'World's Oldest Boxing Journalist' John Jarrett On The Great Henry Armstrong

'Homicide Hank' passed away on this day in 1988
07:00, 24 Oct 2023

Henry Armstrong might just be the best fighter there ever was. In an era where the ‘GOAT’ moniker is attached to all and sundry, ‘Homicide Hank’ was the real deal. A simultaneous three-weight world champion who boxing writers of the day speculated was made from steel. 

One of the boxing writers thrilled by Armstrong’s fury was John Jarrett. The 92-year-old is by most measures the oldest scribe in all of fistiana. Jarrett is also one of the most uniquely qualified. He is a vital through-line from the wonderful fighters of the mid-20th century. A chronicler of some of the most fascinating men ever to lace up the gloves. John also happens to be a fascinating chap and a thoroughly compelling listen. 

I was fortunate enough to speak with John about his years in the business and his new tome, an in-depth study entitled, ‘Henry Armstrong: Boxing’s Super Champ’.

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How did you get into the industry?

I’ve been interested in boxing since 1946, when the American light heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich defended his title against Freddie Mills. At the end of the fight, Lesnevich looked like he had been in a car smash and he was the winner! We had a weekly magazine in those days called Illustrated. They ran an article on the American fighter with a nice coloured photo of Gus in the gym, with all the Madison Square Garden posters on the wall behind him. The photo sparked my interest and it hangs on the wall in front of me when I’m on the computer.

So I started collecting news clippings, photographs and magazines and sticking them in my old school exercise book. I still have them along with about 1000 books and almost seventy years of Boxing News and Ring Magazine. They are all in my office upstairs and my late wife used to swear that one day they would all be downstairs in the living room.

We had two sporting papers in those days. I used to write letters to them every week and readers used to write to me for information. One chap, George Farmer from Nottingham, was a freelancer for Boxing News and Ring Magazine. I thought if he can do it, so can I. So I wrote two articles and sent them off to Boxing News. Gilbert Odd, the editor, sent them back and asked me to do one on Rocky Marciano, who had just knocked out Joe Louis. 

I wrote the article and received two guineas for it. Mr Odd suggested I stopped writing unpaid letters. I contributed to Boxing News for sixty years and wrote articles for various boxing and general interest magazines as well as regional newspapers. I was 92 in May and working on another book. 

What is it about Henry Armstrong that made you want to write about him?

By looking at his record this guy has got to be the best fighter in the world. Nobody else has done what he did, win three world titles in the same period from different guys. They can’t do that now because the commission won’t let them win more than two. They limit the titles, which is a good thing. But in those days, in the 1930s, there were only eight recognised weight divisions and Armstrong captured three of them in ten months. 

I was 90 (when I started) and I was thinking, “I might not finish this book! I might never see it published!”. So I just kept going until I finished it and I’m happy to say it’s not over yet.

We’re used to the top fighters appearing once or twice a year now, which has left the sport in a sorry state. Just how gruelling was it for fighters like Armstrong, who stepped through the ropes far more frequently?

He fought three world championship fights, 15 rounds, in a ten month period which is sensational. Nowadays you’re lucky if they defend the title once a year. I haven’t got a lot of use for modern day… I rarely watch boxing on television now.

What do you see as Armstrong’s finest fight?

It could be the third one for a world title. He beat Lou Ambers for the lightweight title having already knocked out Petey Sarron for the featherweight title then moved up to welterweight to beat the great Barney Ross. 

Because normally they would go featherweight then lightweight, but the lightweight champion’s manager (Al Weill) was a canny old soul and didn’t want to put the title on (the line) then. So he stepped over him and went for Barney Ross, who was one of the greats. And he never fought again. Armstrong just hammered him for 15 rounds.

He was a phenomenal human. One guy said, “If you cut him open you’ll find oil in his veins, not blood!”.

Just how shocking was it when Henry lost back-to-back fights with Fritzie Zivic? It feels like that was the beginning of the end for the great man.

He went down at the end of course. He had a manager who he loved but the guy loved money and he loved betting the horses. Henry says that he wasn’t getting near the money they were getting then. He did make investments. He opened a restaurant. 

Out of the boxing books you’ve written, which stands as your proudest work?

I’m pleased with this one and my last one, which was Benny Leonard, the great lightweight champion. Max Baer was a favourite of mine. Colourful, playboy, big puncher, world champion. What more do you want?

On a personal note, what advice would you give to me as a boxing writer?

I did a book on Ray Arcel who was a great American trainer of champions. Trained about 20 world champions. I had started the book, I was about halfway through. I got a call saying we’ve got $1000 dollars for John to fly over and we’ll see what you’ve got. 

They’d got another guy to do the book and I got a copy of it and made a list of errors. I stuck it to the front of the book. They guy was a writer but he didn’t know boxing. To start with, the cover picture showed Arcel in the corner with Benny Leonard at the time when he was on his comeback. In the book they’d put it down as Barney Ross.

Like I say there were quite a lot of errors in the book and it was because they didn’t know boxing.

Henry Armstrong: Boxing’s Super Champ by John Jarrett

Pitch Publishing

Jarrett’s Armstrong study is one of the more well-researched and immersive boxing books I’ve been fortunate enough to read. The colourful characters of the black and white era have rarely been so well-rendered as they are here. Jarrett takes you into the gyms, small halls, arenas and stadiums of boxing’s golden age. 

‘Homicide’ Hank is your guide as you walk with him on his rise, fall and redemption through religion. Jarrett lovingly compiles fight reports from the day to allow the reader to experience Armstrong’s journey in real-time. ‘Super Champ’ leaves the reader invigorated by a time when boxing’s stars spent more of their time in the ring and took on all-comers. A must-read for curious modern fans and wistful vintage watchers alike.

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