An Appetite for Liebling
Liebling could handle a real issue when it came along--read him on Louisiana's Earl Long or "Mollie," the G.I. whose nickname came from Molotov because of his radical opinions. Still, time and again, I think, Liebling is most himself as the man of education and natural understanding who keeps a very friendly regard for doubt, forgetting and never quite knowing what has happened or what you think. Yes, it can sound like fuddle, muddle or having had two glasses too many of the Petrus. But it is Liebling's essential stalwart nature to defend doubt and indecision, and to know that as much as a set, approved attitude may be called for, experience wasn't really like that. Consider this, from his own foreword to Mollie:
Collectively, the wars were the central theme of my life from October 1939, until the end of 1944, and I sometimes feel a deplorable nostalgia for them--as my friend the Count Rzewski once said about something else: "So disgusting, so deplorable, so human." The times were full of certainties: we could be certain we were right--and we were--and that certainty made us certain that anything we did was right, too. I have seldom been sure I was right since. It had attractive uncertainties, too: you never had to think about the future, because you didn't know if you would have one. Yet the risk was so disseminated over time that you seldom felt that this was the moment when the future might end.
I know that it is socially acceptable to write about war as an unmitigated horror, but subjectively at least, it was not true, and you can feel its pull on men's memories at the maudlin reunions of war divisions. They mourn for their dead, but also for war.
And when it came to boxing, Liebling rather preferred the blur of impression that remained from a fight to any strict point-counting system. "Part of the pleasure of going to a fight," he wrote,
is reading the newspapers the next morning to see what the sportswriters think happened. This pleasure is prolonged, in the case of a big bout, by the fight films. You can go to them to see what did happen. What you eventually think you remember about the fight will be an amalgam of what you thought you saw there, what you read in the papers you saw and what you saw in the films.
That existential surrender is prelude to a magnificent account of Sugar Ray Robinson's return bout at the Polo Grounds on September 12, 1951. Earlier that year, in London, in the course of a rather flamboyant tour of Europe (I believe I recall a pink convertible), Robinson had lost the world middleweight title to Randy Turpin (from Leamington in the Midlands). That was the first great fight this correspondent ever heard on the radio and I am weeping now as I recall the ecstasy in the commentator's voice as, after fifteen rounds, a London points decision went to Turpin. Two months later, in New York, Robinson was all business as he regained the world title. Here is Liebling torn between the evidence of his own eyes and the new truth called movie:
The films are especially insidious. During the last twenty seconds or so of the fight between Sugar Ray Robinson and Randy Turpin, for example, it seemed to me from where I sat, in the lower stand at the Polo Grounds, that Robinson hit the failing Turpin with every blow he threw--a succession of smashing hits such as I had never before seen a fighter take without going down. The films show that Robinson missed quite a few of them, and that Turpin, although not able to hit back, was putting up some defensive action until the last second--swaying low, with his gloves shielding his sad face, gray-white in the films. It was the face of a schoolboy who has long trained himself not to cry under punishment and who has had endless chances to practice, like an inmate at Dotheboys Hall.