Sportswriters gave the new phenom the nickname Hammering Henry because his style consisted of a continuous barrage of punches that left opponents senseless. In October of 1937 he stopped Petey Sarron in the sixth round in the Garden to become the world's featherweight champion. The victory was expected—the experts were now convinced that Armstrong was all Mead had made him out to be. Then Mead startled the boxing world by negotiating for a fight with Barney Ross, no featherweight at all but the reigning welterweight champion. The experts laughed all over again.
The Ross camp was confident before the fight, and they were amused at the prospect of watching Armstrong knocked back into his proper place with the featherweights. Barney was the most confident of all, believing that fighters with rushing, flailing styles were made to order for him.
Then on the night of May 31, 1938 Hammering Henry climbed into the ring at Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, N.Y. This time he wore a new robe, new shoes and the initials HA sewn onto his trunks. And this time 30,000 spectators filled the seats. From the opening bell Henry went after Ross, pounding him tirelessly, and it didn't take him long to plow through the champion's defense and attack his face and body. After the opening rounds the outcome of the fight became obvious. The crowd sat silent through the beating Ross was enduring. As the rounds wore on the spectators began yelling at the ref to stop the fight, and before the 11th round Referee Arthur Donovan went to Ross's corner and pleaded with the fighter. "Let me alone," Barney replied. "I'm the champion. He'll have to beat me in the ring, not sitting on a stool in the corner."
The fight continued and Ross remained on his feet, held up by instinct and courage. In the final three rounds, out of respect for his opponent, Armstrong eased up, declining even to try for a knockout. It was the first time in more than a year that he didn't win before the final bell, but the victory was no less positive because of that. After the announcer stated that Armstrong was the new welterweight champion of the world by unanimous decision, Ross retired from boxing. "Henry is a great fighter." he told the press in his dressing room.
Now Mead and Armstrong set out after the third part of the dream—the lightweight title. The problem they faced was no longer a matter of ounces and pounds—the 135-pound division was right at Henry's normal fighting weight—and it didn't become apparent until a stifling August night in New York. The problem, as it turned out, was one Lou Ambers, the rugged young champion. The fight began as expected with Henry pounding Ambers as hard and as fast as he could throw his punches. At the end of the fifth round Armstrong threw a right hook to the jaw that sent Lou to the canvas. The champ was obviously hurt, but the bell signaling the end of the round rang at the count of one. Ambers fell again in the sixth—this time for eight seconds—but he managed to avoid Armstrong's knockout bid for the remainder of the round. Then Ambers came back. He fought Henry to a standstill in a brutal 13th round and, in the process, opened the challenger's lip. Armstrong went to his corner with blood streaming down his chin. Referee Billy Cavanaugh looked at the fighter and said, "Henry, you're bleeding all over my nice clean ring."
Armstrong must have swallowed a quart of blood during the final two rounds, and after the final bell he stumbled, dizzy and exhausted, to his corner. After several minutes of confusion it was announced that Armstrong was the winner on a 2-1 split decision. The spectators were incensed. They filled the Garden with a roar of boos and catcalls. Torn paper, straw hats and cigar butts showered into the ring. Many of those present had backed Ambers as the short-ender of the 17-to-5 odds at fight time. The rest had been sent into an emotional fervor by Ambers' gallant comeback and by several accidental low blows thrown by Armstrong during the closing rounds. Armstrong left the ring during the angry demonstration, having just achieved one of boxing's most incredible feats—the triple championship.
Shortly after the fight, Armstrong gave up the featherweight crown and settled down to the defense of his two remaining championships. In time he lost the lightweight title to Ambers and the welterweight to Fritzie Zivic. His three crowns, 27 consecutive knockouts and 46 straight wins earned him a place in boxing's Hall of Fame.
But 30 years ago all this was in the future. In the fall of 1938 Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong were the most talked about fighters around. And Eddie Mead, the dreamer, had more lucky money than he could blow at the races.