BOOKS AND AUTHORS 'Sweet Science' Chronicler to Be Enshrined in Boxing Hall of Fame
Jun. 02, 1992
CANASTOTA, N.Y. (AP) _ In June 1951, A.J. Liebling was 46 years old. He was overweight and his joints ached with gout.
His editor at the New Yorker magazine, Harold Ross, deemed him to be too old to cover the Korean War, though Liebling's personal finances could have used the cash. He had written well about the con artists and characters of New York City and about World War II for the New Yorker, and his ''Wayward Press'' columns for the magazine were renowned.
Liebling knew he needed a new subject to train the powers of his formidable intellect and quirky, personalized writing style on. Suddenly, it came to him: boxing.
''It was the way you take a notion that you would like to see an old sweetheart, which is not always the kind of notion to act on,'' he recalled.
That Liebling did act on that moment of inspiration enriched American sportswriting, because between 1951 and 1963, when he died, Liebling produced what was arguably the best boxing writing of this century. This month, the author of the stories collected in the ''Sweet Science'' and a host of other boxing essays will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.
It is an honor Liebling probably would have been ambivalent about, said Fred Warner, who edited with James Barbour a collection of Liebling's boxing essays titled ''A Neutral Corner,'' which appeared in 1990.
''Liebling never saw himself as a sportswriter,'' said Warner. ''What he hated most of all were the cliches and jargon that journalists typically write with, especially sports writers. The sports page is the cemetery of the American language. ... Liebling wanted to strip away all the crap.''
Liebling brought to boxing a range of knowledge and a verve unknown to that time - or since - by those covering the fight game. He could write authoritatively about anything from medieval history to food, war to horse racing, Broadway to boxing. In addition to the ''Sweet Science,'' his books ranged from reminiscenses of war, ''The Road Back to Paris,'' to a study of the ill-fated Louisiana governor Earl Long, ''The Earl of Louisiana.''
''As a boxing writer, Liebling brought more to the party than anyone else,'' Barbour said. ''He had a fantastic range of experience, and he also had a fantastic sense of humanity.''
And he did it without mythologizing any fighter. He was fonder of some, like Archie Moore, than others. But they were all human beings to Liebling; worthy of respect for plying a dangerous trade, but not of idolatry.
Typically, Liebling's boxing stories ran to several pages in the New Yorker, and that freed him from the space constraints that daily newspaper writers were under. It gave him room to leisurely set the stage for a big fight, to recount his visits to the boxers' training camps, to discuss the pre-fight hype and expectations, to describe how the crowd looked and sounded.
Most importantly, it gave Liebling room to digress. At these moments, he was like a boxer stepping away from his opponent to display some crowd- pleasing footwork or blinding combinations.
''He'll be writing about the second round, and all of the sudden he'll go and start a discussion of medieval history or something,'' Warner said. ''But he'll always get back to the fight. And he wrote beautifully about the fighting itself.''
What mattered to Liebling, the observant but not always prescient fight fan, wasn't so much what happened in the ring as how it disturbed or confirmed his presumptions about the sport.
Thus, his shock when Swede Ingemar Johansson fought heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in Yankee Stadium in 1959. Liebling wondered why he had even bothered to show up on the rainy evening of the fight, so little did he think of Johansson's chances. Liebling used to like to buy seats to big matches instead of sitting in the ring-side seats provided by the promoters like most journalists do. All the better to hear and see the crowd, he said.
''I had scarcely settled into watching the (third) round, it seemed, when he (Patterson) came crashing down a yard or so in front of me, with a face as blank as that of a hypnotist's stooge,'' Liebling wrote in an essay which first appeared in the New Yorker and was reprinted in ''A Neutral Corner.''
The champion got up, but Johansson knocked him down five more times and won a stunning upset. Ruminating about the fight later, Liebling concluded that he had ignored signs pointing to Johansson's win.
''Ibn Khaldun, the immortal Tunisian historian, says that events often contradict the universal idea to which one would like them to conform, that analogies are inexact, and that experience is deceptive,'' Liebling wrote. ''This is particularly true of events of the prize ring, but, like a boxer deaf to sound advice from his corner, I sometimes fail to heed the precepts of the most astute of pedagogues.''