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Boxing Star Armstrong Dead at 75 : Former Champion Was in Poor Health for Nearly a Year

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Legendary fighter Henry Armstrong, the only man to hold championship belts in three weight divisions simultaneously, is dead at 75.

Armstrong, who had been in poor health for nearly a year, died of heart failure early Saturday morning at California Medical Center where he had been brought from his South Central Los Angeles bungalow by paramedics, only 2 days after he had been released from another hospital.

Regarded as one of history’s greatest boxers, Hammerin’ Henry Armstrong was one of three fighters who were inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame when it opened in 1953. The others were Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey.

Armstrong fought 174 bouts in a 15-year career that began in 1931 and won 145, 98 by knockout. An aggressive, swarming fighter known for his punishing blows, Armstrong’s style meant he also absorbed a number of punches, a fact that doctors say may have led to some of his later physical problems.

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But 50 years ago, Armstrong was at the peak of his career. He set the boxing world on its ear in an 11-month period that spanned parts of 1937 and 1938 by winning three world titles and holding them all at the same time. On Aug. 17, 1938, Armstrong won the lightweight championship to complete his triple crown run. He scored a 15-round decision over Lou Ambers before 19,216 at Madison Square Garden.

At the time, Armstrong was also the featherweight and welterweight champion of the world. Armstrong knocked out Petey Sarron in the sixth round to win the featherweight title. Saturday will mark the 51st anniversary of that fight.

Armstrong then decided to bypass the lightweight division and instead fight Barney Ross for the welterweight title. Armstrong won the fight as well as the second of his titles on May 31, 1938, at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, N.Y. Armstrong’s 15-round decision over Ross, the champion, was so convincing, that Ross announced his retirement after the fight in the locker room.

Ross’ trainer at that fight was Ray Arcel. Now 88, Arcel was saddened to hear of Armstrong’s death.

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“He was an outstanding performer and a decent human being,” Arcel said.

“I don’t know if there will ever be anyone like him again. Will there ever be another Joe Louis? Will there ever be another Jack Dempsey? Will there ever be another Muhammad Ali? Will there ever be another Henry Armstrong? These fellows were a credit to boxing. Honest decent people. Henry will be missed.”

Armstrong’s health began to deteriorate last November, beginning with his eyes. Armstrong had cataract surgery, which was probably necessary, doctors theorized, because of the blows to the head he received while boxing. Since January, Armstrong had been admitted to Century City Hospital six times. His last stay was 50 days, interrupted only by a 4-day period when Armstrong’s widow insisted her husband be allowed to come home.

Armstrong was sent home a second time Thursday. He died about 1:30 a.m. Saturday.

Dr. Abe Green, an internal medicine and kidney specialist who began looking after Armstrong a year ago, said Armstrong was afflicted at one time or another by such ailments as infections, malnutrition, anemia, pneumonia, dehydration and poor vision. Armstrong suffered from dementia, the loss of intellectual ability, which some specialists who examined Armstrong said was probably caused by trauma from boxing.

Since April, Armstrong had been fed through a tube attached to his stomach. He had refused to eat and his weight dropped to 95 pounds. When he was in his prime 50 years ago, Armstrong weighed 142.

Green judged Armstrong’s physical problems irreversible and soon began to just try to make him as comfortable as possible.

“Everything we could possibly do was done,” Green said. “It was just a matter of time for Henry. He had so many things wrong with him. He never knew who he was. With all the problems he had, he lived an awful long time.”

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Armstrong was born in Jackson, Miss. He was the 11th of 15 children of an Irish-Black father and Black-Cherokee Indian mother. Reared in St. Louis, Armstrong shined shoes part-time for extra money and graduated from high school just as the Depression began. His first real job was driving spikes for the railroad for $1.50 a day.

It was at this job, according to Armstrong legend, that the idea of becoming a fighter first came to him. A newspaper blew in front of him and stuck on his legs. Armstrong picked up the newspaper and read an account of a boxing title fight in New York. He was hooked.

Armstrong rode a freight car to Los Angeles where he began his career, but only after changing his name. Henry Jackson, which was his given name, became Henry Armstrong, which he borrowed from a friend.

He soon made a name for himself fighting at the many amateur boxing clubs in the city. By 1931, Armstrong turned pro. Six years later, he was champion of the world. Along the way, Armstrong created his legend. He once was managed by actor George Raft, partied with Josephine Baker in Paris, fancied expensive suits and traveled extensively. He made more than $500,000 in his career and lost it all.

Armstrong retired twice and made two comebacks before he retired for good in 1945 at 32. He also lived in St. Louis for a number of years. Armstrong worked as the assistant director of the Herbert Hoover Boys Club, before returning here where his boxing career began.

Century City Hospital established a fund for Armstrong, but collected only $1,200. Funeral arrangements have not yet been made. Gussie Armstrong, his wife, said she is short of money. The Armstrongs lived on $800 a month Social Security.

“He’s resting and all his miseries are gone,” Gussie Armstrong said. “I did all I could for him and so did everybody else.”

Hall of Fame fighter Ike Williams, 65, was at the Armstrong house comforting the widow Sunday. Williams, a former world lightweight champion, said he first became aware of Armstrong in 1937.

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“I jumped on his bandwagon that night,” Williams said. “They can never forget him. Centuries from now, they will talk about how he held three world titles at one time. That’s when a championship meant something. Today, it’s nothing. They’ve ruined boxing.

“But, oh, my, Henry!” Williams said. “He was something terrific.”

Funeral arrangements were not complete. Armstrong is survived by his wife, a daughter, Lanetta Scott, a stepson, Ronald, and five grandchildren.


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