IN ENGLAND in the summer months of 1939, it was clear that a storm was coming. Just over two decades on from the end of the First World War, another terrible conflict approached in Europe. However, danger also approached from the west, in the shape of a hurricane. Leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, it showed no sign of slowing down. This storm would hit London on May 25 and his name was Hurricane Henry Armstrong.

Armstrong is surely the second greatest fighter, behind Sugar Ray Robinson, to take part in a professional boxing match in the UK. However, in 1951, it was an unfocussed and underprepared Robinson who lost to Randy Turpin. The 1939 version of Henry Armstrong who came to London was only a year removed from the greatest year of his career and a series of victories that constitute one of the most incredible achievements in boxing history.

Henry’s grandfather was a white slave owner. His grandmother had been a slave. He was the 11th of 15 children and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Despite typically humble beginnings, his place in boxing history is forever secure as the first man to hold world championships in three weight divisions simultaneously: featherweight, lightweight and welterweight. He won his first crown in October 1937, taking the featherweight title from Petey Sarron. He won the welterweight title from Barney Ross in May 1938 and then relieved Lou Ambers of the lightweight championship three months later.

When he came to London in 1939, he was still champion in two divisions, having given up the featherweight title without losing it in the ring. To give an idea of the havoc the hurricane was wreaking, in 1937 he won all 27 of his fights, 26 by stoppage.

The man he was due to face in the ring at the Harringay Arena in May 1939 was Liverpool’s Ernie Roderick. Boxing fans like to talk about who is the greatest British fighter never to win a world title. Ernie deserves his place in that conversation. Armstrong came over to defend his world welterweight title. Roderick was the British champion at this weight at the time. He would hold that title for nearly 10 years. Later in his career he was also European champion at the same weight and briefly held the British middleweight title. He was a worthy challenger for Armstrong’s crown and ranked two in the world by Ring magazine as the fight approached.

Ernie was of a generation whose lives were impacted greatly by both world wars. He was born on the eve of the first world war and his chance at world title success came just prior to the second. Going into the Armstrong fight he had never been knocked out in 98 contests in a career starting in 1931. Since 1935 he had suffered just two defeats and one draw against 58 wins.

He was on a run of 23 successive victories, culminating in the British title, beating Jake Kilrain just two months before his shot at Armstrong.

Armstrong was having a typically busy year, with his defence against Roderick his fifth contest of 1939. He had already turned back challenges in Los Angeles, Havana, St. Louis, and New York. His most recent contest was a 12th round stoppage win against Davey Day in Madison Square Garden on March 31. Press reports described the bout as one of Henry’s toughest fights, leaving him needing four stitches on a cut left eye. Armstrong claimed also to have hurt both hands during the fifth round. He had less than two full months to recover and prepare for Ernie.

Butlin’s holiday camp in Clacton-on-Sea had an added attraction for holidaymakers in the late spring of 1939 as that was the base chosen for Armstrong when he arrived in the UK, but he was here on business, not pleasure.

Meanwhile, Roderick was training at the Swan Inn, in Aughton, a few miles outside of Liverpool. He considered it to be his lucky camp, having used it previously in advance of several key victories. Ernie was in confident mood as the fight approached.

“I am not given to boasting, but if anyone is going to be knocked out on Thursday, it will be Armstrong. He has been beaten before and I am confident I can do the trick.”

Both men earned the praise of Boxing News. (Getty Images)

The weight differential would have been one reason for Roderick’s confidence. Despite Henry’s success at welterweight, up to this point he had never weighed in at more than 135lbs, the lightweight limit and 12 pounds inside the welterweight maximum. Roderick on the other hand was a fully-fledged welter having also had success against heavier men, having defeated 14 middleweights. If greater size is an asset, then it would be in Ernie’s favour.

The venue for the world title fight would be the Harringay Arena which had only been built three years previously. With a capacity of approximately 10,000, it was constructed predominantly with ice hockey in mind, a popular sport in the years pre-WW2. It had a removable floor that could be placed over the ice when needed for other events. Boxing was frequently staged there during its 22- year existence. British light-heavyweight champion, Len Harvey, had already fought on three occasions at the venue and was backing his countryman to win. In a column for the Sunday Express, Harvey expressed concern about Armstrong’s speed, but felt that Ernie had “sufficient brain” and the punch, to make the difference.

“A great deal rests on Roderick’s shoulders. I have a hunch he is going to pull it off.”

By fight time, as expected it was a lightweight defending the world welterweight title. Armstrong weighed in at 135lbs to Roderick’s 145 ¾lbs. A disappointing crowd of no more than 5,000 turned out, but those that did were rewarded with a donnybrook to remember.

The first round went to Ernie, as Henry took time to get up to speed and assess his opponent. From there on though it was a long and painful battle for the British challenger. He had the satisfaction of lasting the full 15 rounds, but the decision was never in doubt. Armstrong, as always, was relentless with his attacks to body and head. In the ninth round it looked like Roderick might wilt under pressure, but he put up stern resistance, even having some success in the 10th. There was never any danger that Homicide Hank couldn’t keep this up for the full duration and going into the final round he was up on his toes like a ballet dancer and still launching two fisted barrages of punches.

Boxing News was fulsome in its praise of both winner and loser. Roderick was reported to have been, “simply splendid. His fighting spirit unquenchable, his determination granite-like, and his courage magnificent.” Respect was paid to the fact that despite the onslaught he faced, Ernie never seemed to settle for a points loss. He was always looking for a way to land his own shots, despite the task proving to be in vain.

Armstrong, for his part, was “the complete fistic marvel”.

“He scorns defence – he has no need for it, for the reason that his adoption of the role of a pugilist in perpetual motion establishes a whirligig of punches coming over from every and any angle that there is little opportunity for the other fellow to place a real punch at all.”

Not all press reports were so kind to the British welterweight king in his defeat. It was reported overseas that Armstrong had “pummelled Roderick around the ring so easily that it almost looked like a training camp workout.” It was also felt that if it were not for the fact that Henry again damaged his hands during the fight, he would have won by stoppage.

Irrespective of that conjecture, Ernie Roderick had put up a brave fight and gone the distance with possibly the best fighter in world, and a man who would go on to be considered to be one of the best ever. Both men come out of the contest with credit when looking back more than 80 years later. Armstrong demonstrated again his ability to fight at a pace unsustainable for the majority of fighters and to be able to do it successfully against bigger, quality opponents. Roderick, meanwhile, proved he deserved his place in the ring with an all-time great.

Henry Armstrong was back in the ring less than three months later, losing his lightweight title to Lou Ambers on points in Yankee Stadium. Despite the loss, Henry kept up his busy schedule making another 12 defences of the welterweight title before losing it to Fritzie Zivic over 15 rounds in Madison Square Garden in October 1940. All hurricanes blow themselves out eventually.

Ernie continued boxing throughout the war, while also enlisting in the Royal Air Force. He finally lost his British welterweight crown in 1948, also at the Harringay Arena, to Henry Hall on points over 15 rounds. He hung up his gloves two years later. Roderick ended his career with more than 100 wins, including 45 by knockout. But in May 1939, as England readied itself for another war, Ernie faced a hurricane in Harringay. He might not have won, but he let no one down and he kept on fighting, showing the kind of spirit that the country needed for the battles ahead.