“…One of the greatest championship battles of any class ever fought in the Garden or any other ring.”
- Jimmy Wood, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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(Check out the first part here: Part I)
Wednesday, August 17, 1938
When the fighters climbed into the ring on August 17, Madison Square Garden was simmering with anticipation. There had been a last-minute rush on tickets, with fans–some perhaps looking to escape the sweltering heat that had engulfed New York that day–grabbing every last seat in the house. From the $1.15 upper bowl to the $16.50 ringside spots–a Garden high for a non-heavyweight title bout–the place was jammed.
Befitting the occasion, many famous faces of the fight game were present. Jack Dempsey and his wife were seated in the second row. “The Cinderella Man,” Jim Braddock, was there too, as were former lightweight champions Benny Leonard and Tony Canzoneri. Joe Louis was a few rows back, while Tommy Farr, the Welsh heavyweight, who had gone the full route with “The Brown Bomber” the previous summer at the Garden, was also in attendance.
Barney Ross was there to watch the fight as well. One reporter joked that the now retired three-division champion came to check that Armstrong was really just one man.
Though both fighters were under the 147-pound limit, the title Armstrong had annexed from Ross would not be at stake as the New York State Athletic Commission refused to sanction the bout as a double-title affair. Commission chairman Major General John Joseph Phelan went so far as to insist that both managers Weill and Mead, along with promoter Mike Jacobs, sign an agreement the night before the bout stating that only the lightweight crown would be at stake.
Given that the purse had not been divided equitably (with Ambers receiving a substantially larger share as champion) the commission’s ruling was hard to argue with. But the National Boxing Association refused to recognize the edict and announced they would recognize the winner as holder of both crowns.
The action was intense from the start, with Armstrong, weighing 134 ¼ to Amber’s 134, expectedly driving forward and pushing the pace. Ambers briefly was able to stay out of range, as he snapped off jabs while using his legs to evade the pressure, but it wasn’t long before Armstrong managed to bull the champ into the ropes.
There he went to work, firing left hooks and short overhand rights upstairs while digging hooks to the midsection. Ambers tried to fend off the pressure with a series of quick uppercuts, but Armstrong kept banging away, with the champ finding himself too busy rolling and blocking to respond with anything effective.
This was Armstrong’s type of fight, and those backing Ambers could not have been encouraged by how early the battle had developed into the kind of toe-to-toe struggle the challenger thrived on.
The second round was more of the same, with Armstrong punishing Ambers along the ropes, especially during a vicious onslaught in the closing seconds. There was, however, one promising development for the seemingly overwhelmed Ambers: at some point during the furious action, the injury to Armstrong’s lip had opened up. A minor inconvenience for the challenger at the time, it would prove pivotal in the later rounds.
Armstrong, using an intense body assault, continued to dictate the terms of the bout in the following round. Ambers did what he could, snapping home some chopping inside shots that had the challenger spitting blood, yet the pressure was unyielding and the sound of the bell came none too soon for the retreating champion.
Despite the blood, Armstrong was calm and cool on his stool between rounds, while in the other corner, Al Weill and Whitey Bimstein worked feverishly to get their man ready for the next three minutes. Not surprisingly, Ambers made a concerted effort to stay at long range in the fourth. He was successful at first, managing to score with his jab while circling away, but soon found himself in the familiar position of his back to the ropes.
Under much duress, Ambers gamely fired back – scoring with a right hand that sent Armstrong’s mouthpiece flying. Despite the sudden absence of the protective gear, Armstrong barely broke stride. He kept banging away at the body, while Ambers responded by firing uppercuts with both hands.
The pattern resumed in the fifth, but this time the champion managed to battle out of trouble, getting the best of it with a determined rally–his best of the fight–before circling away from the ropes and back into the middle of the ring, where the pace slowed for the first time in the fight.
It was a brief respite however, as Armstrong again forced Ambers back to the ropes, scoring heavily to the body, before finding Ambers’ chin with a crunching overhand right.
The punch landed a split second before bell–dropping Ambers on the seat of his pants, with his heels in the air. Ambers was stunned, and his eyes were glazed as he sat on his haunches. Under the rules of the day, the bell meant the round was over, but Cavanaugh didn’t hear it over the crowd noise and began to count.
Within an instant, he was interrupted by Bimstein and Weill–the frantic cornermen having immediately leapt through the ropes and charged across the ring with a bucket of water in hand–the contents of which were thrown over Ambers before the dazed fighter was picked up from the resin and dragged back to the corner.
Ambers appeared to have his wits about him to start the sixth, but came out on the defensive, quickly backing away from Armstrong’s charge. Eventually he was forced to exchange, and he landed a right uppercut, to which Armstrong responded with his own right, followed by a left-right combination that again dropped Ambers.
As Cavanaugh counted, Ambers kept a cool head, climbing to one knee before nodding to his corner that he was okay. He was up at the count of eight and quickly on the defensive as Armstrong wasted no time charging in.
Armstrong got a little reckless, and Ambers managed to buy precious seconds with his legs, before eventually being driven into the ropes. Armstrong battered Ambers to the body as he went for the kill, and staggered him with a couple of heavy left hooks, but couldn’t put through a finishing blow.
Remarkably, before the close of the round, Ambers was able to fire back with enough snap to once again knock Armstrong’s mouth piece out. Armstrong kept pressing though, and was banging hooks to the body when the bell rang, at which point Ambers had recovered enough to briskly walk back to his corner.
Ringside observers wondered if there was a problem with Armstrong’s mouth piece, and there was. It was a new, and ill fitting, and the trouble was exacerbated that much more by the progressively worsening cut inside the challenger’s lip and the accompanying swelling.
The seventh round was another dominated by the challenger, though his mouthpiece would come flying out yet again, and also concerning for Armstrong, was the decision of referee Cavanaugh to award the round to Ambers on a foul. A left hand, during a late body assault had strayed a little too low in the eyes of the official.
Having been unable to keep his distance for the great majority of the opening seven rounds, a subtle shift took place for the champion in the eighth stanza.
To open the round, a back-pedaling Ambers managed to make Armstrong miss. Ambers began tagging the chasing challenger–who was noticeably bleeding from the mouth–with light counters.
On another occasion, he put his head into Armstrong’s chest and was surprisingly able to push the challenger halfway across the ring. Armstrong still managed to bull him into the ropes at times, and late in the round Armstrong landed a hard right that staggered Ambers. Rather than retreat though, Ambers responded by firing back, and the two fighters exchanged furiously along the ropes to end the session.
Image courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring
A further sign of the changing fortunes was evident between rounds, with Armstrong’s mouth piece causing enough confusion to delay his appearance to start the ninth.
Building on the positives from the previous three minutes, Ambers came out confidently, managing to stick home several quick shots, while successfully sliding away to Armstrong’s right before tying the aggressive challenger up. Doggedly banging away, Armstrong managed to force the action into the ropes, yet came away from a mauling exchange with his left eye noticeably damaged.
A series of torrid exchanges followed, with a right hand from Ambers sending Armstrong’s wayward mouth piece flying across the ring. Armstrong came back with a short right hand on the button, but Ambers responded with a two-handed volley and as the fighters hammered away at each other to close the round, the Garden crowd stood and loudly demonstrated their approval.
The still- buzzing crowd cheered as the rejuvenated Ambers came off his stool for the tenth, and roared when he landed a hard right early in the round to Armstrong’s mouth. The tiring challenger fumbled with his mouth piece for a moment, before securing the guard behind his torn lower lip.
There was a sense at ringside that the fight was turning, but with Armstrong’s left eye swelling, and blood filling his mouth that either streamed down his throat, or splattered outwards, the persistent challenger made his stand. From the opening bell until the close of the round, he ceaselessly pressed forward, absorbing Ambers’ counters, while backing the champion up with a relentless body assault.
The crowd, now fully behind Ambers, felt Armstrong was straying low with his attack, and cries of “Foul!” rang out after almost every punch, though Cavanaugh saw nothing to warrant a deduction.
The round also featured a strange scene, with Armstrong removing his bothersome mouth piece with his right glove. Maybe initially intending to put it back in or throw it to his corner when he had a chance, he instead kept firing away with the hard rubber guard stuck in the palm of his glove.
Perhaps swept up in the excitement of the deafening arena, Referee Cavanaugh didn’t notice, and it was not until several sportswriters yelling from ringside had alerted his attention to the situation that he ordered the marauding Armstrong to drop the guard.
Armstrong decided to dispense with the gear for the eleventh, telling his corner he didn’t need it.
In an interview nearly 35 years later, Armstrong told Peter Heller that the decision to forgo the mouthpiece occurred a couple of rounds later, but the round-by-round summaries indicate it took place at this point in the battle.
Image via the Winkler Collection
The blood started flowing almost immediately from Armstrong’s lips as the action got going in the eleventh, yet he still kept churning away with both hands, forcing Ambers to the ropes repeatedly. Ambers tried to fight back with uppercuts, but was caught with heavy rights upstairs, along with digging hooks to the body. One of these hooks strayed too low for Cavanaugh to overlook however, and the official was again forced to penalize Armstrong.
Undaunted, Armstrong continued to barge forward, and at some point late in the round, he staggered Ambers with a huge right hand. The champion looked for a moment like he might go down as Armstrong poured on the pressure, but he managed to keep his footing, as he dipped, dodged and weaved, lasting out the rounds final seconds, before groggily walking back to his corner.
It was a clear round for the challenger, but as with the eighth session, it went in the books for Ambers due to the penalty. There were no single-point deductions in the round scoring system used at the time, and a round in which a fighter was penalized would automatically be scored for the other man.
Armstrong, though clearly starting to tire, continued to force the issue in the twelfth, and was having the best of it, before again being penalized for landing low.
Ambers was having his own struggles with fatigue as well, and had been given stimulants in his corner since the tenth round. The extra boosts appeared to be working as the champion came out confidently for the thirteenth, and managed to use his jab and a series of uppercuts to keep the tiring, but still relentless Armstrong at bay early.
Soon enough though, Armstrong broke through, staggering Ambers with a flush right to the jaw and forcing the champion backward with several heavy, though slightly wild shots. Ambers was quick to respond, smashing Armstrong back with his own ripping right hand.
Suddenly dazed and a little wobbly, Armstrong kept throwing as the action moved to the ropes. Sensing his chance, Ambers opened up with a hail of lefts and rights to the head as the roaring crowd rose to its feet. With blood spilling from his mouth, the increasingly ragged looking challenger kept throwing back, but Ambers’ work was sharper, and he buckled Armstrong’s knees with a rapid two handed flurry.
Armstrong steadied himself, and drove Ambers back into the ropes once more, only for Ambers to again respond with another slashing attack. Several rights and lefts connected on the challenger’s swollen bloody face, as Ambers, though arm weary himself, managed to drive Armstrong back on his heels with another stunning flurry of blows. When the bell rang, neither fighter heard it as the Garden was in total bedlam–and a few more punches landed before the bell rang several more times and the men were finally separated. The suddenly bewildered Armstrong initially headed towards the Ambers corner before finding his way back to his awaiting seconds.
NBC’s Bill Stern–taking over for play-by-play commentator Clem McCarthy during the between round breaks–shrieked to the radio audience:
“Listen to this crowd! They are going crazy at Madison Square Garden! Ambers in the most magnificent comeback we’ve ever seen, out in the middle of the ring wailing away with both fists at Henry Armstrong that time! Down in two of the earlier rounds, back for a wonderful recovery. He was back on his feet carrying the fight for the first time tonight to Henry Armstrong. Whether it’s too late for him, we don’t know, but certainly he brought this crowd of 18,000 half hysterical screaming spectators up on their feet… and they’re still standing, they’re no longer seated. They are standing on their feet yelling at the top of their lungs…”
Part III 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 the third and final part here: Part III)