Howard Cosell covers the story as Muhammad Ali celebrates on the cover of Sound and Fury.
Prologue: They Charmed and Bedeviled Us
One afternoon in Las Vegas, while in bed with Muhammad Ali, I asked him to name the members of his entourage and list their duties. He took my pencil and held my reporter's spiral notebook inches above his pretty face. In childlike block letters, he printed a dozen names. Alongside the names he wrote dollar figures in estimate of each person's weekly salary. We lay there, shoulder to shoulder, one of us wearing clothes. Here's what I thought: Are we nuts, or what?
Years later I told New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, "I was in bed with Ali."
Anderson said, "We all were."
"No," I said, "I was in bed with Ali."
"Oh," he said.
It happened in a hotel suite three or four days before some fight. The suite was the usual Ali Circus madhouse of perfumed women, pimp-dressed hangers-on, sycophants, con artists, sportswriters, and other reprobates. Through an open door at one side of the suite's central space, I saw Ali in bed with the sheets pulled up to his chin. On eye contact, he shouted, "My man. Louisville, come in here."
I worked for the Courier-Journal, his hometown newspaper, and first spent a day with him in 1966. Already famous and infamous as the heavyweight champion and loud-mouthed draft resister, he had come to Louisville to visit his parents and fight an exhibition bout for charity. I was a young reporter in my first year at the great newspaper and eager to do anything the editors asked. When one said, "Clay's in town, go find him," I did. We drove around the city, stopping now and then to do some business. My son, Jeff, four years old, rode with us, and Ali occasionally put Jeff on his lap as if he were steering the car. I thought: a nice guy.
Now, in his bedroom in 1973, the noise from the central suite was maddening. Ali lifted a corner of the bedsheet and said, "C'mon, get in." Over the years I had talked with him in shower stalls and toilets, in funeral homes, log cabins, mosques, and once in a Cadillac at eighty-five miles per hour on a logging road through a forest. And now — this was a reporter getting close to his subject — I took off my shoes and put myself under the sheets with the once and future heavyweight champion of the world. I wore golf slacks and a polo shirt. More than most men, if not more than most narcissists, Ali loved to show off his body. He was beautiful, six foot three and 210 pounds, with proportions so powerful and so perfectly in balance that he might have sprung to life from a Michelangelo sketch. On the off-chance that you didn't notice, he often repeated what a nurse had said on prepping his groin for hernia surgery. "She took one look," Ali said, "and she went, 'You are the greatest!'"
Like schoolboys on a sleepover hiding their mischief, we pulled the sheets over our heads. Ali made a tent by raising his knees. Shadows danced inside our hiding place. The suite's noise seemed distant. On my back I did an interview that ended with Ali saying, "Tell the people in Louisville this will be noooo contest because I am the greatest of alllllll times." Then I asked for my notebook back.
The strangest aspect of the undercover interview was that it wasn't strange. For Ali, it was characteristic. Whatever he wanted to do, he did it as soon as possible. C'mon, get in. Anything could happen around Ali and often did.
I saw him naked. I am not sure I ever saw him clearly.
Howard Cosell was in his underwear.
I sat at a breakfast table in his beach house on Long Island in Westhampton, New York. The sun streamed in over a marshland. I saw in the shadows across the room a ghostly shape that on inspection turned out to be my host shuffling barefoot from his bedroom, skeletal in a white undershirt and white boxer briefs. He was bleary-eyed. He had not yet found his toupee. As Cosell noticed me, he raised his arms and struck a bodybuilder's biceps-flexing pose. Then he spoke, and this is what he said: "A killing machine the likes of which few men have ever seen."
On this morning in September 1989, I had known Cosell for twelve years. Our relationship began the day I wrote a column in the Washington Post praising him as a sports-broadcasting journalist without peer. I wrote that, while his excesses invited criticism, he deserved better than to be the target of mean-spirited punks, among them a Denver bar owner who allowed patrons to throw a brick at a television set carrying Cosell's image. The day the column ran, I answered my office phone.
"David Kindred," the caller said, not bothering to identify himself, "you are a perspicacious and principled young man, and it will be my honor to meet you this next week when I am at RFK for another of these Monday Night Football tortures."
Sounded like Cosell.
"David, this is Howard Cosell," he said.
"Well, it sounded like you," I said.
Twelve years later, he wanted me to write his fourth memoir. We met at his place in the Hamptons. There in the kitchen, he demonstrated the complete repertoire of his domestic skills. He found the refrigerator, extracted a carton, and without injuring himself or witnesses he poured a glass full of orange juice. His sainted wife, Emmy, said, "Took forty-five years to teach him that."
Cosell that morning also pleased his daughter, Hilary. Yes, he said. Yes, a man should walk down to the beach and see the ocean on a morning this beautiful. "We'll talk," he said to me, "after we examine Hilary's beloved beach." He put himself together. Toupee. Slacks. Boating shoes. Sunglasses. Short-sleeved shirt. He was ready. "To the beach," he said. He might have been MacArthur about to wade ashore in the Philippines.
From Cosell's deck at the edge of marshy Moniebog Bay, we walked maybe a hundred yards to the beach. The Atlantic glimmered in the rising sun. The obedient father of Hilary Cosell stood at the water's edge, though not so near as to allow water to stain his shoes. He looked to the horizon. He watched a wave lap against the shore. He gave the lovely beach and the ocean's wonders thirty seconds of his time. Then he said, "Well, Hil, we saw it."
Whereupon he retraced his steps to the comfort of a deck chair shaded by an umbrella. There he talked about the book. He was certain it would make America sit up and take notice. "We will excoriate the executives in charge of network sports broadcasts," he said. "They are people without scruples, without morality, without standards, without principle, and therefore without journalism. It is far past time for someone of integrity to expose the unholy alliances between promoters, broadcasters, and the sports industry."
He was a master of excoriation. He had excoriated most everyone in his third book. I was not in favor of more excoriation. That was not the book I wanted to write. But before I could say so, Cosell was in full cry about miscreants real and imagined, past and future. At that point, I did what millions of Americans had learned to do with Howard Cosell. I gave up and I listened.
We had no choice, really, except to listen to Ali and Cosell. Across much of the last half of the twentieth century, they were major players in American sports. Had they been practitioners of traditional humility, their extraordinary talents alone would have demanded that attention be paid. But there was nothing traditional about Ali and Cosell. A thimble would have contained their humility with room left over for an elephant.
Ali's shortest poem served as the foundation for most of his wakeful thinking. It went . . .
Cosell was a lawyer and thus inoculated against such brevity. He once wrote, "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, persecuting, distasteful, verbose, a show-off. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am."
Before Ali, sports was a slow dance. After, it was rock 'n' roll. A child of the 1950s, Ali grew up with the Temptations, Elvis, and Fats Domino. "You know who started me saying, 'I am the greatest'? Little Richard did." Ali was fifteen years old when he staked out Lloyd Price at Louisville's Top Hat Lounge to tell the singer he would be the heavyweight champion someday and, Please, Mr. Price, tell me how to make out with girls. When Ali beat Sonny Liston the first time, the singer Sam Cooke sat at ringside with two more of the fighter's heroes, Malcolm X and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Before Cosell, sports on television was a reverential production. After, it was a circus. He brought to his work a fan's passion, an entertainer's shtick, and (this was new) a journalist's integrity. He had no interest in creating an image of men as heroes simply because they could play a kid's game. Instead, he subjected sports to the examinations Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite made of the day's news. Thirty-eight years old when he gave up the law for Monday Night Football broadcasting, he had not yet met Ali. He was a decade and more away from. But he announced this: He would get famous.
They should never have met. Ali and Cosell lived in parallel worlds, separated by the sociological barriers of age, race, religion, education, and geography. But greater forces were at work. Twelve-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. put on boxing gloves, and high school sports editor Howard Cohen wrote his first Speaking of Sports column. Their differences became less important than their commonalities. Ambition and talent would bend their lives to a meeting place.
For most of twenty years, the fighter and the broadcaster appeared together on national television so many times that they became a de facto comedy team, Ali & Cosell. As considerable as the sports and news considerations were to Ali and Cosell, they were also intriguing as an eccentric evolutionary step in the history of entertainment. Comedy teams could be traced to the 1840s minstrel shows featuring the Interlocutor and Mr. Bones. Then came vaudeville, America's first mass entertainment industry with two million customers a day filling four thousand theaters to see twenty-five thousand performers. Radio, movies, and television created icons: Burns and Allen, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, the Smothers Brothers, the Blues Brothers Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, the ensemble comedy teams of Seinfeld and Friends.
But Ali & Cosell was different. It was real. No scripts, no rehearsals, no let's-shoot-that-scene-again. What television viewers saw was the most famous man on Earth (the pope ran second to Ali in most surveys) talking with the most famous television star in America (or maybe next to Johnny Carson). Ali & Cosell worked the way comedy teams always worked. They were 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. Twenty-four years younger than Cosell, Ali could represent every kid who ever flouted authority. The fighter forever titillated spectators with pantomimed threats to lift the broadcaster's hairpiece and once said, "Cosell, you're a phony, and that thing on your head comes from the tail of a pony." To a Cosell scolding of "You're being extremely truculent," the defiant child Ali replied, "Whatever 'truculent' means, if that's good, I'm that."
It made Ali & Cosell must-see TV. At the dawn of television's dominance of popular culture, they were both the creators and beneficiaries of sudden fame never before available. If blacks and Jews were marginalized by society, these two recognized that television could grant them legitimacy. Both profited from the work, for without Ali engaging his liberal social conscience, Cosell would never have found his truest voice; 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. At each other's side, they rose on an arc of celebrity previously unknown in sports and television.
It was a bumpy ride. While violence scarred America through the 1960s, Ali preached a hateful hodge-podge of racism, religion, and black nationalism. His declarations of independence as a black man made him a symbol of pride adapted for use by groups as disparate as the separatist Nation of Islam and the integrationist Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Athletically, sociologically, and politically, Ali mattered more to his times than any other athlete who ever lived.
Only the rare journalist stood with him, though, and only Cosell did it on national television. On issues so volatile they divided America, Cosell defended Ali's right to his religion, his right to oppose induction into the army, and his right to work while appealing his conviction for refusing the draft. He did it at the risk of his reputation and his livelihood in a business — television — not famous for principled stands that might offend advertisers. He did it, too, Cosell often said, despite thousands of letters he received in which the correspondents referred to him as "a nigger-loving Jew bastard."
Mostly, Ali & Cosell worked because the men brought to their lives and to their television appearances a fascinating array of dichotomies: love and hate, racism and tolerance, fear and courage, idealism and compromise. The camera's unblinking eye testified to all that, as well as to the men's mutual respect. Cosell loved Ali, the rebel with a belief, and Ali loved Cosell, the cranky old white guy brave enough to stand with him in the storm.
A night in Baltimore. Room 428 of a hotel. A man in the hallway bangs his fist against the room door. The man is Cosell and he is shouting. From inside the room comes a raspy voice.
Cosell beats on the door again. "Ali, it's me, Howard."
"Ain't Cosell. Tryin' to sleep."
Then comes a sentence of percussive consonants and melodramatic phrasing. "I'm warning you, nigger, you open this door, and open it now, or I will destroy it and tear you to ribbons."
The door flies open, Ali out of bed, laughing. "Cosell, get your white ass in here."
Only the inimitable, irascible Cosell could have roused Ali from bed that way. Only the inimitable, sweet-hearted Ali would answer those slurs smiling. Across a generation of tumult, they were friends, partners, and co-conspirators in an improbable dialectic that charmed and bedeviled us. One was Beauty, one was the Beast, and we never quite knew which was which.
From 'SOUND AND FURY' by Dave Kindred. Copyright (c) 2006 by Dave Kindred. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.