Originally published in 1956, Liebling’s The Sweet Science chronicles the bouts of top boxers from June 1951 to September 1955. The 2004 edition includes a forward by Robert Anasi. The book is organized into five main sections: The Big Fellows, The Melting Middleweight, The Big Fellows Again, Other Fronts, and Ahab and Nemesis. For example, The Big Fellows follows Joe Louis versus Lee Savold. The next section, The Melting Middleweight, begins with Sugar Ray Robinson and Randy Turpin.
Throughout the book, Liebling refers back to Pierce Egan, who coined the term “sweet science,” and his Boxiana from 1812: “Egan’s cockney characters, and his direct quotes of how they talked, were a gift to Dickens, who, like every boy in England, read the author of Boxiana.” Liebling quotes Eagan frequently enough to sate my current curiosity, saving me from hunting down the original 1812 Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism; from the days of Broughton and Slack to the Heroes of the Present Milling Era.
What makes the book interesting is not just the facts of history, but the lively, personal, conspiratorial voice. The reader follows Liebling scene by scene, down streets, in pubs, in cabs, in arenas and training camps, through discussions with trainers, fighters, observers. Each scene is dressed with real people and sensations of life: “Two seats at my left, which had been vacant all evening, were now occupied by a couple. The girl, a smashing blonde in a backless black evening dress, must have expected that she was going to sit out in ringside, where people could see her. A woman somewhere behind her said, but not to her, ‘I call that a vulgar way to dress.’ It seemed to cheer the blonde, but the man with her looked uncomfortable.” The prose here should be cherished not only for the historical chronicling of boxing, but for capturing the American cultural milieu of the early 1950s.
In addition to detailing a cultural landscape, Liebling infuses his prose with wit and humor: “There seemed to be some correlation between their eyesight and where they had placed their money.” A love of language and wordplay is clear: “One writer, reporting the victory, said Olson was a ‘burned-out hollow shell,’ which is like merging Pelion and Ossa, or Ford and General Motors, in the cliché business. He must have meant the shell of a broiled lobster after a shore dinner.” Tidbits such as the fact that Rocky Marciano’s last name is Marchegiano, Marciano “a contraction adopted for the convenience of fight announcers,” provide great nuggets of trivia. Some lines, like this description of Marciano, are just great lines: “He doesn’t verbalize his cockiness, but he has a kind of negative confidence, like a sleepy bulldog.”