A.J. Leibling captures the smokey ambience of the ring and its world with a masterly hand. Joyce Carol Oates ("On Boxing") may be squeamish and over-dramatic, and Budd Schulberg self-promoting and exasperating, but Mr. Leibling the has a touch born of a top flight journalist and ardent boxing fan who also has the benefit of minute observation, a genial sense of humor, a well seasoned knowledge of the world, and a strong classical education. We enter the world protrayed in A Neutral Corner by way of the dingy confines of Stillman's gym in New York City, but on the way over are entertained by a short, amusing and thoroughly knowledgable meditation on the Great Ancients of boxing: 18th/19th century Pierce Egan (whom Liebling calls the ring's "Thucydides") and Jewish greats Dan Mendoza and Dutch Sam. Liebling muses on their significant contribution to the ring and that of the Jewish fighters in general and we finally fetch up at Stillman's gym (an icon of New York Boxing) simultaneously with the reflection that there are few Jewish fighters these (1952) days. "With a good Jew fighter now" One of the managers declares, "you could make a fortune of money." There is the rise of Irish fighters and the economic circumstances that gave birth to both Jewish and Irish fighters, and the availability of day jobs that waylay their ring ambition. Yet this is hardly a dry academic treatise, for it is entertwined and amplified by the thoughts and opinions of the trainers, managers and boxers at Stillman's.
Liebling is interested in everything and everyone, and nothing escapes his pen as he immerses the reader in whichever world he is illustrating with his mixture of scholarly observation and streetwise humor. At one point we arrive in Tunis, where one escapes from the oppressive heat into a museum and suddenly comes upon an ancient mosaic of a boxing match. It depicts one fighter knocking down the other. "The fellow on the receiving end", Liebling muses, "has an experienced disillusioned look, like that of a boy who has fought out of town before..." The Tunisian passion for prizefighting has deep roots, and seems hardly about to diminish, with the buildup to a local match nearly consuming the entire city.
Throughout these essays there is the sense of accompanying Liebling as he chats with the managers, watches the boxers train, pokes his head into training camps and interviews fighters and has a drink at The Neutral Corner, a New York bar and grill, to hash it all out. We sit with him near ringside where his smooth prose in no way interferes with his immediate and lively portrayal of the fights. We become acquainted with Floyd Patterson, a sensitive and intelligent fighter forever in search of his soul, the professorial Archie Moore, a very young Cassius Clay and another side of the habitually taciturn Sonny Liston.
Liebling's prose flows and some have remarked on its pyrotechnics, but is tight and descriptive, and his interests comprehensive. Each essay (originally printed in The New Yorker) builds an absorbing world of its own, though several are connected by common themes (for instance, Stillman's gym, Floyd Patterson's series of fights). This is a book for the die-hard boxing fan, for it there is little in it that does not pertain to boxing, its past and present. It can also be enjoyed by the general reader and lover of good writing, for it is a collecton of essays, each one lively and gracefully written, about the people, first and foremost, who make up the old and sometimes dark world of prizefighting.