After telling a friend that my middle son, who turned seventeen on Saturday, had been studying boxing for the last year and a half, and that I saw him sparring in the ring for the first time last week, he wrote to me:
“Any person who steps into a ring to box another person possesses physical courage. Of course, your son must possess more than mere `guts’ to climb into a ring and trade blows with another boxer. He must have dedication, a work ethic. He must be, and I’m sure your son knows this, a student of the game. It’s called the `sweet science’ for a reason.”
My friend knows more about boxing than I ever will. My knowledge is almost strictly literary – Pierce Egan, Hazlitt, W.C. Heinz’s The Professional and his boxing journalism, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City and especially the fight writings of A.J. Liebling. I once met Mike Tyson, in police court in Albany, N.Y., where he was facing traffic charges, and I served on a panel devoted to boxing in Troy, N.Y., organized by the historical society. I sat next to a boxer and talked about Liebling. I’m neither a fan nor a morally outraged critic of the sport. Nor do I yet understand the part played by “physical courage.” As I watched my son in the ring, I was impressed that his instinct was to advance on his opponent, where mine would have been to back away. Through his face guard I saw him wince when the other fighter connected with his kidney, but even then he continued moving in, not letting the other guy lead the dance.
My friend refers to the “sweet science,” the phrase Liebling borrowed from Egan, who refers in Boxiana to the “Sweet Science of Bruising.” In 1956, Liebling published a collection of his boxing stories, The Sweet Science, a book I always cite when trying to stress the fact that a good writer can write a good, readable book even about a subject in which the reader has little or no prior interest. If a young person asks me which books he ought to read to learn how to write, I usually suggest The Sweet Science, Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm (1950) and Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). In the first piece collected in The Sweet Science, “Boxing with the Naked Eye,” Liebling writes:
“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.”