Friday 20 September 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Liebling's timely reminder that nostalgia needs perspective'

The Couch

'The Sweet Science - Boxing and Boxiana: A Ringside View was originally published in 1956. Liebling was by then a nationally prominent American journalist and author who among other adventures had covered the second World War in Africa and Europe, including the Normandy landings on D Day' (stock photo)
'The Sweet Science - Boxing and Boxiana: A Ringside View was originally published in 1956. Liebling was by then a nationally prominent American journalist and author who among other adventures had covered the second World War in Africa and Europe, including the Normandy landings on D Day' (stock photo)

Tommy Conlon

It was no great surprise to see that AJ Liebling would include in his classic book on boxing all-time champs such as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano.

It was a tad more surprising to see two venerable men of Irish newspapers and literature also fetch up in the same pages, namely John Healy and Benedict Kiely.

The Sweet Science - Boxing and Boxiana: A Ringside View was originally published in 1956. Liebling was by then a nationally prominent American journalist and author who among other adventures had covered the second World War in Africa and Europe, including the Normandy landings on D Day.

An avid fight fan since the 1920s, he explains in the introduction that he returned to writing about it in the 1950s, in the same 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." But act on it he did, producing a series of essays and reports for the New Yorker magazine which make up The Sweet Science anthology.

In 2002, Sports Illustrated compiled its top 100 sports books of all time. Liebling's came in at number one. The volume was re-published this year by Penguin Books as part of their Modern Classics series.

It was heavily influenced by the work of Pierce Egan, a London-Irish sportswriter and "shake-down man" who in the 1810s and 1820s published a series of periodicals under the umbrella term Boxiana. Egan is credited with minting that beloved phrase, "The sweet science" - a romantic appellation which 200 years later continues to perfume this frequently lurid milieu.

Liebling was no romantic. His style is not given to floral crescendos or purple homages to the heroes of the squared circle. His prose is littered with epigrams, wisecracks and one-liners. He is a vigilant eyewitness, a collector of detail, a watchful observer of the fighters, managers, trainers, corner men, journalists and fans who supply the pulp storylines for his immaculate reportage. He mingles with them, drinks with them, talks with them; he visits their training camps, their gymnasiums and dressing rooms, their saloons, cafés and hotels. He returns not just with news, but with sharp studies of their temperament, demeanour and disposition; their habits and humours, their way of talking and relating to other people. His psychological profiles include detailed physical descriptions which might be considered indelicate now but were commonplace then. In short, boxing is the portal through which he studies humanity.

He saw Joe Louis beat Max Baer at Yankee Stadium in September 1935. "There hadn't been anybody remotely like Louis since (Jack) Dempsey in the early twenties," he writes. In 1951, no longer heavyweight champion but still a revered figure, Louis is matched with a hungry opponent nine years younger - Marciano.

Liebling takes his place near ringside in Madison Square Garden on the night. "Marciano was bouncing on his thick legs and punching the air to warm up. A tall, ash-blonde woman near me was saying, 'I hate him! I hate him! I think he's the most horrible thing I've ever seen.' This struck me as being hard on Rocky; he didn't look particularly repulsive."

Marciano punched him out through the ropes in round eight and Louis, 37, never fought again. "He lay on the ring apron," reported Liebling, "only one leg inside. The tall blonde was bawling. The fellow who had brought her was horrified. 'Rocky didn't do anything wrong,' he said. 'He didn't foul him. What you booing?' The blonde said, 'You're so cold. I hate you, too.'"

At the Epsom Derby in 1955, Liebling bumps into a posse of English fight writers who are shortly heading to Dublin for a European featherweight title fight. He decides to join them and thus finds himself in Donnybrook bus garage, of all places, for the contest between defending champion Ray Famechon of France, and Billy 'Spider' Kelly from Derry.

Kelly had brought a partisan crowd with him and when the referee raised Famechon's hand in victory, a near riot ensued. "I was sure that Spider deserved the decision," reckoned our bemused visitor. "I thought I could write a fair account of what followed, but when I saw the story on the first page of the Irish Press next morning, I realised that the writer, a Mr John Healy, had probably had more experience in that kind of going."

He then proceeds to quote from the bristling report by Healy, the Mayo man who would go on to become one of the most distinguished political and social commentators of his generation.

In the same newspaper, Liebling also came across "a Mr Ben Kiely", who was "taking a more moderate line" on the affair. We can only assume that this was written with tongue firmly in check because Kiely had stated that "the raising of Ray Famechon's hand was one of the greatest shocks in Franco-Irish history." Perhaps Benedict, by then a published novelist who would publish many more, was hopping the ball too.

In the final chapter, entitled 'Ahab and Nemesis', Liebling plots the story of Archie Moore's doomed tilt at Marciano in September '55. "Wrapped in a heavy blue bathrobe and with a blue monk's cowl pulled over his head, (Marciano) climbed the steps to the ring with the cumbrous agility of a medieval executioner ascending the scaffold."

Moore lasted nine rounds and would have been good enough, surmised Liebling, to beat most of the 1920s heavyweights, an era "that is now represented to us as the golden age of American pugilism." The fight therefore left him to conclude on an optimistic note: "It proved 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."

Which, come to think of it, isn't a bad lesson to bring into the new year.

THECOUCH@INDEPENDENT.IE

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