The Year of the Hammer
06.10.05 - By Aaron King: By the time Henry Armstrong began his 1937 campaign, he was already a well-established fighter. At the end of ’36, his record read 52-10-6; by no means spectacular, but he had made a name for himself and his straightforward, relentless style.
Article posted on 07.10.2005
This approach would eventually become synonymous with Armstrong, as it was his non-stop style that would be the source of all his nicknames - “Perpetual Motion,” “Hurricane Henry,” “Hammerin’ Hank,” and, perhaps most apt, “Homicidal Henry.” Tony Kelly told Ring Magazine in 1938 that Armstrong “sets the most killing pace I’ve ever seen.” And he was right. It was the sort of pace that didn’t seem possible for the average man to maintain, but Armstrong was no average man. After his death in 1988, it was revealed that his heart was one-third larger than average.
Armstrong began his historic run in 1937 on the first day of the year in Mexico City. He fought Baby Casanova on an other occasion in February of 1935 and lost by fifth round disqualification. But Henry was 25 fights better, and easily dispatched of Casanova in three rounds. Eighteen days later, Armstrong was in Los Angeles to fight Tony Chavez. Once again, “Hammerin’ Hank” won by knockout, this time in the 10th.
Armstrong, whose real name was Henry Jackson, began his career in 1931 under the alias Melody Jackson. He was knocked out in the third round of his first fight and won a decision in his second. After going back to the amateurs, he changed his name again, and this time it was the one that stuck, although his luck in the pro ranks didn’t improve. He lost two four-round decisions in 1932. At 1-3, the future all-time great seemed to have all but a great future.
Armstrong’s next fight in ‘37 was on February 2, again in Los Angeles. He made quick work of Moon Mullins and was back in the ring on the 19th against Varias Milling. Milling was no match for Armstrong, and he too took the early, fourth round exit. Armstrong had three fights in March - two fourth round KOs of Joe Rivers and Mike Belloise, only ten days apart and on different ends of the country, and a 10-round, decision win over Aldo Spoldi, a week after the Belloise fight.
Armstrong didn’t let his rocky start deter him. After going 1-3, he lost only one of his next 34 fights from 1932 to late 1934, when he dropped a decision to Baby Arizmendi.
After his three wins in March 1937, Henry knocked out Pete DeGrasse in the 10th round on April 6. This set Armstrong for his biggest fight of the year and possibly of his career, at least until that point. The May 4 battle with top ten contender and former champion Frankie Klick. It also marked his longest layoff of the year - 29 days. Klick fell just like the others, in four rounds, and his next three opponents were also each finished in four. The streak of four consecutive fourth round knockouts ended on July 8, when he the “Hurricane” put Alf Blatch down for the count in three rounds. Two more fights in July; two more knockouts, the last one against another top ten featherweight and former champion in Benny Bass.
After his retirement in 1945, with 181 bouts under his belt at the age of 32, Armstrong struggled with alcoholism. However, as he did during his career, he quickly overcame the foe, and in 1951 became an ordained Baptist minister. The born-again Christian opened the Henry Armstrong Youth Foundation in St. Louis, where he now has a spot on the Walk of Fame.
Armstrong fought a total of 10 rounds in August of ‘37. He knocked out Eddie Brink in three rounds on the 13th and put Johnny Cabello out in two only three days later. Henry ended the month by knocking out Orville Drouillard in Detroit. After three more KO wins in September, including a first round win over Bobby Dean, Armstrong had featherweight champion Petey Sarron in his sights.
Before the championship bout with Sarron, Henry took care of Joe Marciente in Philadelphia. After eleven days of preparing for Sarron, Armstrong entered the ring on October 29, 1937, in Madison Square Garden. It was his first shot at a world title, and he took full advantage of it. Petey lasted twice as long as Marciente - six rounds. As his blaze through the division continued, Armstrong was now the featherweight champion of the world.
The new champion fought four more times that year, twice in each November and December, winning each by knockout in the 5th, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd rounds respectively.
Henry Armstrong had just completed what was arguably the greatest year in boxing history (his 1938 year is also regarded as the best by many). All in all, the tally itself told the story - 27 bouts, 27 wins, 26 knockouts, and the world featherweight title.
Gilbert Odd wrote in 1974, “Armstrong was a fistic phenomena.” The likes of Armstrong will never come again. His greatest claim to fame came in the following year when he added the lightweight and welterweight titles to his featherweight championship. If not for a contentious decision against middleweight boss, Cerefino Garcia, whom he already had defeated, he would have held half of the titles in boxing at around the same time.
However, to many, 1937 will always be the year of the “Hammer,” the year Henry Armstrong took over boxing with both hands constantly firing. Barney Ross would later say of Armstrong, “On the night Henry won the welterweight title from me, he was as great a fighter at his weight as ever lived.”
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