DAD WAS *MORE* THAN A CONTENDER – Garry Armstrong

A friend emailed me info about a popular boxer who just improved on his very impressive record. I had to admit knowing nothing about the prizefighter. I’m a self-proclaimed baseball maven but know nothing about professional boxing these days.   I’m not a fan.

I don’t get my jollies watching two people bashing out each other’s brains. This is no ethical line in the sand.  I enjoy football but never have fantasized about tossing a final second ‘hail mary’ pass to win the Superbowl for the home town team. I flinch when I see the guys grinding each other into the dirt just to pick up a few yards.


My Dad wouldn’t agree with me. He was the boxing maven in our family. We used to watch the old Friday Night Gillette boxing matches. It was our one Father-Son bonding event.

We used to watch the likes of Kid Gavilan, Chico Vejar, Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong (no relation), Rocky Graziano,  Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, Floyd Patterson, Jersey Joe Walcott,  Ezzard Charles, Ingmar Johansson, and the young Cassius Clay – Muhammad Ali.

Joe Louis was Dad’s hero.  Unfortunately, I only remember seeing Louis in the declining years of his memorable career.  Dad used to describe listening to his fights on the radio when “The Brown Bomber” was in his prime.

My father is on the left and Marvin Hagler is on the right.

I remember seeing Louis’ pictures in the homes of many Black families.  He was more than a boxer, more than the heavyweight champion of the world. He was a folk hero and legend to people of color.  Louis was a sport and cultural icon before Jackie Robinson. My Dad could recite, chapter and verse, round by round, of many of Joe Louis’ fights.

As a young boy, I looked at pictures of my Dad in his boxing prime.  I was always awed. Dad was  6-feet plus a few inches. A tall, matinee-idol handsome man. This isn’t fog of memory sentiment.  My Dad never lost those strikingly good looks – even in the autumn of his years.  My girlfriends visited, they would stare at my father with jaw-dropping admiration, then glance at me with a, “What happened to YOU?”  look. It always deflated my ego.

When we had visitors, it was like living with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, or Denzel Washington as my Dad.  All three of the Armstrong boys addressed our parents as “Mommy and Daddy” even when we were adults, well into our professional lives.  It may seem bit old-fashioned now but it felt normal for the 50-year-old Garry Armstrong, noted TV News Reporter to talk about his “Mommy and Daddy”.  My friends always smiled with appreciation,  maybe a little envy.

I am drifting here.  Typical Garry.  William Armstrong, Sr, the pride of Antigua and World War 2. Decorated Army Veteran  ( The EAME Service Medal, The WWII Victory Medal and the American Service Medal),  did a lot of amateur boxing during the war where he saw lots of active duty and action, including the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, Vineland, and Central Europe.

I don’t recall Dad’s boxing record.  He said it was recreational.   An avocation. Something to do between combat.  I suspect it was Dad’s way of getting respect during a period when our Armed Services were still segregated.  When asked, he begrudgingly said boxing was relaxing for him and his opponents were usually friends or Army peers.  As I write,  I don’t remember if Dad ever fought a White opponent.  I never thought to ask that question as a kid.

Dad taught his 3 sons some basics about self-defense but never made it a big deal. He never tried to force boxing on us.  I’m not sure he shared our passion for baseball.

Dad showed rare outward passion when “nice guy” Floyd Patterson suffered boxing defeats.  He always thought Patterson should’ve been a little tougher but the one-time heavyweight champ had a very sensitive outward demeanor that rankled some old school boxing fans.

Rocky Marciano’s undefeated career record was always appreciated by my Dad.  I wanted to say my Dad commented “Good stuff for a White Guy” but, no, my Father wasn’t given to such acerbic comments.  Leave it to his oldest son with a slightly bent sense of humor.

During my Boston TV News career, I met Marvin Hagler, the pride of Brockton, Ma. and a champion pugilist. We struck up a friendship beyond reporter-prizefighter when I talked about my Dad and his love of boxing.

I managed to score a painting that showed Mavin Hagler and “Bill” Armstrong, head to head, in a boxing match.  An artist friend did the painting and Hagler was kind enough to add a personal sentiment to ” a fellow boxer” for my Dad.  It was an emotional TKO for me.

When I presented the painting to my Dad, he gave me the biggest smile he’d ever shown me in my life. I felt a deep tug in my heart and barely held back the tears. My Father really LIKED the gift.  It’s hard for me to explain how important that was for me.

Me and my father at our wedding.

Years later, after my parents had passed and we were on the verge of putting the family house up for sale,  my two brothers and I were deciding who would get what. It surprised me when they said I should get most of Dad’s boxing stuff.  I didn’t expect it because my two brothers were closer to Mommy and Daddy in their final years while I was busy with my career in Boston.  I didn’t forget them but my visits were fewer.  Yes, I felt a little guilty because I was so focused on my job.

When I started going through Dad’s stuff, a flood of memories came back. All those Friday evenings watching boxing matches.  Dad’s expert take on the state of professional boxing (he didn’t like where it was going).  Dad’s own recollections when he sifted through his equipment.  The gloves, the shoes, the pictures.  I could see my Father reaching into his own past when he was the boxer, master of his own moments in the ring, and maybe a magic moment in Madison Square Garden — standing beside his boxing heroes.

Top of the World,  Dad!   You made it!

27 thoughts on “DAD WAS *MORE* THAN A CONTENDER – Garry Armstrong

  1. Damn! Your daddy was handsome! 🙂 And I definitely see him in you in that photo. My step-father was a big boxing fan so we watched on TV. I like boxing but I stopped watching after Evander’s ear got bitten. Mom told me that Barack Obama was the most important man to Blacks since Joe Louis. Which let me know that Joe Louis was mighty important in his time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elva, yes! Joe Louis WAS a ‘household’ name back when that meant something.

      I remember at those large family gatherings when the men would try to emulate Louis’ boxing moves.

      My Dad would offer a smile of frustration because they were all bad imitators. I knew Louis was special when my Dad confessed admiration of him — his style, intelligence and moxie. As far as I remember, Joe Louis was in a class by himself, according to Dad, the boxing maven,

      It was sad to see Louis — years later — as a “greeter” at Las Vegas Casinos. I was too young to understand how Louis had been used by the people who earned millons off him, and fleeced him for more.

      I wish someone would do a proper bio movie about Joe Louis and his impact on our country, including how Adolph Hitler desperately wanted to see a German fighter – Max Schmelling (?) beat Louis to show Nazi supremacy in boxing. The one time house painter didn’t get what he wanted.

      I recall “The Joe Louis Story” a 50’s bio movie with Coley Wallace. Didn’t do justice to the ‘Brown Bomber’. I know my Dad was disappointed with the film.

      Elva, yes my Dad was movie star handsome. In those years, we didn’t have a mainstream Black movie star. My Dad would’ve been great as an action star and romantic lead. He certainly impressed my Mom when they were young with stars in their eyes. Mom also was quite the “looker”.

      Like

  2. I hated boxing but it was huge in our house and I learned the name of all the boxers. Oh to be a fly on the wall and see the look on your father’s face when you presented him with his present. Yeah, pretty special, Garry. Very thoughtful too!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I believe you and your father shared a rare thing – a closeness of family. Too often the boys in a family are at odds with their father. Maybe a rite of passage for the young male or something? This was touching and brought a small tear to my eye. I’m missing my own father, who did not ‘do’ sports – due to his childhood polio making him too slow to participate. And it reminds me of hubby who was a boxing fan – I saw many a fight and grew to know the greats of the 1990s and early 2000s. I privately thought how brutal the whole thing was and after the news about Cassius Clay’s dementia (traumatic brain injury related, at least in part), I wonder how many of those men bashing each other ended up the same way. Thanks Garry for giving your readers a peek at your story. It’s wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Melanie, this was an easy one to write. My two finger typing style barely keeping pace as my brain dictated the story.
      I am glad Boxing served as a bond between my Dad and me. He was a quiet, reserved man who didn’t show much outward emotion over the years. Boxing was the key that unlocked the emotional door for us.
      That moment when I presented the painting to him — still ranks as one of the emotional highs in my life.

      Like

Talk to me!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.