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Why Boxing is Called the Sweet Science

Depending on the viewer, boxing can be seen as a violent, barbaric sport or a beautiful and artistic display of athleticism. Many spectators are unable to see past boxing’s physical and aggressive nature, and they close their eyes to the boxers’ incredible abilities. An onlooker with an in-depth understanding of the sport, however, appreciates the sheer display of expertise displayed by two talented fighters. Indeed, boxing is violent, but it’s also a skillful craft that involves strategy and forethought – much like a chess match. This guide focuses on the phrase “Sweet Science” as it pertains to the sport of boxing.

The Origins

Pierce Egan was a British journalist and sportswriter in the early 1800s. He wrote about a variety of sports, but most of his articles concern bare-knuckle boxing and horse racing.

Egan is best known for his five volumes of boxing articles titled Boxiana. The first volume was published in 1813 and the series was completed in 1828. Within his articles, he often refers to boxing as the “Sweet Science of Bruising,” a phrase that acknowledges boxers as both methodical and tough. Boxiana experienced tremendous success in the early 19th century, for it combined luminous illustrations with knowledgeable writing concerning the most popular illegal sport of the time. Learn more about boxing's ancient history with iSport's History of Boxing.

A Different Era

Although Egan’s articles were well-respected, the phrase “sweet science” generally fell out of use until the middle of the 20th century when author AJ Libeling brought it back. Libeling was a writer for the The New Yorker who wrote a collection of boxing articles from 1951 to 1955. He titled his collection The Sweet Science in homage to Pierce Egan, and he published the collection as a book in 1956. In 2002, Sports Illustrated magazine rated it “the greatest sports book of all time.”

Within The Sweet Science, Libeling covers popular boxers and bouts of the day, providing precise observations throughout. Some of the most successful fighters of the time included Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, and Jake Lamotta.

Sugar Ray Robinson boxed as though he were playing a violin.

Barney Nagler, Sportswriter

Nicknames

Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard both received their nicknames from the phrase “sweet science.” Both fighters used technical, adroit strategies to outclass opponents. Ray Robinson’s trainer, George Gainford, gave Robinson the nickname when he was an amateur. Gainford said Robinson was “sweet as sugar.” The nickname stuck and was subsequently used to describe the other Ray (Leonard) when he arrived on the boxing scene.

Modern Usage

Boxing’s popularity has fallen in the last several decades, but the skills and heart displayed by the best in the world remain the same. The most successful boxers are tactical, yet tough. No other phrase depicts this image better than the term coined by Egan in the early 19th century, “The Sweet Science of Bruising.”

You may wonder why boxing is often referred to as the “sweet science.” Read this guide and uncover the history behind this unique phrase.
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