The Sweet Science
Boxing and Boxiana — A Ringside View
by A. J. Liebling

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Viking, New York; 1956
306 pages

included in —

The Sweet Science & Other Writings
Library of America, New York, 2009

August 2009


Watching a fight on television has always seemed to me a poor substitute for being there. For one thing, you can't tell the fighters what to do. 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 in such cases I assume that he hasn't heard my counsel, or that his opponent has, and has acted on it.

Some fighters hear better and are more suggestible than others — for example, the pre-television 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.

A sweet punch of a book

Why would a fellow who's not much of a fan or follower of boxing recommend a book about it? Let me tell you a bit about where I'm coming from on the subject, and then some things about this book and why they impress me.

When I was a teenager, my father took me to several Golden Gloves amateur boxing matches. A change of pace from our usual activities, and another slice of familiarization for me. I found them interesting but no more, and they engendered no desire at all to emulate such sportful pummeling and being pummeled. I've also seen some professional prize-fights on television, but scarcely enough to discern any science in the fighting.

So on to The Sweet Science: Boxing and Boxiana — A Ringside View. A. J. Liebling is one of the golden names of the old New Yorker magazine whom my father loved to read and quote from. Without my father long ago urging me to read some of Liebling's justly famous humor pieces, I might never have ventured a seat at the ringside of The Sweet Science. I'm glad I did.

First let's notice the writing. A. J. Liebling is an excellent stylist. His prose is thoughtful and clear, with touches of erudition or wit where appropriate. He loves the colorful jargon of boxing, of the fighters and managers and the live-audience fans, black and white, street-educated or scarcely articulate. Liebling found Pierce Egan's detailed contemporary accounts of British boxing in the early Nineteenth Century, and quotes often from Egan's evocative and frequently humorous Boxiana volumes, giving depth to the lineage, the science, and the language of boxing.

Liebling is respectful of the boxing milieu and those who inhabit it. He brings the participants wonderfully alive on the page, from great names of the ring — a little of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, substantially more of Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore — but mostly guys you probably never have heard of: slowly descending or confidently ascending fighters, their hopeful managers and patient trainers, training-camp and sports-saloon habitues, occasionally even extending to cab-drivers and other reporters.

Cabbies and ushers, yes: because Liebling doesn't just report boxing matches, he goes to them: buying a ticket to Madison Square Garden, perhaps dropping by a boxer's hotel before the fight, sitting near ringside with other loudly-advising partisans, and walking afterwards to a dedicated saloon like the Neutral Corner in New York. We've evolved into an era of ubiquitous television, where live audiences are less the fans and enthusiasts who experience the event and share it with fellow devotees, than a studio audience with canned applause that the producers need for televised verisimilitude. The prize-fights that Liebling describes are mostly of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and he must have been among the earliest to understand how nationally televised clashes of stars were wiping out local live events of asteroids and proto-stars. Significantly for prize-fighting, the demise of the local fight clubs means that amateurs almost have to vault into the big time, without the years of development that newcomers underwent formerly. Liebling makes it clear that the traditional setup was healthier for the fighters, more fun for the fans, and vital for the depth of the sport.

Alternatives to violent learning

A. J. Liebling himself boxed as an amateur when young, so he has a participant's empathy for hitting and being hit, and a practitioner's eye for what swings and punches work for a fighter, and why or why not they're not working for him in a particular fight or a particular round. He discusses technique in enough detail but not overbearingly, so the reader with little or no background (like me) can follow easily and enjoyably through the manager's office, the gym or training camp, the fight itself, and the after-talk.

A training-camp sparring practice for a smart and expert champion, Archie Moore:

Our traveling companion, Daniels, was his first opponent, but it never looked like competition. There was nothing flashy about Moore's style — no superfluous bounce or glide, none of the whacking combinations of socks in the ribs to which some headline fighters treat their sparring partners. He wasn't elusive in the phantom manner, he was a prestidigitator. He picked off punches with his hands, forearms, and elbows, usually as they started, and hit as he willed, moving his man around without shoving him, simply by feinting and keeping him off balance. He himself moved within half-arm length as freely as if he were ten feet off. There was nothing vindictive or even mock-menacing about his expression; as a beginner he may have composed a "fighting face," but if so, he had discarded it years ago. ...

Three rounds aren't a severe test of stamina, and at the end Moore wasn't breathing hard. The boy was blown in one.

If boxing seems too violent or brutal a sport for you to enjoy reading about in detail, you might try pretending that The Sweet Science is a fist-fighting Western or men's-action novel, without much plot but great characterization and atmosphere.

As for doing violence to the mind: judging by the low standard of awareness developed in the schooled public, we may wonder if they are taught history from arcade games, psychology from television sitcoms, and civics from the telephone directory. Knockout, and down for the count. And while on the mental faculties of boxing, I quote an astounding anecdote from Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana in the compliation Mix Pictures of the Mind: the light of evening.

The Sweet Science is a masterpiece of popular-technical exposition, historical and thoughtful, empathetic and entertaining.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson


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