In 2002, Sports Illustrated named The Sweet Science, a collection of A.J. Liebling’s boxing essays published in the New Yorker, the greatest sports book of all time. The reporting of Liebling, a former war correspondent as fluid in press criticism and French culture as he was in pugilism, takes readers far outside the ring on fight day. His conversations with cab drivers, saloon keepers and fans in the stands show the depth to which 1950s boxing was entrenched in American culture (while reminding the reader of the sport’s irrelevance today). Liebling is more sociologist than sports reporter: he foreshadowed the corporatization of big-time sports, calling television a “ridiculous gadget” used “in the sale of beer and razor blades.” In noting the dearth of rising boxing stars in America’s poorer precincts, Liebling wrote that “there exists several generalized conditions today, like full-employment and a late-school leaving age, that militate against the development of first-rate professional boxers.” Ah, full employment: Liebling’s book serves as a stark reminder that boxing — and America — has seen better days.
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