I’ve been reading one of the most revered boxing writers, New Yorker contributor AJ Liebling. He was a writer that would have felt just as home behind the mic providing color commentary like Max Kellerman or Paulie Malignaggi, but he instead provided meditative essays most unexpected for such a brutal sport, especially in his time. He was still the perennial professional, but weaved inside the report of the biggest fights in New York was this extra human dimension; 24/7 but in writing if you will. But more than just sharing deep realism, Liebling cared about the fighter’s dreams and motivations. In a time when boxing media required physical attendance, and were gatherings that were probably as dangerous as the risks the fighters took inside the ring, Liebling was there in the front row and in the locker rooms and in the gym. He penned the name “The Sweet Science” but only to punctuate the depths of boxing story Liebling brings forward. He decomposes a picture of the entire boxing experience, from the hard work in the gym for novices, to the champion weigh-ins and the seething anticipation of the crowd in the seconds between rounds.
The primary collection of Liebling’s stories was self-titled The Sweet Science, and his other collection named The Neutral Corner. I’ve been picking up one story at a time from each book, and am noticing the supreme passion AJ Liebling has for boxing and how startly different the sport was in his time. AJ Liebling was a gym rat that absorbed boxing as an observer. He would keep his mind in the moment and pursue the story in the boxers, and be concise on actual events but lean on his paragraphs explaining how much compassion and emotion he would recall of the boxers, the team, the gym, the difficult weeks of work in between the NY lights.
AJ Liebling wrote alot about the fighters in and around Stillman‘s Gym, a legendary gym that housed the likes of Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Rocky Marciano, but Liebling actually wrote a lot about the challengers, the no-names and what their lives were like outside the gym. He wrote about transient fighters looking to make more money in the big city. He wrote about the drunks in the nosebleed seats bullying richer people in the expensive seats. What was interesting was him writing about what I would’ve called today as gatekeepers, like Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson.
What interested Liebling to Jackson was not only his Tommy Hearns-like physical gifts (his reach was always longer) and his unlimited endurance as a heavyweight (something nonexistent today) but how Tommy was squarely between boxing art and boxing capability. Looking up Jackson on boxrec was like a looking at Brandon Rios’ record. If your name wasn’t Floyd Patterson, you simply cannot beat Hurricane Jackson. [Jackson even beat Ezzard Charles, twice!] He was an illiterate fighter that could run for days and fought on instinct, but was slow to start and just too simple, too uncoordinated, ill-managed, or just simply unlucky. While brighter lights rewarded Floyd Patterson, Liebling instead sheds his light to Tommy Jackson. “On the night of the [Nino Valdez] fight, I was more excited than I had been before any match for years, and for purely subjective reasons. If the animal [Tommy Jackson] won, it meant that the Sweet Science was mere guess-work…” He went on to understand the difference between the boxer that can paint with his tools, and the boxer that well, simply has tools. It’s wafer thin, and makes a mystery again of what was supposed to be the Sweet Science. But thankfully the simple art of Tommy Jackson was remembered and shared by Liebling, and I came away elevating Floyd Patterson to greater heights but also respecting the immense legacy of the top men he beat, most especially the Hurricane.
AJ Lieblings stories are pregnant of these spaces in between headlines; full of riches from boxing events in the past, and I will continue to recall them here in short specials. Liebling reminds me of what we started Blood Money Boxing about, critical commentary with depth. We don’t talk only about the star fighter, but also the strong fighters that those fighters overcome. If boxing is a representation of a truly democratic sport that I love, we’d do well by following the lead of AJ Liebling and cover the Hurricane’s and the Bam Bams.
Credit of the photos of Stillman’s gym goes to the venerable Magnum Photos.