BY any standards Henry Armstong is one of the all-time greats of boxing. He came from Mississippi in America’s deep south. His father was an African-American sharecropper and his mother a Native American of Iroquois descent. When Henry was a child his family relocated to Missouri, where the weather is notably harsh in the winter, and young Henry soon became involved with boxing. He went on to win world titles at featherweight, lightweight and welterweight. Today multiple champions are very common, almost the norm in fact, but back in the 1930s this was a truly outstanding achievement. Henry was the first simultaneous three-weight world champion.
Armstrong boxed in 181 professional contests and, during a period when most British fighters, however good, never got a ‘look in’ at world championship level it is no surprise that he only ever fought against one British fighter. That man was Ernie Roderick and the pair clashed in May 1939 at Harringay Arena for the world welterweight title.
Roderick was one of a trio of outstanding Liverpool boxers at the time, Nel Tarleton and Ginger Foran being the other two. He was the British champion, and a good one at that. He won his title by knocking out Scotsman Jake Kilrain of Bellshill, in seven rounds at Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC, earlier that year. This victory was the culmination of a long hard slog, over an eight-year period, in which Roderick had fought almost 100 professional contests. That was how things were then, with the quality and quantity of boxers being what they were.
Promoter Johnny Best (the stepfather of the ‘fifth Beatle’, Pete Best) had arranged for the winner of this contest to box against Armstrong for the title and so the two men knew that there was much at stake. Best was the boxing manager for the Harringay show and the place was packed out on the night of the contest.
Armstrong had won his title by defeating the great Barney Ross the year before and in the subsequent 12 months before the Roderick bout he defended his welterweight title six times, as well as winning and then defending the lightweight title. Henry was a fighting champion alright. He trained down at Clacton-on-Sea and his sparring partners included the future world featherweight champion, Chalky Wright, and the Irishman, Marvin Hart. Wright, at nine stone and with his speed and fleet-of-foot, was just the man Armstrong needed to stay sharp. The BN reporter, on seeing Armstrong in his camp, stated that he “is built on ideal lines for a boxer. His legs are more like those of a bantamweight, while his torso is developed along the lines of a fully-fledged welter. Having seen him at work, one can only label him as class A1”.
Roderick’s chief sparring partner was George Daly of Blackfriars, a wonderful pro in those days, and he reckoned that Armstrong was wide open to a right hand. Daly met Chalky Wright on the Harringay bill, going down on points over eight rounds.
On the night, Armstrong was too good for the Liverpudlian and the contest, which was non-stop and highly skilled throughout, was a clean and hard-fought affair. According to BN, Roderick “was simply splendid. His fighting spirit was unquenchable, his determination granite-like and his courage, magnificent. In defeat the British champion was glorious, for he certainly had no need to be ashamed at having to take the loser’s end at the hands of such a fistic marvel as Henry Armstrong”.
As can be seen in the accompanying photograph, Armstrong was marked about the face at the end of the contest, and he paid tribute to Roderick, stating that “he is one of the best men I have met and he would do well anywhere in the world”. Without doubt, Armstrong was one of the greatest boxers ever to step into a British ring, and Roderick one of the gamest.