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A.J. Liebling's classic New Yorker pieces on the "sweet science of bruising" bring vividly to life the boxing world as it once was. It depicts the great events of boxing's American heyday: Sugar Ray Robinson's dramatic comeback, Rocky Marciano's rise to prominence, Joe Louis's unfortunate decline. Liebling never fails to find the human story behind the fight, and he evokes the atmosphere in the arena as distinctly as he does the goings-on in the ring—a combination that prompted Sports Illustrated to name The ...
A.J. Liebling's classic New Yorker pieces on the "sweet science of bruising" bring vividly to life the boxing world as it once was. It depicts the great events of boxing's American heyday: Sugar Ray Robinson's dramatic comeback, Rocky Marciano's rise to prominence, Joe Louis's unfortunate decline. Liebling never fails to find the human story behind the fight, and he evokes the atmosphere in the arena as distinctly as he does the goings-on in the ring—a combination that prompted Sports Illustrated to name The Sweet Science the best American sports book of all time.
The Sweet Science
The Big Fellows
Boxing with the Naked Eye
Watching a fight on television has always seemed to me a poor substitute for being there. For one thing, you can't tell the fighters what to do. When I watch a fight, I like to study one boxer's problem, solve it, and then communicate my solution vocally. On occasion my advice is disregarded, as when I tell a man to stay away from the other fellow's left and he doesn't, but in such cases I assume that he hasn't heard my counsel, or that his opponent has, and has acted on it. Some fighters hear better and are more suggestible than others—for example, the pre-television Joe Louis. "Let him have it, Joe!" I would yell whenever I saw him fight, and sooner or later he would let the other fellow have it. Another fighter like that was the late Marcel Cerdan, whom I would coach in his own language, to prevent opposition seconds from picking up our signals. "Vas-y, Marcel!" I used to shout, and Marcel always y allait. I get a feeling of participation that way that I don't in front of a television screen. I could yell, of course, but I would know that if my suggestion was adopted, it would be by the merest coincidence.
Besides, when you go to a fight, the boxers aren't the only ones you want to be heard by. You are surrounded by people whose ignorance of the ring is exceeded only by their unwillingness to face facts—the sharpness of your boxer's punching, for instance. Such people may take it upon themselves to disparage theprincipal you are advising. This disparagement is less generally addressed to the man himself (as "Gavilan, you're a bum!") than to his opponent, whom they have wrong-headedly picked to win. ("He's a cream puff, Miceli!" they may typically cry. "He can't hurt you. He can't hurt nobody. Look—slaps! Ha, ha!") They thus get at your man—and, by indirection, at you. To put them in their place, you address neither them nor their man but your man. ("Get the other eye, Gavilan!" you cry.) This throws them off balance, because they haven't noticed anything the matter with either eye. Then, before they can think of anything to say, you thunder, "Look at that eye!" It doesn't much matter whether or not the man has been hit in the eye; he will be. Addressing yourself to the fighter when you want somebody else to hear you is a parliamentary device, like "Mr. Chairman ..." Before television, a prize-fight was to a New Yorker the nearest equivalent to the New England town meeting. It taught a man to think on his seat.
Less malignant than rooters for the wrong man, but almost as disquieting, are those who are on the right side but tactically unsound. At a moment when you have steered your boxer to a safe lead on points but can see the other fellow is still dangerous, one of these maniacs will encourage recklessness. "Finish the jerk, Harry!" he will sing out. "Stop holding him up! Don't lose him!" But you, knowing the enemy is a puncher, protect your client's interests. "Move to your left, Harry!" you call. "Keep moving! Keep moving! Don't let him set!" I sometimes finish a fight like that in a cold sweat.
If you go to a fight with a friend, you can keep up unilateral conversations on two vocal levels—one at the top of your voice, directed at your fighter, and the other a running expertise nominally aimed at your companion but loud enough to reach a modest fifteen feet in each direction. "Reminds me of Panama Al Brown," you may say as a new fighter enters the ring. "He wasfive feet eleven and weighed a hundred and eighteen pounds. This fellow may be about forty pounds heavier and a couple of inches shorter, but he's got the same kind of neck. I saw Brown box a fellow named Mascart in Paris in 1927. Guy stood up in the top gallery and threw an apple and hit Brown right on the top of the head. The whole house started yelling, 'Finish him, Mascart! He's groggy!'" Then, as the bout begins, "Boxes like Al, too, except this fellow's a southpaw." If he wins, you say, "I told you he reminded me of Al Brown," and if he loses, "Well, well, I guess he's no Al Brown. They don't make fighters like Al any more." This identifies you as a man who (a) has been in Paris, (b) has been going to fights for a long time, and (c) therefore enjoys what the fellows who write for quarterlies call a frame of reference.
It may be argued that this doesn't get you anywhere, but it at least constitutes what a man I once met named Thomas S. Matthews called communication. Mr. Matthews, who was the editor of Time, said that the most important thing in journalism is not reporting but communication. "What are you going to communicate?" I asked him. "The most important thing," he said, "is the man on one end of the circuit saying 'My God, I'm alive! You're alive!' and the fellow on the other end, receiving his message, saying 'My God, you're right! We're both alive!'" I still think it is a hell of a way to run a news magazine, but it is a good reason for going to fights in person. Television, if unchecked, may carry us back to a pre-tribal state of social development, when the family was the largest conversational unit.
Fights are also a great place for adding to your repertory of witty sayings. I shall not forget my adolescent delight when I first heard a fight fan yell, "I hope youse bot' gets knocked out!" I thought he had made it up, although I found out later it was a cliche. It is a formula adaptable to an endless variety of situations outside the ring. The only trouble with it is it neverworks out. The place where I first heard the line was Bill Brown's, a fight club in a big shed behind a trolley station in Far Rockaway.
On another night there, the time for the main bout arrived and one of the principals hadn't. The other fighter sat in the ring, a bantamweight with a face like a well-worn coin, and the fans stamped in cadence and whistled and yelled for their money back. It was thirty years before television, but there were only a couple of hundred men on hand. The preliminary fights had been terrible. The little fighter kept looking at his hands, which were resting on his knees in cracked boxing gloves, and every now and then he would spit on the mat and rub the spittle into the canvas with one of his scuffed ring shoes. The longer he waited, the more frequently he spat, and I presumed he was worrying about the money he was supposed to get; it wouldn't be more than fifty dollars with a house that size, even if the other man turned up. He had come there from some remote place like West or East New York, and he may have been thinking about the last train home on the Long Island Railroad, too. Finally, the other bantamweight got there, looking out of breath and flustered. He had lost his way on the railroad—changed to the wrong train at Jamaica and had to go back there and start over. The crowd booed so loud that he looked embarrassed. When the fight began, the fellow who had been waiting walked right into the new boy and knocked him down. He acted impatient. The tardy fellow got up and fought back gamely, but the one who had been waiting nailed him again, and the latecomer just about pulled up to one knee at the count of seven. He had been hit pretty hard, and you could see from his face that he was wondering whether to chuck it. Somebody in the crowd yelled out, "Hey, Hickey! You kept us all waiting! Why don't you stay around awhile?" So the fellow got up and caught for ten rounds and probably made the one who had come early miss his train. It's another formula with multipleapplications, and I think the man who said it that night in Far Rockaway did make it up.
Because of the way I feel about watching fights on television, I was highly pleased when I read, back in June, 1951, that the fifteen-round match between Joe Louis and Lee Savold, scheduled for June thirteenth at the Polo Grounds, was to be neither televised, except to eight theater audiences in places like Pittsburgh and Albany, nor broadcast over the radio. I hadn't seen Louis with the naked eye since we shook hands in a pub in London in 1944. He had fought often since then, and I had seen his two bouts with Jersey Joe Walcott on television, but there hadn't been any fun in it. Those had been held in public places, naturally, and I could have gone, but television gives you so plausible an adumbration of a fight, for nothing, that you feel it would be extravagant to pay your way in. It is like the potato, which is only a succedaneum for something decent to eat but which, once introduced into Ireland, proved so cheap that the peasants gave up their grain-and-meat diet in favor of it. After that, the landlords let them keep just enough money to buy potatoes. William Cobbett, a great Englishman, said that he would sack any workmen of his he caught eating one of the cursed things, because as soon as potatoes appeared anywhere they brought down the standard of eating. I sometimes think of Cobbett on my way home from the races, looking at the television aerials on all the little houses between here and Belmont Park. As soon as I heard that the fight wouldn't be on the air, I determined to buy a ticket.
On the night of the thirteenth, a Wednesday, it rained, and on the next night it rained again, so on the evening of June fifteenth the promoters, the International Boxing Club, confronted by a night game at the Polo Grounds, transferred the fight to Madison Square Garden. The postponements upset a plan I hadhad to go to the fight with a friend, who had another date for the third night. But alone is a good way to go to a fight or the races, because you have more time to look around you, and you always get all the conversation you can use anyway. I went to the Garden box office early Friday afternoon and bought a ten-dollar seat in the side arena—the first tiers rising in back of the boxes, midway between Eighth and Ninth Avenues on the 49th Street side of the house. There was only a scattering of ticket buyers in the lobby, and the man at the ticket window was polite—a bad omen for the gate. After buying the ticket, I got into a cab in front of the Garden, and the driver naturally asked me if I was going to see the fight. I said I was, and he said, "He's all through."
I knew he meant Louis, and I said, "I know, and that's why it may be a good fight. If he weren't through, he might kill this guy."
The driver said, "Savold is a hooker. He breaks noses."
I said, "He couldn't break his own nose, even," and then began to wonder how a man would go about trying to do that. "It's a shame he's so hard up he had to fight at all at his age," I said, knowing the driver would understand I meant Louis. I was surprised that the driver was against Louis, and I was appealing to his better feelings.
"He must have plenty socked away," said the driver. "Playing golf for a hundred dollars a hole."
"Maybe that helped him go broke," I said. "And anyway, what does that prove? There's many a man with a small salary who bets more than he can afford." I had seen a scratch sheet on the seat next to the hackie. I was glad I was riding only as far as Brentano's with him.
The driver I had on the long ride home was a better type. As soon as I told him I was going to the fight, which was at about the same time that he dropped the flag, he said, "I guess the old guy can still sock."
I said, "I saw him murder Max Baer sixteen years ago. He was a sweet fighter then."
The driver said, "Sixteen years is a long time for a fighter. I don't remember anybody lasted sixteen years in the big money. Still, Savold is almost as old as he is. When you're a bum, nobody notices how old you get."
We had a pleasant time on the West Side Highway, talking about how Harry Greb had gone on fighting when he was blind in one eye, only nobody knew it but his manager, and how Pete Herman had been the best infighter in the world, because he had been practically blind in both eyes, so he couldn't afford to fool around outside. "What Herman did, you couldn't learn a boy now," the driver said. "They got no patience."
The fellow who drove me from my house to the Garden after dinner was also a man of good will, but rather different. He knew I was going to the fight as soon as I told him my destination, and once we had got under way, he said, "It is a pity that a man like Louis should be exploited to such a degree that he has to fight again." It was only nine-fifteen, and he agreed with me that I had plenty of time to get to the Garden for the main bout, which was scheduled to begin at ten, but when we got caught in unexpectedly heavy traffic on Eleventh Avenue he grew impatient. "Come on, Jersey!" he said, giving a station wagon in front of us the horn. "In the last analysis, we have got to get to the Garden sometime." But it didn't help much, because most of the other cars were heading for the Garden, too. The traffic was so slow going toward Eighth Avenue on Fiftieth Street that I asked him to let me out near the Garden corner, and joined the people hurrying from the Independent Subway exit toward the Garden marquee. A high percentage of them were from Harlem, and they were dressed as if for a levee, the men in shimmering gabardines and felt hats the color of freshly unwrapped chewing gum, thewomen in spring suits and fur pieces—it was a cool night—and what seemed to me the prettiest hats of the season. They seemed to me the prettiest lot of women I had seen in a long time, too, and I reflected that if the fight had been televised, I would have missed them. "Step out," I heard one beau say as his group swept past me, "or we won't maybe get in. It's just like I told you—he's still one hell of a draw." As I made my way through the now crowded lobby, I could hear the special cop next to the ticket window chanting, "Six-, eight-, ten-, and fifteen-dollar tickets only," which meant that the two-and-a-half-dollar general-admission and the twenty-dollar ringside seats were sold out. It made me feel good, because it showed there were still some gregarious people left in the world.
Inside the Garden there was the same old happy drone of voices as when Jimmy McLarnin was fighting and Jimmy Walker was at the ringside. There was only one small patch of bare seats, in a particularly bad part of the ringside section. I wondered what sort of occupant I would find in my seat; I knew from experience that there would be somebody in it. It turned out to be a small, frail colored man in wine-red livery. He sat up straight and pressed his shoulder blades against the back of the chair, so I couldn't see the number. When I showed him my ticket, he said, "I don't know nothing about that. You better see the usher." He was offering this token resistance, I knew, only to protect his self-esteem—to maintain the shadowy fiction that he was in the seat by error. When an usher wandered within hailing distance of us, I called him, and the little man left, to drift to some other part of the Garden, where he had no reputation as a ten-dollar-seat holder to lose, and there to squat contentedly on a step.
My seat was midway between the east and west ends of the ring, and about fifteen feet above it. Two not very skillful colored boys were finishing a four-rounder that the man in the next seat told me was an emergency bout, put on because there had been several knockouts in the earlier preliminaries. It gave me achance to settle down and look around. It was ten o'clock by the time the colored boys finished and the man with the microphone announced the decision, but there was no sign of Louis or Savold. The fight wasn't on the air, so there was no need of the punctuality required by the radio business. (Later I read in the newspapers that the bout had been delayed in deference to the hundreds of people who were still in line to buy tickets and who wanted to be sure of seeing the whole fight.) Nobody made any spiel about beer, as on the home screen, although a good volume of it was being drunk all around. Miss Gladys Gooding, an organist, played the national anthem and a tenor sang it, and we all applauded. After that, the announcer introduced a number of less than illustrious prizefighters from the ring, but nobody whistled or acted restless. It was a good-natured crowd.
Then Louis and his seconds—what the author of Boxiana would have called his faction—appeared from a runway under the north stands and headed toward the ring. The first thing I noticed, from where I sat, was that the top of Louis's head was bald. He looked taller than I had remembered him, although surely he couldn't have grown after the age of thirty, and his face was puffy and impassive. It has always been so. In the days of his greatness, the press read menace in it. He walked stiff-legged, as was natural for a heavy man of thirty-seven, but when his seconds pulled off his dressing robe, his body looked all right. He had never been a lean man; his muscles had always been well buried beneath his smooth beige skin. I recalled the first time I had seen him nght—against Baer. That was at the Yankee Stadium, in September, 1935, and not only the great ball park but the roofs of all the apartment houses around were crowded with spectators, and hundreds of people were getting out of trains at the elevated I.R.T. station, which overlooks the field, and trying to loiter long enough to catch a few moments of action. Louis had comeEast that summer, after a single year as a professional, and had knocked out Primo Camera in a few rounds. Camera had been the heavyweight champion of the world in 1934, when Baer knocked him out. Baer, when he fought Louis, was the most powerful and gifted heavyweight of the day, although he had already fumbled away his title. But this mature Baer, who had fought everybody, was frightened stiff by the twenty-one-year-old mulatto boy. Louis outclassed him. The whole thing went only four rounds. There hadn't been anybody remotely like Louis since Dempsey in the early twenties.
The week of the Louis—Baer fight, a man I know wrote in a magazine: "With half an eye, one can observe that the town is more full of stir than it has been in many moons. It is hard to find a place to park, hard to get a table in a restaurant, hard to answer all the phone calls ... . Economic seers can explain it, if you care to listen. We prefer to remember that a sudden inflation of the town's spirit can be just as much psychological or accidental as economic." I figured it was Louis.
Savold had now come up into the other corner, a jutty-jawed man with a fair skin but a red back, probably sunburned at his training camp. He was twenty pounds lighter than Louis, but that isn't considered a crushing handicap among heavyweights; Ezzard Charles, who beat Louis the previous year, was ten pounds lighter than Savold. Savold was thirty-five, and there didn't seem to be much bounce in him. I had seen him fight twice in the winter of 1946, and I knew he wasn't much. Both bouts had been against a young Negro heavyweight named Al Hoosman, a tall, skinny fellow just out of the Army. Hoosman had started well the first time, but Savold had hurt him with body punches and won the decision. The second time, Hoosman had stayed away and jabbed him silly. An old third-rater like Savold, I knew, doesn't improve with five more years on him. But an old third-rater doesn't rattle easily, either, and I was sure he'd do his best. It made me more apprehensive, in one way, than if he'd been anygood. I wouldn't have liked to see Louis beaten by a good young fighter, but it would be awful to see him beaten by a clown. Not that I have anything against Savold; I just think it's immoral for a fellow without talent to get too far. A lot of others in the crowd must have felt the same way, because the house was quiet when the fight started—as if the Louis rooters didn't want to ask too much of Joe. There weren't any audible rooters for Savold, though, of course, there would have been if he had landed one good punch.
I remembered reading in a newspaper that Savold had said he would walk right out and bang Louis in the temple with a right, which would scramble his thinking. But all he did was come forward as he had against Hoosman, with his left low. A fellow like that never changes. Louis walked out straight and stiff-legged, and jabbed his left into Savold's face. He did it again and again, and Savold didn't seem to know what to do about it. And Louis jabs a lot harder than a fellow like Hoosman. Louis didn't have to chase Savold, and he had no reason to run away from him, either, so the stiff legs were all right. When the two men came close together, Louis jarred Savold with short punches, and Savold couldn't push him around, so that was all right, too. After the first round, the crowd knew Louis would win if his legs would hold him.
In the second round Louis began hitting Savold with combinations—quick sequences of punches, like a right under the heart and a left hook to the right side of the head. A sports writer I know had told me that Louis hadn't been putting combinations together for several fights back. Combinations demand a superior kind of coordination, but a fighter who has once had that can partly regain it by hard work. A couple of times it looked as if Louis was trying for a knockout, but when Savold didn't come apart, Louis returned to jabbing. A man somewhere behind me kept saying to a companion, "I read Savold was a tricky fighter. He's got to do something!" But Savold didn't, until late in thefifth round, by which time his head must have felt like a sick music box. Then he threw a right to Louis's head and it landed. I thought I could see Louis shrink, as if he feared trouble. His response ten years ago would have been to tear right back into the man. Savold threw another right, exactly the same kind, and that hit Louis, too. No good fighter should have been hit twice in succession with that kind of foolish punch. But the punches weren't hard enough to slow Louis down, and that was the end of that. In the third minute of the sixth round, he hit Savold with a couple of combinations no harder than those that had gone before, but Savold was weak now. His legs were going limp, and Louis was pursuing him as he backed toward my side of the ring. Then Louis swung like an axman with his right (he wasn't snapping it as he used to), and his left dropped over Savold's guard and against his jaw, and the fellow was rolling over and over on the mat, rolling the way football players do when they fall on a fumbled ball. The referee was counting and Savold was rolling, and he got up on either nine or ten, I couldn't tell which (later, I read that it was ten, so he was out officially), but you could see he was knocked silly, and the referee had his arms around him, and it was over.
The newspapermen, acres of them near the ring, were banging out the leads for the running stories they had already telegraphed, and I felt sorry for them, because they never have time to enjoy boxing matches. Since the fight was not broadcast, there was no oily-voiced chap to drag Louis over to a microphone and ask him stupid questions. He shook hands with Savold twice, once right after the knockout and again a few minutes later, when Savold was ready to leave the ring, as if he feared Savold wouldn't remember the first handshake.
I drifted toward the lobby with the crowd. The chic Harlem people were saying to one another, "It was terrific, darling! It wasterrific!" I could see that an element of continuity had been restored to their world. But there wasn't any of the wild exultation that had followed those first Louis victories in 1935. These people had celebrated so many times—except, of course, the younger ones, who were small children when Louis knocked out Baer. I recognized one of the Garden promoters, usually a sour fellow, looking happy. The bout had brought in receipts of $94,684, including my ten dollars, but, what was more important to the Garden, Louis was sure to draw a lot more the next time, and at a higher scale of prices.
I walked downtown on Eighth Avenue to a point where the crowd began to thin out, and climbed into a taxi that had been stopped by the light on a cross street. This one had a Negro driver.
"The old fellow looked pretty good tonight," I said. "Had those combinations going."
"Fight over?" the driver asked. If there had been television, or even radio, he would have known about everything, and I wouldn't have had the fun of telling him.
"Sure," I said. "He knocked the guy out in the sixth."
"I was afraid he wouldn't," said the driver. "You know, it's a funny thing," he said, after we had gone on a way, "but I been twenty-five years in New York now and never seen Joe Louis in the flesh."
"You've seen him on television, haven't you?"
"Yeah," he said. "But that don't count." After a while he said, "I remember when he fought Camera. The celebration in Harlem. They poisoned his mind before that fight, his managers and Jack Blackburn did. They told him Camera was Mussolini's man and Mussolini started the Ethiopian War. He cut that man down like he was a tree."
Broken Fighter Arrives
When Louis knocked Savold out, I came away singularly revived—as if I, rather than Louis, had demonstrated resistance to the erosion of time. As long as Joe could get by, I felt, I had a link with an era when we were both a lot younger. Only the great champions give their fellow citizens time to feel that way about them, because only the great ones win the title young and hold on to it. There have been three like that among the heavyweights in this century—Jim Jeffries, Jack Dempsey, and Louis. Jeffries won the championship in 1899, when my father was a footloose young sport, and was beaten, after a period of retirement, by Jack Johnson in 1910, when Father was a solemn burgher with a wife, two children, and three twelve-story loft buildings with second mortgages on them. Dempsey beat Jess Willard in 1919, when I was in short pants. He lost the second decision to Gene Tunney in 1927 (I had believed that the first was an accident, and so I had continued to think of him as champion), and by that time I had written half a novel, spent a year at the Sorbonne, and worked on two newspapers.
Louis was the champion, in the public mind, from 1935, when he slaughtered Primo Camera and Max Baer, until 1951. Technically, his span was slightly shorter, because he didn't beat Jim Braddock for the title until 1937, but everybody knew from 1935 on that he would beat Braddock whenever he got the match. And he lost the championship by a decision to Ezzard Charles in 1950, but Charles was subsequently knocked out by old Jersey Joe Walcott, whom Louis had flattened a while back. When the three were introduced from the ring before the bout between Sugar Ray Robinson and Randy Turpin in September, 1951, the crowd left no doubt that it still considered Louis the leading heavyweight.
At about that same time, I learned that Louis, who wasthirty-seven, had been "made" with a new heavyweight, Rocky Marciano, who was twenty-seven and a puncher. I didn't think much about it then, but as October twenty-sixth, the date set for the fight, approached, I began to feel uneasy. Marciano, to be sure, had never had a professional fight until shortly after Louis first announced his retirement, in 1948. (Joe had subsequently, of course, recanted.) In addition, Marciano had beaten only two opponents of any note, both young heavyweights like himself, who were rated as no better than promising. He was not big for a heavyweight, and was supposed to be rather crude. What bothered me, though, about the impending affair was that Marciano was, as he still is, steered by a man I know, named Al Weill, who is one of the most realistic fellows in a milieu where illusions are few. Marciano was already a good drawing card and would continue to be as long as he was unbeaten, and Weill, I was sure, would never risk the depreciation of an asset unless he felt he had a good bet.
Weill is at present the matchmaker of the I.B.C., which controls boxing here in New York and in a dozen other large cities, and his son, Marty Weill, is Marciano's manager "of record," which means he signs the contracts. The younger Weill has a job-lot commission business in Dayton, Ohio, and isn't properly a boxing man at all. When the elder Weill became matchmaker, he "gave" his son the fighter, much as a lawyer, upon becoming a public official, turns over his private practice to a partner. Marciano is, in effect, a kind of family enterprise, like Rockefeller Center. As the fight date drew near, I decided to go around to the headquarters of the International, above the Iceland Skating Rink in the Madison Square Garden building, and ask the elder Weill what was doing. I could have accomplished this less formally by giving him what he calls a bang on the telephone, but I wished to compare his facial expressions with his asseverations.
The matchmaker is of the build referred to in ready-made-clothing stores as a portly, which means not quite a stout. Thereis an implication of at least one kind of recklessness about a fat man; he lets himself go when he eats. A portly man, on the other hand, is a man who would like to be fat but restrains himself—a calculator. Weill has a Roman nose of the short, or budgereegah, variety, and an over-all grayish coloration that is complemented by the suits he generally wears and the cigar ashes he frequently spills on them. On his home block—86th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive—he blends perfectly with the tired 1910 grandeur of the apartment houses; he looks like one more garment manufacturer worried by a swollen inventory. This does not stop him from knowing more about the fight business than any of the flashier types who wear long beige jackets and stay downtown after dark.
Weill is a frugal man, and he likes frugal fighters. Every kind of serious trouble a fighter can get into, he says, has its origin in the disbursement of currency—rich food, liquor, women, horse-race betting, and fast automobiles. Once a fighter starts gambling, Weill doesn't want him. "A gambler thinks he can get money without working for it," he says. Weill had a big string of fighters before the war, and used to quarter them all in a lodging house near Central Park West, where the housemaster would issue to each boy a weekly meal ticket with a face value of five dollars and fifty cents, redeemable in trade at a coffeepot on Columbus Avenue. The tickets cost Weill five dollars each, cash. A fighter could get a second ticket before the week was out, but only if he showed that the first one had been punched out to the last nickel. None of those fighters ever suffered a defeat that could be attributed to high living. Mere frugality, however, may prove a boomerang, for the fighter sometimes gets to like it. There was once an old colored heavyweight named Bob Armstrong, who, when asked his utmost ambition, said, "To wake up every morning and find a dollar under my pillow." Naturally, he never got to be champion. Weill wouldn't want a fighter like that. What he really loves is an avaricious fighter.
When I asked Weill about Marciano he looked happy. "He is a nice boy," he said. "The dollar is his God. That is to say, he is a poor Italian boy from a large, poor family, and he appreciates the buck more than almost anybody else. Them type guys is hard to get outa there. You want to look out for them young broken fighters." By "broken fighter," Weill, who is a purist, meant a fighter who is broke. "He only got two halfway decent purses—with LaStarza and Layne—and it was like a tiger tasting blood," Weill went on. "So you know how confident he is when he will take a fight like this for fifteen per cent of the gate. Louis gets forty-five. Why, Marciano will bring more money into the Garden than Louis. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and half of Massachusetts will be empty that night." Marciano hails from Brockton, Massachusetts.
Having considered the morale factor, which with him always comes first, Weill passed to the tactical level. He said Marciano would never be a clever boxer; he wasn't made for it, anyway, being short for a heavyweight, and wide, with short, thick arms. "But he knows what he has to do," Weill said. "Get in close enough to hit and then keep on hitting. And he don't come walking in straight, like Savold. Anybody would look good punching a punching bag that comes straight to you. This kid will fight out of a crouch. How I got him"—he changed the subject abruptly—"is three years ago a fellow I know used to promote around Boston wrote me there was a hell of an amateur he would like me to take. So I sent up the carfare for them to come down. They come, and we took Rocky to the C.Y.O. gym and put him in with a young heavyweight from Staten Island, a big blond guy belonged to a friend of mine. We had to stop him or he'd killed that Staten Island guy. I seen right then Rocky had the beginning of it. So I sent him up to Manny Almeida, a friend of mind promotes in Providence, which is near where he is out of Brockton, but Brockton is too small to have fights. And I asked Manny to put him in with the same kind he was, but no setups.
Because you got a guy knocking over setups, you don't know what you got. He come along good. When I come over here, I give him to Marty. Who should I give him to if not my own flesh and blood?"
A day or two after my talk with Weill, I went out to Louis's training quarters at Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, and it was like going back to the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. There was about all Louis's habits a majestic continuity, as there was about his style in the ring, which is basically classical. His style has diminished in speed of execution but has never varied in concept. Pompton was his lucky camp; he trained there for his first New York fight, against Camera, in 1935, when he was twenty-one, and he trained there for all his succeeding fights but four—"way more than twenty," he told me when I talked with him later that day. I hadn't been out there since the summer of 1938, when Louis was preparing for his return fight with Max Schmeling, the only man who had up to that time knocked him out. (That return fight was his happiest victory; he destroyed the German in less than a round.) Incidentally, Louis has knocked out six men who at one time or another held the heavyweight championship—Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Camera, Baer, Braddock, and Walcott—a record possible because the championship changed hands so often in the short period between 1930 and 1937, leaving so many mediocre ex-champions simultaneously extant.
The camp, like Louis himself, was essentially the same but much older-looking. Part of the difference, I suppose, was due to the fact that the Schmeling fight had been in the summer, and now the leaves were turning on the sides of the Ramapos, and the air was chill. But that wasn't all of it. Before the war, the camp was operated by a bright and energetic couple named Dr. and Mrs. Bier, who had ambitions about turning it into a health farmfor millionaires. On days when Louis was to spar, the grounds were always packed with charabancs from Harlem bringing people to see him work. The money pouring in at the gate, at a dollar a head, made training actually a profitable activity, and the hot-dog concession alone—there was also a bar—brought in enough to pay the sparring partners. The place has since been bought by a man by the name of Baumgartner, and there is no longer a bar, or even a hot dog, on the premises, although I heard that Coca-Cola can be bought on Sundays. The day I was there, there were perhaps a dozen automobiles on the grounds when sparring was scheduled to begin, and no more than twenty-five paying customers, at sixty cents a head, despite the fact that the fight was only a week off. And, except for me, the press was represented only by Colonel John R. Stingo, who writes a column called "Yea Verily" for the New York Enquirer, a newspaper always dated Monday but published only on Sunday afternoon. Colonel Stingo is a small, agile man who helped cover the Corbett-Sullivan fight for the New Orleans Item in 1892. A Boston newspaperman named Gilhooley had ridden out with us from New York in a car hired by the I.B.C., but had gone on to Marciano's training camp at Greenwood Lake, New York, seventeen miles farther along. The car was to wait there for him, and then pick us up after the workouts were over.
One of the first things I saw on getting out of the car was a familiar sweatered figure sprawled in a lawn chair in front of the red frame building that in livelier days housed the bar. It was Mannie Seamon, Louis's trainer, a white man who stepped into the job after the death of Jack Blackburn, the old colored fighter who formed Louis's style. Seamon is more of a conditioner than a boxing coach—a jovial, rosy-cheeked man who sometimes discourses learnedly on "bone juice" and keeping the air out of his charges' bones. He hadn't changed at all in the intervening years, I noted enviously, but I winced when I thought of how many thousand medicine balls he must have thrown at Louis's andother fighters' stomachs since 1938. All the sparring partners of thirteen years ago were gone—working on the docks, most of them, Seamon said—and so were Louis's managers then, John Roxborough and Julian Black, the two colored sporting men who brought Joe out of the Middle West, and Mike Jacobs, the quondam ticket scalper who once controlled boxing through his control of that great new favorite, Louis.
"Joe's looking the best he has in four years," Mannie said. (It was in 1947, in his first match against Walcott, that Louis first showed he was slipping badly.) We talked a while about fellows we had known in the thirties, and I asked Mannie if the terrible monotony of training wasn't beginning to tell on Louis. Joe made his pro debut in 1934, and he had boxed amateur before that, and the Army meant no letup, for his duty there consisted of boxing exhibitions for other soldiers. So he had been at it for nearly twenty years—light bag, heavy bag, pushups, belly bends, roadwork, and shadowboxing. It is hard to stay interested in your own shadow for twenty years. Even an old race horse gets so he won't extend himself in works.
"We keep his mind off it as much as we can," Seamon said. "We got a rule here, we never talk fight. Anything but that. We listen to phonograph records, or we play cards, or handicap horses. I tell him funny stories, and the best is different people come in and talk to him."
Seamon walked over to the gymnasium to get the fighter ready for his sparring exhibition, and after a while Colonel Stingo and I followed him. When we got to the dressing room, Louis was sitting on the rubbing table while Seamon prepared his hands—bandages, gauze, and flat sponge-rubber pads over the knuckles, and then adhesive tape to hold the structure in place. Seamon said, "Joe, this is Colonel Stingo. He is seventy-eight years old and he wants to work a couple of rounds with you." Louis looked down at the Colonel and couldn't at the moment think of anything to say except "Glad to meet you." I remindedLouis that he and I had last met in Frisco's, a drinking club on Sackville Street, in London, during the war, and he said, "That man once charged me sixteen dollars for a pint of gin." With us in the dressing room was a slender colored man named Reed, a friend of Louis's who had evidently been a patron of Frisco's at the same time, and he joined in the conversation to say he had once paid a cabby three pounds and six shillings to drive him to Frisco's from a few streets away. "'Three-and-six,' the man said," Reed recalled. "So I gave him three pounds and six shillings, and then I reached in my pocket and all I had left was a ten-shilling note, so I gave it to him for a tip. I didn't know if it was enough. That was my first time on leave in London." Louis began to laugh. "That was a pretty good tip," he said. "Two dollars for a seventy-cent ride that you already paid him nearly fifteen bucks for."
Louis, Reed, and I began telling stories about prices we had paid in London, straining the elastic of credulity with each tale—a kind of auction. Louis stuck closest to plausibility; Reed and I were just trying to be funny. Fruit had been fantastically dear in London by American standards, and Louis said he had once paid thirty shillings for a pound of hothouse grapes, as a present for an English family he knew. "Then I saw just a small apple there for six shillings," he said. "So I bought that, and bit into it outside the store. Man, it was sour! I give the rest of it to an old dog that come along, and he took one bite and took off." Louis also told about going up on a roof to watch an air raid his first night in London. "The tracers was the most beautiful thing I ever saw," he said.
By the time Seamon had finished with his hands, Louis was in high good humor. "I'm sorry we got no boxing shoes to fit you, Colonel," he said to Stingo just before he went into the gymnasium. "So I guess I won't be able to work with you today. You worked with me wearing those shoes, you might step all over my feet and disable me."
There was nothing showy about the workout. Two of Louis's three partners were light heavyweights, much smaller than the old champion, and they worked fast, to speed up his reflexes. He didn't punch hard at either, since the idea wasn't to discourage them. One of them, a brown boy from Bermuda, hit Louis pretty freely, but it was reasonable to suppose the Bermudian was a lot faster than Marciano could possibly be. That's the point of working with a light, fast man. The only partner on hand of the big, rough type that used to staff Louis's camps was a heavyweight named Elkins Brothers, whom I had seen fight in the semifinal on the Robinson-Turpin card. Brothers, a squat, powerful fellow, played the part of Marciano when he sparred with Louis. He came in crouching, and threw overhand rights at Louis's jaw. The overhand right, thrown in a rising arc like an artillery shell, was supposed to be Marciano's best punch. Louis kept jabbing at Brothers' head, trying to hit him just as the right started coming and keep him off balance. When he succeeded, he stepped in with a right uppercut. It was a pattern of battle, but neither man pressed it to its ultimate implication. They were methodical rather than fierce. Louis's body looked good—leaner, if anything, than it had in 1938—and the jab was as sweet as ever.
Stingo and I were sitting out on the lawn after the workout, waiting for the car from Greenwood Lake to pick us up, when Louis came along, on his way from the gym to his living quarters. He looked younger with his snap-brim hat on. It hid the bald spot. And in street clothes, after all, a superbly conditioned man of thirty-seven is still young. It's when he gets into a ring that age comes on him. Louis hovered over us for a while, but none of us could think of much to say. It was no use asking him how he felt, or whether he thought he could win this one, because clearly he was as good as anybody could get him now, and he had never had a match in his life that he didn't think he was going to win, and sixty-nine times out of seventy-one he had been right. So why would he change his mind this time?
Louis gave a small shiver and said, "Well, I guess I better go in, or I might get a chill." We shook hands all around, and he went along to play cards with the sparring partners who belonged to a younger generation.
The camp at Greenwood Lake, which I visited three days before the fight, was more lively. Marciano looked like the understander in the nine-man pyramid of a troupe of Arab acrobats. He was bull-necked and wide-shouldered, and even when he was merely walking around in the ring, he kept rippling the muscles of his arms and back, as if afraid that if he let them set they would tie up. He looks as if he should be muscle-bound, but he isn't. He worked with a big, rangy young heavyweight named Jimmy DeLange, who had the Louis role, and they fought as if they wanted to transcend the limitations of the leather head guards and the huge sparring gloves and knock each other out. Marciano moved around briskly on his stubby legs and threw punches well, especially to the body, but DeLange had no trouble reaching his head with left jabs, and the spar-mate's right uppercuts to the body came off well in close. Marciano was working in a head guard that was a cross between a gladiatorial helmet and racehorse blinkers, with long leather wings at the sides of his eyes. He wouldn't have that, at any rate, when he fought Louis, I told myself. He finished the third, and last, round with a big burst of punching.
During the workout, I sat alongside the ancient featherweight champion Abe Attell, and after it was over and the trainers had pulled Marciano's gloves off, Abe called up to the fighter, "Take it easy, Rocky! He's only a sparring partner!" The fighter held up three fingers and called back apologetically, "Only tree days!"—signifying that, with but three days to go, he was in too good shape to restrain himself.
"I had five hundred on him," Attell said to me. "And afterwhat I seen today I'm making it a thousand." Attell, who was himself one of the greatest of boxers, is a knowing man about fights, but he is famous for having an intricate mind. I consoled myself with the thought that he might, in fact, be betting on Louis and speaking favorably of Marciano only to get the odds up.
"Louis is all through," Attell went on, with what I considered a deplorable lack of sentiment in an old champion who had himself felt the sharp tooth of time. But Attell, who looks at you with cold eyes around his huge beak that is like a toucan's with a twisted septum, is not a sentimental man. "If they get a referee who don't let Louis hang on, the kid will knock him out," he said. He then put a handful of BB shot in his mouth and started to pick his teeth. He uses bamboo toothpicks, which he has tailored for him at a novelty shop on Broadway. From time to time, by means of his toothpick, he propels the pellets, one by one, through gaps between his teeth, hitting with perfect accuracy any object up to ten feet away. A nightclub hostess with a plunging neckline is his favorite target, but a busy bartender in a dimly lighted joint will keep him almost equally happy. En villgiature, he will take targets of opportunity, like the back of a stranger's neck. "I got hit with an automobile a couple years ago and got three new choppers on the right side, with no holes between then," he told me. "So now I developed a curve out the left."
Leaving the unfeeling Mr. Attell, I went over to wait outside the dressing room for Charlie Goldman, Marciano's trainer, an old bantamweight who has coached Weill's fighters for years. Goldman is a fine pedagogue, because he brings out his pupil's qualities instead of trying to change them. "The great thing about this kid is he's got leverage," he told me when he came out of the dressing room. "He takes a good punch and he's got the equalizers. He had leverage from the start, and when you teach a fellow like that, you have to go slow, because you might changethe way he stands or the way he moves, and spoil his hitting. Everything new you show him, you have to ask him, 'Does it feel natural?' 'Can you hit from there?' So naturally he'll never be a flashy boxer. But he's in the improving phase. He's still six months—maybe a year—away. But whether he beats Louis or not, he's going to be a lot better next summer."
Goldman is a soft-spoken, merry little man with a large head, buffed to a plane surface in front, and a pair of hands that look as if they had been trampled on. "Looka the bum, how many times he broke his hands!" Attell says loftily. His own magnificent fists carried him through three hundred and sixty-five fights with only one break. Goldman's more friable maulies prevented him from knocking out many of the four hundred opponents he fought, but they made him a thoughtful kind of boxer.
"Most fighters at twenty-seven have been boxing eight, nine years, and they are as good as they ever will be," Goldman told me. "But Rocky has only had about the equivalent of one year's experience. So he's still learning. Every time we made a fight for him up in New England, we would bring him down to New York for a week and get him a room at the C.YO., and then he would work out four or five afternoons at Stillman's," he said. "But he didn't do as much boxing in the three years as one of the boys who's at Stillman's every day would do in a year. So he's just beginning to come along. He'll knock them all out."
When I entered Madison Square Garden on the night of the fight I couldn't help hoping that Marciano was still too far away to demolish Louis. His day was bound to come anyway, if Goldman was right, and I wanted to see Louis get by once more. My seat was about where I had sat when I watched Louis beat Savold. I was sitting well forward in the mezzanine on the 49th Street side, midway between the east and west ends of the ring, at a point where I could watch crowd as well as fighters.
There were the usual introductions from the ring of white and colored men in knee-length jackets with flaring shoulders—rough, tough Paddy DeMarco, Philadelphia's undefeated Gil Turner, Sugar Ray Robinson, former heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles, and, finally, Jersey Joe Walcott, the reigning champion, as old as Louis by his own statement, several years older by popular report. ("I'm not old," he told a sports writer in 1947. "I'm just ugly.") The names of the judges and referee were announced: Joe Agnello, Harold Barnes, Ruby Goldstein—no surprises. And then the two factions were in the ring—Louis's in the northwest corner, Marciano's in the southeast. Mannie Seamon and a couple of fellows I didn't know were with Louis; Goldman and Marty Weill were with Marciano, together with a fellow New Englander named Al Columbo. Weill, a thin, pale young man with rumpled hair, seemed more awed than his fighter. Marciano was bouncing on his thick legs and punching the air to warm up. A tall, ash-blond 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. Husky as he was, he looked slight compared to Louis, who was three inches taller and, according to the announced weights, twenty-five pounds heavier. When the fighters were introduced, it was evident that if Connecticut, Rhode Island, and half of Massachusetts were not completely empty, their populations were at least substantially depleted for the evening. The Marciano supporters were cheering him as if he were a high-school football team. But Louis got an even bigger welcome.
And then, as the immortal historian of the British ring, Pierce Egan, wrote of the third fight between Dan Mendoza and Dick Humphries, in 1789, "The awful set-to at length commenced—when every eye beamed with anxiety—the moment was interesting and attractive, and each party was lost in suspense." I had a pair of pocket binoculars, 6 x 15s, and I kept them trained on Louis for the first half minute. His face was impassive, as usual, but his actions showed that he wasn't taking the strong boy lightly. Instead of moving relentlessly forward, as inhis great days, he seemed to be waiting to see what he was up against. In the first clinches, it was he who shifted Marciano, and not the other way about; Louis was stronger than the strong boy—at the beginning, anyway. He could outbox him at a distance, and if he could continue to smother him in close, I thought he would get by. Up to the last five seconds of the round, I noted, glancing at the ringside clock, neither of them had done anything remarkable, and that was all right with me. I had had a feeling that Marciano might rush out of his corner throwing punches and try to take Louis by storm. Then Marciano threw one of those rights, and it landed, it seemed to me, just under Louis's left ear. Louis had dropped his left shoulder after jabbing—an old fault, which brought about most of the bad moments of his career. This was the kind of punch that addles a man's brains, and if it had happened thirty seconds earlier and Marciano had pressed his advantage, he might have knocked Louis out in the first round.
I think that punch was the one that made Joe feel old. Between the rounds, I could see Seamon pressing an ice bag against the back of Louis's neck, and when I turned my binoculars on Charlie Goldman's face, he was grinning. Louis was apparently clearheaded when he came out for the second, but he didn't do much. I thought he won the next three rounds, jabbing Marciano's face and jolting him with rights in close. But the rights didn't sicken Marciano, as they had sickened Louis's opponents from 1935 to 1940; he reacted as if he were being hit by just an ordinary fighter. Marciano was missing almost all his own swings, and Goldman, between the rounds, was looking very serious as he talked to his pupil. Also, he was working on Rocky's brows with cotton-tipped toothpicks that had been steeped in some astringent solution. The jabs had cut. But Rocky came out for each new round very gay, as Egan would say, and went across to Louis as if to ask for a light.
When the fifth round ended, marking the halfway point ofthe fight, I felt that it would be a long way home but that Louis would make it. He had hardly used his left hook, which was now his best punch. Critics had been saying for years that his right had lost its authority, but the hook had existed in all its pristine glory as recently as the Savold bout, and he had had it in the training camp when I was watching him. ("It would take a Goliath to withstand a couple of those," old Colonel Stingo had said solemnly.) The way I figured it, Louis was being so careful about that crazy Marciano right that he was afraid to pull his own left back to hook. He would just jab and drop his forearm onto Rocky's right biceps, so he couldn't counter. Sooner or later, Joe would throw the hook, I thought, and that would end the fight. It looked like a fight between two men with one good hand apiece.
In the sixth, things started to go sour. It wasn't that Marciano grew better or stronger; it was that Louis seemed to get slower and weaker. The spring was gone from his legs—and it had been only a slight spring in the beginning—and in the clinches Marciano was shoving him around. A man can be as strong for tugging and hauling at thirty-seven, or for that matter at forty-seven, as he was in his twenties, but he can't keep on starting and stopping for as many minutes. And even grazing blows begin to hurt after a while. Near the end of the round, Marciano hit Louis another solid one.
The seventh was bad for Louis. Marciano didn't catch him with one big punch, but he was battering at his body and arms, and shoving him around, and Joe didn't seem to be able to do anything about it. Then, toward the end of the round, Joe threw the hook. It was beautiful. It hit Marciano flush on the right side of the jaw, but it didn't seem to faze him a bit. I knew then that Joe was beaten, but I thought that it might be only a decision. Three rounds don't seem forever, especially when you're just watching.
Then, in the eighth round, as you probably read in the dailypress, Marciano, the right-hand specialist, knocked Louis down with a left hook that Goldman had not previously publicized. When Louis got up, Marciano hit him with two more left hooks, which set him up for the right and the pitiful finish.
Right after Marciano knocked Louis down the first time, Sugar Ray Robinson 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."
Two weeks later, I stopped by the offices of the International Boxing Club to ask Al Weill how he felt about things now. "What did I tell you?" he said. "You want to look out for them broken fighters. The way things look now, the kid could make a fortune of money."
Copyright 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956 by the Estate of A. J. Liebling
Foreword by Robert Anasi
The Bog Fellows
Boxing with the Naked Eye
Broken Fighter Arrives
The Melting Middleweight
Sugar Ray and the Milling Cove
Kearns by a Knockout
The Big Fellows Again
Long Toddle, Short Fight
The Boy from South Main Street
Nino and a Nanimal
The Neutral Corner Art Group
Debut of a Seasoned Artist
Next-to-Last Stand, Maybe
Ahab and Nemesis
Ahab and Nemesis
A J Liebling at his most brilliant. The train trip from New York to Philadelphia alllows you to climb aboard and join the wiseguys and sporting crowd for an event that is described in a detail that appeals to the readersMANY senses-you can SMELL the cigar smoke! The observations go well beyond Runyon's comic book characters-Liebling's sympathies and sensitivities are unequalled. I have recommended this book to sports and non-sports fans and have NEVER heard anything but appreciation for the introduction. In 1992 Sports Illustrated created the 100 Greatest Sports Books ever Written and this was named # 1-appropriately.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 3, 2009
This was the best book that I've ever read in which boxing was the main topic. Liebling captured a time by-gone and preserved for us forever the way life once was in America and, in particular, New York City.
At one time, boxing was king, but Liebling foretold of its downward turn. However, in it's heyday, Liebling covered the sport like no other and in "The Sweet Science," Liebling paints a portrait that is simultaneously tragic and heroic, all with the cosmopolitan lifestyle of a New York writer as the backdrop.
I absolutely reccomend the book to anyone who wishes to know more about the rich tapestry that is the history of boxing.
Posted December 18, 2008
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Posted October 27, 2008
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