Boxing is an easy sport to write about, but a hard sport to write about well. It's easy because of the sheer elemental nature of the contest, as well as its apparent simplicity: Two men in an enclosed space test each other's endurance, courage, and skill by smashing each other with their fists until one goes down or the bell rings. But that same simplicity makes it hard to recognizeóand describeóthe genuine skill that professional boxing demands. And the sport readily lends itself to bathos, sentimentality, and overblown reflections on masculinity and violence. The result is that most writers take boxing too seriously, and yet not seriously enough.
Not A.J. Liebling. In The Sweet Scienceóa collection of the writer's boxing columns for the New Yorker that has now been brought back into print by North Point Press on the hundredth anniversary of his birthóLiebling hit all the right notes, blending a wised-up, unsentimental attitude toward the culture and business of prizefighting with a profound affection for and understanding of boxing as a craft. Liebling's a notoriously entertaining writer, and he was a great observer of human foibles and eccentricities, but he was also keenly alive to the exhilarating feeling of watching a thing done well. No other book captures as well as this one the enormous range of experience that boxing offers, from the low farce of an overmatched fighter waiting for an excuse to go to the canvas to the ferocious intensity of a genuinely contested title bout.
Although The Sweet Science is a collection of columns, it does have a certain narrative momentum, which centers on the ascension and reign of the heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano (the last heavyweight to retire undefeated). But the book's real coherence is thematic, as throughout, Liebling returns to his two abiding preoccupations: memory and craft. Not coincidentally, these are also the preoccupations of most sports fans, who spend an inordinate amount of time talking about how things are (and should be) done and a no less inordinate amount reminiscing about how things were done before. Patterns, echoes, resonances: This is what fans look for, consciously or unconsciously, as they watch a game or a fight. We're nostalgic before the event even occurs, and as soon as it happens we want to see it again. There's a reason instant replay was invented, after all.
Liebling, though, is concerned with memories that extend a bit further back than two minutes ago. He announces his interest with the book's famous beginning, in which he describes being punched by the elegant Philadelphia boxer Jack O'Brien, who in turn had been punched by the light-heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons, who had been punched by Gentleman Jim Corbett, and so on, the list, as it were, connecting him at last to the early-nineteenth-century boxer Jem Mace. As Liebling puts it, "The Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder." Liebling's fascination with the past is most explicit in his repeated citations from the work of Pierce Egan, the firstóand, in Liebling's mind, greatestóboxing writer, whose Boxiana is a remarkable chronicle of the age of bare-knuckle brawling. But it is also more subtly built into the structure of Liebling's pieces, which move seamlessly between present and past, memory and experience, often offering up flashbacks within flashbacks. Liebling turns the ring, in some sense, into a palimpsest, so that in watching the elder master Archie Moore fight Marciano you are also watching Moore fight the countless boxers he fought before Marciano, and vice versa. Without overstating it, it's hard not to think occasionally of Proust when reading Liebling.
For all his immersion in reverie, though, Liebling's writing is always fiercely attentive to the present. For many critics, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Liebling is his genius at capturing the world that surrounds the ring, the oddball characters who float in and out of the gyms and bars, the peculiar patois of the sport. This is all undoubtedly there, and it lends The Sweet Science much of its charm (as does Liebling's own persona, which is effortlessly winning). But what I was most struck by on re-reading The Sweet Science was how much of the book is devoted to what takes place in the ring, and to the work of boxing. For all of his flights back into boxiana, and his trips to the Neutral Corner bar, and his descriptions of his aislemates at the Garden, Liebling lavishes an enormous amount of attention on the fights themselves, and he does so in a surprisingly vivid way. In fact, I hadn't remembered how convincing and powerful a picture he paints of boxers as boxers, how much detail he gives about the way they punched and defended.Liebling was able to provide that detail because, while famously catholic in his interests (writing brilliantly about food, war, politics, and the press, in addition to sports), he knew boxing, and he was able to see what others might have missed. Just as important, he was able to let his readers see it as well. The truth is that Liebling was a great writer of action and movement. Take this simple description of Marciano's knockout of Jersey Joe Walcott, a legendary moment in prizefighting: "The punch was the antithesis of a roundhouse; it was a model of pugilistic concision. The newsreel film of the fight shows that both men started right leads for the head at the same moment. Walcott, the sharp, fast puncher, figured to get there first in such an exchange. But Marciano hit sharper, faster, and, according to old-timers, about as hard as anybody ever hit anybody. Walcott, the film shows, flowed down like flour out of a chute." And when Liebling writes that the punch "traveled at most twelve inches, straight across his chest to the champion's jaw," concision seems like exactly the right word.
The curious thing is that Liebling's voice is hardly deadpan or lean. Instead it is mock high, and overflowing with metaphors. One might think this would be incongruent with the stripped-down nature of the sport, but very soon it comes to seem exactly fitting. In part, this is because boxers and trainers themselves, at least in Liebling's day, often adopted a raffish, inflated way of talking. But more important, Liebling's voice is a way of striking a balance, of being serious without being solemn. And most of the time, he seems remarkably in control of his rhetorical flights. His voice in this book is reminiscent, in fact, of Bellow's in The Adventures of Augie March. In both cases, the language is rich with metaphors that seem not there for their own sake but because they actually let you see things more clearly. When Liebling describes Moore in perpetual motion against Marciano, ducking, slipping punches, hiding, and emerging to throw a right, as a "swimming walrus," you can see exactly how Moore moved.
This all works because Liebling had such a deep affection for the craftsman, the artisan, the person willing to invest his time and energy to learn what he does not know. The best characters in The Sweet Science are the trainers and seconds, people like Whitey Bimstein and Freddie Brown (to whom the book is dedicated), and some of the best moments are when they dissect the strengths and weaknesses of their own fighters. Ultimately trainers know better than anyone that there is no refuge for an athlete: If you are weak or flawed or do not work hard enough, eventually the game will expose you. And Liebling takes a kind of pleasure in that exposure, especially when it involves skill and knowledge triumphing over untutored youth and energy. One of the strangest characters in the book is a young boxer named Tommy Hurricane Jackson, who is a wonderful physical specimen but also, to put it bluntly, a knucklehead. Liebling is at once dismayed and fascinated by Jackson, because the boxer is so utterly without skill. It's not that Jackson is a slackeróin fact, given the chance, he will happily punch himself into exhaustion. It's that he will notóor cannotólearn. So when he fails, there is a sense that order has been, happily, restored.
By contrast, one of the best chapters in The Sweet Science is about a bout between two highly skilled but unknown boxers at a small venue in Queens. Liebling describes one of them as fighting a "savagely correct" fight, and in that phrase you can see a whole way of being in the world, a way that might be described succinctly as: A person is what he does. One of the striking things about The Sweet Science, especially to a modern reader, is how uninterested in psychology Liebling seems. He's interested in character, to be sure, and in things like fear and courage, but he writes about them from the outside in. (He owes more to the Greeks than to Freud.) Liebling's stories are like Hollywood movies before the introduction of Method acting. Eccentric as they are, his boxers are nonetheless resolutely non-neurotic. And if occasionally this leads Liebling astrayóhis take on the heavyweight Floyd Patterson, for instance, is not as interesting as the one Gay Talese would offer a few years laterómore often it works wonderfully, allowing him to keep his (and our) attention on what he called, with tongue only slightly in cheek, the "classical verities." At one point, he writes of two experienced cornermen that they "know what's all about it." But in the end, no one knew what was all about it more than Liebling did.
James Surowiecki is a business columnist for the New Yorker.