Little Big Men: Henry Armstrong

Armstrong was the only boxer to hold three world titles simultaneously. AP Photo

Henry Armstrong was a physical loan shark, a fighter who adopted General Clausewitz's theory that the winning general is the one who can impose his will upon the enemy. One hundred fifty-one times Armstrong imposed his will on his opponents, suffocating them in his swarming style, firing off his punches and then running over them, much like a runaway locomotive, with a ten-ton truck rumbling over their remains for good measure.

But the perpetual-motion machine might have been a mere footnote to boxing history had it not been for the fact that one of the members of his managerial brain trust was entertainer Al Jolson. And that Armstrong's greatest year, 1937, was also the year of Joe Louis. Until 1934, Henry Armstrong had been a struggling featherweight, fighting in and around Los Angeles with mixed results against opponents who remain almost as unknown as the soldier under the tombstone in Arlington. During one of the weekly Hollywood Legion fights, in front of a star-studded crowd, Armstrong distinguished himself, scoring a sensational knockout. Two of the stars, Ruby Keeler and Al Jolson, took a liking to the human hurricane and underwrote the purchase of his contract for their friend, Eddie Meade. All of a sudden his fortunes improved. And so did the caliber of his opponents.

By 1937 betting on Armstrong was like getting money from home without writing. He fought an incredible 27 times that year and won all, and all but one by KO. Together, Armstrong and his manager didn't care what the opposition weighed or what their credentials were. They took on anybody and everybody regardless of race, creed, or weight, fighting featherweights, a few lightweights, and a sprinkling of welterweights as well. But because Joe Louis had just won the heavyweight championship, and because Armstrong never shared Louis's celebrity status, they determined a course of action that would make more money. And, not incidentally, make ring history at the same time.

Armstrong remembered the meeting between Meade, himself, Jolson, and George Raft, another financial backer: "Joe Louis was going to take all the popularity, everything away from me, from all the fighters, because everyone was saving their money to see Joe Louis fight." That's when someone hit upon the idea that rivaled all the promotional ideas that emanated from Hollywood in those days, all spelled "colossal," "stupendous," "bigger­than-life." The idea, simply stated, was to go after three titles.

Now Meade & Co. started moving Armstrong along in the boxing world willfully, their collective eye on three brass rings. Armstrong took the first olive out of the jar in October 1937: the featherweight title, beating Pete Sarron in six rounds. With the 126-pound title stashed safely away, Armstrong and Meade turned to heavier -- and more lucrative -- challenges. Fourteen more fights, and 14 more wins followed, and then Armstrong was matched with welterweight king, Barney Ross. Despite a 9-pound pull in their weights, the Perpetual-Motion Machine took the fight to Ross and the crown from the gallant warrior, halting his whirlwind attack only long enough to carry Ross through the last five rounds.

With the welter title now added to his collection, the man who sought more crowns than Charlemagne now played the part of the original Indian rubber man and dropped down to lightweight to wrest the crown from Lou Ambers in a brutal fight that had Armstrong swallowing his own blood for the last six rounds in fear the bout would be stopped. Three titles in a little more than nine months, a hat trick that was indeed something "stupendous, colossal, and bigger-than-life." (Armstrong would try for yet another crown, the middleweight title in a fight against Ceferino Garcia. But even though Armstrong won handily, the decision came down a draw, one of boxing's little prearrangements that weigh more heavily than any opponent.).

No one who ever saw this fighter, known as "Hammerin' Hank" or "Homicide Hank" or "Hurricane Hank," will ever forget him: a nonstop punching machine, his style more rhythmic than headlong, his matchstick legs akimbo, his arms crossed in front of his face, racing the clock with each punch, and each punch punctuated by a grunt. His likes will never be seen again. The feats of Henry Armstrong are a benchmark against which all future generations will be measured.

From "Boxing's Greatest Fighters,"

copyright 2006, Lyons Press

Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.