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July 06, 1999|LARRY STEWART

What: "The Sweet Science: Boxing in America"

Where: ESPN Classic, Friday, 5 p.m.

This one-hour documentary is about boxing, so it's on ESPN Classic. But it could just as easily be on the History Channel, because it's also about how the sport influenced life in America from the late 1800s through the first half of the 20th century, particularly for Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants.

It's a well-produced film for which a number of first- and second-generation boxers, plus writers and boxing experts, were interviewed. It's narrated by actor Joe Mantegna, a boxing fan and son of Italian immigrants.

This is the second in a series of "Sweet Science" historical boxing documentaries produced by ESPN Classic. The first, "Shadow Boxing: The Journey of the African American Fighter," was shown on ESPN Classic and ESPN2 in February.

Boxing historian Bert Sugar helps set the stage for the film when he says, "You must understand, boxing has always been the social staircase out of hard, hard surroundings. In America it's always had a reflection of the immigration wave."

From former New York governor Mario Cuomo: "People went into boxing because that was a way to make a living. They didn't go into it for thrills. And the immigrants came over--the [Jewish people], the Irish, the Italians--they all had exactly the same experience."

Footage that shows what life was like in the early part of the 20th century, plus boxing footage, add to the authenticity of the film. If there is a criticism, maybe there is too much time devoted to interviews and not enough to classic footage.

We learn that before the turn of the century, boxers were mostly anonymous, until the arrival of Irishman John L. Sullivan. He was America's first national sports hero. Babe Ruth came along years later.

Typical of the stories in the film is one told by Steve Farhood, boxing historian and former editor of KO magazine.

"Lou Ambers, born Luigi D'Ambrosio in Herkimer, N.Y., was Italian," Farhood says. "In reality, Ambers' parents didn't know he fought, and that's why he changed his name. He would box in the church basement Saturday night, unbeknownst to his parents, and then sing in the church choir Sunday morning."

A lot of boxers changed their names. Writer Pete Hamill, talking about a New York gym, says: "The phone would ring, a guy would pick it up and say, 'You want Kelly? You want the Irish Kelly or the Jewish Kelly?' "

Cuomo: "It was a poor-people's game. It still is, except now it's African Americans and Hispanics."

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