I recently started following boxing again. Not the current crop of sluggers and the strange web of promoters, drug tests, Pay Per View and HBO.
No, I mean the classic fights – the ones that have been the stuff of legend a long time.
This happened, I suppose, because I was re-reading my favorite reporter of all time, A.J. Liebling, who wrote his best New Yorker pieces not about Paris or war or food, but the “sweet science.”
Some of the best, earliest lessons I learned as a kid came from watching boxing with my father. It wasn’t just the blue tapestry of profanity he spun, or the strategy and observation it took to learn a bit about the fights, or the sheer excitement as I shadowboxed against Mike Tyson on the screen, blocking my irate father’s view. It was also the lessons of watching Buster Douglas’s resolute determination in the face of inevitable crouching doom, the intensity of Barrera and Morales scratching away at one another round after round and year after year with a hatred illimitable, and the grace of Evander Holyfield even as appendages were lost and the blood began to flow.
Liebling captured how much boxing meant, how it was the most dramatic struggle short of love or war that there is. Just look at the Decline and Fall of Joe Louis he wrote here for The New Yorker:
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.”
Liebling died in 1963. But he would have appreciated the hell out of Hearns and Hagler (1985). This three year old learned in less than ten minutes how sometimes you can only achieve greatness squaring off with a foil.