In This Corner – Henry Armstrong

Following yesterday’s post about Jack Dempsey, I received several questions about other fighters from the past. Many have inquired about the differences between today’s boxers vs. those from previous eras. What is the biggest difference between the two?

In my opinion, the most significant change is the frequency of competition. Fighters from the past spent more time boxing. Boxing was more common so there were naturally more fighters competing and more fighters available for sparring. It was not uncommon for world class fighters to fight more than once a month. There was very little down time. As soon as one fight ended, another was planned.

Perhaps the greatest example of activity comes from the legendary Henry Armstrong. He held world championships in three different weight classes at the same time. In 1937, Henry Armstrong fought 27 times. Yes, that is right. He had 27 professional fights in one year. He fought nine times between July and September alone.

Based on his activity, those who are not familiar with Armstrong may assume he was a safety first fighter. Such an assumption could not be more false however. Henry Armstrong had several nicknames, two of which were Homicide Hank and Perpetual Motion. His pressure was relentless. His stamina was endless. He never stopped throwing punches.

Aspiring fighters can learn plenty from legends like Henry Armstrong. While we’ll certainly never see fighters compete so regularly, we should recognize the significance of his activity. The best way to stay sharp as a fighter is by staying active. The best amateur fighters stay busy throughout the year. They compete regularly both locally and at larger national tournaments. The best professionals also stay busy. Perhaps the best modern example is Bernard Hopkins. At age 48, he won a 12 round title fight earlier this month (March 9th). He was back in the gym just a few days later.

Too many modern athletes live in constant fear of working too hard. They baby their bodies as they’ve been led to believe that anything strenuous must be a sign for overtraining. Such individuals would have never survived in Henry Armstrong’s era.

Armstrong was one of the best conditioned fighters of all time. What’s even more incredible is that he did so long before supplements and performance enhancing drugs became commonplace. He also didn’t have scholarly conditioning specialists overseeing each and every move he made. Armstrong’s approach was quite simplistic. He trained hard, focused much of his attention towards the sport itself, and fought regularly. He steered clear of the complexity that is so common in today’s era.

There is plenty to be learned from his example.

For those interested, more highlight footage can be seen below.


“I like this feeling of weariness after training, when I’m walking home exhausted, dragging my feet. I like this a lot.” – Fedor Emelianenko

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  1. Harry Greb was noted for not particularly liking training but Greb stayed in shape by actually fighting all the time. His reasoning behind having so many fights were that he was staying in shape by actually fighting rather than training in the gym. Not quite sure about Armstrong, but didn’t he have some heart abnormality that helped him fight at such a tremendous pace without getting tired also?

  2. Armstrong’s life and career remind me of a more recent boxing parallel: Aaron Pryor. I know Armstrong’s achievements rise even higher than Pryor’s (who lost only once), but I am speaking of the basic outline of their life-scenario: ring warrior — dissolute descent — spiritual salvation — Baptist minister. Interesting.

    About the differences between today’s fighters and those of yore, one question/observation I would have concerns the taking of punches. To me it seems like in the old clips fighters regularly took blow after blow to the head and face, and yet somehow usually didn’t go down from them for a LONG time! I don’t know why. Today, apart from exceptions like Gatti & Ward were, most go down from probably 1/8 as many blows. Are the hits harder these days perhaps? Just my impression.

  3. I don’t think fighters are punching “harder” today than they did back in Armstrong’s day, Dempsey’s day, or even Ali’s day. I think the old-timers were far tougher and better conditioned than today’s fighters. I remember Tommy Morrison said it perfectly when he commented the only way to conditioned to being hit is to be hit. And no one can dispute that the old-timers certainly had more fights, and probably sparred many more rounds in training and sparred harder. They were also far more conditioned if you read of how some fighters like Archie Moore would run over 10-miles a day. A lot of fighters nowadays have abandoned long runs altogether feeling training time would be better served running sprints, plyo jumps or even something as non sport specific as swimming. Fighters like Marciano would put in probably 7-8 hours a day in training while today you might have some guy train 2-3 hours a day and think they’re training hard.

  4. Interesting perspective, Eric. How ’bout coming over to the “Boxing Talk” forum occasionally? It’d b nice to have you contribute your thoughts. 🙂

  5. Hi thanks for sharing the story of Armstrong’s career, I guess he is prove of the saying that you need to be match fit.

    Modern boxers like Ricky Hatton who famously allowed himself between fights to lose most of his conditioning is a great example of the differences in fight tempo between then and now.

    Shame Armstrong fell prey to the party lifestyle in the end.


  6. It’s pretty common here in Thailand to fight every 2-3 weeks. I think the problem with today’s boxing is the money. Boxers of today will hold out for the bigger pay fights. I see this trend happening in MMA as well.

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