Henry Jackson Jr. was an American professional boxer and a world boxing champion who fought under the name Henry Armstrong. Armstrong was one of the few fighters to win in three or more different divisions: featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight. He defended his welterweight title a total of nineteen times.
Born Henry Jackson, Jr., on December 12, 1912, in Columbus, Mississippi, Armstrong was the eleventh of the family's 15 children. His father, Henry Jackson, Sr., was a sharecropper and a butcher. His mother, America Jackson was an Iroquois Indian. When Armstrong was four years old, his father moved the family to St. Louis, where he and Armstrong's older brothers found work at the Independent Packing Company.
Armstrong's mother died in 1918, leaving the six-year-old under the care of his paternal grandmother. Like his mother, his grandmother hoped that he would pursue a career in the ministry. Armstrong, however, displayed no interest in fulfilling these wishes.
While attending Toussaint L’Ouverture Grammar School in St. Louis, Armstrong acquired the nickname “Red” due to his curly sandy hair with a reddish tint. Small in stature, he was often the target for teasing. In defending himself against bullies, he discovered his interest in boxing.
During his years attending Vashon High School, Armstrong excelled, earning good grades and gaining the respect of his peers. He was elected class president and was selected poet laureate of his class, which provided him the opportunity to read a valedictory poem at his graduation ceremony.
Armstrong worked on his athletic abilities, often running the eight miles to school. After school, he worked as a pinboy at a bowling alley. Here he gained his first boxing experience, winning a competition among the pinboys. By the time Armstrong graduated from high school at the age of 17, the Great Depression had arrived. His father, was ill, and struggled to provide for the family. With no money for college and the need to care for his family weighing heavily, Armstrong lied about his age, claiming he was 21 years old, in order to gain employment as a section hand on the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
In 1931, Armstrong fought as a professional in Pennsylvania, using the name Melody Jackson. He then headed to Los Angeles, where he became Henry Armstrong ‐ he chose the last name of a close friend ‐ and stood as an amateur once more. When he didn't make the 1932 Olympic team, Armstrong again turned pro.
After witnessing Armstrong's ability to overwhelm opponents with an unceasing assault of punches, Al Jolson became one of the owners of the fighter's contract. With new manager Eddie Mead, a plan was concocted for Armstrong to take the boxing world by storm by winning multiple titles.
Rise and Fall
In 1937, Armstrong became the featherweight champion after knocking out Petey Sarron. The next year, he moved up two weight classes and, in May, took the welterweight title from Barney Ross. A few months later, he shifted down into the lightweight category. His August 1938 win against Lou Ambers gave Armstrong the lightweight crown and made him the first boxer to hold three different weight division titles at the same time.
At the end of 1938, Armstrong chose not to defend the featherweight title. He lost the lightweight title in 1939. Armstrong tried to become the middleweight champion in March of 1940, but the match ended in a draw. Many observers believed that he had been robbed by the decision.
Armstrong vs Zivic
Armstrong successfully defended his welterweight crown multiple times, but on October 4, 1940, a defeat by Fritzie Zivic saw him lose that title as well. Although he had more wins in his career, including one against Zivic in 1942, Armstrong would never again hold a championship title.
Retirement and Death
In 1945, Armstrong retired from boxing. Though he had won at least half a million dollars during his career, he had very little money left when he retired. He soon compounded his problems by drinking heavily.
Armstrong became a Baptist minister in 1951. He stopped drinking and started to work with at-risk youth in Los Angeles. After moving back to St. Louis, he took a job at the Herbert Hoover Boys Club. As he grew older, Armstrong's health began to decline, perhaps due in part to the brutal poundings he had endured in the ring. Dependent on Social Security to make ends meet, he also had to deal with failing vision and dementia in his last years. He died on October 22, 1988, in Los Angeles, at the age of 75.
December 12, 1912
October 24, 1988
- After three amateur fights, he turned professional in 1931 under the name “Melody Jackson.” He made $35 for his pro debut and was knocked out in three rounds. After winning his second pro fight by decision, he moved to Los Angeles with Harry Armstrong.
- In 1938, Armstrong defeated Barney Ross by a fifteen-round unanimous decision to win the World Welterweight Championship and then defeated Lou Ambers by a fifteen-round split decision to win the World Lightweight Championship.
- Armstrong starred in the feature film Keep Punching in 1939. He played a boxer named Henry “Little Dynamite” Jackson.
- Armstrong defended the World Welterweight Championship a division record 19 times.
- Armstrong was 27-0 with 26 knockouts in 1937, 14-0 with 10 knockouts in 1938, and 59-1-1 with 51 knockouts from December 1936 to October 1940.
- Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
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