs. Lou Ambers – Madison Square Garden, New York
Armstrong had become a two weight world champion but still one needed ticking off his wish list from the championship trinity, the lightweight title which was still in the possession of Lou Ambers.
Ambers was a phenomenal combatant who lived to fight, supremely gifted, when he wasn’t in the gym he was thinking about his next session within it’s confines.
At the time the thinking was that Amber’s would hand Armstrong his sternest of tests, Sarron was considered a mild underdog, Ross was slightly past his best but Ambers was in his prime years, game, holding wins over the likes of Tony Canzoneri, Fritzie Zivic, Jimmy Vaughn, Baby Arizmendi and Pedro Montanez.
The fight would be contested at the prestigous Madison Square Garden in front of a packed crowd, waiting to see if Armstrong could accomplish the unthinkable of becoming a three-weight world champion.
Standing at the door Ambers was ready and willing to slam it in the face of Armstong, telling reporters of his intentions, ‘I’ll cut Armstrong up, the referee wont have no option but to stop the fight’
Under the bright lights, amongst the fight fans baying for blood, both men started out at a frantic pace, Ambers using tricks that enabled him to stay at the top of the division, clinching Armstrong tight before landing sneaky shots on the inside.
Armstrong remained composed, fighting fire with fire before a long right hand dropped Ambers in the fifth, the referee started the count but the round came to a close with Ambers trainer dragging him back to the safe haven of the corner.
It was the shape of things to come, Armstrong landed a combination in the following round that once again had Ambers on the deck with suggestion that the pre-fight prediction of the press was way off its mark. A slight nod to his corner in indiction that he could continue was followed by an antidote to the poison of the shots Armstrong was administrating.
You see, Armstrong would duck in to punch which allowed Ambers to land effective uppercuts one after the other, the brilliance of Ambers boxing brain allowing him a route back into the fight, helped further by Armstong being deducted points for low blows which now brought the fight card closer.
Ambers now filled with the vigor in knowing that he was able to hurt Armstrong, poured forward knocking out the mouthguard of the two-weight world champion and severely splitting his lip.
It was a war between two of the best, the effects of which were etched over the faces of both, Armstrong in particular was left leaking from cuts to his lip and eyes, prompting referee Billy Cavanagh to walk over to Armstrong’s corner after the tenth with intentions on stopping the fight, “Don’t stop it,” pleaded Henry. “I’m winning this fight.” Cavanagh replied “The ring is full of blood, And it’s your blood.” to which Hank said “Then I’ll stop bleeding,”
Armstrong forewent the mouthguard after the eleventh round, feeling it was hindering his breathing amongst the blood that he was forced to gulp down from the cuts to his mouth.
In search of another significant shot to end matters, Armstrong once more turned up the pressure but it was Ambers who had now gained the impetus, turning back the advances of Armstrong apart from a right hand in the fourteenth that rocked the champion, the shot hit home so hard it must have felt like he was having an out of body experience but incredibly he remained upright.
Claret stained the canvas from wounds that both men shared, ‘It was the bloodiest fight of my life’ Armstrong would later reflect, having swallowed over a pint of his own blood.
Energy was emptied, neither man remembered the last round, one in which crowned the new three weight world champion and a stake in the history book of greatest fighters.
Amber was left delirious, singing to himself in his dressing room whilst stripped completely naked, still ducking imaginary right hands whilst down the corridor from him Amstrong sat on the edge of a bench, quietly as camera’s flashed in his bloodied face, one with cuts to both eyes and a disfigured lip, a quiet contemplation of achieving what some claimed the impossible.
Like the great hurricane of 1938 Hank had caused devastation throughout the the three divisions visited, battering each with a consistant barrage that held no mercy for those found in it’s path.
Those who reflect on the damaging circumstances, now raise alarms at the slightest of breezes knowing that quite possibly an Hurricane could follow.
This is the real story of the Hurricane.