There is only one way to become a truly great boxer and that is to compete against other truly great boxers. Back in the day, if one was near the top of the heap, this was a simpler task to undertake than it is now. That’s because, simply put, there were more great fighters around. There was also a constant demand for fistic entertainment with fight cards happening on at least a weekly basis in pretty much every major American city. Unlike today, the best fought the best on a frequent basis, which meant the pretenders were separated from the contenders pretty damn fast and, one way or another, the cream always rose to the top.
The point being that Lou Ambers, who campaigned during the ultra-competitive 1930’s, is an all-time great lightweight boxer. This is not up for debate; it’s a fact. And the reasons why we know it’s a fact are easy to name: Tony Canzoneri, Baby Arizmendi, Frankie Klick, Fritzie Zivic, and Al “Bummy” Davis. We could add in Sammy Fuller and Johnny Jadick too if we want, but those five names are really enough.
The other name to add of course is Henry Armstrong. And the key point is this: as great as Ambers was, Armstrong was greater. And he proved it on a hot August night in Madison Square Garden, in the process becoming the first and only prizefighter in the whole long history of the fight game to hold three divisional world titles at the same time. And yet, strangely enough, at the end of 15 rounds of all-out warfare, Armstrong’s stupendous and historic achievement was not the story of the night. But more about that in a minute.
So we are talking about greatness. And a night when two great warriors struggled against each other for the undisputed lightweight championship of the world. This was in 1938, and it’s important to remember that at this time the Great Depression was still on, which meant the fight gyms in every major American city — and there were a lot of fight gyms back then — were full to bursting with desperate young men looking to become champions, or at least earn some decent cash for slinging leather. There were only eight weight divisions; there was only one world title for each division. Bottom line: the competition was beyond fierce and only the very best could crack the Top 10, let alone challenge for the top of the mountain.
Armstrong was already carrying not one but two world title belts into the ring with him that night. The previous October, after completely decimating the featherweight ranks over the course of six years, Henry won the 126 pound title by sixth round knockout over Petey Sarron. After another 14 wins, Armstrong challenged Barney Ross for the welterweight title, battering the popular but aging champion over the course of 15 one-sided rounds.
This win made Armstrong a star, for, unlike today, double champions were a rare and very splendid thing, sort of like football players who keep showing up at the Super Bowl today or a tennis player who wins back-to-back majors. Everyone knew Armstrong was special, but now the question sports fans across America were asking was, “Could he actually become a triple crown champ?”
Yes, Ross and Tony Canzoneri had done so, but only if one counted the so-called “junior” weight divisions as being on par with the regular ones and even then, they had not held the championships simultaneously. The great Bob Fitzsimmons had won the middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight titles in succession; otherwise, no one had ever threatened to do what Armstrong was now setting himself to attempt. The featherweight and welterweight championships were his; a win over Ambers would mean he also held the lightweight crown at the same time, thus making him one of the greatest boxers who had ever lived.
But now we circle back to the question of greatness and we recall that while Sarron and Ross represented formidable opponents, the former was a solid underdog and the latter was well past his best days. Ambers was a different story. Young, game and in his prime, the champion had more than proven his mettle with wins over Tony Canzoneri, Jimmy Vaughn, Baby Arizmendi and Pedro Montanez. Bottom line: Ambers was great and he was going to do all he could to test the greatness of Armstrong. That he did and thus the first Armstrong vs Ambers clash was a 15 round classic, one of the truly great battles in ring history.
The early rounds saw Armstrong the aggressor and setting a wicked pace, out-working Ambers, his whirling, non-stop attack setting the terms. The champion battled back, but couldn’t quite match the furious, frenzied, two-fisted assault of “Hurricane Hank.” Just before the end of round five a powerful right to the jaw put Ambers down but the bell saved him from having to beat the count. Round six saw Armstrong in command and administering a heavy battering and another big right hand put Ambers down again, this time for a count of eight. When Lou rose Henry was all over him, pressuring relentlessly and pounding home vicious shots to the body.
But if Armstrong was winning the match, he was also taking his share of punishment in a grueling, toe-to-toe war. It was a vicious slugfest, both men pitching and catching, and now Ambers was rebounding, taking the fight to Henry and winning rounds. By the tenth Armstrong was clearly ahead but he had suffered a deep gash inside his mouth along with cuts to both eyes and his blood was all over the ring. At the end of the round referee Billy Cavanagh came to Henry’s corner and announced he was going to stop the fight. “Don’t stop it,” said Henry. “I’m winning this fight.” “The ring is full of blood,” replied the referee. “And it’s your blood.” “Then I’ll stop bleeding,” said “Homicide Hank.”
When the bell rang for round eleven Armstrong told his corner not to put in his mouthpiece and for the next five rounds he swallowed his own blood as he pursued and pounded away, but in round thirteen it was Ambers who dug in and gave more than he got, finally blunting Henry’s attack with his own offensive output and sparking a late round rally that thrilled the crowd. It was not enough to change the outcome, but at the final bell it was a dazed and exhausted Armstrong, not Ambers, who stumbled to his corner.
The final decision was close but primarily because Cavanagh had taken three rounds from Armstrong for low blows. But you couldn’t tell that to most in the New York crowd that night. When the verdict was announced the rafters of the Garden shook from the roar of an angry mob, the spectators booing the decision and showering the ring with garbage. The fans were inspired by the courage of Ambers and his heroic late-round rally and instead of applauding Armstrong, the new triple crown king, for his astonishing achievement, they decried what they regarded as an unjust outcome.
But if in fact Henry Armstrong clearly deserved the victory, it had still been a rough, punishing, action-packed battle and in his dressing room afterwards the new champion declared it to be his all-time roughest and toughest battle. “I’m sick and I’m almost out of my head with pain,” he told reporters. And even years later, after his career had ended, the legendary champion asserted that his first battle with Ambers was his “toughest title fight.”
But such is the price of greatness. Henry Armstrong is, pound-for-pound, one of the greatest fighters who ever lived, a legend. And he achieved that lofty title by fighting and beating other great fighters like Barney Ross, Ceferino Garcia, Benny Bass, Baby Arizmendi, Frankie Klick, Lew Jenkins and Fritzie Zivic. And of course, one Lou Ambers, who most reluctantly surrendered his world lightweight title to Armstrong in a brutal war and in so doing guaranteed the greatness of “Homicide Hank.” — Neil Crane