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Eddie Mead was a short, round, smiling man with a dream as wide as his waistline. Joe Louis and Al Jolson, both big men in Eddie's day, were all tangled up in that dream: Joe because he won too many fights too easily and Al because he helped the dream come true.
Eddie had been a fairly successful fight manager back in the '20s when he guided Joe Lynch to the bantamweight title and made $150,000 in the process. But the money was soon gone on good friends and bad horses. Then Lynch quit and there was Eddie looking for another boy.
Like every manager, Eddie dreamed of handling a champ—the champ, the heavyweight champ. But right smack in the middle of that dream sat a kid named Joe Louis, who won 27 fights in a row even before he became champion. So Eddie got himself another dream, and it was this: if you can't find a boy good enough to top the top division, how about finding a boy so clever he could top a bunch of the other divisions all at once. Eddie envisioned a featherweight who, having captured that crown, would then go into the ring with lightweights and welterweights and beat them all. A triple champ—that's what Eddie Mead dreamed about. Someone who would rival Joe Louis as boxing's biggest attraction. And then one night he found him. That's where Jolson came in.
It was on Aug. 4, 1937 at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, and Eddie was there with his old friend Joley, an avid fight fan. They watched a 24-year-old Negro upset the featherweight Baby Arizmendi, who had made a fair name for himself on the coast, and suddenly Eddie knew his luck had changed. Quick as could be, Eddie borrowed $5,000 from Joley, a notoriously easy touch, and became then and there the sole owner and manager of Henry Armstrong.
For Armstrong, that afternoon in L.A. marked the end of an eight-year odyssey that began in St. Louis. There Henry had been drilled for months by his brother, confusingly named Harry, at the Pine Street Gymnasium. By 1929 he was ready for amateur competition. In those days in St. Louis a black fighter was forbidden to fight a white man and it took just two bouts for Henry to exhaust the black competition and force the Armstrong brothers to leave town. Harry bought an old car and they drove to Pittsburgh. There they quickly discovered that medals won't buy food or pay rent. So, broke and hungry, the brothers returned to St. Louis.
After a few months they decided to try Los Angeles and, with just $3 between them, they hopped a freight bound west. The money and the fights came slowly in L.A., but eventually Henry was able to score a few impressive wins. Then along came Joley and his friend Eddie Mead, a real live New York manager.
Armstrong and Mead arrived in New York in the spring of 1937, and Eddie immediately set out to tell the city's boxing crowd about his fighter. He told them that this was the greatest boy he'd ever had and that Armstrong would knock all these Eastern guys cold. But Armstrong wasn't the first California import Mead had brought to town, and it certainly wasn't the first time he had used superlatives to describe one of his fighters. Those in the know labeled Henry "just another California windstorm."
Not even Eddie could claim that Madison Square Garden was overcrowded on the night of Armstrong's first fight there, against Mike Belloise on March 12, 1937. More than half of the seats were vacant. Henry himself was a ludicrous figure as he walked up the aisle to the biggest ring in the country in a tattered robe and shoes that were the veterans of numerous fights on the coast. His legs were thin—he weighed only 127 pounds—and if they wobbled it was because the young fighter was terrified.
By the third round Armstrong was indeed resembling a windstorm, but not the kind the experts had laughed about. He was more like a typhoon. His gloves flew at Belloise as fast as he could drive them. In the fourth round a left hook to Belloise's chin ended the fight.
One week later Armstrong gave Aldo Spoldi a tremendous beating, though Spoldi somehow managed to remain on his feet for the full 10 rounds. Then Armstrong began a string of 27 consecutive knockout wins, and the rasping voice of a ring announcer proclaiming victory by knockout got to be a habit.