Monday, October 3, 2022

Book Review: The Sweet Science by AJ Liebling | Part 2 (The Big Fellows)

Book Review: The Sweet Science* by AJ Liebling | Part 2 (The Big Fellows) Boxing with the Naked Eye | Broken Fighter Arrives

(*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?)

Here we have a pair of essays that bridge a pair of what Liebling terms 'heroic cycles.' The Bridge's name is Joe Louis and he's also at the forefront of the going-out, while Rocky Marciano plays the role of the coming-in. We are only privy here to a prime Louis via retrospect. In the first tale he defeats an almost as done Lee Savold and in the next, he falls victim to a Marciano who has yet to hit his zenith. Together, it all makes for quite the snapshot in time and is developed supremely well.

In speaking of Louis's prime, and as such his 11-year reign which included his infamous run through the 'Bum of the Month Club,' I feel it's important to note that those opponents weren't all helpless nor hapless cans. There were plenty of fighters who were ranked in the top ten in and around the times they squared-off. Five of them were of that ranking in the year in which the fight took place. Galento walked in as a number two, and Pastor a number three, for instance. Sure, some weren't at the top of their game but Liebling explained why already, and I make mention of that in part 1 of this series**.

Also, the Lee Savold bout that Liebling comments on and into which I'll soon somewhat delve is in 1951, a decade after the Bum period, which itself lasted all of from 1939 January to 1941 May. See, it was much about the frequency of defenses, as well. But all that isn't at all where we begin in Boxing with the Naked Eye, two years removed from The Brown Bomber being champ. We instead begin with a continuation of thought first brought up in the introduction--that being screw TV, dammit. Here, it's done comedically (although much of this is) and in a more say earthy language.

At the end of it all, his gripe with the boob tube would seem to at least be partly-based on his personal longing to be in communion with the fighters. To be an inside man and to tell those tales only an inside man could tell. However, he does stay tethered nobly and again well-comedically, to his own fandom. A thought: AJL means this as a continuation of Pierce Egan's work. As such, I think he well might have mentioned that work less, to better achieve the sought-after effect. Although it is charming, his fawning-over of his self-assigned mentor.

This work reads as a love letter to that [Egan's] work in many ways. On account of that, though, more-so than a running with the baton. Perhaps Liebling remains eternally a fan, and that is quite well and good. An enthusiast for the ages, agelessly.

In Naked Eye, he tells of meeting Louis in a London pub, 1944. Quite the insider. But the essay itself is about seeing an aged Louis via a purchased out-of-pocket ticket, sitting in the audience. There is also the community of fans then, which Liebling seems to view as a double-edged sword at times. But one bit stands out, as his cabbie home asks who won, Louis or Savold. "If there had been television, or even radio, he would have known about everything, and I wouldn't have had the fun of telling him."

What Liebling says of the bout itself is that Louis was by then balding and stiff-legged. That Savold rocked him in the fifth, or at least well-got his attention to maybe the point of some concern; although in the next round, Louis finished him. AJL seems wanting to make the fight seem more difficult, or more even. In looking at other sources (BoxRec) there is first a quite bloodied Savold to be seen, a thing which Liebling doesn't share. The Associated Press deemed it "A one-sided battle," and also Louis was the 2-1 favorite at the bell.

I believe Liebling's perceived pre-bout apprehension as well as fight commentary wasn't at all poorly done, to be clear. I feel as though he in turn felt that it wasn't just Louis vs. Savold, but also time itself. Actually, he pretty much says that, so no great revelation is made there by myself, you're welcome. With that in mind, though, it feels like AJL is penning the coming of the end more-so than covering the fight itself, and to be honest--that is infinitely more interesting. Although again no splendid revelation, and you are again most welcome.

A bit disjointed is that conversation with the cabbie, it starts twice, really. AJL tells the guy that the champ looked good and then is asked if the fight was over. Why would Liebling have hung around to gauge the champ's wherewithal but not the finish? Although many real-life conversations are inherently odd--or is that just my personal experience? About that end--it tolls for Louis in the next essay of this two-essay segment, Broken Fighter Arrives. Wherein the role of bell-ringer is played by Rocky Marciano...

& a new heroic cycle begins. Marciano is raw here but inevitable. Inevitable. Time is that, and we start here with a relieved Liebling, still in the afterglow of Louis's defeat of Savold. "As long as Joe could get by, I felt, I had a link with an era when we were both a lot younger." Funny, though, how Liebling makes it feel that maybe the Marciano fight occurred hot on Savold's heels. Louis, in fact, defended his unofficial crown two times twixt. Once against Brion, once against Bivins, each going the UD 10 distance. Poor unaccepted Ezzard Charles.

[As to the actual time lapse between Savold and Marciano, it was in all fairness, a mere four months. I spoke earlier of frequency in a younger Bomber. 1951's well-aged version fought eight times in that year. Savold was the fifth.]

Liebling says that Louis was the people's champ of sorts clear up to 1951 and Marciano, but he well-expands his actual reign at each end. In truth, and I don't know if Liebling knew, but I imagine he did--Joe Louis would most likely have hung them up by at least Savold, if not for being dogged by the IRS. But is Louis the Broken Fighter of arrival? (Broken meaning broke, as explained in the text.) No, that would be the inevitable Marciano, natch. "...short for a heavyweight, and wide, with short, thick arms." Not, as noted, the build of a 'clever boxer.'

In the first essay, or really, the first part of this essay, Liebling played fan. Here, he visits the camp of each combatant, both Louis, and Marciano. "The camp, like Louis himself, was essentially the same but much older-looking." There at the camp, he talks with the aged legend of their time in London. A haunting bit is offered when Louis tells him of going up on a roof to watch an air raid. "The tracers were the most beautiful thing I ever saw." We are told then that his jab still looked sweet and he looked younger in a cap.

The word from Marciano's camp is, from legendary trainer Charlie Goldman's mouth, that "He's still six months--maybe a year--away. But whether he beats Louis or not, he's going to be a lot better next summer." So the once and eternal great Joe Louis, is relegated to gatekeeper, to performance-enhancer, to daresay jobber. Then Liebling returns to his exact-same Savold seat at Madison Square Garden on fight night and thus returns to his fandom. Where he hopes, of course, to see Louis get by one more time.

"A tall, ash-blond woman near me was saying, 'I hate him! I hate him! I think he's the most horrible thing I've ever seen!'" That, of The Brockton Blockbuster, who looked much the part of one who busts things with great natural aptitude and efficiency. That was before the bell was even rung. The lady, Liebling, and many others were in for quite a bad time. The great Sugar Ray Robinson plays a cameo role, inching closer and closer to the ring as Louis is more and more battered by Marciano. Come the eighth, as Rocky knocks Joe through the ropes, Sugar has his hand on them.

"You want to look out for them broken fighters." Says Al Weill, Marciano's manager, in the aftermath.

It strikes me throughout that AJ Liebling would be a historian much more prone to contributing to the New, rather than Old Testament. It's a looser history, see, and somehow ultimately the only appropriate choice for the subject matter. I'm talking of style, not religion, to be clear. That said, I would recommend accompanying this book with another more dry take on the time, as these essays thus far are written for plugged-in fans of then.

Previously: **Part 1 (Introduction)
Next: Part 3 (The Melting Middleweight)

::: very :::

Online sources for this article: Wikipedia (Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano) and BoxRec (Joe Louis vs. Lee Savold).