For many readers, A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science remains the standard by which all boxing writing is measured. Liebling's graceful, literate essays—written for The New Yorker in the early '50s—raised fight writing above the sentimentality and purple prose of the sports pages. Now, 34 years after the publication of The Sweet Science, fans of both boxing and Liebling can enjoy a long overdue rematch, thanks to North Point Press's recent release of A Neutral Corner.
The book, the first new title in North Point's multivolume Liebling series, contains 15 previously uncollected boxing essays dating from 1952 through 1963. Included are reports, in the celebrated Liebling style—leisurely, discursive, scrupulously observant—on the heavyweight championship bouts between Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson, as well as the subsequent destruction of Patterson by Sonny Liston. In other essays, Liebling visits old friends such as Archie Moore, the "seasoned artist"; trainer Whitey Bimstein, whom Liebling calls "my explainer"; and Pierce Egan, author of the 19th-century classic Boxiana and a writer Liebling termed the Thucydides of the prize ring. Reading A Neutral Corner is like discovering a cache of forgotten films of a past champion in his prime. Here are all the old moves; here is the crisp knockout punch.
Liebling, best remembered beyond the ring for his acerbic "Wayward Press" columns in The New Yorker and for his 1961 biography of politician Earl Long, The Earl of Louisiana, was a journalist of impressive scope. Born in New York City in 1904, he was thrown out of Dartmouth for cutting chapel, spent time at Columbia's journalism school and worked for several papers, including The New York Times, before settling in at The New Yorker in 1935. There, at that most genteel of periodicals, Liebling wrote about what editor Harold Ross referred to as "low-life." His beat included popular entertainers, Broadway sharpies and, of course, prizefighters.
In 1939, Liebling left his beloved New York City to serve as a war correspondent for The New Yorker, reporting on events in France, Britain and North Africa. When he came back, in 1945, he turned his attention to criticizing the press. It wasn't until 1951 that Liebling resumed writing about boxing, "the way," as he put it, "you take a notion you would like to see an old sweetheart." For the next 12 years, until his death in 1963, he proved to be an affectionate and attentive consort.
Liebling had little use for what he termed the "raw-nature, or blinded-with-blood-he-swung-again school of fightwriting." He was interested instead in letting the reader see as clearly as possible the people and action in the ring. Writing of the Moore-Giulio Rinaldi bout of '61, Liebling paints this picture of Moore: "Swaying and crouching, he had been working a fraction closer to Rinaldi's body in each round, and now he fought from well within arm's reach, just occasionally jabbing a straight left into Rinaldi's face or whacking a right into his body, and then catching the counter, if any, on elbow or wrist as he swayed away. At this point, he was like a mechanic working under a car—a tap here, a yank there."
And in "An Artist Seeks Himself," Liebling describes Patterson, then heavyweight champion, as he methodically dismantled hapless British challenger Brian London, concentrating with "the air of a surgeon who has paid for a cadaver and is determined to get his money's worth dissecting it."
Though Liebling's accounts of events in the ring remain, as John Lardner phrased it in his review of The Sweet Science, "intrinsically timeless, today reader can't help but feel the pull of the past. A Neutral Corner depicts a world long gone. We read of traffic jams outside the Polo Grounds on the evening of the second Patterson-Johansson match, of visits to small, still-thriving fight clubs and to sleepy training camps in the Catskills. How unrecognizable to Liebling would be today's fight scene, with its rings set up in casino ballrooms and its pay-per-view hype. One can't help wondering what Liebling would have had to say about it all.
Fight fans, Liebling was fond of pointing out, invariably insist that things were better in the old days. When it comes to fight writing, at least, A Neutral Corner proves them right.