Henry Armstrong’s Las Vegas Episode: A Dip into the Pool of Tank Town Boxing

Henry Armstrong, active from 1931 to 1945, won the featherweight, welterweight, and lightweight world titles, in that order, in a day when there were only eight widely recognized weight classes. He briefly held all three belts simultaneously. During the course of his career he had a run of 27 straight knockouts and, in October of 1939, successfully defended his welterweight title five times in a span of 22 days. On all-time pound-for-pound lists, Hammerin’ Hank is commonly placed second behind only Sugar Ray Robinson.

Armstrong also has the distinction of being the first ring immortal to appear in a Las Vegas ring. In September of 1942 – seventy-five years ago this month – he fought Irish Johnny Taylor at the Pittman Arena. And yet, although he was already recognized as one of the all-time greats, his visit wasn’t greeted with much fanfare. To the contrary, there were factions in the community that wanted to head him off at the pass and, failing that, run him out of town on a rail. Such were the foibles of tank town boxing. (The term “tank town” originated in the days of vaudeville. By definition a tank town is any town where the tallest building is the municipal water tank. But the term came to have a broader and more cynical meaning, denoting a place where the locals were a bunch of rubes.)

Las Vegas in 1942 bore scant resemblance to modern Las Vegas. Las Vegas proper was home to about 14,000 people. The outlying areas in the Las Vegas valley were inhabited by perhaps another 20,000.

Boxing and wrestling shows were run under the auspices of the American Legion, a monopoly that prevailed in many other communities. The state commander of the American Legion was A.E. Cahlan. A man with considerable clout in state politics, Cahlan also happened to own the Las Vegas Evening Review-Journal, the town’s only daily newspaper. His brother John F. Cahlan was the paper’s sports editor. And for Henry Armstrong, therein lay the rub. The show on which Armstrong appeared was arranged by a maverick promoter. That made Team Armstrong a threat to the established order.

It’s fun to leaf through the pages of tank town newspapers and read the reports of upcoming local boxing promotions. The stories often proved to be more thrilling than the fights.

The Las Vegas Evening Review-Journal was one of the worst offenders.  The boxing shows at Legion Stadium, the cozy little wooden corral that sat behind the American Legion clubhouse, invariably featured sensational battlers who were certain to produce plenty  of fireworks. The undercard matches would have been main events in larger precincts, or so it was written

Sports editor Cahlan laid the molasses on thick for the Aug. 19, 1942 show at Legion Stadium. The main event of the Wednesday card featured heavyweights George Gambastiani and Francisco De La Cruz.

“Those who have seen Gambastini (sic) in the ring report that he is the fastest big man they have ever seen. He steps around like a light-heavyweight and his footwork is that of a ballet dancer. De la Cruz…is reputed to have a nimble right cross that has laid plenty of lads low, and it has been through this medium that he has been able to build up an undefeated record while campaigning in Mexico….Los Angeles fight fans who were in Las Vegas over the weekend marveled at the fact that such a small town as  Las Vegas has been able to get the match between the big boys. They contend that matchmakers all over the Pacific Coast, not alone in Los Angeles, have been trying to make this match.”

One would have thought that the six-foot-four Gambastiani and his paunchy opponent — previously identified by Cahlan as the champion of Mexico — were worthy opponents for Joe Louis. 

The R-J sports editor tossed bouquets at boxers of little repute, but for Henry Armstrong there would only be brickbats. On Aug. 4, with the fight still in the rumor stage, Cahlan told his readers that Armstrong was “half blind, nearly broke, and…has fallen into the hands of sharpshooters who want nothing out of ‘Hammering Henry’ except the money he can attract. When they’ve milked every dollar from the guy’s name and have seen his marbles battered out of the ring they’ll toss him overboard and look for new prospects.” Cahlan would subsequently write that Armstrong “has bees in his noggin.”

In his most bizarre screed, which ran on Aug. 22, Cahlan directed his ire at Armstrong’s manager Joe Lynch: “Mr. Lynch is desirous of expanding his territory into the tank towns and has eyes on numerous spots in the desert. We would advise him that frontier communities are not as gullible as they appear to be and six shooters are still unholstered on occasion. They may shoot mostly blanks but the effect is the same.”

It was true that Armstrong at this stage of his career was well past his peak. He was on the comeback trail after a hiatus of almost 17 months following back-to-back losses to Fritzie Zivic, the second of which left him bruised and battered. But history would show that there was still plenty of fuel left in his tank. Down the road he would avenge the setbacks to Zivic and defeat such notables as Juan Zurita, Lew Jenkins, Tippy Larkin, Sammy Angott, and Willie Joyce, the latter an exceptional African-American lightweight who Armstrong outpointed in the second and fourth of their four encounters.

As for Armstrong’s Labor Day fight in Las Vegas with Johnny Taylor, it was a foreseeable mismatch. Armstrong stopped Irish Johnny in the third round, one round quicker than in their previous meeting at San Jose.  But the American Legion sponsored fight on the same day was no less lopsided. Elbert “Turkey” Thompson, a very good heavyweight, needed only two rounds to put away no-hoper Ernie Nordman.

For all his fistic achievements, Henry Armstrong was nothing more than a pawn in a tank town turf war. But it’s doubtful that he harbored a grudge against those that treated him so rudely as that wasn’t his nature. A dignified man, he retired for good in 1945 and entered the ministry. There is no record that he ever evangelized in Sin City.

ADDENDUMS

You won’t find the Gambastiani-De La Cruz bout currently listed in BoxRec, although that will soon change. By all indications, it was a doozy of a fight. De La Cruz scored three knockdowns but Gambastiani fought his way back to cop the decision. Barring new discoveries, Gambastiani finished his career 17-3 and De La Cruz, hyped as the champion of Mexico, 16-18-4.

As indicated in BoxRec, the Armstrong-Taylor fight was actually held in the town of Pittman. This was a federal reservation, the locus of which was a big World War II magnesium plant. After the war, Pittman was expunged from the map and subsumed into the newly chartered Las Vegas border town of Henderson.

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