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Boxer Henry Armstrong dead at 75

By JAMES RYAN

LOS ANGELES -- Henry Armstrong, the Depression-era champion who was the first man to hold three titles simultaneously, died Saturday at the age of 75.

Armstrong, who held the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles in 1938, died of an undisclosed illness at California Medical Center, his wife Gussie said.

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During his 15-year fighting career, he acquired many colorful nicknames.

They called him 'Hammerin' Hank,' 'Perpetual Motion,' 'The Buzzsaw,' 'Hurricane Henry,' 'Homicide Hank,' 'The California Comet' and 'Three Crown Henry,' among others. As an amateur, he called himself 'Melody Jackson.' But regardless of the names, few people in the 1930s ever saw a more ferocious, non-stop slugger.

Armstrong was a short, thick-chested, broad-shouldered dynamo with muscular arms and incongruously spindly legs. His style in the ring was neither delicate nor refined. All he did was throw a constant barrage of heavy-fisted punches from the opening bell until his man dropped. In 181 professional bouts, he kayoed 100 opponents, won 52 decisions and drew eight times. From 1937 through 1939 he won 46 bouts in a row, 27 by knockout.

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Alexis Arguello, Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran later held three world titles, but they won theirs in an age when there were not only more weight divisions but more sanctioning bodies that handed out world championships.

Armstrong, who learned to fight on the streets of St. Louis, began his boxing career as an amateur in 1930, winning most of his bouts. In 1932, disappointed after failing to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Henry decided to turn pro under the managership of 'One-Shot' Wirt Ross.

In August, 1934, Henry married Willa Mae Shandy. Henry was beginning to make a name for himself but had problems booking fights. Hoping to get Armstrong into the big-time, Ross sold his contract to Eddie Mead, a New York manager who was backed by fight buff Al Jolson.

Armstrong had his first fight in Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of boxing at the time, on March 12, 1937, against Mike Belloise. With Jolson betting heavily at ringside on his young fighter, Armstrong caught Belloise with a left hook to the jaw in the fourth round. Belloise went down, took a seven count and never made it back for the fifth round. Armstrong was on his way.

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Among his greatest ring triumphs were his sixth round kayo of Petey Sarron in New York for the featherweight title in 1937, his 15-round decision over Barney Ross for the welterweight title in May 1938 and his 15-round decision over Lou Ambers for the lightweight title in August 1938.

Armstrong was a black man from Columbus, Miss., fighting in the heart of the Depression but he earned some $600,000 in the ring. By the time he left boxing as a genuine American folk hero, all of his titles were lost, most of his money was gone and his face was a mass of scar tissue.

Henry Armstrong may have been a savage in the ring, but outside he was always a gentleman and no doubt would have liked to be remembered as a 'humble worker for the Lord.'

When his fighting days were over, Armstrong went through the hardest time of his life. He turned to whiskey and woke up one day in a drunk tank in Los Angeles. Not long afterwards, he got drunk again and found himself driving down a road to Malibu Beach at 75 mph. Suddenly he cleared his head and stopped the car. He was alone but he felt a hand on his shoulder and a slap on his face.

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'I don't know who slapped me,' he said later, 'but it was a friend. I like to think it was the hand of God.'

Armstrong went home and began to read the Bible. He studied with all the intensity he once devoted to fighting and found in religion the meaning he felt missing in his life.

In 1943, two years after he failed to recapture the welterweight title he'd lost to Fritzie Zivic, a reflective Armstrong penned a poem in a Philadelphia hotel room which read in part:

'Thrown into a turbulent sea

Of sharks and whales,

But yet unharmed.

Put into a fiery furnace

And yet unburned.

The faith in God won't let His child go wrong

Somehow:

Because I meant to do good.'

Years later, Armstrong published a book called 'Twenty Years of Poems, Moods, and Meditations' and the proceeds went into a foundation he headed to help disadvantaged boys.

'I guess I proved something, but what?' Armstrong said of his boxing career in a 1954 interview just after he was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame and three years after he was ordained a Baptist minister. 'You see, being a fighter wasn't what I really wanted.'

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Armstrong never forgot his own poor start in life. He and his eight brothers and six sisters slept 'in and around' a sod-and-tarpaper three-room shack. Under the virtual slave-rule system of the sugar cane and cotton plantation where his family labored as field hands, young Henry often witnessed whippings and occasional lynchings. When he was four, his father, an Irish-Black, and his mother, a Cherokee Indian, moved to St. Louis with just seven of the children, including little Henry, where they settled in a tenement.

He used the money he earned as a pinboy in a bowling alley to buy a pair of boxing gloves. He seemed to know he would be a fighter but even then he wrote poetry. In 1929 he graduated from Vashon High School (the same school heavyweight champion Leon Spinks attended more than 40 years later). Armstrong was the class poet laureate and delivered the valedictory poem at graduation.

Funeral arrangements were pending. He is survived by his wife of 12 years, a daughter, Lanetta Scott, a stepson, Ronald, and five grandchildren.

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