Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon:
Annals of the Prize Ring

When Gentleman Dick Humphries ascended the stage at Odiham, Hampshire, on January 9, 1788, for his widely heralded first match with Daniel Mendoza, his fighting dress consisted of a pair of fine flannel drawers, white silk stockings with gold-colored clocks, pumps, and black shoe ribbons. After twenty-nine minutes of fighting, during which he had been severely punished, Humphries counter-attacked, and Mendoza, “milling in retreat,” slipped on the rain-soaked stage, wrenched his ankle, and was forced to give in. Immediately after the fight Humphries sent word of his triumph to his patron: “Sir, I have done the Jew, and am in good health.” Thus, with stylish pageantry and a laconic report, did modern boxing begin.

A. J. Liebling, whose articles on boxing for the New Yorker have been collected under the title The Sweet Science, is very well informed about the history of the sport and keeps an eye cocked for the traditional pomp and occasional humor which have always done so much toward civilizing this most primitive of modern entertainments. He dutifully notes Archie Moore’s “black silk mandarin robe with gold piping”; he records a handler’s deathless comment about the follow-up left Marciano threw at Walcott after the champion had already knocked the challenger stiff with a single short right—“He trun it for insurance”; he walks through a mobbed Harlem on the eve of the second Robinson-Turpin fight and speculates about the changes in fashion that would commemorate a Turpin victory: “I could visualize the thousands of shoulders draped in British tweed, and the equal number of feet, now impacted one on another, encased in shoes by Maxwell of Dover Street. In Harlem, fashion follows the brave.” He is quite aware that writing about sports is, and always has been, a species of casual sociology.

If the character of Mr. Liebling’s observations is traditional, so is the form in which he shapes them. Although he disdainfully writes off Hazlitt as a dilettante of the “fancy,” Mr. Liebling’s essays inevitably tend to resemble Hazlitt’s “The Fight,” the classic of the genre. First he gives us the prelude to the fight, the journey to the arena and the conversation of the fight crowd—its sentiments, predictions, and peculiarities. Then there is the fight itself, in which the behavior of the crowd is, for literary purposes, practically as interesting as that of the principals. Finally, there is the aftermath of the fight, the party or refection, analyses by ringside experts, and the journey home.

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The studied informality of Mr. Liebling’s manner is calculated to minimize his perceptiveness, to make his essays seem less “written,” but his subject is unyielding, and The Sweet Science is of necessity a highly “written” book. Fights and fight crowds are dismayingly like all other fights and fight crowds, and anyone who writes about them must be prepared to press very hard upon whatever minutiae of difference he can discover. When Mr. Liebling runs across something unusual or out of the way, he pauses, digresses leisurely, and describes it in extremely florid and stylized language. Here is his account of the death march toward a beer counter on the night of the Robinson-Maxim fight:

Our line inched along toward a kind of Storm Trooper with a head like a pink egg. Rivulets of sweat poured from the watershed of his cranium, and his face appeared behind a spray, like a bronze Triton’s in a fountain.

The same hypertrophy of style marks his occasional technical discussions:

There are plenty of tall, skinny kids, but few of them are fighters, because the tubular torso of the asthenic male renders him peculiarly vulnerable to pounding in the middle. His higher center of gravity is a disadvantage in the ring, permitting the other boy to spin him like the lady in a ballroom-dancing act, and his swan-like neck is an overextended line of neural communication, allowing him to be knocked out by a tap that would hardly jog the rudimentary mental processes of a bull-necked lad.

This is fancy language indeed, and if Mr. Liebling were not writing about an enterprise so degraded as professional fighting, such excursions into belle-lettristic extravagance would seem forced and inane. However, it is always a good trick to render something into language which seems utterly inappropriate to it, and Mr. Liebling often makes a fight sound like warfare in Heaven precisely because he knows his readers will be amused by the absurdity of the contrast between style and subject.

Mr. Liebling appears to suspect that boxing no longer offers enough intrinsic interest to stand by itself, and so, in addition to style, he depends upon a constant and annoying use of analogy. In every one of his essays the name of Pierce Egan figures centrally. Egan is cited, quoted, referred to, deferred to, and generally used as a touchstone for Mr. Liebling’s notions about the state of contemporary boxing. Mr. Liebling seeks a tradition to which he can assimilate his efforts, and in Egan, the Herodotus of Regency boxing, he believes he has found it. By using Egan’s quaint “flash” terminology, calling modern pluggers “coves,” viewing all of contemporary American boxing as if it were continuous with a tradition which quietly died one hundred and twenty years ago, Mr. Liebling intends to imbue his subject with a class, a tone, and a magnetism it no longer possesses. But what Mr. Liebling ultimately and unintentionally manages to demonstrate is how out of place and anachronistic the sport has become; for the circumstances which created the forty years of boxing’s Golden Age in England are just those which, except for the briefest period, never existed here. Beneath Mr. Liebling’s impeccable sophistication lurks a typical and an incorrigible American ingenuousness about history and the uses to which it can be put.

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Boxing’s Homeric era began in England in 1788 and ended in the late 1820’s. It flourished during the height of the English conservative reaction to the French Revolution, and it came to an end with the social changes that accompanied the mass agitation for Parliamentary reform. During the 18th century the population of the great English cities had doubled, and a large industrial working class had been extruded from off the land—fighters were, by and large, recruited from the urban lower classes, and the sudden increased popularity of the sport was one of the minor results of those myriad developments which had created a great reserve of propertyless labor in the cities. Since the fashionable social life of the age was characterized by the activities of George, Prince of Wales, Regent and King, and his aristocratic companions, professional boxing acquired its strongest impetus when aristocracy began to patronize it. The Regent led the way. At the famous fight between Mendoza and Humphries, the Prince, a Mendoza backer, sat wrapped in furs in his open carriage in the rain, corpulent, grumpy, suffering from chronic nosebleed, engrossed by the bloody spectacle. Enterprising young fighters became fixtures in many of the patrician households. Pugilists like John Jackson opened expensive salons at which members of the upper classes took boxing lessons. Byron came up to Cambridge with a boxing coach—as well as a bear and a monkey—in his entourage. The aristocracy, in the period when its private life was first being converted into public property, established a connection with the raffish and often criminal classes of the nation which gave boxing a license and a vogue it has never commanded since.

Mr. Liebling uses Egan to lend a kind of quaint gentility to the drab scene of contemporary pugilism. Yet Egan himself—if one bothers to read him—was anything but quaint or genteel. He was hardly even “flash” or chic. Egan was a rather thorough-going vulgarian, a toady, a semi-literate penny-a-liner, and a charming, cadging hanger-on to the influential. His career was also distinguished by a number of questionable episodes. On the other hand, so generally accepted was the fact of upper-class sponsorship of fighting that Egan could presume to speak as one of the Prince’s mouthpieces, and nothing is more amusing than to read one of his bombastic, cringing dedications—the one in Every Gentleman’s Manual is a good example—in which, with all the servility of a “free-born Englishman,” he lauds some nobleman until the meretricious periods of his Grub Street style seem to reel with nausea. Yet Mr. Liebling takes Egan at his own valuation and regards him as superior to the trade he advertised and the pugs he puffed—he is introduced into the pages of The Sweet Science as the venerable, almost ducal, household god of the “fistic fraternity.” For to Mr. Liebling, Egan is tradition, and tradition means class and fashion and privilege, and those things are always preferable in retrospect to whatever vestiges of them may exist now.

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In America there has been only one period in which the arrangements of society resembled those of the Regency—the era of Prohibition. It is no accident, I think, that that decade is universally considered our Golden Age of boxing (as well as sport in general). Mr. Liebling thinks this a mistake, because we have better fighters in most weights now. But he misses the point, For the great age of a sport owes much of its greatness to the quality of its sponsorship; and only during Prohibition, when the upper classes in America were perforce dependent on shady characters and racketeers—and thereby promoted a connection which conferred a certain prestige upon the latter—did boxing command anything like the general interest and attraction that it did in England at the end of the 18th century. Professional fighting has always been embarrassed by its propinquity to the criminal, and it has been only during those infrequent periods of culture when for some reason the criminal penetrates and is accepted into the respectable classes of society that boxing has been able to achieve a kind of stylishness and status in itself.

There is, however, another important reason why prize-fighting found its richest expression in the Regency and not later. In the England of that time public life was essentially brutal, and the upper classes codified that brutality and sanctioned it as a part of their own personal habits. Boxing itself was nakedly savage, half-wrestling, half-gouging, bare knuckles all the way, the rules prohibiting almost nothing except Falling without being hit. Other favorite English sports were bull- and bear-baiting, and dog and cock fighting. Public floggings and hangings were regular occasions for sociability, as were duels with rapiers and pistols. The English upper classes were not simply inured to this barbarity; they were confirmed in its advantages. When Dr. Keate was appointed headmaster of Eton in 1809, he addressed his young charges with genteel typicality: “Now boys, be pure in heart! For if not, I’ll flog you until you are!” Not until forty years later, when public opinion had come to realize that the balance of power and influence now lay in the hands of the manufacturing, reforming, and evangelizing classes, did the Regency paradigm of a gentleman really cease to be emulated.

Public life in America has never been characterized by this sort of institutionalized brutality. We have had no aristocracy, degenerate or otherwise, and almost all of our established communities have traditionally professed middle-class ideals. The principles of compromise and moderation, and an aversion to violence as a way of settling things or even as a mode of expression, have been among the chief historical pieties of our society. To be sure, American history is full of violent episodes and, unlike the English, we have been unable to tame violence in private life. But this is probably because we have never found respectable public institutions for expressing it.

There has never been, I think, a nation so sensitive to its own violent possibilities as America. The public consciousness seems periodically to revolve on the axes of violent images; nothing stimulates us more readily than the idea of the racist mob, the gang of juvenile criminals, the chance of our dropping an atom bomb on someone else—these possibilities provoke us more deeply than the Communists ever did, for we have implicated ourselves in them. Our increased fear of our own violent capacities, combined with our rudimentary means of dealing with them, have, I believe, contributed to the decline of boxing as a “sweet science,” despite its having been domesticated by television. There are few educated American men these days who do not enjoy watching a fight and who do not at the same time feel slightly equivocal about that enjoyment. We suspect that movies like The Set Up or The Harder They Fall really tell us more about fighting than Mr. Liebling’s entertaining and sympathetic accounts. When we see those sickening shots of swollen eyes and mangled noses and hear the mob baying for blood we feel that something in us we would rather not know about is being probed and stigmatized, and we wince, and then relax into the uneasy complacency which is muckraking’s customary reward to its approvers.

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Mr. Liebling does not deal with this night-side of our relation to boxing, but I think he is aware of it, and his writing often suffers in proportion to his neglect of it. He is occasionally bothered by the young hoodlums who attend the fights and swarm over other people’s seats, but he would rather remember the Regency or talk with the trainers, themselves relics of another time. This effort to avoid the unpleasant is what also seems to incline him to consider boxing in the most abstruse and literary fashion, and sometimes it even provokes confusion. The most accomplished essay in The Sweet Science is called “Ahab and Nemesis,” Mr. Liebling’s report of the Archie Moore-Rocky Marciano fight. Like most of us, Mr. Liebling has great admiration for Moore’s style and finesse, and he imagines him as an intellectual, artistic Ahab meeting his doom in Moby Dick Marciano, a force of nature, proof against intellect and science. He also compares Moore to Don Giovanni and Sisyphus. After the fight Mr. Liebling walks to a cafeteria on 167th Street:

I got my tea and a smoked-salmon sandwich on a soft onion roll at the counter and made my way to a table, where I found myself between two young policemen who were talking about why Walt Disney has never attempted a screen version of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” As I did not feel qualified to join in that one, I got out my copy of the official program of the fights and began to read the high-class feature articles as I munched my sandwich.

It is a wonder, but Mr. Liebling seems quite unaware that, in refusing to join in their conversation, he was doing something quite as preposterous as the two young policemen. Yet it seems to me an interesting comment on the state of our attitude toward boxing that someone as acute and knowledgeable as Mr. Liebling has to ignore so sizeable a part of our response to it in order to make it palatable, and that the result of his efforts is an almost vulgar confusion between the literary and the actual. This is the penalty we incur for dealing with any experience in such exclusively literary terms—even if, as in Mr. Liebling’s case, doing so permitted him to enjoy boxing and write about it pleasingly. Pierce Egan, scamp that he was, would have known that the only thing more odd than a fighter writing poetry or a policeman discussing Kafka is a writer disavowing his credentials in sparkling prose.

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