A Neutral Corner: Boxing Essays

A Neutral Corner: Boxing Essays


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Fifteen previously unpublished boxing pieces written between 1952 and 1963.

Demonstrating A.J. Liebling's abiding passion for the "sweet science" of boxing, A Neutral Corner brings together fifteen previously unpublished pieces written between 1952 and 1963. Antic, clear-eyed, and wildly entertaining, these essays showcase a The New Yorker journalist at the top of his form. Here one relives the high drama of the classic Patterson-Johansson championship bout of 1959, and Liebling's early prescient portrayal of Cassius Clay's style as a boxer and a poet is not to be missed.

Liebling always finds the human story that makes these essays appealing to aficionados of boxing and prose alike. Alive with a true fan's reverence for the sport, yet balanced by a true skeptic's disdain for sentiment, A Neutral Corner is an American treasure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865474956
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/31/1996
Pages: 245
Sales rank: 772,322
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

A.J. Liebling joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1935 and wrote for the magazine until his death in 1963. His books include Between Meals, A Neutral Corner, and The Honest Rainmaker. Fred Warner and James Barbour are emeritus professors at the University of New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt

A Neutral Corner

By A. J. Liebling, Fred Warner, James Barbour

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1990 Norma Liebling Stonehill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9637-6


A Hundred and Eighteen Pounds

In the history of the English prize ring, there came a day when Pierce Egan, its Thucydides, had to write, "Abraham Belasco must be pronounced the only fighting Jew on the boxing list." That was in 1821. Belasco, a hundred-and-fifty-pound man, was a petty epilogue. He could give but not take punishment. The first period of Jewish prize-ring glory had begun with the rise of Dan Mendoza, in 1788. Mendoza, in Egan's words, "was considered one of the most elegant and scientific Pugilists in the whole race of Boxers, and might be termed a complete artist. His theoretic acquirements were great, and his practice truly extensive." This golden age had ended with the defeat of Dutch Sam by Bill Nosworthy, the baker, on December 8, 1814, eliciting from Egan this noble sentence: "The abdication of Bonaparte, in its proper sphere, was not more electric than the defeat of Dutch Sam in the boxing world." Dutch Sam, returned from retirement at the age of forty-one, weighed a hundred and thirty pounds for that fight. Nosworthy, twenty-eight, weighed a hundred and fifty-four. Nevertheless, to explain the result Egan had to theorize: "His [Sam's] irregularities of life must have dilapidated as fine and strong a constitution as was ever possessed by man." The fight had gone but thirty-eight rounds.

The reasons for the abandonment of the ring by Jews at that moment in history are not now discernible. They subsequently reentered the calling in great numbers, both in England and here. There were good Jewish fighters right up through the nineteen-thirties, and in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago they were among the best drawing cards. Since the most recent World War, though, there haven't been any new ones, and at Lou Stillman's gymnasium, on Eighth Avenue, where a hundred or so professional boxers train between jobs, a trainer the other day could think of only three Jewish boys who rent locker space — all of them very moderate. This is particularly distressing to the managers and would-be managers who congregate in the space between Stillman's lunch counter and his two boxing rings, because, as one of them said feelingly, "With a good Jew fighter now you could make a fortune of money."

I learned the stark statistics on my visit to Stillman's. Such changes creep up on us by imperceptible degrees; I had taken it for granted that there were still lots of Jewish boys around, even though I seldom happened to see any of them in the ring when I went to fights. The reasons for their disappearance are less obscure than the reasons for the disappearance of Jewish fighters in 1821. Freddy Brown, the fellow who counted off the survivors for me, furnished the explanation. Brown is a partner of an old friend of mine in the training business named Whitey Bimstein, who was also in Stillman's that day. Training is distinct from managing. The firm of Bimstein & Brown trains for any manager with the price, and is therefore in general touch with market conditions. Both Freddy and Whitey are Jews and former fighters.

"When the kids didn't have what to eat, they were glad to fight," Brown, a determined-looking chap with a well-smashed nose, told me. "Now that any kid can get a job, they got no ambition. Fighting used to be the only way to make a dollar, but now it looks like a hard buck. The kids we get now, the most of them, even the Italians, they just want to have a couple of fights so they can say they were fighters. It gives them class. The first time they lay off, we lose them. For instance, they got a rule now that a kid gets knocked out, he can't fight again for thirty days. What does he do? He gets a job. He draws down that fifty, sixty bucks a week, and he can go with girls. So we never see him again."

"The depression killed the gate but it developed fighters," Mr. Bimstein said, delivering a concurring opinion. "Now the kids ain't serious." He has bulging eyes with white lashes, and they looked even more world-weary than usual, because he had worked four corners in Cleveland the night before and had come straight from his plane to Stillman's. "The only ones who work hard are the colored boys," he said, "because for them it's still tough outside. The good white fighters you got coming up, you could count them on your fingers."

"Garbage," said Mr. Brown, waving a hard hand at the roomful of grunting, sweating youth, which included a good number of his own pupils.

Irish boxers are slightly less rare than Jewish ones, I gathered, and there are even a few tolerable postwar developments among them — Billy Graham, Walter Cartier, and Paddy Young, all New York boys but none, unfortunately, blessed with a resounding Hibernian name. There is also Irish Bob Murphy, from the Pacific Coast, a great crowd-pleaser. Still, their numerical advantage over their traditional rivals is only relative — just as the Javan rhinoceros has lagged behind the whooping crane in the race to extinction. They, too, find it easy to get outside jobs. Most of the white boxers using Stillman's now are of Italian stock, but there are at least as many Negroes as all kinds of white boys put together, with a large West Indian group filling in the spectrum between.

"Last week, the Broadway Arena was short a six-rounder," Whitey said. "Fellow got sick on them. They telephoned here but they couldn't fill it. Fifteen years ago, there would of been twenty managers fighting to get boys into the spot."

"Imagine it," said Brown. "The biggest gym in the country and they can't find a guy for a six-rounder. If a kid has had ten fights, his manager wants him to go on top. But the manager wants to name the other guy."

"You can't blame the managers, with the type kids they got," Whitey said. "They got to be careful."

Stillman's is reached from the street by way of a steep stairway. To get in, a spectator must pay fifty cents at a turnstile manned by a fellow called Curley, who is an expert at non-recognition. For years, he has practiced looking at people he knows as if he had never seen them before. The boxers, managers, and trainers who use Stillman's naturally get in without paying admission, and they sometimes bring in their friends. When this happens, an agonized look spreads over Curley's waxlike face. He resents introductions as buildups for future free entries, and makes a point of forgetting them. The striking bags and most of the exercise mats are on a balcony, and the two rings, with a few rows of benches for the spectators in front of them, are the central feature of Stillman's main floor. Earnest pairs of athletes succeed one another within the ring ropes, each boy trying to make an impression as well as sharpen his form, but there is little of that thinly veiled ill feeling that prevails among Sunday-morning tennis players, for example. The professional portion of the Stillman audience was therefore shocked when, on the day of my visit, two boys in a ring started slugging each other viciously, each holding with one hand and hitting with the other. A universal cry of condemnation went up: "Trow dem oudada ring! Trow da bum zout!" Stillman, the master of the revels, rang the electric bell prematurely. The abashed trainers of the uncouth pair climbed through the ropes and pried the solecists apart. Stillman's buzzed censoriously for a good two rounds after their banishment. There were no apologists, such as appear after a rough college football game. "If he wanted to give him a mouthful, he should of went outside!" a trainer named Frank Coco commented indignantly, alluding to one boy's tactic of holding the other by the back of the neck with one hand while he took aim with the other. "What good is it working like that?" a functionalist complained. "No referee will let you get away with it." Freddy had been one of the trainers through the ropes, and Whitey had darted into the locker room on the trail of the angry boys. When they returned, as disconcerted as the sponsors of a pregnant débutante, Whitey said, "I made them shake hands." But he still seemed upset.

Whitey, when he was boxing, in the years just before we went into the First World War, was a bantamweight, I knew, and so was Charley Goldman, another trainer of my acquaintance. There were, in fact, more bantams than fighters of any other class on view in clubs around New York in the teens and early twenties — little fellows able to get down to a hundred and eighteen pounds. I don't know whether it was because the town swarmed with small men then or whether it was because small men were particularly combative, but you saw bantam-weights all over the place. There were flyweights, too, for that matter — fellows able to make a hundred and twelve — but not so many of them.

When I looked Stillman's over that day with Whitey and Freddy, I couldn't see anybody who looked lighter than a featherweight — a hundred and twenty-six — but I didn't completely trust my eyes, because weights will often fool you. So I asked Whitey if there were any good bantamweights around. "Bantyweights?" Whitey said, as if I had mentioned hackney coaches. "I ain't seen one of them little bantyweights around since the war, hardly." It was then that I first realized small boxers are as nearly extinct as Jewish ones. I was aware of the study by the anthropologist Gordon Townsend Bowles, published in 1932, which proved that Harvard students of the day were, on the average, three and a half centimetres taller and ten pounds heavier than their Harvard fathers, but I had never thought of Harvard as a source of bantamweight material in the first place. Even the average Harvard father, as I remembered the data, had weighed about a hundred and thirty-nine. Neither, it seemed to me, had small men in general become less disputatious. Those I knew were, as far as I could recall, as much given to argument as ever.

I asked Whitey what he attributed the dearth to, and he said he didn't know. "It goes in fads," he said. "Sometimes for four or five years most every good boy coming up is a welterweight. Then you get four or five years of nothing but middleweights. Or the middleweight class goes down and your best drawing cards are lightweights. The one thing you could always use more than you got is heavyweights."

"If a manager gets a good, natural bantamweight now, he tries to build him up to a feather, so he can get work," Mr. Brown offered.

"But suppose you had a good kid who couldn't build up — what would he do for work?" I persisted. "Somebody like Escobar." I remembered that Whitey, in 1935, when I first knew him, had trained Sixto Escobar, a Puerto Rican who was bantamweight champion of the world at a time when the bantamweight championship still meant something at the gate, and that Escobar, whenever he tried to "build up," had merely succeeded in slowing himself down. He was more formidable at "eighteen" than at "twenty-three," as the fancy has it. Boxers and their handlers habitually omit the useless words "a hundred and" when speaking of a fighter's weight.

"A boy like Sixto would have to give away six or seven pounds," Whitey said. "But it's tough." He added, on reflection, that there was one boy using Stillman's who could do eighteen and who was up against exactly that problem. "He's Eddie Walker's kid, Cecil Schoonmaker," he said, "and he's had only one fight in the last three months. He had to go to Cuba for that, and he give the guy eight pounds." For small men, I knew, this is a crushing weight handicap. The lighter fellow, in order to overcome it, has to be far better than his opponent. Schoonmaker, Whitey said, had lost the decision in Cuba. "He's had to go all over the world to get fights," he went on. "It's drove Walker crazy."

I was unable to accept the notion that there were no more bantamweights — or, at any rate, that there were not enough bantamweights left to make one match. But I couldn't turn up another. One manager said a boy called Bill Bossio could do twenty-one. "Could he do eighteen for a big purse?" I asked. "Say, fifty thousand dollars?" "For fifty thousand dollars," the manager answered, "I'd cut his arm off." It happened that I had seen Bossio box, against a featherweight of standard dimensions, at the Westchester County Center, in White Plains, a little while before. A very short boy, with a disproportionately strong torso, he hadn't been quite able to make up for the disparity in reach and weight, and he had lost a close fight. Schoonmaker really did seem to be a lone survivor. Curious to meet a fellow in his situation, I told Whitey I would like to see him, and Whitey said it would be easy to arrange.

That evening, I had a telephone call from Eddie Walker, Schoonmaker's manager. The voice was harsh and indignant. "Cecil's a pretty good fighter," Walker said, "and he's more of a libility than an asset. How do you like that? He win the Golden Glovers, New York and national, and he win easy fifty out of sixty professional fights, and he's a libility. In 1948, he decisioned Dado Marino, the top bantam contender. The California State Boxing Commission recognized him as Number One bantamweight, but they got nobody to fight him. Besides, he don't want to go away from New York no more. He's tired of travelling. He's a New York boy."

I arranged to meet Walker and Schoonmaker at a quarter to twelve next morning, give or take five minutes, on the sidewalk in front of Stillman's. The gymnasium opens at twelve every weekday and closes at three. "That way, we'll have a chance to talk," Walker said. "I got to get away early, because I got a job as checker on the Cunard pier and I got to be over there by one."

When I arrived at the rendezvous, I found two or three young men, evidently fighters, leaning against an automobile parked at the curb, and three older men, who looked as if they might be managers, talking fight in front of a second-hand jewelry store ("Any Ring in the Window May Be Held on a Small Deposit") next door. I asked one of the older men if he was Eddie Walker and I happened to hit it right first time. He was a heavy-set man of neutral coloring, about fifty years old. He had a thrusting underlip and walked with a limp. We shook hands, and he introduced me to one of the boys at the car, who was Schoonmaker.

The fighter did not look unique, nor did he look like a fighter. A slender, very light mulatto with a bushy black mustache, he looked more like a bebop fan than an athlete, wearing a hat turned up in front, a greenish topcoat mottled with purple, a hand-painted necktie, a pink shirt, and well-scuffed loafers. He was tall enough to be a feather, or even a lightweight, and in his clothes he looked as heavy as the boy he was talking to, a fellow with American Indian features under a porkpie hat — Alex Finbreth, a featherweight from Arizona, Walker told me. "My trainer had me drink three bottle ale a day," Finbreth was saying as Walker and I approached. He was giving Schoonmaker a prescription for weight-building. Walker and Schoonmaker and I moved a bit apart from the others, and Schoonmaker said, "I could fight that boy, but his manager won't let him. If a fighter beats a lighter boy, it don't mean anything. And if he gets beat, it looks bad on his record."

"I tell you the truth, this boy is like my deserted child," Walker said to me. "He's had to stay away for years to get work, and now he's come home, I can't do anything for him. I got a couple of other fighters, big fellows, that I get work for them on the docks between fights, but this little bum, what good would he be?"

Cecil did not seem unduly distressed at his disqualification for heavy labor. "If I was heavy enough for the docks," he said, returning, as if magnetized, to his major dilemma, "I would be heavy enough to get fights." We agreed that I should come up and see him box, provided his trainer, Jimmy Brown — no relation to Freddy — could find a sparring partner of appropriate size, and that afterward, when Walker had gone off to the pier, Schoonmaker and I would have a talk.

When the gym opened, the trainer did manage to find a fellow for Schoonmaker to work with. The lad was only a preliminary fighter, however — a tall string bean of a boy, who contented himself with sticking out a tentative left and keeping his right glove in front of his nose, not venturing to become involved in any reciprocal action that might prove too advanced for his accomplishments. As for Schoonmaker, he had apparently been instructed not to damage the other boy. When he appeared in the ring, I could see that he had long legs in proportion to his short, square torso — long from hip to knee as well as from knee to ankle. They were well developed, and so were his arms. His biceps were surprisingly big, and his neck was sturdy. There was just no place for him to put on useful fighting weight. He moved well, flicking a fast left to the face and then getting in under the tall kid's guard whenever he wanted to, or shooting a fast, whipping blow to the ribs. Every time he landed one of these, he would stop the synchronized forward motion of the other shoulder and slide away, instead of throwing a series of punches, as was evidently his style. It was like seeing a child take one piece of candy and pull away from the box.


Excerpted from A Neutral Corner by A. J. Liebling, Fred Warner, James Barbour. Copyright © 1990 Norma Liebling Stonehill. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Foreword, by Bill Barich,
A Hundred and Eighteen Pounds,
The University of Eighth Avenue,
An Old Thuburban Custom,
They Must Tike Me for a Proper Mugg,
An Artist Seeks Himself,
A Reproach to Skeptics,
A Blow for Austerity,
A Space Filled In,
Ad Lib,
Poet and Pedagogue,
The Morest,
The Men in the Agbadas,
Anti-Poetry Night,
Starting All Over Again,
Afterword, by Fred Warner,
About the Author,

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