An African American boxer, Henry Armstrong was the only professional boxer to hold world championship titles in three weight divisions simultaneously. In his boxing career from 1931 to 1945, Armstrong fought 181 bouts, won 151 matches, lost 21 fights, and scored 101 knockouts. After his retirement, he became an ordained minister and devoted himself to underprivileged youth.
Henry Armstrong was born on December 12, 1912, in Columbus, Mississippi, with the birth name of Henry Jackson Jr. Named after his father, Henry was the eleventh child of fifteen, Henry Armstrong's father was a mixed race sharecropper, his mother was America Jackson. She was a full-blooded Iroquois Indian. Mrs. Jackson believed that one day, Henry would do great things and become a Minister.
At an early age, Henry's family moved to St. Louis in search for a better life for his family. Still young when his mother died, Henry was raised by his grandmother Henrietta Chatman along with his father. Henry learned to defend himself on the rough streets of St. Louis from gangs, displaying a natural gift of wrestling and boxing.
Henry Armstrong did well in school and graduated with honors from Vashon High School in 1929. He was a member of the school paper and worked after school as a pin boy at the local bowling alley. It was there that he had his first boxing experience, winning a boxing match between the pin boys. At his graduation, he recited a valedictory poem he had written. Henry had always planned on going to college, but the Great Depression and his father's ill health made it more important for him to make money for his family. Seeing an ad for boxers with their salary listed gave Henry Armstrong his push toward a career as a professional boxer.
Working at the "colored" Young Men's Christian Association, Armstrong met Harry Armstrong, a former boxer, who became his friend, mentor, and trainer. Taking the name Melody Jackson, Armstrong won his first amateur fight at the St. Louis Coliseum in 1929, by a knockout in the second round. After several more amateur fights, Armstrong moved to Pittsburgh to pursue a professional career. Ill prepared and undernourished, Armstrong lost his first professional fight by a knockout. He did manage to win his second fight on points; however, he decided to return to St. Louis.
In 1931 Armstrong, accompanied by Harry Armstrong, hopped trains to Los Angeles to restart his amateur career. Upon meeting fight manager Tom Cox at a local gym, Armstrong introduced himself as Harry Armstrong's brother, after which he became known by the name Henry Armstrong. Securing a contract with Cox for three dollars, he had almost 100 amateur fights, in which he won more than half by knockout and lost none. When Cox sold his contract on Armstrong to Wirt Ross in 1932 for $250, Armstrong entered the professional ranks to stay.
Armstrong started out 1937 by winning 22 bouts in a row, 21 by knockout. He beat Casanova in three, Belloise in four, Joe Rivers in three, former world champion Frankie Klick in four and former world champion Benny Bass in four. After those 22 wins in a row, the inevitable happened: Armstrong was given his first world title try, for the 126 pounds title, Featherweight world champion Petey Sarron defending it against him at the Madison Square Garden. Armstrong became the world's Featherweight champion knocking out Sarron in six, and closed the year with four more knockout wins.
In 1938, Armstrong started with seven more knockouts in a row, including one over future world champion Chalky Wright. The streak finally ended when Arizmendi lasted ten rounds before losing a decision to Armstrong in their fourth fight. His streak of 27 knockout wins in a row qualifies as one of the longest knockout win streaks in the history of boxing.
After the fourth bout with Arizmendi was a bout with Fritzie Zivic's brother, Eddie Zivic, resulting in another Armstrong knockout win, and after one more bout, Armstrong, the 126 pound division world champion, challenged a fellow member of the three division champions' club, Barney Ross, then world Welterweight champion, for the title. Armstrong, 126, beat Ross, 147, by unanimous decision, adding the world Welterweight championship to his Featherweight belt. Then, he went down in weight, and challenged world Lightweight champion Lou Ambers. In a history making night, Armstrong became the first boxer ever to have world championships in three different divisions at the same time, by beating Ambers on points. A few days later, he decided he couldn't make the 126 pounds weight anymore, and left the Featherweight crown vacant.
In 1940, Armstrong challenged Ceferino Garcia for the World Middleweight Title. Garcia retained the title with a draw, but most at ringside felt that Armstrong had won. A victory would have given Armstrong a fourth divisional title at a time when there were only eight weight divisions. In total Armstrong defeated sixteen world champions during his boxing career.The next five years, Henry Armstrong continued to win and defend his titles, mostly in the welterweight division. After winning one fight, losing one and drawing one in 1945, Armstrong decided to retire from boxing. Apart from the ceremonies and galas that he attended afterwards, he led a relatively quiet life for the rest of his life. He became a Christian and an ordained pastor, and he taught youngsters how to box.