Cosell, Ali, Kindred and Me

BY George Kimball ON March 18, 2006
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“Cosell, you’re a phony,
And that thing on your head
Comes from the tail of a pony.”

– Muhammad Ali, poet

Two decades ago I was dispatched by my employers, somewhat against my wishes, to Providence, Rhode Island, where Brown University was conferring an award of some sort on Howard Cosell.

As part of the festivities, the laureate himself was to address the assembled student body. Why an Ivy League institution might have chosen to honor Cosell, and why the Boston Herald would deem it worthy of a column, are questions that to this day remain shrouded in mystery.

Cosell seemed surprised to see me that day, and appeared to be nearly as uncomfortable over my presence as I was by being there, but after assessing the situation he evidently decided that as long as I was in the building, I might make a convenient foil for his address.

Howard’s chosen topic that day was Muhammad Ali, and the role he himself had played in correcting the injustice perpetrated when boxing’s powers-that-be had stripped the great man of his heavyweight championship and, by denying him a boxing license, deprived him of his right to earn a living for nearly three and a half years as punishment for his refusal to serve in Vietnam.

To hear Cosell tell it, he had been a one-man crusader for justice, fighting a solitary battle on Ali’s behalf. And, for the benefit of a young audience which plainly knew no better, he chose to make me his whipping boy, repeatedly jabbing in my direction with his finger as he punctuated his vitriolic screed with claims that “98 per cent” of the nation’s sportswriters had lined up against Ali, and that none of them (us) had even begun to comprehend the constitutional issues which would eventually result in an 8-0 Supreme Court decision upholding Ali’s position.

I had no choice but to sit there and take it, but the moment he finished I confronted Cosell. It been unfair of him to single me out, I told him, particularly since he himself knew he was full of perpetrating a falsehood by lumping me in with Ali‘s old antagonists.

“I went to jail over that war in 1965,” I reminded Cosell. “And everything I had ever written on the subject was supportive of Ali.”

“Maybe not you, but what about your newspaper?” he argued.

“Howard,” I sighed, “the newspapers I was writing for back then were the Boston Phoenix and the Village Voice. Exactly which of them do you mean?”

He had no rebuttal, but neither did he apologize, and for all I know, any Brown students present that day still not only believe that I was part of the witch hunt, but that Howard Cosell was the only man in the civilized world to have staked his reputation on the correctness of Ali’s antiwar stance back in the 1960s.

Three years ago, just before the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight in Memphis, I ran into my old friend and golfing buddy Dave Kindred, who informed me that he was in the midst of an ambitious book project detailing the complex relationship between Ali and Cosell. He asked me if I had any recollections I might share. I e-mailed him a recapitulation of the aforementioned episode, along with some other equally uncomplimentary remembrances of Cosell.

When Kindred’s book “Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship” was published a few weeks ago, I was initially stunned to see that not a word of the material I’d sent its author had been included. But then the more I thought about it, the less surprised I was. If I’d been the one writing a book about Howard Cosell, I probably wouldn’t have included the testimony of anyone who claimed that he was kind to dogs and small children.

Not that Kindred is universally effusive in his praise of Humble Howard. He does take pains to note Cosell‘s insecurities and many flaws, but for the most part his portrayal is that of a sympathetic but misunderstood figure destined to be unjustly maligned by history. Attempting to demonstrate that (a) “Ali loved Cosell” and that (b) “Cosell was a good and decent man” was an ambitious task enough without cluttering up the narrative with conflicting evidence.

Although Kindred’s stated thesis is an exploration of the complex and often mutually-beneficial relationship between Ali and Cosell, the author appears to be much more sure of himself when dealing with one or the other. Originally a sportswriter for Cassius Clay’s hometown newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kindred has known Ali since the sixties, and is consequently able to draw upon four decades’ worth of personal interaction.

At the same time, Kindred was somewhat unique among the sports writing profession in that he was one of Cosell’s favored scribes, and was once invited to Howard’s Long Island home as a prospective biographer. Kindred recognizes many of Cosell’s shortcomings, but in the pages of this book he remains considerably more tolerant and forgiving than most of us might have been.

Nor does he shrink from dismissing Cosell’s self-proclaimed reputation as a boxing expert. Kindred recounts an unflattering moment a few days before Ali’s ill-fated 1980 challenge to Larry Holmes, when the broadcaster strolled into the arena at Caesars Palace in the company of producer Alex Wallau and supposed, aloud, “You know, Holmes is vulnerable to the right hand, and Ali has always been able to land the straight right. I think the old master is going to do it one more time.”

“Howard,” Wallau reminded him, accurately, “Not only is Ali not going to win the fight; not only is he not going to win a round; he’s not going to win ten seconds of any round.”

While acknowledging that Cosell had “an uneasy working relationship” with Wallau (now the president of ABC), Kindred never explores the roots of the rift between the two.

That dates back to 1976-77, when Wallau, then an assistant producer and researcher whose field of expertise was boxing, blew the whistle on the Don King/ABC enterprise known as the “US Boxing Championships,” a made-for-TV venture predicated on nonexistent fights and rigged ratings. Even after Wallau had exposed the odoriferous corruption underlying the process, Cosell stubbornly refused to acknowledge it, describing the US Boxing Championships as “an open, honest competition,” and did his best to undermine the whistle-blower’s credibility.

Only after an in-house investigation that brought down The Ring magazine, the so-called ’Bible of Boxing,’ and resulted in ABC’s withdrawal from the disgraceful project did Cosell stop trying to defend it.

And he never stopped blaming Wallau. Years later, in 1988 when Wallau was diagnosed with cancer, Cosell’s reaction was that (as a “boxing guy”) “he deserves it.”

By then Cosell had walked away from the sport that had helped bring him to national prominence. Although he publicly traced his disillusionment to the Holmes’ 1982 fight against Randall (Tex) Cobb, the truth is that Cosell had long since lost touch with the sport – in much the same way he eventually lost touch with all sports.

That Holmes-Cobb served as the catalyst which drove Cosell from boxing never seemed particularly persuasive to me. While that bout did have the trappings of an unconscionable mismatch, Howard had broadcast his share of events in which the deck was even more stacked. What seemed more likely to me at the time, and still does today, is that a sport which had nurtured him had become even more weary of Cosell than he was of boxing.

He was in any case by that time often stinking drunk while on the air, and a year after Holmes-Cobb Howard was making such a mess of ‘Monday Night Football’ telecasts that his longtime benefactor and staunch defender Roone Arledge virtually ordered his banishment from the broadcast booth.

To his credit, Kindred doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat this decline. He recounts one episode when, the moment a MNF telecast went off the air, Al Michaels turned to lecture Cosell about his drunkenness, threatening to never share the booth with him again. Then Michaels, deciding that he himself needed a drink, handed the luxury box bartender a paper cup and asked for a glass of vodka. The bottle provided to the booth turned out to be virtually empty: Between kickoff and the final gun, Howard had drained it dry.

The final straw which rang down the curtain on Cosell’s MNF career, of course, came in 1983, when he described Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett, who was black, as “a little monkey.” Then, as the phone lines lit up, Cosell attempted to claim, on the air, that he had never used the word ‘monkey,’ an absurd denial in the age of videotape.

Although I was acquainted with him for nearly a quarter of a century, I don’t pretend to have known Cosell either – certainly, in any case, not as well as Dave Kindred came to know him. But I crossed paths – and crossed swords – with him often enough to consider him a despicable and contemptible excuse for a human being, particularly in his later years when he had become thoroughly embittered and turned on friends and enemies with equal venom.

The mid-1980s saw an all-too-brief revival of “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” The production, starring John Lithgow and George Segal, was based on the original 1950s Rod Serling teleplay, and lamentably closed after just three performances. Several of us, in any case, had been invited to the opening night performance, and when Cosell spotted me, Michael Katz, Jose Torres, Bert Sugar, and our respective wives, he fairly sneered to his wife “Look, Emmy, it’s the boxing fraternity,” before elbowing his way past us without further acknowledgement.

Kindred seems to be on much more comfortable ground when he is dealing with Ali, but in attempting to retrace the boxer’s relationship with the broadcaster he allowed himself to be walked up a dead-end alley on at least one occasion. Kindred maintains in his introduction that he relied only on “trusted sources” for otherwise undocumented material, but in revealing details of a previously unreported (and almost certainly nonexistent) 1967 episode, he plainly trusted the wrong source and got merrily led down the garden path for his trouble.

Having been reclassified 1-A and having exhausted other remedies, Ali was ordered to report to the draft board in Houston. When his name was called he was asked to step forward as acknowledgement of his agreement to be drafted into the armed forces.

Ali refused to take that symbolic step in Houston on April 23, 1967, and the boxing hierarchy immediately began to move against him. When, a day later, the New York commission revoked his boxing license and withdrew recognition of his heavyweight championship, according to Kindred, a hastily-formed committee consisting of several high-powered literary types attempted to enlist Cosell in a mission to defend Ali, or at least Ali’s right to earn a living:

"That day, six men met for drinks at the Lion's Head Bar in New York's Greenwich Village. They were Jack Newfield, a Village Voice reporter; novelists Norman Mailer and Frederick Exley; Jimmy Breslin, the New York Post columnist, Pete Hamill of the New York Daily News, and George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review and an Ali specialist for Sports Illustrated

“What this ad hoc Ali committee could do, its members had no idea. They knew only that it needed to be done dramatically…

“We need a national voice, someone said.

“Someone else said, How about Cosell?

“George, you know him, don’t you?”

In Kindred’s version Plimpton was thus deputized to recruit Cosell, only to be rebuffed.

“Georgie-boy, I’d be shot, sitting right in this armchair, by some crazed redneck sharpshooter over there in that building,” Cosell allegedly told Plimpton. “If I deigned to say over the airwaves that Muhammad Ali should be completely absolved and allowed to return to the ring. I’d be shot, right through that window.”

(Plimpton, says Kindred, at this point reminded the broadcaster “Howard, no one’s going to shoot you from that building. That’s the Banker’s Trust.”)

“Reporting to the Lion’s Head literati,” Plimpton said Cosell rejected their invitation on the grounds that the committee’s ideas were “absurd, amateurish, and impractical,” writes Kindred.

Now, this account immediately set my bullshit detector to twitching. While I had yet to meet either Ali or Cosell in 1967, I was intimately acquainted with the Lion’s Head in that era, and it seemed unlikely that a summit meeting of this magnitude could have taken place without my knowledge. Both Cosell and Plimpton are conveniently dead (as are Newfield and Exley), but it immediately struck me that somebody had sold Kindred a bill of goods with their account of this ’committee.’

Hamill was working at the Post, not the News, in 1967, and Breslin, I’m pretty sure, was at the News and not the Post, but this went beyond a mere conflation of employers. To the best of my recollection, Fred Exley was at that time living in Florida, his initiation into the world of the Lion’s Head still a couple of years away.

When I contacted Hamill in Mexico City a few days ago and asked him about the account, he replied  that “the scene in the Kindred book almost certainly never took place – and if it did, I was certainly not part of it.

“I only remember Mailer being in the Head on two occasions, probably for book parties, and I never saw Plimpton there at all,” said Hamill. “Neither was a regular.”

Hamill’s recollection, like mine, was that Exley had yet to make his first visit to the Lion’s Head at the time in question, but just to be on the safe side, I consulted Exley’s own memoir, his seminal story on the Lion’s Head entitled “The Last Great Saloon,” which appeared in a 1990 edition of GQ. In that piece, Exley himself says that his first visit to the bar he would come to call home didn’t occur until June of 1969.

“I never thought of Plimpton as an Ali specialist at SI (the guy who wrote about him most was probably Gil Rogin),” continued Hamill. “I did see Cosell at the '68 Olympics in Mexico City and remember him (off camera) being vehement about the treatment of Ali.

“I actually liked Cosell – no doubt a Brooklyn thing,” said Hamill, “but it's unlikely that the group Kindred assembles, even if had existed, would ever have deferred to a TV/radio guy as their leader. Another tip-off (about the ‘meeting’) is that the paragraph starts off ‘that day.’ Nobody met during the day for anything in those days. We were all too busy working.”

But the fact that Kindred’s account of the apocryphal Lion’s Head summit was hopelessly off-base doesn’t diminish the unlikelihood of Cosell agreeing to spearhead such a project. As the author himself acknowledges in “Sound and Fury,” the man who would later proclaim that he had been a one-man voice in the wilderness standing up for Ali was, “on the important questions in Ali’s life… invisible.

“In his four memoirs, Cosell never takes a position pro or con on Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, or on the war itself, for that matter,” concedes Kindred. “Cosell did a clever high-wire act. He portrayed himself as a brother in arms standing with Ali. In fact, he never defended a single Ali position on race, politics, or religion. He defended the fighter’s rights to hold those positions. That was a good and brave thing to do in a time when many people’s rights were taken from them. But it was a different thing from agreeing with Ali’s philosophies and ideologies. Cosell’s defense was a narrow constructionist’s that excused him from ever taking a stand on the volatile issues in Ali’s life.”

The author also notes that while their Abbot-and-Costello routine often made for a mutually beneficial relationship, it was hardly a symbiotic one: “As Cosell did not truly know Ali,” writes Kindred, "Ali never knew Cosell."

Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship
By Dave Kindred; Free Press, New York, 2006; 368 pp.

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