The last 100 years has seen the rise of many legendary boxing champions: Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather – to name a few. But no one to this day has been able to accomplish what Henry Armstrong accomplished.
Armstrong, an aggressive, relentless boxer who earned the nickname “Homicide Hank,” is the only fighter to simultaneously hold three world championships. It’s a feat that inspired many boxing experts to argue that – pound-for-pound – Armstrong was the greatest boxer ever.
Here’s a look at Armstrong’s life, his boxing career, and his legacy.
Armstrong was born Henry Jackson in Columbus, Miss., on December 12, 1912. He was one of 15 children, and the family moved to St. Louis early in his life. His grandmother raised him after his mother passed away. Armstrong took a job laying railroad track after graduating from high school but decided to pursue boxing when he read about a boxer who’d earn $75,000 for a single fight.
After an excellent amateur career, Armstrong first fought professionally in 1931 under the name of Honey Mellody. He eventually made his way to Los Angeles and changed his name to Henry Armstrong. He turned pro for good in 1932 after a failed attempt to make the U.S. Olympic boxing team.
Armstrong’s unceasing style in the ring in which he attacked opponents with a relentless flurry of punches caught the eye of popular singer Al Jolson, who took ownership of Armstrong’s contract. Armstrong fought mostly in California, Nevada, and Mexico early in his professional career, but moved his way east as his fights became more significant on a national level.
Armstrong won the California-Mexico featherweight championship in 1936 by avenging a pair of losses to Baby Arizmendi with a 10-round decision. But the next two years saw Armstrong emerge on the national and international stages.
Armstrong fought no less than 27 times in 1937 and never lost. On Oct. 29, he knocked out Petey Sarron in the sixth round to win the world featherweight championship. He then bypassed the lightweight title and won a 15-round decision over welterweight champion Barney Ross on May 31, 1938. Less than three months later, Armstrong won a grueling 15-round decision over Lou Ambers to win the world lightweight title and to become the only boxer to hold three championships simultaneously.
Ambers won a rematch with Armstrong by split decision a year later, thanks in part by Armstrong being penalized five times for low blows. In 1940, Armstrong fought Ceferino Garcia for the latter’s middleweight championship, but Garcia earned a draw to keep his title.
Armstrong continued to fight until 1945 but by then his skills had deteriorated. He lost a 10-round decision to an up-and-coming Sugar Ray Robinson in 1943. After retiring, Armstrong battled alcoholism before getting sober and becoming a Baptist minister in 1951. He died at age 75 on Oct. 24, 1988 in Los Angeles.
In an age where boxing was considered to be one of the biggest attractions in the world, Henry Armstrong left behind a legacy that will never be forgotten. Ever since the new millennium, boxing has gone through some drastic changes. We don’t have as many flash or brash boxers in the ring, and the careers of guys like Armstrong are appreciated even more.