Fifty Years After the Glory, Forgotten Legend Henry Armstrong Quietly Slips Out of the Ring

updated 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

He fought the fight—his final fight—from a hospital bed a few weeks ago, his battered eyes sightless and his frail body shriveled to 100 lbs. Henry Armstrong lost, of course; he was 75, and his foes were not the kind that he could punch and pound to the resined canvas floor of a fight ring. They were the unyielding enemies born of age: anemia, pneumonia, dementia and, finally, a failed heart. Not a faint heart though. Henry Armstrong never had that.

He was, after all, the only man in all boxing history ever to hold three championship titles at the same time: featherweight, welterweight and lightweight. "The word 'great' gets misused a lot, but not in Henry's case," says Ray Arcel, 88, the trainer of such world-beaters as Roberto Duran. "He was far superior to today's champions." Fight fans called him "Homicidal Henry" and "Hammerin' Hank" for the relentless style of attack that earned him 152 victories—100 by knockout—in a 14-year career stretching from 1931 to 1945. "He'd always work the stomach with two or three punches, and then he'd go after the chin," remembers Aldo Spoldi, 76, the only one of Henry's 27 opponents in 1937 who heard the final bell. "It was a victory just to be standing with him after 10 rounds."

Last month at the Century City Hospital in Los Angeles, it was Armstrong who lay curled on his side, about to be vanquished at last. He had been in and out of the hospital six times during the past year, and his life functions had been surrendered to feeding tubes and IV needles. Dr. Abe Green, the 34-year-old physician charged with his care, would gently take his huge, knobby mitt and check his pulse. "You know," he said once, looking into his patient's clouded eyes near the end, "I can't help but wonder what he's thinking."

He might have been thinking about the fortune he won and squandered. Or about Velma, the wife he loved who died in his arms. Or perhaps he thought about those 10 glorious, unique months in 1937-38 when he held the titles in three different weight classes at once. That's what the world best remembers about Henry—the part of the world that remembers him at all.

Then again, he might have been drifting back to Columbus, Miss., where he was born Henry Jackson, the 11th of 15 children of a Cherokee Indian mother and Negro-Irish father. His family later moved to the slums of St. Louis, and there, at 14, Henry met his first neighborhood bully. "I swung a big looping right at him and he tumbled out of sight down a coal chute," he recalled years afterward. "I discovered I could punch, and it felt wonderful."

After high school—he was student body president and class poet laureate—Henry worked as a railroad spike driver for $1.50 a day. Then he saw a news story about a fighter named Kid Chocolate who earned $75,000 in one night. He hopped a freight to L.A. with his best buddy, Harry Armstrong (whose surname he later adopted as a seal of friendship), and the two began fighting up to three bouts a night in the amateur arenas, the so-called "buckets of blood," around L.A. It was 1931, and the hungry days of the Great Depression had begun. When a manager offered them $3 to sign their first contracts, Henry was ecstatic. "I hadn't seen a dollar bill in six months," he said. "We bought a 10-cent loaf of bread, a big jar of jelly and some liverwurst. Man, did I feel big."

His first title fight took place in L.A. on Aug. 4, 1936, when 16,000 fans watched him hammer out a pug named Baby Arizmendi. Soon after, entertainers Al Jolson and George Raft bought Henry's contract. Jolson named his friend Eddie Mead as manager, and Henry was on his way. In October of '37, weighing 124 lbs., he licked Petey Sarron for the featherweight title. In May, 9 lbs. heavier, he ripped the welterweight crown from the legendary Barney Ross. The decoronation was savage; it looked like "Armstrong had used a battle axe," wrote Grantland Rice, the leading sportswriter of the day. Little did Granny know.

"Eddie told me to carry Ross for the last three rounds," Henry told New York Times writer Dave Anderson years later. "I guess he had a deal with Ross.... When the 13th round began, I said, 'How you feeling, Barney?' He said, 'I'm dead.' He just leaned on me the last three rounds." After the fight, Ross retired.

Eleven weeks later a 134-lb. Armstrong went to war with Lou Ambers, the lightweight champ, and after 15 brutal, bloody rounds took that title. A year later in a rematch, Ambers took it back.

"We both agreed later that those two fights finished us," says Ambers, now 75. "It took everything out of us." Save their mutual admiration. In Henry's hospital room as he lay dying was a card from his old rival. It said: "Keep fighting and get well soon."

When the Boxing Hall of Fame opened in 1954, Armstrong was one of the first three inductees, along with Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Like Louis, he by then had learned the fight game's most durable axiom: The man who does the bleeding is often bled financially. Some time later, Armstrong and Louis talked about it.

"Joe," said Henry, "what happened to your money?"

Louis laughed. "I came out of it in bad shape," he said. "But I heard I came out of it better than you."

Henry blamed "too much high living and not enough bookkeeping" for the half million or so that slipped away. But he had help from Eddie Mead, a shady player who once tried to persuade Henry to take a dive. Henry refused. "I can't say he robbed me," Armstrong once said, but "he lost a lot of money on the horses, a lot of my money too." When Mead died in 1942, the fighter discovered that he owed Uncle Sam $250,000 in back bills he thought the manager had paid. Henry ended his 17-month retirement and returned to the ring. "The trouble really started when I tried a comeback," he came to believe. "My manager made me drink gallons of beer to gain weight."

Finally, his eyesight faltering from years of punishment, Armstrong quit for good in 1945. His drinking kept up though, and one night in 1949 he landed in an L.A. drunk tank. Next day Judge Ida Mae Adams balefully told him, "Henry Armstrong, you're letting down a million boys."

Eventually, Henry embraced temperance, took up religion and was ordained a Baptist minister. It was too late to save his first marriage, and so in 1960 he returned to St. Louis and Velma Tartt, the high school sweetheart with whom he'd already had two children out of wedlock. So, strangely, began the happiest chapter of his life. He became a spokesman for the local Boys Club and a fixture at civic affairs and sports banquets.

Then one night Velma complained of chest pains. Armstrong raced her toward the hospital, but halfway there she turned to him and said, "Stop the car and hold me." Moments later she died in his arms. He never really recovered from that, friends said. A third marriage lasted just long enough for his bride to find out he was broke. Then he met Gussie Henry, a nurse's aide he had known 45 years earlier in L.A. The two wed in 1978 and settled in L.A.

On a visit to his old St. Louis neighborhood a year later, however, Henry was viciously mugged by two street punks. They stole his wallet, his Hall of Fame ring and, far more important, his pride. Newsman Bob Burnes remembers visting his old friend in the hospital: "He looked up at me with his battered face. The first words out of his mouth were, 'I would have taken them both out in a minute in my prime.' "

After that, the champ's health deteriorated steadily. Gussie, now 75, remained in Henry's corner, shaving and bathing him each day and helping him dress. They lived in a modest two-bedroom home, getting by on the $800 that Social Security sent each month. Later she sat by his hospital bedside, squeezing his gnarled hands. "I do what I can for him," she said. "But it's like the song. Nobody wants you when you're down and out."

There were flowers, though, during those final days, and cards from longtime friends. As Henry lay on his clean white sheets, his eyes would sometimes flicker in the sunlight pouring into his fourth-floor room. You couldn't help but wonder, then, what those sightless eyes were seeing. Perhaps they had turned inward to see the glory of Henry Armstrong's time. Or perhaps they caught a glimpse of a greater glory about to come.

—Jack Friedman, and Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles

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