Sugar Ray Robinson vs Henry Armstrong – Today marks the 73rd anniversary of Sugar Ray Robinson vs Henry Armstrong. The bout between them took place at Madison Square Garden on August 27th, 1943, but there would be no bout to talk about were it not for Robinson idolizing Homicide Hank combined with a slight by promoter Mike Jacobs that led to the bout’s materialization. Armstrong was on the “comeback trail” – in quotes, because it was really just that. Despite the million dollars he had netted over his career he had nothing to show for it. At the end of his career physically, Hank had been asking for favors and borrowing money from old friends to get by.
It was one of these times, while Joe Louis and Robinson were on Army furlough at Jacob’s office, that Hank came by. Jacobs quickly shooed the two fighters into his inner office and said “shhhh” with his finger to his lips. Hank knocked on the door a couple times before quietly shuffling away. Afterwards Jacobs explained to Louis and Robinson that Armstrong was looking to borrow five hundred dollars. Robinson could not believe that Jacobs, who had made a great deal of money off the ring legend, would be so disrespectful to his idol. This put into play a series of events that would lead to their eventual meeting in the ring. The first of these events was Armstrong’s comeback. On June 1, 1947 he returned to the ring after an absence of sixteen-and-a-half months. His goal, he told the media, was to bank $100,000 and then he would call it quits for good.
At first he fought second raters, with most people assuming that he didn’t have enough in the gas tank to have a serious run in him anymore with his main focus being just money. Call it skill, luck, a second wind in his career, or just business sense but fighting these types of fights normally would not net a fighter the type of money needed to retire on. Armstrong was smart about it though – he hit the road and toured coast to coast to drum up publicity. On came the slightly bigger paydays as he continued winning and stepping up in class as if he was again a prospect making a rise to the top. Suddenly Henry Armstrong was back in the headlines and beating more than second raters including his old nemesis Fritzie Zivic – Homicide Hank was back!
In the other corner was the 22-year-old phenom Sugar Ray Robinson. Ever since he was young, Ray looked up to Armstrong as his idol. It has been widely reported that Ray’s idol was Joe Louis and while this author is not going to argue that point, suffice it to say that he looked up to both Louis and Armstrong. He even vowed to “fix up” Zivic after the cagey veteran took the welterweight crown from Armstrong on the same card on which Ray made his professional debut against Joe Echevarria. After getting the stoppage victory in that pro debut Ray rushed out of the locker room to catch the main event only to see his idol beaten up over the course of fifteen rounds and eventually reduced to all fours on the canvas with both eyes swollen shut. Armstrong was saved by the bell but his historic title reign over.
Armstrong would rematch Zivic in his next fight only to retire after a stoppage loss convinced him it was time to hang up the gloves. Fast forward a little over two years and we find Ray “fixing up” Zivic, not once but twice, and we have ourselves looking down the barrel of a potential match-up between the fast rising star and the old veteran. As the public chattered about the possibility, Robinson’s trainer/manager George Gainford shot it down by simply stating that Ray did not want to fight him.
Fast forward a half year further when Armstrong was getting more headlines due to the publicity tour and winning far more than losing and the talk resurfaced of the two facing each other. This time it was different though, there was more sentiment for it. The public wanted to see the rising star fight the old triple titlist — the youthful adorer vs. his hero. Ray then suddenly came out against the advice of his manager – who said he had nothing to gain in the fight and everything to lose and said he would fight Armstrong. Mike Jacobs, who wouldn’t even answer the door when Armstrong was knocking just two and a half years prior, was now promoting it as a big bout at Madison Square Garden.
The fight itself wasn’t exactly thrilling as Ray coasted to a shutout decision. He kept Armstrong on the end of his reach and held him at bay with his quick, accurate hands. To the ringside media he never appeared to have the old veteran in trouble but decades later post-retirement Robinson would admit to carrying his idol by allowing him to clinch any time his legs buckled. After the bout, Homicide Hank announced his retirement from boxing once again; he believed he now had enough money live comfortably.
The main lesson learned in this fight is that boxing is a brotherhood, a fraternity, a family. Whatever wording you use to describe it, you know and feel it deep down. When one brother is slighted, the others come to his aid. Happy anniversary to Sugar Ray Robinson for doing just that for his idol Henry Armstrong.
Sugar Ray Robinson vs Henry Armstrong