Until the Real Thing Comes Along: The Night Henry Armstrong Made History Against Lou Ambers (Part 3)



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“…there was scarcely a shirt in the working press that wasn’t stippled with blood. The floor of the ring resembled a gigantic butcher’s apron.”

- Henry McLemore, United Press

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Lou Ambers

(Check out the first two parts here: Part I & Part II)

In his interview with Peter Heller, Armstrong recalls the fight almost being stopped by the referee around the twelfth or thirteenth round. Armstrong’s memory of the event is a little hazy, as he mistakes Billy Cavanaugh for Arthur Donovan – the referee of the Ross fight – but his recall of when the moment occurred is probably about right.

With Armstrong bleeding freely earlier, but very much in command, the idea of stopping the bout likely wasn’t given much consideration by Cavanaugh. But once Armstrong started to struggle, the official had to be concerned over what effect the continual spillage of blood was having on the fighter.

Armstrong was incredulous at the idea of not being given a chance to finish, but Cavanaugh insistently directed his attention to the canvas, “Look at the ring, it’s full of blood!”

Cavanaugh pointed out that Armstrong could fight anywhere, but he could only referee in the state of New York. He didn’t want to risk his future standing with the commission by taking any unnecessary chances, but agreed to let the fighter continue, with the warning, “If you spit anymore blood onto the floor, I’m going to stop this fight.”

Armstrong’s corner wanted to put more coagulating agents on the cut to try and stem the blood. Harry Armstrong and Mead had tried everything–including using almost three bottles of adrenalin–but due to the severity of the wound, it was a hopeless cause. He told them not to bother; he would swallow the blood and finish the fight.

The Associated Press’ round-by-round account of the bout described Armstrong’s appearance as “grim and deathlike” as he came out for the fourteenth round. Perhaps Ambers sensed Armstrong still had something left, or maybe he was just too tired to really test the challenger’s resolve, but instead of immediately engaging, he chose to circle away from the pressure before forcing a clinch.

After some give-and-take action, Armstrong banged home a right to the side of the champion’s head, but instead of firing back at close quarters, Ambers got on his toes and quickly circled away from trouble and established some distance once more.

Eventually Armstrong managed to work his way inside, where he ripped home a hard left hand. Furiously they banged away at each other. Ambers connected with a left hand, before slipping away as Armstrong, with his left eye almost completely shut, quickly followed.

Henry Armstrong

Armstrong again managed to close the distance and pound away at the body, though one of his shots strayed a little low, and Cavanaugh told him to keep his punches up – but did not penalize the challenger this time. Still, it was looking like Ambers had arguably done enough to earn another round, when the challenger’s determination was rewarded.

Image courtesy of CyberBoxingZone

A left hook to the body was followed by a long right hand that clipped the champion’s jaw, sending Ambers staggering backwards on his heels across the ring, with only the ropes preventing him from going down.

Ambers bounced back to the middle of the ring and Armstrong charged forward to meet him. Trying to press his advantage, Armstrong landed a couple of hooks just as the bell rang.

As the fighters trudged back to their stools for the final sixty-second break, the Ambers corner let Cavanaugh have it yet again, protesting that the round should have been taken from Armstrong for low blows.

With only one round remaining, the fight was in the balance as the weary brawlers touched gloves at mid-ring to start the final three minutes.

Armstrong quickly went on the attack, with Ambers tying up the action. There was no relief for the champion, as Armstrong kept barreling his way forward, though Ambers was able to land a couple of left hands in retreat. Eventually he was forced into a corner, where Armstrong got the better of some rough milling.

Ambers quickly tried to slip away as Armstrong followed in hot pursuit. Armstrong could feel his stomach rumbling with blood as he willed himself forward, once more managing to track down the retreating champion and bull him into the ropes. Ambers tried to hold, only for Armstrong to whale away in the clinch with his free hand.

The mauling action moved back into a corner, with Armstrong forcing his head into Ambers’ chest and hammering away along the ropes. Ambers, his shoulders, body and legs smeared with the blood that spilled from Armstrong’s mouth, was able to respond occasionally, but appeared too spent to rally with the same intensity that marked his second half revival.

As the final seconds ticked down, Armstrong banged home a heavy right hand as the fighters fell against the ropes, with Ambers almost going through. A furious exchange followed, with both fighters trading as the bell rang – only nobody heard it above the din of the crowd, and for almost ten seconds, they continued to pound each other in close. Ambers had the better of the post-bell struggle before the brawling lightweights were pulled apart.

So tired was Armstrong at the finish, that he staggered to the Ambers corner and hung onto the top rope before being directed back to the middle of the ring, where Harry Armstrong and Mead could meet him. One of the ringside physicians, Dr. Alexander Schiff, would later remark that Armstrong’s fading condition was due to the blood he had lost, evidence of which the fighter supplied when he threw up a quart and a half in the doctor’s office an hour later.

Schiff was amazed when he saw the wound close up, calling Armstrong’s lip the worst he’d ever seen in 13 years of working fights. “It looked like it had been pounded with a rough-edged steak hammer,” remarked the doctor.

The gloves were soon pulled off, and the robes slipped on as the roar of the crowd slowly shifted to an excited chatter that buzzed throughout the building. Quickly the ring filled with activity as newspaper photographers and newsreel cameramen stepped between the ropes to capture the scenes.

Harry Balogh

As policemen stood outside the ropes overlooking the crowd, Garden announcer Harry Balogh collected the scorecards and then took the microphone…

“The winner and new lightweight champion, Henry Armstrong!”

Balogh did not announce the scores, but they were extremely tight. Marty Munroe had Ambers in front by an 8 to 7 tally, while George Lecron and Cavanaugh scored the bout for Armstrong by scores of 8-6-1 and 7-6-2 respectively.

Image courtesy of Boxrec.com

Cavanaugh walked over to the exhausted new champion’s corner and lifted his hand amid a sudden chorus of boos that came ringing down from all areas of the Garden.

As the crowd loudly voiced their disapproval of the verdict, Al Weill threw his towel on the canvas and kicked it. A disappointed Ambers made his way across the ring to offer his congratulations. Though he sported an egg-sized knot over one eye, he appeared relatively unscathed compared to Armstrong. From the neck down, however, Ambers looked the more battered of the two, with nasty welts covering his upper body and a four-inch wide red line tattooed across his back from where the top rope had rubbed up against his skin for so much of the fight.

After shaking Ambers’ hand, Armstrong was quickly ushered over to where Clem McCarthy of NBC was waiting for the post-fight interview. Amid the cacophony of boos, Armstrong said he was glad people from his hometown of St. Louis got to hear him fight and said he would be willing to give Ambers a return match at any time.

As jeers continued to cascade down from the upper reaches of the Garden, spectators close enough to the ring fired debris–torn papers, straw hats, cigar butts–in an unruly demonstration against the decision.

The throng only interrupted their protest when Ambers exited the ring; the jeers suddenly turned into deafening cheers, and the crowd applauded Ambers as he made his way down the aisle.

The demonstration turned ugly again once Ambers had vanished from sight, and as Armstrong made his way down from the ring, the crowd serenaded him with derisive boos and catcalls. Years later, the proud fighter would write that the crowd reaction brought tears to his swollen eyes, and more pain than any punch Ambers had landed.

Lawton Carver of the International News Service commented that the reaction of the spectators was unjust, while James P. Dawson of the New York Times went a step further, calling the crowd’s display “a sad demonstration after a glorious bout.”

Dawson was mystified by the crowd’s belief that Ambers had won. He’d scored the bout for Armstrong by a 10 to 5 tally – and in his opinion the challenger had the better of all three rounds lost for the foul deductions.

Dawson wasn’t alone in his opinion that Armstrong was unquestionably deserving of the victory.

Caswell Adams of the New York Tribune had Armstrong up 10 to 5 as well. Alan Gould of the Associated Press had Armstrong in front by an even wider margin, favoring the new champion by an 11 to 4 count. In Gould’s opinion, Ambers had only outfought the challenger in the thirteenth session.

Scripps-Howard sports writer Joe Howard felt similarly, writing, “Personally, I didn’t see how any other decision could have been given. Armstrong hit harder and landed more often. There is no other basis on which a decision can or should be given.”

Al Weill

Not surprisingly, Al Weill did not share that opinion and raged to the press gathered in the Ambers dressing room over what he felt was an injustice.

“It was plain murder,” bellowed the rotund manager. “That Armstrong did everything he shouldn’t have done against my Lou. He hit low, butted, elbowed and everything else and still he didn’t win in my book.”

Image courtesy of Boxrec.com

“There’s no doubt in my mind who won.” Weill continued loudly. “And all we want is a return match – the sooner the better.”

At first, Ambers was more magnanimous than his manager and refused to point a finger at Armstrong’s rough tactics as a reason for his defeat. Instead, he said that he didn’t know whether he’d won or lost, but just hoped it had been a good fight. He added that he wanted the rematch his manager was calling for, but only after he’d had “a good long rest.”

Not only was Ambers being a good sport about the result, he was strangely giddy as he answered questions. Sitting naked in a chair, he bobbed, weaved and swayed from side to side as if he were still trying to elude Armstrong’s attack. Between queries, he would start to laugh before breaking into song; prompting Henry McLemore to remark that the former champion appeared to be “on the borderline of hysteria.”

“I beat him.” Ambers said as his bravado took over, and repeated the line again and again. “Hurt me? Hell, no. Armstrong’s not half the puncher they say he is. Look at the way I cut him up.”

Ambers claimed that he was always in control: “Armstrong never hurt me once – even when he knocked me down. I knew what I was doing every second.”

There were some writers who felt the bout was close enough that Ambers may have had a case. Hugh Bradley believed the fight could have been scored either way, though the New York Post scribe had Armstrong up by a single round. That was also the margin for Armstrong on the scorecard of Grantland Rice, along with the card of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Perry Lewis.

The Hartford Courant’s Bert Keane scored the fight a draw, though Keane noted that under Connecticut’s scoring system, the knockdowns would have given Armstrong the win.

Dr. Alexander Schiff

The mood in the winner’s dressing room was far more subdued. Too exhausted to celebrate, Armstrong sat wearily on a table leaning back against a wall. He looked the picture of defeat, with a total of five cuts around both eyes, including a deep, inch-long gash over his badly swollen left. As the flashbulbs captured his battered visage, he spoke slowly, almost in a mumble, through raw and misshapen lips.

“He’s the most bothersome fellow I ever ran into,” Armstrong said of his opponent. “He don’t hit hard but he hits often and my body is so sore I can hardly move it.”

Perhaps feeling he’d shortchanged Ambers a bit, he delicately rubbed his badly torn lip and added, “Say, don’t let anybody tell you Lou can’t punch. Love taps didn’t do this.”

When asked about the rematch he’d promised in the ring, Armstrong had no objections but wanted to wait until he recovered. Lying on the rubbing table, he said “I want to take things easy for awhile.”

Benny Leonard, there to offer congratulations, thought Armstrong didn’t need to jump back into the ring anytime soon. Leonard felt the fighter looked stale and overworked, and that he needed a rest. Armstrong, he said, “wasn’t at his best tonight. He’s been fighting too often and it caught up with him tonight.”

Armstrong agreed that it had not been his best performance. Maybe so, but it had been good enough. An audacious idea had been brought to fruition, fittingly completed in a stirring battle.

And while Armstrong’s shield of invincibility had been cracked, he had shown a remarkable will, giving everything he had under circumstances that may have finished all but the most determined of fighters.

Perhaps he was too tired to savor it, and perhaps the reaction of the crowd had stolen the joy from the occasion, but history has been made and his legacy was sealed. Not one, not two, but three titles were now held by the remarkable Henry Armstrong – an achievement that would stand the test of time as one of the sport’s most enduring accomplishments.

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This story is dedicated to the memory of Harry Shaffer.  Over the years, I spent many hours browsing Harry’s wonderful site, Antiquities of the Prize Ring, immersed in the imagery of boxing’s history.  Harry was kind enough to allow me access to the site’s archives for my stories, and if I couldn’t find an image, he was always gracious enough to help track one down. – A.F.

Tags: Al Weill Eddie Mead Featured Grantland Rice Henry Armstrong Lou Ambers Popular Whitey Bimtstein

  • Jimmy Tobin

    Really enjoyed this AF, and, as always, cannot compliment you enough for the storytelling and the research.
    But don’t go resting on the laurels of this epic undertaking. I wanna read about that Lew Jenkins AF–get on it!

    • http://thelivingdaylights.co/ Andrew Fruman

      Thanks JT, and that’s not a bad idea. A story on Jenkins vs Armstrong is definitely something to consider.

  • Michael Nelson

    Phenomenal work, Andrew. A true pleasure reading these pieces.

    • http://thelivingdaylights.co/ Andrew Fruman

      Thanks Michael, glad you enjoyed the series.