There were greater heavyweights -- Dempsey, Louis, Ali -- but only one champ retired undefeated, having won all fifty of his bouts, most by knockout. Rocky Marciano of Brockton, Mass., may have been a clumsy boxer, but he had the force of Zeus in his right hand and he could knock you out with an unexpected left hook as well. The saga of his championship years is at the center of A. J. Liebling's The Sweet Science, which even foes of pugilism recognize as one of the greatest of all sports books. A compilation of articles written for The New Yorker, Liebling's book combines close and savvy observation of what goes on in the ring (and in training camp, at the weigh in, and in the cab that takes you to the Garden or the old Polo Grounds) with a wondrous prose style.
Liebling's simile-machine produces such long-playing hits as these, to quote just a few: "Marciano looked like the understander in the nine-man pyramid of a troupe of Arab acrobats." Former featherweight champ Abe Attell "looks at you with cold eyes around his huge beak that is like a toucan's with a twisted semptum." After absorbing the punch you see depicted here, Jersey Joe Walcott "flowed down like flour out of a chute." Randy Turpin, a Sugar Ray Robinson opponent, punched "always at some curious angle. One punch for the body looked like a man releasing a bowling ball; another, a right for the head, was like a granny boxing a boy's ears." Here's looking at you, Rocky, just before your last fight, when you took out the old Mongoose, Archie Moore, in the ninth round, on September 20, 1955 in Yankee Stadium: "Wrapped in a heavy blue bathrobe and with a blue monk's cowl pulled over his head, he climbed the steps to the ring with the cumbrous agility of a medieval executioner ascending the scaffold." The similes are as precisely accurate as they are wildly imaginative -- wit at the service of truth.
The Sweet Science and four other books by the versatile writer (about food and Paris, the press, night-club owners and other Broadway personages, and a Louisiana politician) are available in one beautifully designed, admirably edited volume from the Library of America. The Sweet Science and Other Writings includes, in an appendix, the best essay on boxing ever to use poetry as a unifying and organizing conceit. And who is the poet who provoked Liebling to this figurative flight of fancy? Well, a hint: What killed boxing as Liebling knew it and loved it in its glory years? Television, he would answer, but there was one individual who, by the force and witty complexity of his personality, rescued the sport and extended its life by two decades, the way Sinatra extended the life of songs first performed by Ruth Etting. You know who. -- DL