Eddie Mead was a short, round, smiling man with a dream as wide as his waistline. Joe Louis and Al Jolson, both big men in Eddie's day, were all tangled up in that dream: Joe because he won too many fights too easily and Al because he helped the dream come true.
Eddie had been a fairly successful fight manager back in the '20s when he guided Joe Lynch to the bantamweight title and made $150,000 in the process. But the money was soon gone on good friends and bad horses. Then Lynch quit and there was Eddie looking for another boy.
Like every manager, Eddie dreamed of handling a champ—the champ, the heavyweight champ. But right smack in the middle of that dream sat a kid named Joe Louis, who won 27 fights in a row even before he became champion. So Eddie got himself another dream, and it was this: if you can't find a boy good enough to top the top division, how about finding a boy so clever he could top a bunch of the other divisions all at once. Eddie envisioned a featherweight who, having captured that crown, would then go into the ring with lightweights and welterweights and beat them all. A triple champ—that's what Eddie Mead dreamed about. Someone who would rival Joe Louis as boxing's biggest attraction. And then one night he found him. That's where Jolson came in.
It was on Aug. 4, 1937 at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, and Eddie was there with his old friend Joley, an avid fight fan. They watched a 24-year-old Negro upset the featherweight Baby Arizmendi, who had made a fair name for himself on the coast, and suddenly Eddie knew his luck had changed. Quick as could be, Eddie borrowed $5,000 from Joley, a notoriously easy touch, and became then and there the sole owner and manager of Henry Armstrong.
For Armstrong, that afternoon in L.A. marked the end of an eight-year odyssey that began in St. Louis. There Henry had been drilled for months by his brother, confusingly named Harry, at the Pine Street Gymnasium. By 1929 he was ready for amateur competition. In those days in St. Louis a black fighter was forbidden to fight a white man and it took just two bouts for Henry to exhaust the black competition and force the Armstrong brothers to leave town. Harry bought an old car and they drove to Pittsburgh. There they quickly discovered that medals won't buy food or pay rent. So, broke and hungry, the brothers returned to St. Louis.
After a few months they decided to try Los Angeles and, with just $3 between them, they hopped a freight bound west. The money and the fights came slowly in L.A., but eventually Henry was able to score a few impressive wins. Then along came Joley and his friend Eddie Mead, a real live New York manager.
Armstrong and Mead arrived in New York in the spring of 1937, and Eddie immediately set out to tell the city's boxing crowd about his fighter. He told them that this was the greatest boy he'd ever had and that Armstrong would knock all these Eastern guys cold. But Armstrong wasn't the first California import Mead had brought to town, and it certainly wasn't the first time he had used superlatives to describe one of his fighters. Those in the know labeled Henry "just another California windstorm."
Not even Eddie could claim that Madison Square Garden was overcrowded on the night of Armstrong's first fight there, against Mike Belloise on March 12, 1937. More than half of the seats were vacant. Henry himself was a ludicrous figure as he walked up the aisle to the biggest ring in the country in a tattered robe and shoes that were the veterans of numerous fights on the coast. His legs were thin—he weighed only 127 pounds—and if they wobbled it was because the young fighter was terrified.
By the third round Armstrong was indeed resembling a windstorm, but not the kind the experts had laughed about. He was more like a typhoon. His gloves flew at Belloise as fast as he could drive them. In the fourth round a left hook to Belloise's chin ended the fight.
One week later Armstrong gave Aldo Spoldi a tremendous beating, though Spoldi somehow managed to remain on his feet for the full 10 rounds. Then Armstrong began a string of 27 consecutive knockout wins, and the rasping voice of a ring announcer proclaiming victory by knockout got to be a habit.
Sportswriters gave the new phenom the nickname Hammering Henry because his style consisted of a continuous barrage of punches that left opponents senseless. In October of 1937 he stopped Petey Sarron in the sixth round in the Garden to become the world's featherweight champion. The victory was expected—the experts were now convinced that Armstrong was all Mead had made him out to be. Then Mead startled the boxing world by negotiating for a fight with Barney Ross, no featherweight at all but the reigning welterweight champion. The experts laughed all over again.
The Ross camp was confident before the fight, and they were amused at the prospect of watching Armstrong knocked back into his proper place with the featherweights. Barney was the most confident of all, believing that fighters with rushing, flailing styles were made to order for him.
Then on the night of May 31, 1938 Hammering Henry climbed into the ring at Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, N.Y. This time he wore a new robe, new shoes and the initials HA sewn onto his trunks. And this time 30,000 spectators filled the seats. From the opening bell Henry went after Ross, pounding him tirelessly, and it didn't take him long to plow through the champion's defense and attack his face and body. After the opening rounds the outcome of the fight became obvious. The crowd sat silent through the beating Ross was enduring. As the rounds wore on the spectators began yelling at the ref to stop the fight, and before the 11th round Referee Arthur Donovan went to Ross's corner and pleaded with the fighter. "Let me alone," Barney replied. "I'm the champion. He'll have to beat me in the ring, not sitting on a stool in the corner."
The fight continued and Ross remained on his feet, held up by instinct and courage. In the final three rounds, out of respect for his opponent, Armstrong eased up, declining even to try for a knockout. It was the first time in more than a year that he didn't win before the final bell, but the victory was no less positive because of that. After the announcer stated that Armstrong was the new welterweight champion of the world by unanimous decision, Ross retired from boxing. "Henry is a great fighter." he told the press in his dressing room.
Now Mead and Armstrong set out after the third part of the dream—the lightweight title. The problem they faced was no longer a matter of ounces and pounds—the 135-pound division was right at Henry's normal fighting weight—and it didn't become apparent until a stifling August night in New York. The problem, as it turned out, was one Lou Ambers, the rugged young champion. The fight began as expected with Henry pounding Ambers as hard and as fast as he could throw his punches. At the end of the fifth round Armstrong threw a right hook to the jaw that sent Lou to the canvas. The champ was obviously hurt, but the bell signaling the end of the round rang at the count of one. Ambers fell again in the sixth—this time for eight seconds—but he managed to avoid Armstrong's knockout bid for the remainder of the round. Then Ambers came back. He fought Henry to a standstill in a brutal 13th round and, in the process, opened the challenger's lip. Armstrong went to his corner with bloodstreaming down his chin. Referee Billy Cavanaugh looked at the fighter and said, "Henry, you're bleeding all over my nice clean ring."
Armstrong must have swallowed a quart of blood during the final two rounds, and after the final bell he stumbled, dizzy and exhausted, to his corner. After several minutes of confusion it was announced that Armstrong was the winner on a 2-1 split decision. The spectators were incensed. They filled the Garden with a roar of boos and catcalls. Torn paper, straw hats and cigar butts showered into the ring. Many of those present had backed Ambers as the short-ender of the 17-to-5 odds at fight time. The rest had been sent into an emotional fervor by Ambers' gallant comeback and by several accidental low blows thrown by Armstrong during the closing rounds. Armstrong left the ring during the angry demonstration, having just achieved one of boxing's most incredible feats—the triple championship.
Shortly after the fight, Armstrong gave up the featherweight crown and settled down to the defense of his two remaining championships. In time he lost the lightweight title to Ambers and the welterweight to Fritzie Zivic. His three crowns, 27 consecutive knockouts and 46 straight wins earned him a place in boxing's Hall of Fame.
But 30 years ago all this was in the future. In the fall of 1938 Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong were the most talked about fighters around. And Eddie Mead, the dreamer, had more lucky money than he could blow at the races.