Lou Ambers: The Herkimer Hurricane
A tough life quickly took shape after Lou’s father, a saloon keeper, lost his business after the great Wall Street crash of 1929…
The nickname was always something of a misnomer. It implied that its owner was a relentless, devil-may-care slugger with scant regard for the finer points of boxing. But Lou Ambers, the bustling, fair-haired Herkimer Hurricane from upstate New York, was always much more than that.
Lou continues to shine out from those stark and haunting fight films of some seventy years ago, youthful and vibrant, wearing that oddly contradictory little expression of uncertain innocence.
Bouncing up on his toes against a vast and black backdrop, buoyed by the excited yells and cheers from the massive crowds of the day, Ambers is always in punching range. His judgment of distance, like so many of the ring mechanics from the great school of his era, is uncannily and consistently correct. He jabs, he hooks, he throws the booming left uppercut for which he is renowned.
His hands are held low for maximum hooking leverage and he feints constantly with his head and shoulders, like a wily cobra about to apply its deadly bite. His hand speed, like that of Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross and so many of his skillful brethren, is something to behold. Left hooks and right crosses flash out so fast that it is sometimes difficult for the eye to appreciate their true impact and value. He slips jabs by moving his head to one side or by pulling it out of range by the slightest fraction.
Lou Ambers was special, a great fighter and a great and willing student. He wasn’t the most accomplished of the lightweight champions, but his style and attitude made him the favorite of many. According to his manager, Whitey Bimstein, Lou was a dream to work with. Manager Al Weill, tough and unyielding as they came, also had a soft spot for Ambers.
One day in 1950, Bimstein broke off from a hard day’s work at Lou Stillman’s gym in New York to reflect on a long and successful career of training fighters. Whitey had been at it for some thirty-four years by that time and estimated that he had tutored some 7,500 boxers. Lou Ambers was his favorite.
“It was always fun working with Ambers,” Bimstein said. “You didn’t have to drive him. My job with him was to keep him from working too much. I remember when he was going to fight Lew Jenkins the second time that Al Weill wasn’t sure he wanted Ambers to keep fighting. Weill said to me to watch Ambers close. I did and I told Al he didn’t have much left.
“Weill went to Ambers and told him, ‘Lou, maybe you shouldn’t fight Jenkins.’ Do you know what? Ambers cried and said he wanted to fight. He knew he could lick Jenkins, even if he got knocked out the first time. Cried like a baby and Weill got soft and let him go in. He got knocked out. It was too bad. There was the best fighter a guy could train.
“Not that Rocky Graziano was bad, but there was a difference. Now, you take Ambers. I could put him in the ring in the gym with anybody. He would adapt his style for the guy. Let the guy run – he would chase him. Let the guy fight – he would fight him. This here Rocky is different. You gotta give him guys who punch with him or he don’t like it. Give him a boxer in the gym and it’s no good.
“Funny thing was how Ambers would get cranky when it came close to a fight. Nice kid, but he would get so cranky you couldn’t go near him.”
Lou Ambers was a hard working, dedicated man who was loyal to his loved ones and loyal to his chosen profession. Hurled by fate into one of the twentieth century’s toughest eras, he toiled long and hard for glory and suffered his share of bad luck along the way.
When Lou finally realized his dream and won the lightweight championship, he said joyously, “Now I can buy that new home for my widowed mother and help out my brothers and sisters.”
Ambers was born Luigi Giuseppe D’Ambrosio on November 8, 1913, in Herkimer, New York. A tough life quickly took shape after Lou’s father, a saloon keeper, lost his business after the great Wall Street crash of 1929.
There seemed little doubt about what direction Lou’s life would take. He got into regular fights as a little boy and later admitted that he didn’t always know why. He just knew that he enjoyed scrapping and remained in love with the fight game for the rest of his life. To his dying day, Lou never denigrated the sport. While some retired fighters ruminate and theorize on the sense of two men punching each other—having gladly grabbed their slice of the cake— Ambers would only shake his head in wonderment and say, “Oh, Jesus, I loved to fight.”
Lou cut his teeth in the bootleg shows of his day, earning anything from five to fifteen dollars for a fight. He reckoned he fought every two or three weeks, and when he came home he eased the pressure on his mother by paying the family bills.
Eager to learn and improve his boxing technique, Ambers valued the education he received from the multitude of little fight clubs frequented by scores of young hopefuls. The going was tough, because most of the young men possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of the game and their simple objective was to come out punching and hurl everything in the locker. Lou admitted to being a wild one himself, but he gradually learned to broaden his skills and correct his technical faults.
By the time he officially turned professional in 1932, he had already had countless fights and was ready for more serious competition. He flew through the ranks, losing just one of more than 50 fights as he established himself as a top lightweight contender within three years.
Then manager Al Weill went to work, as only Al could. Never the shy or retiring sort in the art of presenting a fighter’s case, Weill began pitching and nagging the authorities on behalf of his young sensation. The New York Commission had installed Ambers as the number one contender for the championship held by Barney Ross, a move that was seen by many as too premature. Other contenders such as Sammy Fuller and Harry Dublinsky were knocking at the door, and Lou’s critics were arguing that Ambers had yet to fight men of such caliber.
Al Weill kept hustling for his boy, and there were few better at that game. Weill was greatly fond of Lou and took an active and personal interest in most of the young fighters who came under his wing.
Son Marty Weill, talking of his father years later, said, “The public is familiar with the finished product, the champion. It doesn’t know what a fabulous job Al Weill did in taking these eighteen-year olds off the streets and making not just men, but champions. He not only saw to it that they learned a skill but an entire new way of life.
“When was the last time you made an eighteen-year old go to bed at 8 pm, stick to a job, let alone a rugged training routine? The man that did those things, Al Weill, had to be a psychologist as well as tougher and stronger than any of the fighters he managed.
“The boxers listened because they knew he was something more than a manager to them. He was a father. As to Weill’s seeing to it that the fighters received the money due them, and that he advised them wisely, none of his champs were financially forced into making a comeback once they gave up boxing.
“Al Weill took his fighters in and adopted them as sons. He supported them financially, even to giving them money to send home to their folks. Al saw to it that new boys were given a place to stay, money for clothes, weekly expenses and a meal ticket to a neighborhood restaurant.
“Al would pay the trainer, gym expenses, cornermen and transportation out of his own pocket and let the fighter keep the purse. He didn’t want the youngsters to get discouraged.”
In a quiet and discreet manner, Weill also helped those fighters who got themselves into trouble. Boxers in general have never been the shrewdest of investors and Lou Ambers burned his fingers when he plunged a sizeable chunk of his money into a bankrupt laundry. Pulling various strings behind the scenes, Weill recouped Lou’s money. More importantly, wise old Al would later talk Ambers out of quitting boxing after a tragic event at a crucial time in his career.
Harry Dublinsky and Sammy Fuller were blocking Lou’s path to the lightweight championship, so Weill made the matches and Lou took care of the business.
Both fights were held at boxing’s Mecca of Madison Square Garden, the perfect showcase for Ambers to make his statement of intent.
Lou didn’t disappoint. Harry Dublinsky, from Chicago, was gorgeously described by one reporter as, “lanky, slabsided and industrious.” Harry tried his best to be industrious against Ambers but was hypnotized and rattled throughout by the youngster’s accurate left hand and jarring straight rights. Lou took a comfortable decision and now he had to knock over only one more skittle to get his shot at the world title.
Sammy Fuller was a tough, rugged battler from Boston, but he could barely make an impression on Ambers during their fast-paced, 15-round bout before a crowd of 10,000. Reporters hailed Ambers as one of the brightest lightweight talents to come along in years as he constantly dazzled and outwitted Sammy with clever, two-fisted attacks.
All night long, Fuller was prevented from mounting a significant rally by a stream of fast jabs and lightning right crosses. When he finally found the mark in the last round, shaking Lou with some big rights and opening a gash over his left eye, Sammy was way behind in the points tally.
Barney Ross, restless and ever ambitious, had relinquished his lightweight crown in the meantime, but the man Ambers had to overcome was no less talented or daunting. That man was the wonderful Tony Canzoneri. Lou and Tony were matched for the vacant championship at the Garden in May 1935, with Canzoneri proving too wily for the maturing youngster and posting a convincing points victory. Lou was dropped twice in a torrid third round but showed pluck and talent in taking Tony all the way.
That first championship failure was a valuable learning experience for Ambers. It taught him, among other things, that hero worship should never be taken too far. Lou had done some sparring with Canzoneri and had come to idolize the great man. Ambers would admit that the idolatry made him nervous on the night and prevented him from fighting to his full capabilities.
Lou would have to wait sixteen months for his next crack at the title. It was a typical sign of his times that he engaged in fourteen bouts during that period, seeing off the stellar likes of Fritzie Zivic, Frankie Klick and Baby Arizmendi.
One win, however, came at a terrible price. On March 17, 1936, Ambers stopped Tony Scarpati at the Broadway Arena in Brooklyn, knocking Scarpati down in the seventh round. Lou and Al Weill were departing the ring a short while later, happy with another victory after Scarpati had failed to answer the bell for the eighth round. It didn’t seem a big deal, but it turned out that Tony had been badly hurt. He died from his brain injuries three days later.
“It broke my heart,” Ambers recalled. Despondent, Lou wanted to quit the game and it was Weill who calmed him down and told him to take a rest. The fatherly talk worked. Ambers went back to the Broadway Arena to decision Pete Mascia in a benefit match for the Scarpati family and was on his way again.
Lou was ready for Tony Canzoneri when the two men clashed again at Madison Square Garden on September 3, 1936. Lou was still only twenty-two, but now a much worldlier and more seasoned ring mechanic. Canzoneri, at thirty, was already being described as an old man of the ring. In that tougher era, where the competition was fierce in all weight classes, fighters became old men very quickly.
It was the night that Tony’s fabulous but demanding career finally began to catch up with him. The great little campaigner still possessed all his old cunning and his marvelous feinting skills, but the steam was beginning to go out of his legs in distance fights.
Ambers took full advantage of his second chance at a legend, this time parking his admiration for Canzoneri to one side and putting pressure on the champion from the outset. Hungry and ambitious, Lou seized the initiative from the opening bell and befuddled Tony all the way with a steady flow of stinging punches. Wily Canzoneri was still clever and fast with his hands and nailed Ambers with some solid shots, but he could never balance the scales against Lou’s flashing jabs, hooks and uppercuts. Ambers won a convincing, unanimous decision and Tony’s face at the finish was cut and swollen. Brave and defiant as ever, the dethroned champ said, “I needed that fight under my belt—I’ll get him next time.”
Lou the champ!
Tony Canzoneri didn’t get Lou Ambers the next time. Lou was the champ and in the prime of his life as a fighter. He had learned much and worked hard to secure the prized bauble and he was determined to keep it locked in his grasp.
Lou was buzzing and everyone could see it. Writer Drew Middleton described him as “… a rough hewn little gent with the energy of a bumblebee and the persistency of a mosquito.”
In the rubber match at Madison Square Garden on May 7, 1937, Canzoneri tried his heart out in what would prove to be his last throw of the dice at world championship level. But the crowd of 11,000 at the Garden and almost everyone else seemed to know that old Tony wasn’t going to throw a seven. The newspapers in the run-up to the fight had been lavish in their praise of Canzoneri’s magnificent career, almost eerily so. The many knowing articles were advanced tributes to a man about to make his last stand. Many reporters expressed their sympathy and concern for Tony taking the bout. Their fears were well founded.
The fight was a rout for Ambers. One official handed in a 15-0 shutout for Lou. The Associated Press score sheet awarded the verdict to the champion by a score of 12-2-1.
Courageous Canzoneri took what many experienced onlookers believed to be the worst beating of his long career. A closed eye and a cut over the bridge of his nose told a different tale to the story that Tony gave reporters afterwards. “Ambers was much improved but I can still lick him,” said the old champ. “He hit me with a lot of backward slaps that should not have counted.”
Ambers hit Canzoneri with plenty more than slaps. Lou was altogether faster and more aggressive, forcing the pace and showing great accuracy with his punches. His evasive skills were often sublime as he repeatedly made Tony miss with that famously fast and powerful right hand that had done for so many in his heyday.
Ambers had proved conclusively that he was the world’s top lightweight, but there was no time to bask in his reflected glory. Fighters of Lou’s era simply didn’t have that luxury. Just take a look at any world champion’s record from sixty or more years ago. Jammed between the championship defenses, you will invariably see any number of non-title matches. Most of these men had day jobs. Prize money was minimal in the lower weight divisions. If a fighter wanted to earn serious money, he kept fighting.
Ambers had ten bouts over the next eleven months and only one was a defense of his crown. Nor was he fighting guys who were meant to fall over quickly.
After notching a pair of decisions over Howard “Cowboy” Scott, Lou retained his championship with a points win over previous conqueror Pedro Montanez. Within two months of that triumph, Ambers was back in the ring and going on a run that saw him rack up non-title wins over Charley Burns, Frankie Wallace, Lou Jallos, Jimmy Vaughn (twice), Jimmy Garrison and Baby Arizmendi.
Ambers couldn’t stop winning. Then he lost. And he lost to a whirlwind of a fighting man in Henry Armstrong. While Lou was a busy, bustling fighter, the incredible Armstrong took the concept of workrate to seemingly impossible levels. Homicide Hank, as he became famously known, was a furious two-fisted warrior with a slow heartbeat who would quicken his pace and crank up the pressure with each round. When others would be praying for their second wind, Armstrong would just be getting into his rhythm. He was too ferocious for Ambers on the night of August 17, 1938 at the Garden, taking Lou’s championship on a split decision.
It was some testament to Hank’s punch rate that he forfeited four rounds on fouls and still won the day.
Armstrong’s fouling was always a subject for heated discussion. Hank was a wise bird who knew as many tricks as Fritzie Zivic in that department, but the intent of many of his infractions was debatable. Like Marciano, he set a vicious pace and was entirely in his own world for much of the time once the wheels were rolling.
Nevertheless, Armstrong’s proclivity for winging ‘em south of the border would play a massive part in the outcome of his eagerly awaited return match with Ambers.
Lou had to wait a full year for the chance to regain his prized crown, and he earned that chance in the old-fashioned way by staying busy. By the time he hooked up with Homicide Hank again on August 22, 1939, Ambers had posted nine successive victories.
Telling it like it is
One could imagine Henry McLemore, a staff correspondent for the United Press, rubbing his hands and licking his chops before hitting the keys of his typewriter after the second fight between Ambers and Armstrong. When something gets under a writer’s skin, as referee Arthur Donovan got under Mr. McLemore’s, there is nothing quite so pleasurable as driving home the point with a good old lashing of sledgehammer wit.
Thus McLemore wrote: “Arthur Donovan is the new lightweight boxing champion of the world. He is a bit fat for the title, particularly in the head. But he won it in Yankee Stadium last night. He won it for Lou Ambers by rendering a decision as questionable as a mongrel’s paternity.”
Never had Mr. Donovan applied the rules of boxing quite so stringently, and a lot of bemused and angry reporters and fans were left wondering why. He took the second, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh rounds from Armstrong for fouling, and even Hank’s prodigious industry could not overturn so severe a handicap. Ambers became the world champion again by a unanimous decision.
It was a great pity that the contest was marred by controversy, as it featured two wonderful scrappers staging a magnificent fight. But for the penalties he incurred, Hank would undoubtedly have won. Lou, however, was no less impressive for his clever work and his fighting spirit.
Hank was ever relentless in his attacks, which just kept coming in waves. Yet throughout the terrific milling, Ambers was meeting the champion with a constant output of jabs, hooks and uppercuts.
Armstrong made a slow start to the fight, but found his momentum by the third round and began firing on all cylinders. Lou was all too happy to engage Hank and the two fighters ripped punches at each other at a formidable rate. Their heads banged together frequently in the furious exchanges and Hank picked up an injury to his right eye. He returned the favor when he cut Lou’s left eye in the fourth.
Such was the pace of the battle that the two warriors began to show tiredness in the eighth round, although only by their own exceptional standards. The crowd at Madison Square Garden loved what they were seeing. It was a stirring encounter between two naturally talented men whose styles and fighting pride blended perfectly.
There were no knockdowns, but Lou was very nearly felled in the fourteenth round when Hank spotted a fleeting opening and opened up with a terrific volley before Ambers could raise his guard. Armstrong’s sustained assault lasted for very nearly a minute as Lou staggered and tried to find a way out of the storm.
Outside the ring, Al Weill and Hank’s trainer Eddie Mead weren’t content to leave the fighting to their boys. Al and Eddie became embroiled in a heated argument over referee Donovan’s points deductions from Armstrong. Weill finally blew and shouted at Mead, “You’d better watch out if you keep that up!”
Up for grabs
Armstrong and Ambers knew the fight was up for grabs by the time they came out for the fifteenth and final round. Neither man would let up as they dug each other with body shots on the ropes. Lou tagged Henry with a right to the face but took a solid right to the jaw in return.
Ambers suddenly had a phase where he caught Armstrong with a succession of lefts, while Hank misfired and seemed to be losing his way. But the wonderful Armstrong always found something when he needed to. He lost his mouthpiece after taking a couple of stiff rights, but steamed back at Ambers and was winging shots to Lou’s body at the bell.
The pro-Ambers crowd had no problems with the decision in their man’s favor, but trainer Eddie Mead was raging about the treatment to his man Armstrong by referee Donovan.
It was gorgeous grist to the mill from Eddie. “I’ll blow up boxing in this town,” he threatened. “Armstrong was penalized for every low tap, but Ambers was elbowing and thumbing throughout the fight and wasn’t even given a warning.”
Mead, of course, didn’t blow up boxing in New York. The old Empire State continued to flourish, the Garden continued to bloom and Henry Armstrong went on to become a living legend.
Lou Ambers, the Herkimer Hurricane, typically blew on to the next assignment. The Hurricane would meet a tornado of a man called Lew Jenkins further down the road, but let us not spoil a good yarn with that sad tale.
Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).