Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Book Review: The Sweet Science by AJ Liebling | Part 7 (Ahab and Nemesis)

Book Review: The Sweet Science* by AJ Liebling | Part 7 (Ahab and Nemesis)

(*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?)

"There is still a kick in style, and tradition carries a nasty wallop."

This final grouping of essays is not a group at all, but instead a single stand-alone entry entitled, as you've already read, Ahab and Nemesis. Here, an ideological line is drawn between Eganite and Brounian adherents. (Heywood Broun, a new addition, is introduced as "A writer not primarily remembered as a boxing writer.") On opposing sides of this line, each writer stands with his champion. Egan (Liebling) with Marciano, and Broun with Archie Moore.

Moore is presented as Ahab and Marciano as, well, "Would Ahab have been content merely to go the distance with the great White Whale?" Then, it's time for the September 21, 1955 showdown and all familiar-by-now parties come out one last time to take a bow with nary a curtsey in the house. The bout result reads, in essence, "What would Moby Dick be if Ahab had succeeded? Just another fish story."

Marciano started hard, Moore started tactfully, and the 'basically anti-intellectual crowd' stood securely backing the former. You'll see this today, and most likely you'd have seen it during the time of Pierce Egan as well. Boring is an ongoing pejorative hurled at, say, Devin Haney right now as he jabs, clinches... wins. For the life of me, I believe that the predominant amount of self-identifying fight fans are just that--not boxing fans. They are not fans of the Sweet Science of shoulder rolls, shifts, and the lovely sometimes dirty little things.

Of note, Moore found some success in the fifth stanza of their bout by doing what sounds much like the Rope-a-dope routine Ali would make famous in a future-from-then heroic cycle. Nevertheless, Rocky took it by TKO in the ninth over the aged Archie in their decidedly not just another fish story. Marciano at 32 wasn't terribly young but the 39 years of Moore saw more miles in the rearview by a far stretch.

Back to this entry's particulars. It shows all the best of Liebling in a quite concise manner. Interestingly, while it is the perfect ending to this book, it also could have served as the perfect beginning. Equal parts culmination and impetus. Cyclical, see. As an introduction, this piece would have set the table in perhaps a better way than it was--although allowing the collection to unfurl as it did is a just as nice and more 'organic' way of meeting its author.

In fact, it does quite literally end at the beginning--at least of boxing at Yankee Stadium circa 1923, a card which Liebling attended, and post-Moby-Dick reminisces on over an onion roll enveloping a stupendously Wasp-sounding smoked salmon instead of lox schmear. (Speaking of nuances, I did so appreciate the image of a 'shredded-latakia mustache.') Nevertheless, he proves to himself that the world isn't going backwards via comparing Dempsey to Marciano and maybe also proves himself charmingly unaware of his own cycle.

Or, more than likely, as an Eganian of 'historical' proportions, continues it all with a wink, nod, and out-stretched arm sadly and mainly left currently (& for a good time now) ungrabbed. I bet he knew this was a distinct possibility in terms of outcome--which would explain the circular closed-off-ness of this superb book. Let someone fight their way in, and if not, let the snake eats its own tail. Sure, the anti-intellectuals seem to have now won, but remember the shape of things and take heart.

A somewhat superfluous thought on Time which to chew on comes to my mind via a recent conversation I had with a priest. As a child, he worked out the shape of Time as a spiral. I like that. I like, particularly, how he spun his finger in a way that showed he was that child again as he explained it to me as a much older man. Plus, his church offers up fantastic food, the most recent offering being a biscuits and gravy extravaganza replete with bacon and eggs.

Finally, and of perhaps paramount note, let's rest a spell on the side L takes via Egan... that somewhat surprisingly of the rather vulgar Marciano. This is precisely why each is the preeminent boxing scribe of their respective generation. Namely, their ability to use heightened language to communicate the sport's inherent brutality. Sure, it could become an at-times clumsy endeavor but it's of utmost importance, as is this book, which is a beautiful rendering of pure and sometimes impotent barbarism.

You can just call Liebling Ishmael.

::: very :::

Previously: Book Review: The Sweet Science by AJ Liebling | Part 6 (Other Fronts, pt. 2)

Next: FIN.