Armstrong, Henry Jackson, Jr.

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ARMSTRONG, Henry Jackson, Jr.

(b. 12 December 1912 in Columbus, Mississippi; d. 24 October 1988 in Los Angeles, California), simultaneously held the featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight championship titles in the late 1930s and earned respect as one of the greatest boxers in the modern history of the sport.

Jackson, the eleventh of fifteen children born to Henry Jackson and America Armstrong, spent his first years in Columbus, Mississippi, where his parents grew cotton as sharecroppers. In 1917, when Jackson was four, the family joined the Great Migration of thousands of African Americans who moved north to escape the poverty and humiliation that sharecropping life imposed. The Jacksons eventually settled on the south side of St. Louis, Missouri, where the elder Jackson had already relocated with the family's two oldest sons. Although the family continued to endure hardships throughout his youth, Jackson flourished as a student at Vashon High School, where he was elected student body president and was honored as the graduating class's poet laureate in 1929. Without the resources to go on to college, Jackson took a job as a section hand for the Missouri Pacific Railroad after graduation.

Although he had been a standout student in high school, Jackson also drew attention for his fighting skills, honed on the rough streets of the south side. Impressed by the large purses awarded in professional boxing matches, Jackson began to train at the segregated Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and in January 1930 won the featherweight championship in a tournament held by the Amateur Athletic Union. The fact that there was only one other fighter in the weight class made little difference to Jackson, who was determined to forge ahead in the sport. Fighting a series of matches around the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area, Jackson adopted the surname Armstrong in tribute to his best friend, Harry Armstrong, and to relaunch his amateur career in California under a new name. Together, the two made their way to Los Angeles by hopping a series of freight trains in 1932.

Resuming his amateur career in Los Angeles, Armstrong secured eighty-five wins in a row as he made a living from operating a series of shoe-shine stands. He also concentrated on making the United States team for the 1932 Olympics. Armstrong was bitterly disappointed in losing a qualification match for the featherweight division and lost in another attempt to qualify in the bantamweight division. Turning professional, he became known as "Homicide Hank" for his tenacity as a fighter and power as a puncher. He used his perpetual-motion style of constant punches to win a series of fights leading up to his first title bout against Baby Arizmendi for the California–Mexico world featherweight title on 4 August 1936. Armstrong won the match in a ten-round decision and went on to claim the world featherweight title against Petey Sarron in New York City on 29 October 1937. This time, Armstrong won by a knockout in the sixth round.

By then Armstrong had a contract with Al Jolson and George Raft, and a new manager, Eddie Mead. As successful as his 1937 bouts had been—he won all of his twenty-seven matches, all but one by a knockout—the following year earned Armstrong a special distinction in the history of boxing. After winning the featherweight title in the 126-pound division, a heavier Armstrong fought against Barney Ross in the 147-pound welterweight division. In a fifteen-round decision, Armstrong won the fight and on 31 May 1938 claimed titles in two weight divisions. In August, a leaner Armstrong fought for the 135-pound lightweight division title against Lou Ambers. In a brutal match that went fifteen rounds, Armstrong suffered a cut over his left eye and a cut on the lip that bled so much that the fighter took out his mouth guard in order to swallow the blood and keep on fighting. Barely outlasting his opponent, Armstrong took the title in a close decision.

Armstrong retained all three titles only briefly; he gave up his featherweight title in November 1938 and subsequently lost his lightweight title to Ambers in a brutal re-match in August 1939. On 4 October of the following year, Armstrong fought to retain his welterweight crown against Fritzie Zivic at Madison Square Garden. Relentlessly attacking the spot above Armstrong's left eye, where he had been injured in his first title fight against Ambers, Zivic knocked down the titleholder in the fifteenth round and took the fight by decision. In a rematch the following year, Zivic won again after the referee ended the match in the twelfth round. The adversaries met a third time in 1942 in a match that Armstrong won, although Zivic had already lost the welterweight title to another fighter.

With Eddie Mead's death in 1942 Armstrong found that his finances had been seriously mismanaged, with over $250,000 owed in back taxes. Returning to the ring, Armstrong attempted a comeback and continued to fight until 1945, when the numerous injuries that he sustained to his eyes prevented him from boxing. His personal life in disarray from his excessive drinking, Armstrong bottomed out in 1949 when he was arrested and put into the Los Angeles drunk tank. The former fighter battled back, however; he gave up drinking and eventually became an ordained Baptist minister in 1951. Unfortunately, his first marriage to Willa Mae Shondy (also documented as "Shony"), which had produced a daughter in 1935, ended during this period. In 1960 Armstrong married longtime acquaintance Velma Tartt, and the couple raised their two children in St. Louis. After Tartt's death, Armstrong had a brief third marriage before marrying for a final time in 1978, to Gussie Henry. Armstrong also kept busy with the Henry Armstrong Youth Foundation, an outreach program to combat juvenile delinquency.

Armstrong's final years were marked by failing health and financial hardship; a 1979 mugging in St. Louis also contributed to Armstrong's decline. Although he earned over $1 million in prize money during his career, his extravagance and mismanagement had long ago dissipated the fighter's earnings. At the time of his death from heart failure, Armstrong's only income was a monthly $800 Social Security check. Yet with his amazing run of victories that resulted in three simultaneous championship titles in separate weight divisions, Armstrong is remembered as one of the most talented fighters in the sport's history. As a measure of his stature, during his first year of eligibility for the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, Armstrong was inducted along with Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Armstrong was also assured that his remarkable feat would go unmatched, since in the 1940s the sport banned boxers from holding multiple titles.

After his retirement from boxing, Armstrong published Gloves, Glory, and God: An Autobiography (1956). An interview with Armstrong is in Peter Heller, In This Corner … ! Forty-two World Champions Tell Their Stories (1994). A full account of Armstrong's record as a professional fighter appears in The Boxing Register: International Hall of Fame Official Record Book (1999). People (21 Nov. 1988) published a lengthy tribute to Armstrong after his death. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (24 Oct. 1988) and New York Times (25 Oct. 1988).

Timothy Borden

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Armstrong, Henry Jackson, Jr.

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