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Boxing Days

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It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.

The jab that crunched into my nose before I had my guard up was a fine lesson in the importance of being prepared, but it is not a fond memory. Getting punched rarely is. A. J. Liebling, however, treasured the blow he received from ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien, an American pugilist already in his prime when Liebling was born in 1904. Liebling saw the punch as a precious relic, linking him to O’Brien’s era and the eras before that. Just think of the greats who had punched O’Brien, the greats who had punched them and so on back in time. Liebling was proud to be part of such a passage of punches.

Abbot Joseph Liebling, who hated Abbot and went by the name of Joe, owed his affluent childhood of governesses and European travel to fur. His Austrian furrier father had turned the nothing he’d arrived with in New York in the 1880s into a fortune. Liebling was, according to one school, a ‘pudgy, precocious and intellectual’ boy. His career began at the Evening Bulletin in Providence, Rhode Island, but was interrupted in the summer of 1926 by a year of study at the Sorbonne, a gift from his father. This deepened Liebling’s Franco-philia, if not his knowledge of his chosen subject, medieval literature.

In 1935, at the age of 31, having drifted through several newspapers, he joined the New Yorker as a staff writer and never left. He enjoyed his near three decades there, writing about politics, the press, sport, gastronomy, con men and plenty more. A tribute recalled that ‘he could be heard humming and snorting with laughter as he pulled the sheets from his typewriter and read them over’. He earned the Légion d’honneur for his war reporting, landing under fire on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was also the most committed of gourmands. But much as I delight in reading about a Lie

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It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.

The jab that crunched into my nose before I had my guard up was a fine lesson in the importance of being prepared, but it is not a fond memory. Getting punched rarely is. A. J. Liebling, however, treasured the blow he received from ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien, an American pugilist already in his prime when Liebling was born in 1904. Liebling saw the punch as a precious relic, linking him to O’Brien’s era and the eras before that. Just think of the greats who had punched O’Brien, the greats who had punched them and so on back in time. Liebling was proud to be part of such a passage of punches.

Abbot Joseph Liebling, who hated Abbot and went by the name of Joe, owed his affluent childhood of governesses and European travel to fur. His Austrian furrier father had turned the nothing he’d arrived with in New York in the 1880s into a fortune. Liebling was, according to one school, a ‘pudgy, precocious and intellectual’ boy. His career began at the Evening Bulletin in Providence, Rhode Island, but was interrupted in the summer of 1926 by a year of study at the Sorbonne, a gift from his father. This deepened Liebling’s Franco-philia, if not his knowledge of his chosen subject, medieval literature. In 1935, at the age of 31, having drifted through several newspapers, he joined the New Yorker as a staff writer and never left. He enjoyed his near three decades there, writing about politics, the press, sport, gastronomy, con men and plenty more. A tribute recalled that ‘he could be heard humming and snorting with laughter as he pulled the sheets from his typewriter and read them over’. He earned the Légion d’honneur for his war reporting, landing under fire on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was also the most committed of gourmands. But much as I delight in reading about a Liebling lunch of a dozen oysters, a beef-marrow-coated steak and two portions of cassoulet, I really turn to Liebling for his book on boxing, perhaps the greatest on pugilism ever written. I am a civil servant who moonlights as a boxing writer, hopping from Whitehall meetings to York Hall beatings. When I first read Liebling, I was reporting on fights and feeling as if I was repeating old tales. The names and details might change but my characters and stories somehow stayed the same. The Sweet Science (1956), a collec­tion of Liebling’s essays on boxing written between 1951 and 1955, taught me to look beyond the main event. From a Chicago stadium to a ‘monster’ Dublin bus garage, Liebling follows the exploits of all-time greats, stolid journeymen and desperate no-hopers with enthusiasm and wit. Each essay is built around a single contest, but he uses that contest to report and reflect on a much wider world. Liebling’s United States was, as it remains today, the centre of the boxing world and American fighters ruled the sport. At the start of the 1950s, fewer than one in ten American households had a television; by the decade’s end, it was almost nine in ten. The boxing ring was a perfect fit for the small screen, and so a spectacle that had been for a few now became entertainment for millions. Liebling would not be surprised that one of my more rewarding interviews was with a fledgling fighter perched on a giant plant pot in Spitalfields Market, for he had taught me that an honest admission is more likely to be found away from the formality of the press con­ference. The best line Liebling ever got from a boxer was overheard in a Syracuse bar in 1955. Billy Graham was a veteran, with over a hundred bouts behind him. After a narrow defeat, he called his mother. ‘For such an old, ring-wise fellow,’ Liebling reports, ‘he sounded strangely like a small boy minimizing a bad school report . . . After listening to her for a bit, Graham said, “Oh sure. They’re all satisfied. They all said I made a good try, but I guess it wasn’t good enough.”’ He never fought again. For the most part, however, Liebling wasn’t interested in what boxers had to say. He knew well what I’ve learned painfully through hours of dull transcription: most boxers are skilled at delivering punches, but not at discussing the action. Instead, he sought out the company of the behind-the-scenes operators and gave their words more space than those of the stars. A manager steals the glory, an imposter in the first person as he claims his fighter’s exploits as his own – ‘Next time I’ll knock him out quicker’ – until of course his fighter loses. A matchmaker tells of how a heavyweight getting his first pay cheque is ‘like a tiger tasting blood’. Long hours are spent at The Neutral Corner, the chosen New York bar for those operators and for retired boxers ‘who favour a place where somebody is likely to recognize them’. You always find yourself in bars with Liebling because he wrote about his whole night out. Strolling up to Madison Square Garden, he marvels at the ‘men in shimmering gabardines and felt hats the colour of freshly unwrapped chewing gum, the women in spring suits and fur pieces’. He realizes that if he had watched the fight on TV he would have missed ‘the prettiest lot of women I had seen in a long time’. As I hunt for a beer between bouts at Greenwich’s O2 arena, I feel Liebling wouldn’t think much of that slick but soulless venue. I know, however, that he’d have smiled at the shiny suits, sharp skirts and staggering stilettos on show. Some of us reporters are scruffier than our predecessors, but among the fans the dress code lives on. Liebling was happier among the crowd than with the press. I lack his confidence to debate with fellow spectators who he felt were being loudly wrong. I do, however, share his faith in eavesdropping, knowing that the exclamations of excited punters can deliver colour that hardened hacks can’t match. Joe Louis was the most famous boxer in the world and an American icon, but by 1951 he was well past his best and fighting on only for the money. Liebling watches him get knocked out by the soon-to-be great Rocky Marciano and hears a woman sobbing. Her puzzled boyfriend tells her that ‘Rocky didn’t do anything wrong.’ The woman fires back: ‘You’re so cold. I hate you, too.’ There’s humour in their row: her seriousness, his con­fusion. But it also shows that however much we tell ourselves sport doesn’t matter, it hurts to see our heroes fall, and in boxing they fall hard. As a man who wrote about so much else Liebling never had to worry about being defined as ‘just a sportswriter’. But he had no doubts about the sport’s worth as a subject. He also knew that a sportswriter could and should do more than just record events, for boxing squeezes all of life into its rules and the ring, so a boxing writer is unlimited in his choice of subject. In describing a fighter’s development as ‘the growth of an artist’, he isn’t just claiming that boxers can be artists but also that sportswriters can write on art. That is a dizzying and thrilling claim for those of us who sometimes worry that we’re only writing about two men in bright shorts. Yet for all that Liebling wrote about scenes and ideas beyond the ring, a boxing writer must be judged on his performance between the ropes. Liebling himself earned his expertise through years of studious spectating and his images are evocative, wondrously improbable and very funny. Two battling boxers grunt with pleasure ‘like hippopota­muses in a beer vat’. A featherweight is built ‘like a bundle of loosely joined fishing poles, but they are apparently pickled bamboo’. A heavyweight sits down in his corner at the end of a difficult round ‘as heavily as suet pudding upon the unaccustomed gastric system’. Often, however, boxing isn’t funny. For glory, money and the roar of the crowd, boxers risk their health and sometimes their lives. I know the sport’s greatness, but I have moments when I wonder whether it ought to exist. I would have liked to ask Liebling how a man who so loved boxers could be seemingly untroubled by the moral compromise at boxing’s core. He jokily dismissed the dangers to the brain on the evidence of that ‘not particularly evasive boxer’ Ernest Hemingway winning the Nobel Prize. Describing a badly injured boxer looking ‘as though he had run into a nest of wild bees or fallen victim to instantaneous mumps’ may be funny, but it’s also cruel. If he had a moment’s uncertainty, it never comes out on the page. Perhaps the sport was too deep in his blood for that. Sitting in New York’s 167th Street cafeteria in 1955, drinking tea and eating ‘a smoked salmon sandwich on a soft onion roll’, Liebling weighs up the fighters of the past against those of the present. He declares with pleasure that the ‘world isn’t going backward if you can just stay young enough to remember what it was really like when you were really young’. It would be far easier to join the grumpy legions, shaking their heads while speaking with misty eyes of a mythical golden age. But Liebling stays young and sees with the same fresh eye and sense of wonder that he had when he first fell for the sport. ‘What would Moby Dick be if Ahab had succeeded? Just another fish story. The thing that is eternally diverting [about boxing] is the struggle of man against history – or what Albert Camus, who used to be an amateur middleweight, has called The Myth of Sisyphus.’ Liebling died eight years later, in 1963. He was only 59. The gour­mand life had given him joy but also ill health. I wish he’d had one more decade and been able to see Muhammad Ali in his prime.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Andrew Ryan 2022


About the contributor

Andrew Ryan is always in search of a ringside seat.

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