I’ve never considered myself a boxing fan. Outside of what I’ve seen in the Rocky movies, there isn’t a whole lot I know about the sport. And yet here I am with an unfamiliar desire to sit in the stands with a crowd, and a box of over-buttered popcorn, and see a boxing match for myself. And it’s entirely A.J. Liebling’s fault.
I knew nothing of Liebling until last spring when I read Assignment To Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A. J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay. It was my favorite book of 2017. Then, in the fall, I came across Modern Library’s list of the top 100 nonfiction books. I scoured the list to see what I had ready, and there, in the midst of some remarkable nonfiction titles like The Education of Henry Adams, Black Boy, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb (all of which I have read) was The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling.
I looked up the book and learned it was a collection of essays that Liebling, a lifelong boxing fan, had written on the sport. I had no idea what the book might be like. Could essays on boxing be interesting? I decided to give the book a chance. I’m glad I did.
The essays were written in the 1950s. Television was beginning to creep into American life, and Liebling was openly resentful. In the essays that followed, I understood why. Television dealt a knock-out blow to the sport as it had been for several centuries. Liebling wrote about boxing the way the best baseball writers write about baseball. The sport is background. It’s the people who make up the sport that make it interesting. And Liebling’s essay made boxing seem fascinating.
He described the sport outside the ring. It was in small, sweaty gyms, where real names had long been forgotten in place of nicknames. He captured the language of the sport, as rich as baseballs, and so pervasive that there are websites that list the many (50+) common phrases we use today whose etymologies can be traced to boxing. In Liebling’s essays, the action in the ring was postscript, or perhaps parenthetical. He brought the sport to life in a way that seeing it on TV never did for me.
Reading Liebling’s essays, I felt like he was my companion–or I his. I followed him to gyms, climbed into weary cabs and listened to him chat to the equally weary cab drivers about the fight that had just taken place. I went with him to bars and taverns, and to Madison Square Garden and now and then, I watched a fight with him.
It impressed and saddened me. Sportswriting has changed so much since Liebling’s day. This is as true for baseball as I imagine it is for boxing. Shorter attention spans require more glamour. Writers write about the rich lifestyle of quarterbacks, and starting pitchers, and the airplanes that boxers own. But Liebling wrote about people and the kind of symbiotic relationship they had with the sport. The people were the sport. One could not be separated from the other. Red Smith wrote this way. Roger Angell wrote this way. While I can’t say that no one is writing sports this way today, I’ve been hard-pressed to find it.
Maybe it isn’t the writing that has changed so much as the sports. Or the writers writing about the sports. Maybe there’s no longer an audience. Television, Liebling would say in disgust. There was something that A.J. Liebling could do in a few thousand words that captured the heart of boxing in the way a well-trained photography captures the perfect moment in time in single photo. In his essays, I could see everything that boxing ever was, and everything that it ever would be.