Master of the In-Fight (diary entry)

armstrong vs ross armstrong vs ross 222.06.21

My second lesson on Tuesday night and my client’s course on fight history and analysis continued with Henry Armstrong taking the centre stage and acting as the vehicle through the lighter divisions of the 1930s. He was supported by Barney Ross and Lou Ambers, two other greats of that era.

Henry Armstrong

Real name was Henry Melody Jackson Jnr. And his nicknames included Homicide Hank, Hammerin’ Hank and Hurricane Hank. His father was of African American, Irish and Native American (Iroquois) and a sharecropper. He moved with his family as part of the Great Migration from Columbus, Mississippi to St Louis, Missouri and graduated as an honour student. He lost his first professional fight and was knocked out in the third round by Al Lovino. He won his next fight, but then lost the next three on points before he got into a winning streak.


He fought a total of 181 fights winning 151, 101 by KO, losing 21 and drawing nine times. Armstrong simultaneously held the World Featherweight, Lightweight and Welterweight titles.  There were only eight weight categories during his career.  He even unofficially won the world Middleweight title, but this was only recognised by the Canadian authorities. He defended the World Welterweight title a total of 19 times. He first won the World Featherweight title in 1937, beating Petey Sarron by sixth round KO, after a record of 74 wins, 12 losses and 7 draws. He had had a string of 22 victories leading up to that particular bout.  He won 13 straight victories all but one by KO or TKO before he successfully challenged Barney Ross for the World Welterweight title in 1938.  In his next fight he took the World Lightweight title in a split decision from Lou Ambers.


Henry Armstrong is known for being one of the best in-fighters in boxing history. He was a swarmer by style was most dangerous at close range both clinching and otherwise. Many look to him as the prototype for pressure fighting excellence. His outside game was mainly made up of using up-jabs and gazelle punches to move forward.  Armstrong’s jabs were more power punches but he would throw them in different angles to the head. He hopped a lot with his gazelle punches, using a lead hook to get past troublesome jabbers. He used a lot of proactive head movement – bobbing and weaving – penetrate an opponent’s defences. When in close, his head then became a very important and versatile tool in his armoury. He would use it along with his shoulder to not only shut down one side of opponent’s attacks, usually the lead side but also to hide his overhands and also steer his opponent into dangerous positions. From here he would throw body shots with his left and headshots with his right. Armstrong would also use his head to prop up his opponent’s own head and control his posture whilst throwing punishment downstairs. He would also use his lead elbow to block and control his opponent’s other side.

My client noticed a few other key features in Armstrong’s style. He used his head like a post and also carried his arms low to generate more power they weren’t that far from his face because of his stooped stance. Such a compact position allowed for greater power being provided from leg drive. In fact, it is fair to say that out of all the fighters we have reviewed so far none of them placed such strong emphasis on driving up from their feet. Furthermore to this point, Armstrong’s gazelle punch is distinctively different from some of the later ones we will review such as Floyd Patterson and Rocky Marciano who lunge forward. Henry Armstrong hopped forward to throw his lead hook. It was also noted that for all his strategy largely built up around very close in-fighting, Armstrong did not grapple much with his arms. All the previous masters of the clinch, such as Corbett and Johnson, and future ones such as Frazier and Duran, actively wrestled using their hands. Armstrong kept his hands free for punching. This is not disimiliar to the way Marvin Hagler fought on the inside. He used his head, shoulders and elbows to maneoure his opponents into dangerous positions, to nullify their strikes and to blind them against his own power strikes. It was suggested that this might be a better way to prolong clinches as the referee might not see it as “hugging” (as describled in the Queensbury Rules) or grappling. This does seem to have worked for him throughout his career, however, during tonight’s fight it should be noted that the referee did step in when Armstrong was using this method. It didn’t happen often and Armstrong’s opponent was usually the person who started using their hands at this range.


Henry Armstrong versus Barney Ross 1938 World Welterweight Championship


Barney “Pride of the Ghetto” Ross was a tough Jewish fighter of Polish immigrants. His father, a Talmudic scholar who was against Barney boxing, had been killed in grocery store and young Ross had been left to his own devices at age 14 where he ran with a local gang that included Jack Ruby. He even did some work for Al Capone, but ultimately looked to boxing to earn his fortune. The death of his father had split the family up and Ross was determined to reunite his siblings and mother with the money he made. When he fought as an amateur he would immediately pawn his trophies to support his family who dreamed he could reunite. Al Capone supposedly bought up any remaining seats at Ross’s tournaments provided some of the money went to Barney.


Barney Ross retired with a total of 81 fights, 72 official wins, two newspaper decision wins, 22 by KO, four losses and three draws. Ross was also a triple champion holder, having won the light welterweight, welterweight and lightweight titles. He won the World Lightweight Championship and World Light Welterweight Championship off Tony Canzoneri and defeated him in their rematch, his only defence of the Lightweight title which he later vacated to concentrate on the welterweight divisions. He defended the World Light Welterweight title a total of nine times, vacated it undefeated in April 1935. He won the World Welterweight title one month later in the start of a trilogy of matches for that title with Irish-Canadian Jimmy McLarnin. McLarnin won the title back in the rematch but lost it in the rubber match.


He famously declined the after fight party when he first won his world title to walk his mother five miles home. The money he earned prior to the fight in 1933 allowed him to achieve his ambition in reuniting his mother and siblings. He publically used his fights as representation for Jews standing against oppression and was an outspoken Marxist.


Ross was a relentless and wily out-boxer. He was hindered by a slight frame and brittle bones. This meant he had little in the way of knockout power. He was trained by Packy McFarland and Ray Arcel who helped him work out how to defeat stronger opponents. He had remarkable stamina and endurance with perhaps one of the best chins in the business. He was never once stopped inside the distance of his 79 fights and only knocked down once. After his deciding match with McLarnin he won every fight up until he met Armstrong. This consisted of two title defences and 15 non-title matches. Although they were the same age, he was over the hill by the time he fought a hungry Armstrong and probably knew he didn’t have much left in him. This match would end his career. However, he still outweighed Armstrong by about 15 lbs. His fight with Armstrong was his last and considered to be one of the most courageous in boxing history. Barney would not let his trainers pull him out of the fight despite knowing he was beaten and was taking terrible punishment. The crowds were even shouting for the fight to be stopped. But it was Ross who wanted to finish his career standing as an example for his people. Armstrong apparently understood this and agreed to carry him for the last four rounds.


Rounds 1-2 – Fairly even exchanges. Ross working the jab from the outside


Rounds 3-4 Round three saw Ross begin to slow down. Despite a strong start from Ross he was hurt by one of Armstrong’s rights late in round four.


Rounds 5-11 Armstrong dominated throughout, slowly beating down Ross. Round 7 saw Ross’s eye swollen shut.


Rounds 12-15 Armstrong pretty much carried Ross who hung on until the final bell.



Ross fought in World War II as a marine and won the Silver Star at Battle of Guadalcanal. He and three of his comrades were trapped under enemy fire. All four were injured, two of them fatally, and Ross was the only one able to fight back. He killed two-dozen Japanese soldiers and carried his surviving comrade to safety. However, the injuries he incurred took a terrible toll on the rest of his life where battled with and eventually overcame morphine addiction.


If you would like me to teach a personal lesson using this format or a hybrid form that uses fighters from the past to inspire lessons and workouts or any other my private lesson/personal training services, please get in contact. I teach one-to-ones, small groups and seminars both virtually and face-to-face.



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