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Lord of the Ring : The Sweet Science, by A.J. Liebling. A Ringside View of Boxing

January 27, 1991|KATHERINE DUNN | Dunn is a boxing stringer for the Associated Press. Her most recent novel, "Geek Love" (Alfred A. Knopf/Warner), was a finalist for the 1989 National Book Award

A. J. Liebling was a fat little man who loved the fights. He was a gourmet as well as a gourmand, a wheezing but intrepid war correspondent and an acclaimed media critic. (It was Liebling who wrote, "Freedom of the press belongs to him who owns one.") But he was a rollicking god among boxing writers.

He was born to money in 1904 in New York City and soon displayed an inclination to drag his tailored suits and spats through every entertaining gutter he could find. His classical education added dimension to his taste for good jokes, good food and vulgar company. He was expelled from Dartmouth College and fired by the New York Times before he parlayed his bohemian inclinations into a lengthy career writing what his editors referred to as "low-life" topics for the hyper-respectable New Yorker.

During the first half of the 20th Century in America, boxing was, along with baseball, the fundamental spectator sport of the nation of individualists. Liebling learned to box as a child and continued to spar in urbane athletic clubs long after his girth outgrew his stamina.

Returning to New York from bloody years in the European and North African theaters of World War II, Liebling watched as free televised fights whittled away the audience for the live club boxing shows that had been a feature of every city in the country. Team sports such as football and basketball were steam-rolling the old mystique of the courageous loner, and fostering the cult of the pack animal. Simultaneously, the school of pencil-necked pacifism was recruiting heavily among the intelligentsia. Planting his irreverent tongue firmly in his cheek, Liebling sauntered into the fray on the side of individualism and the increasingly maligned sport of busted beaks.

This is Liebling, the Defender of the Faith: "A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone. If he loses he cannot call an executive conference and throw off on a vice-president or the assistant sales manager. He is consequently resented by fractional characters who cannot survive outside an organization.

"A fighter's hostilities are not turned inward. . . . They come out naturally with his sweat, and when his job is done he feels good because he has expressed himself. Chain-of-command types, to whom this is intolerable, try to rationalize their envy by proclaiming solicitude for the fighter's health. If a boxer, for example, ever went as batty as Nijinsky, all the wowsers in the world would be screaming 'Punch-Drunk.' Well, who hit Nijinsky? And why isn't there a campaign against ballet? It gives girls thick legs.

"If a novelist who lived exclusively on apple cores won the Nobel Prize, vegetarians would chorus that the repulsive nutrient had invigorated his brain. But when the prize goes to Ernest Hemingway, who has been a not particularly evasive boxer for years, no one rises to point out that the percussion has apparently stimulated his intellection. Albert Camus, the French probable for the Nobel, is an ex-boxer, too."

This polemic is part of the introduction to "The Sweet Science," the book that guaranteed Liebling a place in the hearts of boxing fans forever. The book is a valuable text for studying the sport. It is also, to borrow a phrase from the San Francisco Chronicle, "A hell of a piece of writing." Boxing has, because of its nature and the nature of writers, inspired more literature than any other sport or pastime, with the probable exceptions of love and war.

In all this heartfelt scribbling by Norman Mailer, Charles Dickens, Homer, Joyce Carol Oates and their ilk, it is my opinion that Liebling is the master, the one who understood the sport best and communicated its eccentric magnificence most convincingly. But we're not talking Dead Sea Scrolls or Shakespeare folios here. "The Sweet Science" is a collection of cheerful personal essays about going to boxing matches. These pieces all appeared in The New Yorker magazine between 1951 and 1956, when the book first was published. (Holtzman Press has a nice hardcover edition in print, while North Point Press has just issued "A Neutral Corner," a group of previously uncollected boxing columns, as part of its Liebling series.)

Each of the 18 essays in this volume recounts Liebling's personal trip to a boxing match. They include his pre-fight visits to the training camps of the dual opponents, and his preliminary judgments on the outcome. He takes us to the city and the arena where the match occurs, describes the traffic, his conversations with the cab drivers along the way, and any notable meals he may have absorbed in the process. He assesses the temper and allegiance of the audience, quotes the commentary from the bleachers, describes the bout in his eccentric manner, and discusses the aftermath.

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