Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Monday, April 17, 2006

Book Review: Dave Kindred on Ali and Cosell

The praise given Dave Kindred's book "Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship" on its back cover doesn't even begin to do it justice. This "tri-biography" of Muhammad Ali, Howard Cosell, and the partnership between the two, is a wonderful book and a novel concept that only a few had the knowledge, connections and talent to write. Thankfully for all of us, Kindred has.

Two books on Ali stand out for me -- Thomas Hauser's defining "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times," an oral history that Kindred rightly cites as generating relevance for Ali more than 10 years after his retirement, and David Remnick's majestic "King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero," which chronicles Ali's rise in the context of the often-frightening period during which it occurred. In his acknowledgements, Kindred admits that he had wanted to do an Ali biography but was overwhelmed by all the current work, so he offered to do one on Cosell. His agent suggested a biography of both. "Great agent," is the author's comment on that suggestion.

Kindred, a longtime sportswriter for The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Sporting News, among other publications, knew both men well. How well? In his introduction, he describes a scene in which he crawls into bed with a naked Ali in order to get a list of the names in the fighter's entourage, then segues to a scene at Cosell's house on Long Island in which the broadcaster emerges from his bedroom in his underwear, sans toupee, and flexes his muscles to show off to the author. Kindred has a genuine appreciation for both men, but his book is far more than an homage to their greatness.

The author paints a balanced portrait of both as flawed human beings, who rose to fame together in the turbulent 1960s, both minorities who dealt with persecution and rose above it. Despite their most obvious differences -- age, race, religion, marital history, and looks -- they had a great deal in common.

First, they were both driven by their own insecurity. Ali (then Cassius Clay) was driven to the Black Muslims by the sense of belonging they gave him, even as the group was undergoing a philosophical split that would result in Malcolm X's murder. His proclamations of his greatness before the cameras were driven by self-motivation as much as showmanship. Cosell was a perfectionist who feared the worst before almost every broadcast but managed to deliver every time. His selection for "Monday Night Football," the gig that cemented his celebrity, came only after a series of calls to badger creator Roone Arledge, which finally drew a return call and this hilarious ensuing exchange:

Arledge: "Get over here as soon as you can. There's something I need to talk to you about."
Cosell: "Ahhhh, from the desperation of your tone, I can only conclude that the bon vivant who is Roone Pinckney Arledge is beseeching me to rescue the trifle he's devised for Monday evenings. Am I not correct?"
Arledge: "As always, Howard."
Cosell: "And you no doubt expect me to shoulder this Stygian burden without additional compensation."
Arledge: "Yes, Howard, I do."
Cosell: "I accept."

Yet for all their haughty speech and insecurity, both worked to get where they were. Ali fought his way out of the Jim Crow South, took out perhaps the most feared champion of all-time in Sonny Liston, took on the government over the Vietnam War, regained the heavyweight title twice more, and retired with five career losses -- three of which came in his final four fights, when his body had already begun deteriorating and he was going for the paycheck. He is one of the most beloved men in the world. Cosell put himself through law school, joined the Army during World War II, directed his own early work, jumped to television at precisely the moment it was taking off in the national consciousness, and had a sixth sense of where to be when a major story was breaking so that his was the first voice you heard when you needed information. Followers have called him one of the "three C's of television:" Carson, Cronkite and Cosell.

So often Cosell's path intertwined with Ali's. A political liberal, Cosell defended Ali's right to take an anti-war stance (though Cosell was careful not to adopt the same public stance himself). He read the fighter's on-air statement announcing that he had refused to enter the service. Cosell was the first to reach the new champion upon his miraculous dispatch of Liston. He attended every Ali fight thereafter except the former champ's career-ending loss to Trevor Berbick, and shared numerous interviews along the way, probing Ali's thoughts and intentions. Their exchanges were often playful, occasionally serious, always memorable.

Both fell from glory at roughly the same time. Ali's final fights were money grabs to support himself after divorces, the Black Muslims and hangers-on who had taken advantage of Ali's good nature, had drained much of the champ's bank account. He refused to train seriously and was beaten soundly by Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and Berbick. Cosell, who helped establish "Monday Night Football" as an American tradition, left it bitter with his broadcast partners and done in by a scandal in which he had, ironically, called Washington Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett a "little monkey." The man who did as much for racial equality than anyone in sports was wrongly labelled a racist, but no one could overlook his increasingly boorish treatment of his broadcast partners and his self-serving rants directed toward the hypocrisy he now saw in sports.

Heroes are the people we wish ourselves to be, at least for a little while. And at their best, both Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell filled the bill. We wish to see the Ali who danced around the ring as a youth, who outran Liston, outsmarted George Foreman and outlasted Joe Frazier. We wish to see Cosell on the television describing the boxer he knew best, or uncovering the story behind Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Olympic protest, or opining on Reggie Jackson's dramatic homers or Lynn Swann's acrobatic catches.

Most of all, we want to hear them. For both were masters of language. Ali's street poetry and off-kilter proclamations that somehow became reality made him more intriguing than any athlete of our lifetimes. Cosell's polysyllabic hyperbole couldn't obscure the truth or conviction from the words he spoke and brought him at least a grudging respect. We want to hear them again, at the top of their profession, perhaps together in a boxing ring or a TV studio.

But Cosell has been dead nearly 11 years, and Ali is stricken by Parkinson's disease that has rendered him mute. It has taken another man with a gift for language, Dave Kindred, to restore them to us.



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