Between the Victorian era and the Sixties, boxing was a regular and prominent feature of American life. Knowing something about the fights—being good with your hands, or maintaining an opinion about the welterweight division or fixed bouts or how to beat a southpaw—was a very common piece of equipment in the toolbox of American cultural competence, especially the section of it devoted to masculinity. Boxing shared with baseball the status of the sport that mattered most (with horse racing not far off the pace), and cultural paths of least resistance allowed almost anyone to know at least a little about it. Newspapers offered daily coverage by reporters who specialized in boxing, magazines from the Police Gazette to The New Yorker prided themselves on their frequent fight pieces, and magazines devoted entirely to boxing thrived. Boxing gyms, like saloons and union halls, were typical features of working-class neighborhoods across the range of ethnic and racial variety. Middle- and upper-class boys could find their own paths to the manly art; Theodore Roosevelt boxed at Harvard and FDR at Groton, for instance. Film, radio, and then television offered boxing in heaping doses. Remember Eloise, the girl in the much-loved children's book who lives at the Plaza? Remember what her nanny does on Friday evenings? She orders beer from room service, smokes, and watches the fights on NBC's Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. And there was plenty of opportunity to see boxing in the flesh, from numerous fight cards in modest venues featuring local tough guys to marquee events in stadiums featuring world-famous pugilists. The land reverberated with the fight world's signature cadences, banged out on speed bags and typewriters, and called out by jargon-shouting fans: "Stop waltzin' with 'im, ya bum, and hook off the jab! Over 'n under!"
￼In The Sweet Science (1956), a collection of fight pieces first published in The New Yorker, A. J. Liebling elegizes this golden age of American boxing, which at midcentury was beginning to end. In his introduction, Liebling notes "certain generalized conditions today, like full employment and a late school-leaving age, that militate against the development of first-rate professional boxers." As football, basketball, and other school-based team ball games rose to dominate sports culture, the structural underpinnings of boxing in the industrial neighborhood order withered away, eroded by deindustrialization, suburbanization, and other long-wave forces that transformed the inner city. The more easily identifiable villain was television, which "by putting on a free boxing show almost every night of the week," had "knocked out of business the hundreds of small-city and neighborhood boxing clubs where youngsters had a chance to learn their trade and journeymen to mature their skills." The fights were a mainstay of early television, which kept boxing in the public eye while hastening its uprooting from the social landscape.
In The Sweet Science, Rocky Marciano, a TV star, ushers in the new order by beating Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, and Archie Moore, all superb technicians in the twilight of their careers, and by brutally retiring the radio hero Joe Louis, the premier heavyweight of the golden age. Marciano makes a grand entrance by blasting the aging Brown Bomber through the ropes and into the sad endgame of his life. Liebling observes ringsiders' reactions with characteristic acuteness:
Right after Marciano knocked Louis down the first time, Sugar Ray Robinson [the reigning middleweight champion and the greatest fighter of that, or perhaps any, era] started working his way toward the ring, as if drawn by some horrid fascination, and by the time Rocky threw the final right, Robinson's hand was on the lowest rope of the ring, as if he meant to jump in. The punch knocked Joe through the ropes and he lay on the ring apron, only one leg inside.
The tall blonde was bawling, and pretty soon she began to sob. 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."
The silver age of Muhammad Ali was just over the horizon, and the fights would sustain a strong presence on broadcast television for another generation (until cable and pay-per-view demoted them to the status of niche-market attraction), but the half century of boxing's cultural ascendancy was coming to a close. Marciano's supporters, "unsavory young yokels with New England accents," cheer their man "as if he were a high-school football team," a troubling portent. High school football is the cultural polar opposite of the urban male demimonde of sporting life in which fight people had made themselves so cozily at home in the first half of the twentieth century.
"Ahab and Nemesis," the piece that culminates The Sweet Science, deserves a place not only on any list of the finest fight writing but on all-time pound-for-pound lists of great essays on any subject. In it, Liebling stages Marciano's de￼feat of Archie Moore as a resonant confrontation between force and intellect. Marciano, by now the reigning champion, embodies force. Younger than Moore, much stronger, and stylistically cruder, he's a slugger who keeps the punches coming until the other man has had enough. Waiting in his corner just before the bell, "he resembled a Great Dane who has heard the word 'bone.'" Moore, the challenger, represents intellect. A ring-wise virtuoso, erudite and elegant in his craft, he has "the kind of Faustian mind that will throw itself against the problem of perpetual motion, or of how to pick horses first, second, third, and fourth in every race." The rise of Marciano has inflicted on Moore "the pangs of a supreme exponent of bel canto who sees himself crowded out of the opera house by a guy who can only shout."
In the second round, Moore lures Marciano into a tactical trap and knocks him down with a crisp right thrown inside the arc of Marciano's left hook. "He had hit him right if ever I saw a boxer hit right, with a classic brevity and conciseness," but the referee has counted only to two when Marciano bounces to his feet, ready for more. "I do not know what took place in Mr. Moore's breast when he saw him get up. He may have felt, for the moment, like Don Giovanni when the Commendatore's statue grabbed at him—startled because he thought he had killed the guy already—or like Ahab when he saw the White Whale take down Fedallah, harpoons and all." Moore drags "his shattered faith in the unities and humanities" back to his corner at the end of the round. "As a young fighter of conventional tutelage, he must have heard his preceptors say hundreds of times, 'They will all go if you hit them right.' If a fighter did not believe that, he would be in the position of a Euclidean without faith in the hundred-and-eighty-degree triangle." Well, he "had hit a guy right, and the guy hadn't gone. But there is no geezer in Moore, any more than there was in the master of the Pequod." Moore fights valiantly, brilliantly, but Marciano wears him down and overwhelms him. The challenger is counted out in the ninth round "with his left arm hooked over the middle rope as he tried to rise. It was a crushing defeat for the higher faculties and a lesson in intellectual humility, but he had made a hell of a fight."
Liebling locates the primal struggle between brawling and technique at the root not only of boxing but of writing about boxing. At the beginning of "Ahab and Nemesis" he quotes from Heywood Broun, a reporter of the 1920s and 1930s who favored classically sound boxing ("There is still a kick in style, and tradition carries a nasty wallop"); later in the piece Liebling cites Pierce Egan, "the Edward Gibbon and Sir Thomas Malory of the old London prize ring," who favored brawlers: "gluttons" and "prime bottom fighters," in Egan's Regency slang. Liebling presents himself as a dissenting Brounian surrounded by an Eganite crowd, pro-Marciano and "basically anti-intellectual" in its instincts. Most of the fans at Yankee Stadium just want to see somebody get hurt, while Liebling is looking for something else: a demonstration of principle, a lesson in being human.
The slippery work of extracting nuggets of meaning from a fight is Liebling's great subject, the problem that shapes not only the themes but also the form of his writing about boxing. He mixes registers and allusive gestures up and down the highbrow-lowbrow spectrum, assembling an interpretive repertoire suited to the challenge posed by the fights. To follow the nuances of his account of the turning point in the second round, for instance, the reader needs to know something about opera, Melville, Euclid, and Aristotle's Poetics. At other points Liebling compares Archie Moore not only to Faust and Ahab but also to the ballerina Margot Fonteyn, the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, the statesman Winston Churchill, the director and actor Orson Welles, Camus's Sisyphus, and a Japanese print entitled "Shogun Engaged in Strategic Contemplation in the Midst of War." Ripely colloquial language punctuates and ironically offsets this checklist of high-cultural literacy. The phrase "he thought he had killed the guy already," for example, appearing between references to Don Giovanni and Ahab, serves to denature their pompousness by underscoring it, and "geezer" both ratifies and deflates the recurring comparison of Moore to Ahab. Whitey Bimstein, a trainer, noting that Marciano abandoned the right-left combination he was attempting when Moore knocked him down, says to Liebling, "He never trun it again in the fight." Insider voices like Bimstein's carry a different kind of cultural authority, the practical working knowledge of skilled craftspeople.
Each register complements and ironizes the others. Each way of understanding boxing, from the shop-floor know-how of fight people to the symbolic and interpretive approaches suggested by references to literature and art, helps the reader see a particular order of meaning in the bout and fills in the blind spots left by others. Contrasting the variety of ways of seeing becomes the point of the piece, dramatizing the process of making sense of what would appear to most readers as opaquely chaotic violence.
Liebling took pleasure in portraying himself as a character uniquely equipped to meet such challenges. A gouty fat man who was also a distinguished war correspondent, food writer, and press critic, he had formal education (he attended Dartmouth but did not graduate) but he also cultivated the Ishmaelian charm of the autodidact, always a little too eager to share his learning and a little tone-deaf when it came to distinctions between the canonical and the esoteric. He was a sound reporter, well trained at big-city newspapers, but also an idiosyncratically well-read dabbler and aesthete. He knew his way around the fine arts and classical literature, but he also knew fight people, gamblers, songwriters, grifters, and other characters who exemplified what his editors at The New Yorker called "low-life." With just a few confident brush strokes he can sketch a self-portrait as a typical urban intellectual of his time, a child of the middle class drawn to both the library and the street, as he does in this sentence describing the buildup to the Marciano-Moore bout: "There was no doubt that the fight had caught the public imagination, ever sensitive to a meeting between Hubris and Nemesis, as the boys on the quarterlies would say, and the bookies were laying 18–5 on Nemesis, according to the boys on the dailies, who always seem to know."
Liebling was not just an elegist, recording the passing of what had been; he also helped assemble the materials of epic, showing the way forward to writers who responded to what came next. To the New Journalists, the wave of nonfiction innovators who mapped the changing social and cultural landscape of America in the Sixties, he bequeathed his novelistic voice, his gift for combining first-person experience and a reporter's rigorous pursuit of the bigger story, his high-low cultural range, his eye for the traffic between margins and mainstream, and a digressive long-form style more suited to the magazine than the newspaper.
The New Journalists had a taste for boxing, which even in decline continued to enjoy its traditional status as excellent material. The pungent talk and secret lore of fight people still drew writers, as did the wealth of sights and sounds to capture in arresting language. Gay Talese's profile of the deposed heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson was an early landmark of the genre, and Tom Wolfe reports experiencing a stylistic awakening ("What inna namea christ is this—") in the fall of 1962 when he read Talese's profile of Joe Louis in Esquire. Norman Mailer and many other writers of the period found in Muhammad Ali a quintessential subject, an outsize figure so original and poetic that he obliged writers of nonfiction to employ the techniques of fiction.
In the opening pages of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), Wolfe perfectly captures the betwixt-and-between state of both boxing and writing about boxing in the early Sixties. He begins by disparaging the journalistic old order, attacking the "totem newspaper" as a desiccated artifact that people carry around to mark their identity rather than to read with interest. One kind of totem newspaper serves as the "symbol of the frightened chair-arm-doilie Vicks Vapo-Rub Weltanschauung" (think Boston Globe) while the other propounds a "tough-but-wholesome outlook, the Mom's Pie view of life" (think Boston Herald). Those who carry the second kind of totem "can go off to the bar and drink a few 'brews' and retail some cynical remarks about Zora Folley and how the fight game is these days and round it off, though, with how George Chuvalo has 'a lot of heart,' which he got, one understands, by eating mom's pie." Wolfe turns to boxing to exemplify a fading manly blue-collar culture and the moribund orders of writing associated with it, all willfully blind to what's really happening—the encroaching grooviness, the developing transformation of morals and politics and just about everything else. But one of the chapters that follows is a profile of Ali, and on almost every page Wolfe records his debt in both approach and content to fight writers and other connoisseurs of low life who came before, including the sportswriter W. C. Heinz, Liebling's New Yorker colleague Joseph Mitchell, and especially Liebling himself, a graceful and far-seeing stylist who wrote lasting non-fiction literature founded on solid reporting.
Carlo Rotella is director of American Studies at Boston College and author of Cut Time: An Education at the Fights.
Excerpted from A NEW LITERARY HISTORY OF AMERICA, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Copyright © 2009 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.