When it comes to boxing, the difference between those who follow it and those who don’t is enormous. As a sport, football is much more popular nowadays, and even those who know very little about it have a general idea of how it works, from the rivalries between the different cities and clubs, to how the playing style and techniques change from one country to the next. Boxing might seem incomparable to any other sport, but when you study it more closely, you will be surprised to find that the same cultural and sociological metaphors also exist. It is no coincidence that the lives of several well-known writers have been profoundly influenced by this consuming discipline, either because they themselves were amateur boxers, or because they were huge fans of boxing as a sport. Two such well-known aficionados were Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway.
Modern boxing is only the latest evolution of a thousand year old discipline whose signature padded gloves are a relatively recent addition. In the mid 1800’s, matches were fought with bare hands, and the styles and techniques of combat were very different from the ones we see today, as was the surrounding social context. Every boxing fan knows that historical disputes, socio-economic problems and struggles of class and ethnicity are woven into the stories behind the greatest matches, and that no boxing contest can ever be taken at face value.
Pierce Egan, the British journalist who coined the term “the sweet science” was a brilliant sports analyst who wrote a series of articles in the early 1800’s in the form of a description of England’s bare-knuckle fight club scene, the first volume of which was called Boxiana, and published in 1813. His work has been a source of inspiration for many generations of sports and non-sports journalists, including Abbott Joseph Liebling, who took up the term "sweet science" as the name for his most famous book first published by Penguin in 1956. The Sweet Science is an account of how boxing evolved through the 1950’s in post-war America. The Second World War began to affect American boxing when the draft came along in 1940, halting the development of new talent. So the post-war boost saw television broadcasters revolutionise audience enjoyment, assisted by the flow of money from sponsors, tickets and the reviving amateur boxing scene. Liebling delivers an expert account of every aspect of this drastic change, in particular through his coverage of heavyweight Joe Louis losing his title to the emerging Rocky Marciano.
Liebling describes how boxing became the story of individual rivalries, of discipline, racial struggles, emancipation, escape from poverty, and engagement with the public. His writing is passionate and full of literary and mythological references, with a complexity and style that only old school journalists were capable of. Or maybe not, particularly since Liebling was not a huge fan of waxing too lyrical over the past. As proof of this, in the book he aims to convey the charm of the passage of time, giving examples to illustrate that it is impossible to compare athletes from different generations.