WAIL! | The CBZ Journal | March 2005


Who's Hosin' Who?
Guest Editorial by Dan Hanley

Poem of the Month
By Tom Smario

Million Dollar Heist
By J.D. Vena

Flynn Outfoxes the Feds
By Robert Carson

Divorced but not Forgotten
By Ron Lipton

A Different Kind of Fight Night
By Ted Kluck

Touching Gloves With...
"Irish" Gil King

By Dan Hanley

A Look Back: Larry Boardman
By Dan Cuoco

The Sweet Science
Reviewed by Katherine Dunn

Cinderella Man [PDF]
By Michael DeLisa

The Good Professor [PDF]
By Don Cogswell

Flashback to the 2004 Hall of
Fame Inductions

Pictorial by Dan Hanley


'The Sweet Science,'
by A.J. Liebling

Reviewed by Katherine Dunn

Joe Liebling was a fat little guy who loved boxing. He was born in New York City in 1904 with his tongue in his cheek and spats on his feet. He never let his bankerish pinstriped heritage interfere with his love of a good joke, a good meal, or a good fight. Gifted with classical erudition and a taste for vulgar company, Liebling was expelled from Dartmouth College and fired by The New York Times before he parlayed his bohemian inclinations into a lengthy career writing for The New Yorker.

Before his death in 1963, Liebling produced about a dozen books of essays on topics ranging from caustic media criticism (it was Liebling who wrote, "Freedom of the press belongs to him who owns one"), to political vivisections, and war reports from the European and North African theaters of World War II.

But for one underground enclave of fanatics Liebling is more than distinguished. For many a fight fan he is a monarch of scholarship, the graceful historian and hilarious high priest of their peculiar passion. A.J. Liebling is a rollicking god among boxing writers.

Liebling was the most civilized man who ever put patent-leather pump to pavement and bloodied a friend's nose with tutorial intent. He was a boxing fan -- all humor and intelligent enthusiasm, with stabs of excruciating insight. He was a boxer of the white-collar fitness variety.  "The Sweet Science," he called it, or sometimes, "The Old Sweety." The reference is to the European tradition in which gentlemen were schooled in the "sciences" of sword, gun, and fistfighting. Fisticuffs, being the least lethal, was called "The Sweet Science." This volume consists of a series of essays that appeared in The New Yorker between June of 1951 and September of 1955.

Sports Illustrated dubbed The Sweet Science as "the best American sports book of all time" for good reason. These essays are not just reports of boxing matches. They are anthropological expeditions, human core samples, and hours spent in Liebling's diverting company. He conveys the flavor of the gyms, training camps, and arenas as well as the characters who inhabit them. His bent is discursive and the stories, or at least the punch lines, of significant fighters and trainers crop up in the process.

As Liebling's introduction explains: "There is as main theme the rise of Marciano, and the falls of everybody who fought him, and there are subplots, like the comeback of Sugar Ray after his downfall before Turpin, and his re-downfall before Maxim, but not his current re-comeback. There is some discussion of the television matter, and there are exploits of minor heroes like Sandy Saddler, the featherweight champion, and a lot of boys you never heard of. The characters who hold the book, and the whole fabric of the Sweet Science together, are the trainer-seconds, as in Egan's day."

Liebling's language uses its own portly dignity as a perpetually renewable joke. When strung up around the non-Ivy League types and topics of the ring world, it makes a happy dissonance not unlike Laurel and Hardy, or a Clydesdale in love with an alley cat. In this tone, The Sweet Science offers useful advice for the peripheral joys of the boxing fan. Liebling's strategies in getting taxis outside the arena when the fights are over, elbowing techniques for a closer approach to the ring or the bar when the crowd is thick, and how to stare down an interloper who insists that your seat is actually his, are ingenious as well as entertaining. But his rooting techniques as revealed in this volume are of particular interest to those who may find themselves ensconced in the folding chairs at what Liebling would call "the local fistic recitals."

"When I watch a fight, I like to study one boxer's problem, solve it, and then communicate my solution vocally. On occasion my advice is disregarded, as when I tell a man to stay away from the other fellow's left and he doesn't, but [...] some fighters hear better and are more suggestible than others. [...] For example, Joe Louis. 'Let him have it, Joe!' I would yell whenever I saw him fight, and sooner or later he would let the other fellow have it. [...] Besides, when you go to a fight you are surrounded by people whose ignorance of the ring is exceeded only by their unwillingness to face facts -- the sharpness of your boxer's punching, for instance. Such people may take it upon themselves to disparage the principle you are advising. This disparagement is less often addressed to the man himself (as in 'Gavilan, you're a bum!') than to his opponent, whom they have wrong-headedly picked to win. ('He's a cream puff, Miceli!' they may typically cry. 'He can't hurt you! He can't hurt nobody! Look -- slaps! Ha,ha!') They thus get at your man -- and by indirection, at you. To put them in their place you address neither them nor their man but your man. ('Get the other eye, Gavilan!' you cry.) This throws them off balance, because they haven't noticed anything the matter with either eye. Then, before they can think of anything to say, you thunder, "Look at that eye!" It doesn't matter whether or not the man has been hit in the eye; he will be."

It is typical of the sad state of American letters that The Sweet Science has actually been out of print since a brief comeback in the early 1980s and was unavailable for 20 years before that. The existing copies are treated with reverence. I have participated in the cautious sharing process in which a fragile paperback, wrapped in layers of plastic to ward off the damp, is tenderly delivered along with threats about what will happen to the borrower if any mishap befalls the precious relic.  Borrowing a fight fan's Liebling is a responsibility akin to baby-sitting a new Dalai Lama. Fortunately the shortage has now been remedied by the people at North Point Press, who have performed a major service by reissuing the book. The cover of this new paperback edition features a critical moment between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. The North Point version also provides a smart introduction by boxer and writer Robert Anasi. Explaining what Liebling is definitely NOT, Anasi lands verbal uppercuts on those who depict the sport as tragic metaphor, morality play or miniature Armageddon. "Liebling saw boxing as the pros do" writes Anasi, "a job, more difficult than most but also more rewarding."

In this timorous era, it's rare to find boxing dealt with as a genuine sport. The sparse elements of humor derive from cynical assessments of corruption or depravity. Liebling faced similar obstructions but persisted in enjoying the human comedy. Still, he was often driven to attack the prejudices against boxing that are promulgated by the ignorant and constipated. This is Liebling, the Defender of the Faith: "A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone. If he loses he cannot call an executive conference and throw off on a vice-president or the assistant sales manager. He is consequently resented by fractional characters who cannot survive outside an organization. A fighter's hostilities are not turned inward like a Sunday tennis player's. They come out naturally with his sweat, and when his job is done, he feels good because he has expressed himself. Chain-of-command types, to whom this is intolerable, try to rationalize their envy by proclaiming solicitude for the fighter's health. If a boxer, for example, ever went as batty as Nijinsky, all the wowsers in the world would be screaming "Punch-Drunk." Well, who hit Nijinsky? And why isn't there a campaign against ballet? It gives girls thick legs. If a novelist who lived exclusively on apple cores won the Nobel Prize, vegetarians would chorus that the repulsive nutrient had invigorated his brain. But when the prize goes to Ernest Hemingway, who has been a not particularly evasive boxer for years, no one rises to point out that the percussion has apparently stimulated his intellection. Albert Camus, the French probable for the Nobel, is an ex-boxer, too."

Liebling's most sustained joke is to refer to boxers as artists, to analyze their creative genius as well as their physical capacities, and to determine the power of the muse revealed in their various performances. On going to see Sugar Ray Robinson, he says, "I knew nothing of the opponent, but I felt confident that Robinson would interpret him in an interesting way."

The pugilistic artist as revealed may convince you that it's no joke at all -- or less than some wit dropping a load of gravel off a dump truck and claiming mystical inspiration for the act. In fact, Liebling may give us some good news about art and sports in the form of questions such as 'which is which?' And 'is there any difference?' Except that you have to murmur elegantly in a gallery while you are free to express yourself at full volume at a prizefight.

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