On This Day: Henry Armstrong wins welterweight championship from Barney Ross
On this day, May 31, 85 years ago, Henry Armstrong lifted the welterweight crown from Barney Ross at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island, New York. The anticipated 1938 showdown was a clash between respected reigning champions who had separated themselves from the other lighter-weight standouts of the mid-to-late 1930s, but one was clearly on his way up and the other was on his last legs.
Ross, who had won the lightweight and junior welterweight titles from the legendary Tony Canzoneri in 1933, outpointed Jimmy McLarnin over 15 heated rounds to earn the welterweight championship in May 1934 and become a three-division king. McLarnin won the rematch four months later, but Ross continued to defend his junior welterweight title until he beat the celebrated “Belfast Spider” in their 1935 rubbermatch, regaining the welterweight title. The trilogy with McLarnin helped Ross earn The Ring’s Fighter of the Year honors in 1934 and 1935. He defended the welterweight title in 1936 and 1937 vs. Ring-rated Izzy Jannazzo and Ceferino Garcia as Armstrong was making his name as a featherweight contender fighting mainly in Los Angeles, but occasionally venturing to Mexico City where battled (and lost to) Ring-rated Baby Arizmendi (twice) and Baby Rudolfo Casanova.
Armstrong’s breakthrough came in 1937, the year he won the featherweight title from 142-bout veteran Petey Sarron. Armstrong fought 27 times in 1937, all wins, 26 by knockout, clinching The Ring’s Fighter of the Year award. He carried unstoppable momentum into his welterweight challenge, despite weighing-in under the lightweight limit (the day of the fight). Armstrong’s smothering pressure and non-stop offense gradually broke down the fading champion, but Ross refused to go down or quit on his stool. Referee Arthur Donovan allowed Ross to go the distance despites loud calls from the fans to stop the slaughter.
It was the final fight of Ross’s hall-of-fame career. He retired with a 72-4-3 (22) record and was never stopped in 81 pro bouts. Armstrong won the lightweight title with a split decision over Lou Ambers in his next bout, becoming the first and only simultaneous three-division champ, but then returned to welterweight where he would defend the crown 19 times between November 1938 and September 1940. Armstrong still holds the record for welterweight title defenses.