Friday, September 23, 2022

Book Review: The Sweet Science by AJ Liebling | Part 1 (Introduction)

Book Review: The Sweet Science* by AJ Liebling | Part 1 (Introduction)

(*First published in 1956 by The Viking Press from collected The New Yorker writings. I am reading from a 2004 edition by North Point Press. SPOILERS AHEAD?)

I'll be the first to admit often skimming through or even, I'm now ashamed to say, entirely not at all reading many an Introduction. One of the things I most like about reviewing anything--be it a cigar, a book, or a bout, is that it always serves to focus my attention and thus bolster the likelihood of deeper enjoyment. You simply need to experience all a thing has, in order to weigh-in fully on what it brings. Sometimes and transversely, it also helps in formulating why it is I find something to be not so good at all. Good either way. A well-formed opinion, say--brought on by deeper immersion.

That said, we begin our journey and I suppose that within the Introduction of your own book is as good a place as any to set yourself in a favorable historical perspective. "... he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor..." is a fragment of a name-chain stretching via landed punches to noses all the way back to Jem Mace and all the way ahead to our own Mr. Liebling. It reads just a tick like the Book of Genesis' 'begats section.' Good to see that boxing scribes have always needed to provide some sort of street cred for whatever silly reason.

Perhaps a better way of explanation via religion of this linked history, for whatever silly reason, is the laying on of hands which allows priests and other clergies to act in persona Christi. This occurred first from Jesus to the Apostles and on-down. I understand it's all well-documented for quite a long time back from current. But I'm no theologian. Please run this all by a religious leader or leaders of your choice prior to propagating my quite likely lack of understanding. Also, insofar as the previously-mentioned street cred, I doubt Ring Lardner and his deformed foot tore up the baseball field all too often or effectively, although his passion for the sport and writing about it was certainly there.

That out of the way, we get to a pair of items I'd like to touch on and perhaps compare and maybe, if I'm feeling lucky or frisky even, contrast. Although, most likely I'll just squish it all together, hopefully turning a cutesy phrase along the way while deviating only tastefully-far from the intended path. Liebling clearly states that one item induces the other; "... the anticipated lean aesthetic period induced by television." But what does it all mean? I didn't know at first because much here is actually quite opaquely penned until further expounded upon, at least. He plants a seed, and you sow from between rows or something. Two good points, nonetheless and let's part the Red Sea then do away with further Good Book references.

Liebling writes of a time which is in the WWII draft-caused lull in competitive fighters. This, he states, allowed older boxers like the Joes Louis and Walcott to hang around longer than maybe they otherwise would've or daresay should've. An artificially elongated 'heroic cycle,' as he calls it. Somewhere twixt that lull and the emergence of Rocky Marciano the television age fully dawned and in dawning-so, nigh killed the club scene. A note as to the opaqueness--it's delivered in such a way as to stimulate thought and provide nuance. The somewhat stilted language employed oddly arrives at fun and entertains a decent frolic. Fancy a bloody row?

So that if I'm correct, the layered claim is that there was a severe drop in participants of the Sweet Science, meaning a probably even more-severe drop in great participants--and since nature abhors a vacuum we finally do get Marciano passed the torch as the dust settles--a hero ramped up beyond previous others on account of sheer living room exposure. The aforementioned dust settles on small, round TV screens all across the country, and also, like what nature abhors, this sucks (if you ask Liebling). I can see that. But it's not so cleanly what Liebling is saying and perhaps I'm looking into the abyss and seeing my own reflection, or the face of Rocky. Or...

What AJL does specifically say in regards to the idiot box (my descriptor, not his) is "... the clients of the television companies, by putting on a free boxing show almost every night of the week, have knocked out of business the hundreds of small-city and neighborhood boxing clubs where youngsters had a chance to learn their trade and journeymen to mature their skills." In other words, the talent is there but the necessary hardship just ain't. Kids (American ones) these days got it easy and whatnot. A bit of a tough sentiment to swallow in pill-form from a guy born into no small amount of Manhattanite money. But really, what happened is the audience grew and the participant shrank.

I digress now in the form of a tenuously connected tangent. (Which perhaps isn't truly a digression at all.)

I can also see the birth of many a fight fan at home in boxer-shorts and bathrobes yelling at the screen while older fans lamented their years going to cigar-clouded live shows in grey suits and ties. The hardcore traveling live fans must have thought this new breed to be quite lazy. Both under and over-educated and wielding more voice than was seen as to be fair. Meh. All I can say is that it's a fine thing for Liebling that he didn't live long enough to lay eyes on Boxing Twitter. I believe he felt much the same way in regards to the boob tube as many do in regards to 280-character internet experts. Or maybe the trespassers are all one-in-the-same, since time immemorial.

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So to refine this down, to distill it just one more again: slim pickings, TV needs a star, and Marciano presents as nature's fix? If that's the case trying to be made by AJL, it's a pretty tough one because of the simple fact photos exist of the fella. But he did fight in an exciting and fan-friendly style. Did I mention some of this book is opaque and allows one to wander? I say this lovingly as I often consider my own writings to be quite on-toward Delphic. There are unspoken layers to his writings methinks. Here, in The Sweet Science, it forces a fellow to sit down and read, much like when you throw a hook you want to do the same, sit down on it. Too many people are too mobile today, too transient. Thus they lack power.

Liebling's writing is not and does not. It's for and from a time and a place that we get to visit and take the nickel tour of from a man deep in the know. Speaking of men in the know, he does pay much love and tribute to Pierce Egan after saying he'd himself had stepped away from The Sweet Science for a while (back in '39) and then stating with a keen emphasis how and when Egan's own Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism; from the Days of Broughton and Slack to the Heroes of the present Milling Aera wound down in a seeming fizzling-out after a number of updated editions in 1828. It is made clear that each pen is sheathed due to the ennui of the environment, not the authors.

READ: New Kaplowitz Media. Boxing Series Announcement | A Look at "The Sweet Science" by AJ Liebling

"I can think of nothing more to say in favor of the Present Extension of the GREAT HISTORIAN'S Magnus Opus." And with that not-at-all humble announcement, that bit of intellectual bravado, AJ Liebling attempts to have Egan lay hands on him (or allow his mentor to punch him on the nose) and concludes this hello to all with a flourish from Paris, 1956. There is much here and too much to unpack all at once. Dense a bit, and two-bits opaque. I love it. Or perhaps I'm again falling victim to my own apophenia. Regardless, from the immediate start, one could rightly lament the current state of the boxing scribe as a vocation--and all the rest of the world it inhabits.

I do hope you'll be reading this book along with me.

Next: Pt. 2 (The Big Fellows)

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