“The rest of the world is blacked out
The only place left is this square ring
Under the glaring lights a man I must rout
Or myself become a beaten thing.”
- Henry Armstrong, August 1938
* * *
Wednesday, August 10, 1938
The weather forecast had promised a warm clear night at the Polo Grounds, but the light drizzle that had started earlier in the evening had turned into a downpour. As promoter Mike Jacobs watched the sparse crowd quickly scurrying from their seats and heading for cover under the lower grandstand, he could not help but feel grateful to Mother Nature’s timing. When the historical bout was signed, the promoter had talked of a potential $200,000 gate, but with the headliners scheduled to go in less than an hour, only a quarter of that total was in the till.
Despite Henry Armstrong’s headline-grabbing quest to hold three titles simultaneously, the fight had been a hard sell from the start. Many Madison Square Garden regulars weren’t keen on the less than ideal sightlines of the spacious outdoor venue, while out of town fight fans who believed in Armstrong’s invincibility had shown little interest in the bout.
image courtesy of boxrec.com
After having blasted out Petey Sarron to earn full ownership of featherweight honors in October of 1937, Armstrong had hammered Barney Ross over fifteen one-sided rounds to claim the welterweight title at the Long Island Bowl back in May. Few considered his toppling Lou Ambers for the lightweight crown more than a formality.
As Gayle Talbot of the United Press put it, “The consensus of those who sat through the slow, agonizing destruction of Ross, one of the truly great little fighters of the decade, was that Ambers has a similar fate in store as soon as he faced the relentless Los Angeles Negro.”
The betting public didn’t give the champ much chance of standing up to Armstrong’s hammering either, with fight night odds hovering around 3 to 1 on Ambers getting few takers.
There were also other options for New York sports fans happening that weekend. Saratoga. The Hambletonian. The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees playing at home. A fight – where the outcome was said to be a foregone conclusion – was having trouble interesting the locals.
Jacobs had long wanted to move the event to the Garden, but the champion’s manager Al Weill, had insisted the bout take place outdoors.
“We signed for an outdoor fight, and that’s what we want.” Weill had originally argued. But with his fighter’s purse – 37.5% of the gate – looking like it needed a significant boost, Weill was now agreeable to having the bout pushed back a week and rescheduled for the following Wednesday at the Garden.
Perhaps more fortunate than Jacobs was Armstrong himself. As the challenger changed back into his street clothes, he told reporters that he had been ready to go and felt great. This had been at odds however with the reports coming from his camp at Pompton Lakes indicating that he wasn’t looking his indomitable self.
Armstrong’s manager Eddie Mead had scoffed at such news, blaming the mid-summer heat on the sluggishness his fighter had shown. While the hot weather might have been an issue, Armstrong was likely showing the mental and physical effects of an impossibly rigorous schedule.
Image courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring
Unbeknownst to the press, Armstrong had suffered a breakdown in January on the drive back to Los Angeles after fighting back to back nights in Phoenix and Tuscon. Having fought twenty-seven times in a dozen different cities during the year 1937, it was understandable the fighter was starting to have trouble coping with the demands of such a grind.
After a mere week to steady his nerves, the fights continued with four matches in February, and another three in March, before going into training to fight Ross. Even after beating Ross, there would be no rest as before preparations begun for the Ambers fight, Armstrong hit the road with a barnstorming softball team. It was a venture arranged by Mead to capitalize on Armstrong’s growing fame, although it was a financial flop and only served to prevent the fighter from getting some much needed rest.
Adding to Armstrong’s difficulties was a badly cut lip suffered only a week earlier during a sparring session with his friend Chalky Wright. It was cruel timing for a man chasing history, and more than a little unexpected: Armstrong had never been cut in over six years as a pro.
Word of the injury travelled fast, and Ambers vowed to take aim at the fresh wound. Though not a big puncher, his slashing style and uppercuts had been known to slice opponents – and Armstrong’s damaged lip would be a vulnerable target.
One man on the Armstrong side who may have been a little disappointed over the postponement was co-manager Al Jolson. The famed entertainer had hoped to be there supporting his fighter’s historic quest, but working engagements back in Hollywood meant staying in New York another week might not be doable.
Jolson had been instrumental in Armstrong’s rapid rise from the fight clubs of California to becoming one of the sport’s biggest stars. A big fight fan and a regular at Los Angeles boxing shows, Jolson had taken a liking to Armstrong, and after watching the featherweight hand Baby Arizmendi a beating at Wrigley Field, decided along with actor George Raft to acquire the fighter. Needing a real boxing man to handle Armstrong, they put Mead in charge of managing the fighter’s daily affairs.
Little men were still a rung down when it came to capturing the public’s imagination, and the trio felt they needed a plan to build Armstrong’s star power; enter the audacious endeavor of going after three titles at once. This they felt would bring Armstrong’s stature in line with that of the heavyweight king, Joe Louis.
Image courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring
Now with the goal ever so close to fruition, the thought of missing out must have pained Jolson.
* * *
With the bout postponed, the two fighters headed back to their respective training camps, while fans and writers were given another week to debate the contest’s competitive potential.
Though Ambers, as a natural lightweight, was the bigger of the two men, with an inch pull in height, and slightly larger measurements across the board, most felt he was in for a very rough night. However, there were some that believed he had the right set of skills to make things interesting and just maybe pull off a shocker.
Born Luigi Giuseppe D’Ambrosio on November 8, 1913, in upstate Herkimer, New York, the experienced champion had always been a scrapper. In trouble at times with the law as a youngster, Ambers luckily found an outlet for his boundless energy by learning to box in the basement of a local church gym.
Having left the small town with $2 in his pocket as an eighteen year old, he paid his dues in New York City fight clubs and underground smokers, while racking an up impressive professional record. As his reputation grew, big things were expected of the blond Italian and when Ambers secured a shot at the vacant lightweight title against Tony Canzoneri in 1935, he went into the contest as the clear betting favorite over the legendary former champion.
All energy and nerves at that stage, the talented young upstart fell short as his busy swarming style was no match for the Canzoneri’s countering skills. The unexpected defeat would prove a learning experience as by the time the fighters met for the rematch over a year later, Ambers had significantly improved his craft.
Image via the Winkler Collection
His whirlwind aggression had been replaced by a slightly more measured approach, and the added finesse was enough to cleverly turn the tables and claim the lightweight crown.
Though lacking knockout power, the speedy Ambers would continue to develop into as complete a fighter as there was in the sport, able to adjust his game plan in order to counter his opponent’s strengths. Capable of going to work in the trenches, he was even more adept at using his legs to get in and out quickly while operating at longer range – and it was this style some felt could trouble Armstrong.
Armstrong had said as much when asked about the fight a few days before the cancellation: “It’ll be my hardest fight because Ambers has the style that bothers me most. He’s a jumping jack, always in motion, always going away from punches. He’ll make me miss a lot and look bad in the early rounds. He may make me look bad for several rounds because he’s got good legs and plenty of stamina. It may take me a long time to catch him.”
One interested observer who shared this view on how to deal with Armstrong was Benny Leonard. The former lightweight champion, however, had concerns over the way Ambers was going about his training.
Surprisingly to Leonard, Ambers appeared to be preparing for an inside battle. Ambers himself had said after signing for the fight that he would need to keep moving, while spearing Armstrong with a steady left jab to come away with the win.
But having watched Ambers mix it up on the inside with his sparring partners, Leonard implored Ambers to be more responsible defensively. Along with stressing a focus on avoiding contact, he pointed out that he shouldn’t be moving in with his hands at his waist, looking to slip and counter. This was a strategy that might work against a fighter that loaded up with one punch at a time, but it would mean trouble against someone like Armstrong who always put his blows together in combinations.
Finally, Leonard offered one last piece of wisdom. “It would be a good idea to be a bit afraid of Henry. Be enough afraid to keep away from him.”
It was sound advice, but it wasn’t in Ambers’ nature to be afraid, and given his versatility, it wasn’t his style to adhere to a strict game plan. He preferred to prepare for all eventualities, and test his opponent out early before deciding on a course of action.
Image courtesy of boxrec.com
He was also a strong believer in listening to his trainer, Whitey Bimstein. The white-haired tactician agreed with the prevailing wisdom that the best way to beat Armstrong was with both hand and foot speed, but believed Ambers needed to prepare to battle in close as well.
As Bimstein explained, “There are times when you gotta get in close. And what is the best punch to use in close? A right-hand uppercut. And this is where Ambers comes in. Ambers has as good a right uppercut as you’d ever want to see.”
As respected a boxing man as Bimstein was, his words were met with raised eyebrows. Willingly engaging Armstrong was a strategy tried only months before by Barney Ross, with painful results.
* * *
Born Henry Melody Jackson on December 12, 1912, in Columbus Mississippi, a stone’s throw from the cotton fields his family worked on as sharecroppers. Like many black families of that era, the Jacksons moved north, settling in St. Louis when Henry was a small child, and it was there that the future champion became a fighter, learning to defend himself on the streets growing up.
Though brimming with natural talent, turning pro wasn’t the youngster’s life’s ambition, but with college tuition well beyond his means and regular employment extremely difficult to come by during the Depression, he set out on the road to try and get fights. His early days as a pro were a struggle, however, and after a 1-1 stint in Pennsylvania that included a knockout loss in his debut, he returned to St. Louis before eventually heading west to California in search of opportunities to kick start his career.
He arrived in Los Angeles in 1931, having made the trip west along with his friend and trainer Harry Armstrong hobo-style in the box cars of freight trains. Without a dime between them, they went out looking for matches, and eventually convinced a local boxing manager to take them on.
Jackson would change his name to Armstrong, taking the name of his friend and a new identity in order to “restore” his amateur status, giving him the chance to fight multiple times a week in the bustling Los Angeles amateur scene.
Earning a couple of dollars under the table for each outing, while supplementing his income shining shoes, Armstrong was able to take home enough to eat regularly. He was also gaining valuable experience while building up his local reputation, and by 1932 he was ready to turn pro-this time for good.
Under Harry’s guidance, Armstrong had started picking up defensive moves and blending them into his attacking style during his early days in St. Louis gyms, and continued to constantly learn after coming to California.
From watching the way the defensive minded Davey Abad slipped punches with subtle head movement, to studying film of how Dempsey would roll and counter with a left hook, the fighter gradually gained an understanding of how to press forward while remaining an elusive target.
As Armstrong explained, “defensive fighting is not backing up. It’s riding punches or rolling away from them.”
He also discovered the importance of staying relaxed, copying the training methods of one of the sport’s great volume punchers, Maxie Rosenbloom.
After years of perseverance, the finished product of Armstrong’s hard work was a tall order for any opponent, but as Ambers would say when confronted by the press with his opponent’s fiercest attributes, “I’ve studied him closely and you know I was pleased to discover he has only two fists… I’ve got two fists too.”
Part II of “Until the Real Thing Comes Along: The Night Henry Armstrong Made History Against Lou Ambers” will appear on The Cruelest Sport next week.
(Check out part two here: Part II)