Sports

Henry Armstrong Showed Respect to Even His Biggest Rival

A surprising amount of skill and subtlety exists within the world of boxing. Yet at the end of the day, it’s also one of the most brutal sports on earth. The behavior of certain boxers over the years has only increased that perception. Perhaps the best example of boxing’s brutality was Mike Tyson biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997.

Yet many boxers also deserve credit for their thoughtfulness and general good sportsmanship. Don’t believe it? One incident from the career of legendary boxer Henry Armstrong might just be enough to change your mind.

Henry Armstrong’s boxing career

Armstrong became a professional in 1931. His first fight against Al Iovino was something of a disappointment, with Armstrong getting knocked out in just three rounds. Ultimately, Armstrong lost four of his first five bouts, before reeling off a streak of 12 consecutive wins. Nonetheless, Armstrong really didn’t come into his own as a boxer until 1937.

Up to 1937, Armstrong compiled a record of 52-10. While he was certainly a formidable boxer, he hadn’t yet established himself as one of the all-time greats.

Armstrong started 1937 off with a string of 22 straight wins, en route to 27 total wins that year. 26 of those wins came via knockouts. His dominance extended through 1938, with Armstrong winning 14 additional fights, 10 of them by knockout.  

At one point between 1937 and 1938, Armstrong put together a string of 27 consecutive knockout wins. For many years, that stood as the longest streak of knockouts, although currently Armstrong stands a distant 20th place in that category.

Over the course of his entire career, which lasted until 1945, Armstrong fought in 183 bouts and compiled an overall record of 152-22-9. Armstrong’s impressive career secured him a place as one of the greatest boxers of all time.

In 2018, Ring Magazine named him the second-best fighter of the previous 80 years, behind only the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson.

Henry Armstrong’s most impressive record

At least one of Armstrong’s many accomplishments as a boxer has never been duplicated: Armstrong is the only boxer in history to hold simultaneous championships in three different weight classes. That feat began in October 1937, when Armstrong defeated Petey Sarron for the featherweight title.

In 1938, Armstrong successfully overcame Barney Ross to secure the welterweight championship as well. That year also saw Armstrong capture the lightweight title in a 15 round decision against Lou Ambers, thus giving him three concurrent championship belts. Ambers later defeated Armstrong in a rematch and regained the lightweight title.

Admirable respect and good sportsmanship

Armstrong proved what a respectful opponent he was in one his most important bouts — the fight in which he took the welterweight championship away from Barney Ross. Although the first few rounds of the fight were even, Armstrong soon asserted himself. Ross was a quick and flashy fighter, but he simply couldn’t match Armstrong’s super-human endurance.

Soon it became clear that Ross could not find a way to victory. Yet despite being battered and bloody, Ross simply wouldn’t give in. The referees and Ross’ coaches all tried to convince him to concede, but Ross wouldn’t listen. He had never been knocked out in his career, and he didn’t intend to voluntarily break that record.

Recognizing and respecting his opponent’s pride, Armstrong refrained from knocking out Ross, instead carrying him through the final few rounds of the fight.

Armstrong even let Ross throw a few punches — with his left hand, anyway. Yet Armstrong reportedly warned Ross that if he tried to shoot with his right, “you’re dead.” Ross heeded Armstrong’s warning and managed to finish what would be his final fight standing on two feet.