Who Robbed Hank Armstrong?

By Clarence George on March 1, 2013
Who Robbed Hank Armstrong?
What happened 73 years ago? Was the fix in? It sure didn't smell like lilacs in the spring.

Following the match, Garcia manager George Parnassus said of Henry Armstrong: “You need a baseball bat and a knife to fight that guy…”

All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor Cock Robin.

This isn’t a feel-good story about how Henry Armstrong fended off muggers at an advanced age. Never happened, as far as I know. But Armstrong was robbed, nonetheless.

Seventy-three years ago today—March 1, 1940—Armstrong was cheated of his hard-earned and well-fought right to become the only man to reign supreme over four separate divisions, at a time when there were only eight.

Any boxing fans who don’t recognize Armstrong as among the greatest pound-for-pounders of all time? What’s that I hear, crickets? Thought so.

Let’s look at the record, as Al Smith used to say. “Homicide Hank” (150-21-10, 101 KOs) fought from 1931 to 1945. He won 46 consecutive fights, 39 by stoppage, over a mere two-year period—from 1937 to 1939. What’s most significant, however, is that Armstrong is the only fighter to simultaneously hold three universally recognized titles—featherweight, welterweight, and lightweight. He became featherweight champion in 1937 by stopping Petey Sarron via sixth-round KO; the welterweight titlist the following year by defeating Barney Ross via unanimous decision; and the lightweight champ later that same year by beating Lou Ambers via split decision. It was Ambers, by the way, who brought Armstrong’s jaw-dropping 46-fight winning streak to a close; he regained the lightweight crown in 1939 via unanimous decision.

Speaking of Armstrong’s losses, it’s well worth noting that he was stopped only twice. He was knocked out in the third round of his first fight by someone called Al Iovino (a lesson, if ever there was one, not to quit if at first one doesn’t succeed). The second man to have the honor of stopping “Perpetual Motion” was Fritie Zivic, who won the welterweight title by 12th-round TKO in 1941. And that loss came after a record 18 title defenses (winning all but four by stoppage). Baby Arizmendi, you say? No. True, Arizmendi won two out of five, but neither was by KO or TKO.

March 1, 1940, and Armstrong is about to enter the ring in Los Angeles’ Gilmore Stadium. His objective is the middleweight title, thus attaining half of the Sweet Science’s crowns. His opponent is the current champ, Ceferino Garcia.

The pioneering genius behind the bolo punch and, thus far, the only Filipino to reign as Middleweight Champion of the World, Garcia (119-30-14, 74 KOs) fought from 1923 to 1945. A fine boxer, who should long ago have been honored by receiving his rightful place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Garcia faced no shortage of worthy opponents, including the remarkable Kid Azteca, who—hard to wrap one’s mind around—fought from 1929 to 1961. Garcia relieved Fred Apostoli of the middleweight crown in 1939 via seventh-round KO. In addition to his “draw” against Armstrong, Garcia successfully defended his title twice (against Glen Lee and Allen Matthews) before losing it in 1940 by unanimous decision to Ken Overlin. Garcia had challenged Armstrong for his welterweight title in 1938, but lost by unanimous decision.

What happened 73 years ago? Was the fix in? It sure didn’t smell like lilacs in the spring. A few days before the fight, one sportswriter advised fans not to be surprised if “Henry Armstrong and Ceferino Garcia come up with a draw.” Hmmm.

Mind, it’s not that Garcia didn’t put up a good fight. He hurt his opponent, closing his left eye. Still, Armstrong clearly won most of the rounds (as spectators, reporters, and historians agree). So how come the draw? Who killed Cock Robin? The Sparrow with his bow and arrow in the form of referee George Blake and his indefensible decision?

What’s known is that Blake, who’d had a good reputation and had managed flyweight champ Fidel LaBarba, never again judged a fight following his unannounced decision in the Armstrong-Garcia bout. Unannounced, because Blake left the ring, sending back the word “Draw” shortly thereafter. The spectators, and even many reporters, had no knowledge (never mind understanding) of the decision until the next morning. No, definitely not lilacs in the spring.

Following the match, Garcia manager George Parnassus said of Armstrong: “You need a baseball bat and a knife to fight that guy.” Without them, you tended not to win…or even draw.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Henry Armstrong D 10 Ceferino Garcia II, Part 1

Henry Armstrong D 10 Ceferino Garcia II, Part 2

Henry Armstrong D 10 Ceferino Garcia II, Part 3

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  1. nicolas 05:59pm, 03/06/2013

    In regards to Eric saying that there has not been a real three division weight holder. I would disagree. I think if you look at Manny Pacquiao, I would give him the flyweight, featherweight, and welterweight championships of the traditional weight categories. Just a thought I had, when Armstrong held both the lightweight and welterweight title at once. He only defended the lightweight title once, in his losing fight with Ambers. Up to that fight, when he fought and defended his welterweight title, he weighed at the lightweight limit, against men who weighed more than him. I often felt that why did they not just combine the two divisions, and when an Armstrong could not fight at the weight of the lightweight, from his last fight at the lightweight limit, have a 4 yr wait to bring back the lightweight division. After he beat Saron for the featherweight title he also did not defend that title and went up in weight. Also there could have been a 4 yr wait to revive that division again. Think about it, maybe only six divisions back then. As example, when Emile Griffith won the middleweight title, I would have had the welterweight and jr. middleweight title disbanded.

  2. nicolas 02:50am, 03/06/2013

    ERIC: It is a nice thought, but most of MMA, at least the biggest organization that has the most power is run by UFC. In the case of all the weight classes we have today, it is really promoter driven by the many promoters that are around the world

  3. Eric 04:44pm, 03/05/2013

    Boxing could dump the cruiserweight aka junior heavyweight division, and go back to the original eight. It might be blasphemous to say this but maybe boxing should take a cue from the way MMA has divided their weight classes. Light heavyweight in MMA has a 205lb weight limit, and face it, in today’s boxing world 205lbs is a light heavyweight. The middleweight limit is 185lbs, the welter is 170lbs, lightweight is 155lbs featherweight is 145lbs, bantamweight is 135lbs. I don’t believe MMA has a flyweight division, but those weight divisions are more in line with the average size of athletes of modern times. It wasn’t that long ago that the NFL had 220lb linebackers, and 250lb lineman. Now most linebackers are 250lbs or more, and lineman routinely weigh near or sometimes over 300lbs. Boxing could make the flyweight division limit 125lbs. If they don’t want to steal MMAs weight division limits they could make something similar. Maybe the light heavyweight limits its fighters to 195lbs, middleweight limit is 175lbs, and so on.

  4. nicolas 01:28pm, 03/05/2013

    The problem of course with having eight divisions now is that no one since Floyd Patterson lost the heavyweight title has weighed less than 190, no one since then, except for the brief run of the Spinks brothers when they won the heavyweight title against men way past their best has weighed less than 200 (I’m not including Roy Jones) The Defunkt Boxing Digest once had 9 mythical divisions, with the cruise weight included. I see a distinct possibility one day that the AIBA may really have an impact on world boxing, if the cards are played right. They now in Olympic boxing have 10 weight classes, they used to have 12. They are also talking about 8 and 10 round fights, don’t forget the fight this article started with was a ten round title fight. Right now they do have this silly team boxing, but it is a start.

  5. Clarence George 08:50pm, 03/04/2013

    I’m a traditionalist and a purist, Eric, so I of course agree with you regarding the eight divisions.  Furthermore, there should be one undisputed and universally recognized champion per division…as opposed to the 68 (or whatever the hell the number is) “champs” we have today.

  6. Eric 06:59pm, 03/04/2013

    I don’t believe there has been a legitimate triple crown winner since Armstrong? The last one who had a shot was Sugar Ray Robinson but he was beat out by the heat and couldn’t continue against Joey Maxim for the light heavweight title. The Durans, Leonards, Hearnses, Arguellos were all great fighters but their titles weren’t undisputed and included titles in the “bastard” weight classes with junior or super in their names. Armstrong was a lightweight when he won and defended his welterweight crown and wasn’t much more than that when he challenged Garcia for the middleweight crown. Armstrong had already beaten Garcia while defending his welterweight crown and Garcia himself was little more than a blown up welterweight weighing 153 or so pounds to Armstrong’s 142lbs for their middleweight title bout. Armstrong didn’t demand a catchweight, or suggest a “new” division like junior middleweight or super welterweight be made to accumulate another belt. People have gotten larger so the best thing would be to revise the original eight weight classes since they’re not really realistic in today’s world. For example a 190lb fighter is more like a light heavyweight in nowadays and a fighter weighing 160lbs is really more like a welterweight than a middleweight. Scrap all this junior and super caca, revise the weights for the more modern sized fighters and go back to eight divisions. Hell, in MMA a 170lb fighter is called a welterweight and a 185 pounder fights in the middleweight division.

  7. Clarence George 06:38pm, 03/02/2013

    Right you are, Nicolas—Blake was indeed the referee for Galento-Nova.

  8. nicolas 03:14pm, 03/02/2013

    I had not been able to respond on this site since February 15. Thanks to a wonderful phone call from Mr Ecksel regarding this problem and apparently getting it fixed. The referee was also the same referee if I am not mistaken in the Lou Nova-Tony Galento controversy. He was considered by many to be very honest before, but the Garcia-Armstrong fight would as I understand it be his last. Also it should be noted when Armstrong lost the second fight to Ambers, it was only because of the rounds that were taken away by referee Arthur Donovan, Armstrong was very bitter towards him.  Someone wrote back to me many years ago that the fight was much closer than people realize, and that it could have gone either way. I think only in California was it recognized as a world title fight. ten rounds at that.

  9. Clarence George 01:32pm, 03/02/2013

    Gajjers, thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    Fishy, wasn’t it?  Blake did not at all have a reputation for incompetence.  So why the draw?  And why were rumors swirling before the fight that that’s how it would end?

    Armstrong was indeed outstanding, as was the “talent pool” he faced and beat—Ross, Ambers…

    As I hope I made clear, Armstrong wouldn’t have held four titles simultaneously (if he’d been given the W against Garcia), but would nevertheless have been the winner of four out of eight championships.  Amazing.

  10. Gajjers 09:26am, 03/02/2013

    As one wag said some time ago, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That was a potentially historic night, but hey, the best-laid plans of mice & men, also get derailed by mice & men (in whatever order). I’m glad Tommy Hearns is officially recognized as the first man to achieve that 4-division world champion feat, but I can’t help placing a mental asterisk against it, partly due to George Blake (George Who?) & his personal agenda. Hammerin’ Hank just seems too good to be true, folks - 4 out of 8 possible world titles belonging to one man? 126 lb, 160 lb (and everything in between) would be how many simultaneous titles today? If memory serves me right, he gave up (or lost) a title or two before the middleweight title fight, but seven? Damn, if that ain’t true greatness, I don’t know what is. Old-timers, please tell me the talent pool that existed when Homicide Hank was laying waste to all before him, was shallow, or at least pretty murky (shady goings-on being the norm). What gives?

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