The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple

In Sound and Fury, sportswriter Dave Kindred examines the intersecting lives of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell.


Watch TV sports long enough and you’ll reach that point in life when you know they’re no longer selling the beer to you. It’s that midlife slide off advertisers’ demographic radar that you’re feeling. Nothing you can do about it and no reason, really, to feel any remorse. At least now, if you’re no longer within that golden 18-to-35 age range, you can retain some pride in knowing that your life intersected with a glorious, audacious era of televised sporting events when the channels were fewer, special events lived up to the hype and someone like Howard Cosell actually existed.

Try explaining to twentysomethings who Cosell was and why he mattered. They can relate only to a global village of 24/7 sports stretched like pizza dough along dozens of cable channels, websites and “talk radio” stations. In a heyday that roughly ran from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, Cosell was practically alone as a motormouthed churl of electronic sports journalism. Now the airwaves are saturated with know-it-alls trying to surpass one another in amplified outrage. But however much they may spritz and kvetch about salary caps, steroids and jock etiquette, the professional grumps now embedded in what sportswriter Robert Lipsyte indelibly labeled “SportsWorld” must know deep down that Cosell invented them all, that they flourish today, for better and worse, because of a labor lawyer from Brooklyn who, despite a grating nasal twang, a pouchy face tailor-made (as the wags like to say) for radio and a toupee that even Richard Pryor couldn’t resist milking for cheap laughs, brandished the kind of flash-point notoriety usually claimed by renegade rock stars. He was huckster and muckraker, malcontent and cheerleader, iconoclast and show horse, provocateur and carnival barker. With such contradictions in play, it’s little wonder that Cosell was found by some public polls to be America’s most beloved and most hated sports broadcaster. Even sports fans predisposed to Cosell’s patented cocktail of awe and incredulity could get exasperated enough with him to declare, as Wilfrid Sheed once did, that “the story of Howard Cosell is basically the history of a nervous system.”

Still, eleven years after Cosell’s death, you would figure enough time has passed to smooth over some of the animosity he aroused in his lifetime and allow a measured assessment of his thorny legacy. Sportswriter Dave Kindred’s Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship meets this task at least halfway by placing Cosell’s life story in context with the biggest ongoing story of his–or anyone else’s–career: Muhammad Ali. Both Ali and Cosell came into prominence at roughly the same time–and at the right time for both. The 1960s seemed created for brash, outsized personalities such as theirs to prosper and flourish. By the time the decade was over, the charismatic, charming, loquacious boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay was the Most Famous Man in the World. And Cosell, described in his salad days by his future boss, ABC sports president Roone Arledge, as a “strange creature who’d wandered the nation’s locker rooms with a thirty-pound tape recorder strapped to his back, interviewing anyone who’d talk to him,” had become Humble Howard, designated gadfly of ABC’s Monday Night Football and culture hero (or villain) for publicly supporting Ali’s right to retain the heavyweight championship stripped from him because of the fighter’s refusal to report to the Army for induction in the midst of the Vietnam War.

Sound and Fury has a ready-made audience in those old enough to fondly remember catching Most Famous and Humble on TV together for two decades, each man baiting and teasing the other, jabbing at the inflated balloons of their respective egos. “They were,” Kindred writes in his preface, “their own sight gag, the handsome athlete shimmering alongside the homely fellow with the bad toupee. They sounded funny because Ali spoke simply while Cosell’s language was that of a sesquipedalian trained at law and infected by grandiloquence born of pomposity.” One remembers how Ali would taunt, “I made you, Cosell!” He would go further, telling Cosell in 1977, “You know you need me more than I need you. That’s why I come in to do this show. Keep that in your mind with all your smart questions.”

Kindred doesn’t disagree–at least, not totally: “Without Ali engaging his liberal social conscience, Cosell would never have found his truest voice,” he writes, adding, “and without the embrace of Cosell and the American Broadcasting Company when other networks wanted nothing to do with him, Ali could have been dismissed as a cultural-fringe aberration.” It’s questionable whether Ali could have ever been a “fringe” anything. He was so much larger than life that it seems almost unfair to use his life as a prism through which Cosell’s own considerable stature can be evaluated.

Still, one can only wonder (to deploy a Cosellian rhetorical device) whether Sound and Fury contributes anything radically new to what’s already known about Muhammad Ali, especially in its brisk recounting of events leading to his 1964 title bout with Sonny Liston and the tumultuous events surrounding it: the conversion to Islam, the rupture with Malcolm X, the 1965 rematch with Liston and that controversial first-round knockout from a deceptively light right-hand punch. Ali said afterward he’d learned that punch from–wait for it–Stepin Fetchit, who in turn said he’d learned it from Jack Johnson. By Kindred’s account, Cosell was as nonplussed by this disclosure as everyone else who heard it at the post-fight press conference.

Here and throughout the book, Kindred is shrewd and graceful in bringing Cosell and Ali in and out of each other’s career paths. Because relatively little is known about Cosell’s ascendancy compared with Ali’s, the book seems more enlightening, more revelatory when it brings up such matters as Cosell’s involvement in a groundbreaking TV documentary in the mid-1960s about the football program at then little-known historically black Grambling College. Jerry Izenberg, the documentary’s producer, said that film defined Cosell as “the black man’s white man.”

Just as crucial to this image was the moment in May 1966 when Cosell, while interviewing Ali, was called out by the fighter for saying he was “also known as Cassius Clay.” Abashed, Cosell said, “You are quite right. I apologize. Muhammad Ali is your name. You’re entitled to that.” At that moment, Kindred writes of Cosell, “He had chosen sides, if implicitly, in those arguments about race, religion, politics, and war that were dividing Americans’ opinions on Ali.” Both the boxer and the broadcaster were in relatively uncharted waters. Sports in the United States was still considered a refuge from discussions on race, politics, religion and war. And now this odd couple of Jew and Muslim, who seemed to have little in common besides audacity and self-aggrandizement, were shifting the paradigm for how athletic competition was discussed in America’s living rooms. Between the two of them, separately and apart, they helped make it safe to speak of sports and societal change in the same context. They were hardly alone in this. Many sportswriters, including the aforementioned Lipsyte, Izenberg and Kindred himself, helped bring more iconoclasm and incredulity to chronicling games and the people who play them. But television was now the 800-pound gorilla in the temple of sports, and its relative size seemed enhanced by what the book describes as this “fateful friendship” of two opposites.

If, that is, one could call it a friendship. For all the good-natured banter and joshing that characterized the Ali-Cosell act, even Kindred is not sure his subtitle can be taken literally. “Theirs was a partnership, more than a friendship,” he writes. “In truth both men were so self-absorbed as to be blind to the other’s needs except as those needs met their own.” (One supposes the same could be said of another twentieth-century media-star package, Martin and Lewis, only without the latter couple’s acrimony and bitterness.) As much as Kindred may celebrate Cosell’s risky impulse to back Ali’s right to refuse military induction, he is conscientious enough to note that in none of the broadcaster’s four memoirs does Cosell take a position “pro or con on Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, or on the war itself, for that matter.” He also notes that “Cosell, the nonobservant Jew” never expressed an opinion in those books on the Nation of Islam ideology Ali practiced and preached during the late ’60s. Cosell may have seemed a rebel when measured against the stodgy gee-whiziness that prevailed over televised sports. But as Kindred notes, he was cunning enough in the ways of commercial television to stand closer to Ali than other broadcasters were willing to do without having to defend any of Ali’s views on race, religion or politics.

Sound and Fury also teases out a nagging paradox embedded in Cosell’s persona. He never stopped railing at what he perceived as SportsWorld’s terminally inflated sense of its own importance. “Do you think that I, at fifty-two years of age, and at the peak of my intellectual prowess, am going to spend the rest of my days worrying whether [Dallas Cowboys quarterback] Roger Staubach’s shoulder will heal in time for the Washington game?” he rhetorically asked in 1972. But as often as he groused about sports’ triviality in relation to more pressing issues of global poverty and war, he could still impose his own bluff gravitas on a botched field goal or an RBI as if it were the Second Coming. Television critic Michael Arlen, in an essay titled “Neutrality at the Empty Center” from his 1976 collection, The View From Highway 1, singled out a typical Cosell excoriation on Monday Night Football (“Kilmer has been having trouble all evening finding deep receivers”): “There is a grudging, edgy quality buried in the voice–a sense of…belligerent emotions being slipped into this unimportant sentence, as if to somehow blow it into life and conceal the emptiness at the center.”

Cosell’s griping about sports seemed just as hollow. Kindred notes how Cosell ripped into David Remnick, now The New Yorker‘s editor, for wasting his Princeton education on a sportswriting career at the Washington Post. Remnick reminded Cosell that he was using his law degree on sports journalism. Cosell replied, “Yes, but I have made fucking millions.” To unsympathetic ears, such declamations marked a convergence of arrogance and duplicity.

But there was genuine passion beneath the bellicosity that, when aroused, could sell more than just a game. The book describes the process through which Cosell helped assemble a half-hour documentary about his friend and idol Jackie Robinson hours after the pioneering baseball player died in 1972. Toward the end of a nerve-wracking process, Cosell was told that the program needed a forty-five-second “wrap-up.” Cosell complied with the request without having to write any copy. “He did it live and to the second,” Kindred writes. “And once more he rendered Jack Roosevelt Robinson human, proud, unconquerable.” Such precise, spontaneous invention was what separated Cosell from his peers. And while it’s thrilling to read about such moments, it might have been even more thrilling to read just what it was that Cosell was able to wring spontaneously, lucidly and touchingly from his head on the spur of the moment.

Still, Kindred is descriptive enough in both his personal reminiscences and his reporting to compensate for such omissions. He knew both Ali and Cosell well enough to appreciate their complex temperaments without letting these men off the hook for their displays of hubris, especially toward the twilight of their glory days. The book shakes its head sadly over the way Ali pressed his luck beyond reason in his penultimate bout against Larry Holmes in 1980 while looking over at the melancholy and bitterness that began overpowering Cosell at about the same time. When framed against Cosell’s alliances with Robinson, Ali and other African-American sports renegades, there’s unbearable irony over this “black man’s white man” catching hell in 1983 over a woozy description of a Washington Redskins receiver named Alvin Garrett as a “little monkey” on Monday Night Football. He still made valuable contributions to sports journalism as anchor for ABC’s SportsBeat newsmagazine, a precursor to HBO’s award-winning Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel. But the show vanished from the airwaves in 1985, and the subsequent deterioration in the health of the book’s two principal subjects makes their “parallel lives” more synchronous than they were beforehand.

There remain people who have never forgiven Cosell or Ali for the stands they took forty-plus years ago. There are people now who can’t forgive either man for helping create the present sports universe of trash-talking, in-your-face athletes and commentators with big heads and bigger mouths. But blaming Cosell and Ali for this chatter and clutter is about as useful as blaming Richard Pryor for inspiring generations of comics who can talk a bright blue streak while totally missing his impeccable sense of pathos. Or blaming Jimi Hendrix for spawning guitarists who can play louder and faster than he can but can’t match his facility with basic blues changes. Whatever the spillover from their egos, however glaring their contradictions, Ali and Cosell both recognized that there were bigger things in life than sports. A lot of twentysomethings awash in beer ads, game highlights and processed swagger need access to this simple, complicated truth, and Kindred’s book, though far from the last word on either of its subjects, clears a path to such understanding.

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