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Sweet Science [Paperback]

A J Liebling
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Book Description

Sept. 9 2004
A.J. Liebling's classic New Yorker pieces on the "sweet science of bruising" bring vividly to life the boxing world as it once was. It depicts the great events of boxing's American heyday: Sugar Ray Robinson's dramatic comeback, Rocky Marciano's rise to prominence, Joe Louis's unfortunate decline. Liebling never fails to find the human story behind the fight, and he evokes the atmosphere in the arena as distinctly as he does the goings-on in the ring--a combination that prompted Sports Illustrated to name The Sweet Science the best American sports book of all time.

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About the Author

A. J. Liebling joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1935 and wrote for the magazine until his death in 1963. Robert Anasi is the author of The Gloves.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Sweet Science
The Big Fellows
Boxing with the Naked Eye
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. Another fighter like that was the late Marcel Cerdan, whom I would coach in his own language, to prevent opposition seconds from picking up our signals. "Vas-y, Marcel!" I used to shout, and Marcel always y allait. I get a feeling of participation that way that I don't in front of a television screen. I could yell, of course, but I would know that if my suggestion was adopted, it would be by the merest coincidence.
Besides, when you go to a fight, the boxers aren't the only ones you want to be heard by. 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 theprincipal you are advising. This disparagement is less generally addressed to the man himself (as "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 much matter whether or not the man has been hit in the eye; he will be. Addressing yourself to the fighter when you want somebody else to hear you is a parliamentary device, like "Mr. Chairman ..." Before television, a prize-fight was to a New Yorker the nearest equivalent to the New England town meeting. It taught a man to think on his seat.
Less malignant than rooters for the wrong man, but almost as disquieting, are those who are on the right side but tactically unsound. At a moment when you have steered your boxer to a safe lead on points but can see the other fellow is still dangerous, one of these maniacs will encourage recklessness. "Finish the jerk, Harry!" he will sing out. "Stop holding him up! Don't lose him!" But you, knowing the enemy is a puncher, protect your client's interests. "Move to your left, Harry!" you call. "Keep moving! Keep moving! Don't let him set!" I sometimes finish a fight like that in a cold sweat.
If you go to a fight with a friend, you can keep up unilateral conversations on two vocal levels--one at the top of your voice, directed at your fighter, and the other a running expertise nominally aimed at your companion but loud enough to reach a modest fifteen feet in each direction. "Reminds me of Panama Al Brown," you may say as a new fighter enters the ring. "He wasfive feet eleven and weighed a hundred and eighteen pounds. This fellow may be about forty pounds heavier and a couple of inches shorter, but he's got the same kind of neck. I saw Brown box a fellow named Mascart in Paris in 1927. Guy stood up in the top gallery and threw an apple and hit Brown right on the top of the head. The whole house started yelling, 'Finish him, Mascart! He's groggy!'" Then, as the bout begins, "Boxes like Al, too, except this fellow's a southpaw." If he wins, you say, "I told you he reminded me of Al Brown," and if he loses, "Well, well, I guess he's no Al Brown. They don't make fighters like Al any more." This identifies you as a man who (a) has been in Paris, (b) has been going to fights for a long time, and (c) therefore enjoys what the fellows who write for quarterlies call a frame of reference.
It may be argued that this doesn't get you anywhere, but it at least constitutes what a man I once met named Thomas S. Matthews called communication. Mr. Matthews, who was the editor of Time, said that the most important thing in journalism is not reporting but communication. "What are you going to communicate?" I asked him. "The most important thing," he said, "is the man on one end of the circuit saying 'My God, I'm alive! You're alive!' and the fellow on the other end, receiving his message, saying 'My God, you're right! We're both alive!'" I still think it is a hell of a way to run a news magazine, but it is a good reason for going to fights in person. Television, if unchecked, may carry us back to a pre-tribal state of social development, when the family was the largest conversational unit.
Fights are also a great place for adding to your repertory of witty sayings. I shall not forget my adolescent delight when I first heard a fight fan yell, "I hope youse bot' gets knocked out!" I thought he had made it up, although I found out later it was a cliche. It is a formula adaptable to an endless variety of situations outside the ring. The only trouble with it is it neverworks out. The place where I first heard the line was Bill Brown's, a fight club in a big shed behind a trolley station in Far Rockaway.
On another night there, the time for the main bout arrived and one of the principals hadn't. The other fighter sat in the ring, a bantamweight with a face like a well-worn coin, and the fans stamped in cadence and whistled and yelled for their money back. It was thirty years before television, but there were only a couple of hundred men on hand. The preliminary fights had been terrible. The little fighter kept looking at his hands, which were resting on his knees in cracked boxing gloves, and every now and then he would spit on the mat and rub the spittle into the canvas with one of his scuffed ring shoes. The longer he waited, the more frequently he spat, and I presumed he was worrying about the money he was supposed to get; it wouldn't be more than fifty dollars with a house that size, even if the other man turned up. He had come there from some remote place like West or East New York, and he may have been thinking about the last train home on the Long Island Railroad, too. Finally, the other bantamweight got there, looking out of breath and flustered. He had lost his way on the railroad--changed to the wrong train at Jamaica and had to go back there and start over. The crowd booed so loud that he looked embarrassed. When the fight began, the fellow who had been waiting walked right into the new boy and knocked him down. He acted impatient. The tardy fellow got up and fought back gamely, but the one who had been waiting nailed him again, and the latecomer just about pulled up to one knee at the count of seven. He had been hit pretty hard, and you could see from his face that he was wondering whether to chuck it. Somebody in the crowd yelled out, "Hey, Hickey! You kept us all waiting! Why don't you stay around awhile?" So the fellow got up and caught for ten rounds and probably made the one who had come early miss his train. It's another formula with multipleapplications, and I think the man who said it that night in Far Rockaway did make it up.
Because of the way I feel about watching fights on television, I was highly pleased when I read, back in June, 1951, that the fifteen-round match between Joe Louis and Lee Savold, scheduled for June thirteenth at the Polo Grounds, was to be neither televised, except to eight theater audiences in places like Pittsburgh and Albany, nor broadcast over the radio. I hadn't seen Louis with the naked eye since we shook hands in a pub in London in 1944. He had fought often since then, and I had seen his two bouts with Jersey Joe Walcott on television, but there hadn't been any fun in it. Those had been held in public places, naturally, and I could have gone, but television gives you so plausible an adumbration of a fight, for nothing, that you feel it would be extravagant to pay your way in. It is like the potato, which is only a succedaneum for something decent to eat but which, once introduced into Ireland, proved so cheap that the peasants gave up their grain-and-meat diet in favor of it. After that, the landlords let them keep just enough money to buy potatoes. William Cobbett, a great Englishman, said that he would sack any workmen of his he caught eating one of the cursed things, because as soon as potatoes appeared anywhere they brought down the standard of eating. I sometimes think of Cobbett on my way home from the races, looking at the television aerials on all the little houses between here and Belmont Park. As soon as I heard that the fight wouldn't be on the air, I determined to buy a ticket.
On the night of the thirteenth, a Wednesday, it rained, and on the next night it rained again, so on the evening of June fifteenth the promoters, the International Boxing Club, confronted by a night game at the Polo Grounds, transferred the fight to Madison Square Garden. The postponements upset a plan I hadhad to go to the fight with a friend, who had another date for the third night. But alone is a good way to go to a fight or the races, because you have more time to look around you, and you always get all the conversation you can use anyway. I went to the Garden box office early Friday afternoon and bought a ten-dollar seat in the side arena--the first tiers rising in back of the boxes, midway between Eighth and Ninth Avenues on the 49th Street side of the house. There was only a scattering of ticket buyers in the lobby, and the man at th...

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rare Gem Sept. 12 2006
As a boxing aficionado, I relished Liebling's "Sweet Science" because, unlike so much of today's boxing media coverage, Liebling told the story behind the fight (and the fight as well), without over-dramatization or sensationalizing, and let the moment speak for itself. A rare jewel for boxing fans, Liebling is a captivating and humorous storyteller, who layers eloquent and loquacious prose over the sweet and brutal sport.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Sweet Science May 27 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I Am still in the process of reading this book, so far it keeps me entertained more than I expected
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  27 reviews
52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must-Read Nov. 21 1999
By John Y. Liu - Published on
Sportswriting is generally shlock. But A.J. Liebling was no sportswriter. Perhaps the finest reporter ever, certainly one of The New Yorker's shining lights, Liebling wrote with equal grace on the swaggering cons of Broadway, his misspent youth in pre-war Paris, blood pooled in a landing craft off Omaha Beach, just about anything that caught his sharp eye and florid pen. And because Liebling wrote what he loved, he also wrote boxing. Whether he was at an obscure club fight or a marquee bout, Liebling never saw his subjects as muscled automata. His boxers were people, every fight a story, and the stories collected in the Sweet Science form a classic work of sport that no cigar-chewing sports hack ever tossed on a wire.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a terrific read March 5 2005
By artanis65 - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
When I first read this collection of essays about boxing, I thought I noticed a certain sameness about them. Most of the essays follow a pattern - Liebling visits the boxers while they're training, he goes to the bout and describes the fight in some detail, then leaves for home, or often for a bar and reflects on the fight. But the book is so good that immediately after finishing, I felt compelled to read it for a second time, and I noticed that each essay has its own theme, a slightly different and interesting take on the sport. Liebling was an expert on boxing history, and when he wrote these essays had been attending bouts for over thirty years. Often the essays feature names still familiar today - Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano. Liebling is erudite and opinionated. He sympathises with the older boxers, and prefers guile to raw punching power. He also dislikes television and cultivates a humourous disdain for fans who go to boxing matches only to be seen. He's the sort of fellow you would like to drink with in a bar because he's utterly fascinating.

The whimsical quality of some of his writing is apparent in the following excerpt, when he's describing how putting sparring partners on the preliminary card makes for bad fights: "Sparring partners are endowed with habitual consideration and forbearance, and they find it hard to change character. A kind of guild fellowship holds them together, and they pepper each other's elbows with merry abandon, grunting with pleasure like hippopotamuses in a beer vat." That's great writing.

A final note; this book is a window into an different world, the age just before television took hold, when many people still took their amusement outside their homes. Unfortunately, that world is gone, but you can explore it in this wonderful book.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Boxing as culture March 18 2006
By mojo_navigator - Published on
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When asked which is the best book on boxing ever written, anyone with any inclination towards the literary side of The Manly Art will instinctively site Liebling's classic collection of essays written in the early '50s collected in this volume. On the evidence here, I cannot dispute the consensus. Liebling gives you not a history or a list of profiles of boxers but an entire world and a culture. He captures the feel of going to a boxing match in the early '50s, the crowds, the managers, the trainers and assorted characters. The best thing you can say about a piece of literature is that it places you in the action, you can physically feel that you are there and present. I have read no other book on Boxing that accurately captures this the way Liebling does in The Sweet Science. He's also an accomplished and erudite writer, a highly cultured man who brings that cultural sensitvity to something often considered, by those ignorant of these things, to be base and low-brow.

The fighters themselves - Marciano, Moore, Sadler, Robinson, Patterson, Farr - come across less as legends and more as contemporary sportsmen. It seems incredible to me that once upon a time you could just buy a ticket and stroll into the Marciano-Moore fight! For me, that fight and many others was the stuff of mythology and yet Liebling succeeds in making it real and tangible.

Final note: anyone who after reading this feels an uncontrollable lust to acquire Pierce Egan's Boxiana volumes will be enthralled to know that there is a company in Canada, Nicol Island Publishing, who have published at least three of the total of five volumes. Unfortunately, Amazon does not seem to sell any of them.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rest In Peace;Floyd.... May 31 2006
By Brian Schiff - Published on
The late,great Floyd Patterson,who became the first heavyweight to regain the title after losing it,is as good a reason as any to name a book about boxing,'The Sweet Science'.In this particular case,'A.J. Liebling's masterpiece about boxing(mostly

in the fifties)was voted the best sports book ever, by Sports Illustrated.The incredibly colorful characters Liebling focuses on would be hard to beat by any writer in any field,even if he may not have gotten all of it right.For example,he seems to actually get along with Rocky Marciano's manager,Al Weill,even though evidence elsewhere suggests that Rocky may have retired to get away from him.And I think he resorted to cliche in describing Irish Billy Graham as as "good as a fighter can be without being a hell of a fighter"(p.250);Graham is a Hall of Famer who was robbed in a welterweight title fight against Kid Gavilan-and my (Jewish) uncle idolized him.But Liebling,who wrote on "serious subjects" for 'The New Yorker'and was an award winning war reporter, attended the first fight ever held in Yankee Stadium in 1923-and remained optimistic about the future through the lens of boxing,concludes,"I reflected with satisfaction that old Ahab(Archie)Moore could have whipped all four principals on that card within 15 rounds,and that while (Jack)Dempsey may have been a great champion,he had less to beat than Marciano.I felt the satisfaction because it proved that the world isn't going backward,if you can just stay young enough to remember what it was rewally like when you were really young."
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Sports Writing Feb. 16 2006
By The Ginger Man - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Even if you have limited interest in boxing, as do I, Liebling's book is valuable for it's clarity, brilliant character studies and evocation of the dusty corners of an America a short time gone, but a long time past. Fights come alive between real people who seem distracted and confused as often as competitive and driven. The steady but laconic approach of Marciano contrasts with the skilled but overmatched class of Archie Moore. Fights are watched by roomfuls of men smoking and wearing snap brim hats. There is no media aside from Liebling, the ultimate insider, comparing what he sees to his favorite reportage of English fights from the prior century.

I would read more from the same author. This is stylish writing, great sports journalism and an invitation to post-war American boxing. I would rank this with the best of Angell on baseball.
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