Ali and Cosell, Irresistible Enigmas The relationship between champion boxer Muhammad Ali and TV sports personality Howard Cosell made for some of the best theater in American sports. Sportswriter David Kindred to write Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship.
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Ali and Cosell, Irresistible Enigmas

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Ali and Cosell, Irresistible Enigmas

Ali and Cosell, Irresistible Enigmas

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For decades, Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell shared a double act that transcended sports.

Dave Kindred, who knew them both, writes, "It was a bumpy ride. Athletically, sociology, and politically, Ali mattered more to his times then any athlete who ever lived. Only the rare journalist stood with him, though, and Cosell did it on national television."

Mr. HOWARD COSELL (TV sports personality): Very honestly, I don't think he can beat George Foreman.

Mr. MUHAMMAD ALI (Boxer): Howard Cosell, you told everybody I don't have a chance. You told them I don't have nothing but a prayer. Well, chump, all I need is a prayer, because if that prayer reach the right man, not only will George Foreman fall, but mountains will fall.

CONAN: Dave Kindred has written a new book about the lives of the great boxer, and the man who reinvented television sports, and about their most unusual relationship.

If you have questions about either man, or both, our phone number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our email address,

Dave Kindred joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. DAVE KINDRED (Author): Thank you, Neal. After that same kind of funereal announcement by Cosell that Ali had no chance against Foreman, Ali was seen on, well, in When We Were Kings, the documentary, taking exception to that saying, Cosell, you're a phony, and that thing on your head comes from the tail of a pony.

CONAN: But you can hear, just in that little clip, the affection that he obviously had for Howard Cosell.

Mr. KINDRED: They had a battering relationship from the start. They knew the act worked, and they played the act every time.

I don't know, in doing the research for the book, I don't know how many times I heard on videotape or read the truculent line where Ali is being very confident and is putting Cosell down, not paying attention to him. And Howard says, "Muhammad, you're being very truculent today." And Ali responds by saying, "I don't know what truculent means, but if that's good, that's what I am."

CONAN: I bet by that point he probably knew what it meant.

The differences between these two men are so obvious: age, race, religion, education. I wonder, are there important similarities, too?

Mr. KINDRED: Well, the single similarity that overpowers all of the kind of superficial differences is obsessive ambition, in addition to great talent. They had great talent at what they were. Ali was the greatest athlete that I ever saw at 40 years of going to games, the greatest athlete I ever will see, I dare say that.

And Cosell was a pioneer in sports broadcasting in that he was perhaps, I think he was the first real journalist who went into sports broadcasting. Everyone else was a fan, did play-by-play kind of Homerism, but Cosell took a print sensibility to it. He grew up in Brooklyn reading ten, eleven, twelve New York papers in the '30's and '40's. So, print journalism meant a lot to him, and that kind of reporting meant a lot to him.

Ali was the first mouthy athlete, you know, people want to say that Terrell Owens of today is a lineal descendent of Ali, and I take great exception to that. Because Ali was the first, as Cosell was the first of his kind, and even now, 40 years later, they're still the best. Duplicates, but no one's ever matched them.

CONAN: Interesting, on a show where we were spending most of our time talking about people who go AWOL, deserters. Muhammad Ali, the most famous draft resister of all time.

Mr. KINDRED: Conscientious objection claim. I think it was a political decision from the start. Political decision dictated by Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader at the time, who himself, during WWII, had resisted the draft. In fact, the FBI claimed that when it went to round him up for evading the draft that he was rolled up in a carpet under his mother's bed. I'm not sure that the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover at that time, was telling the complete truth.

But Elijah Muhammad resisted the draft, his son, Wallace Dean Muhammad resisted the draft. Malcolm X resisted the draft. It was a Nation of Islam political dictate at the time that they would not serve a nation that they thought had mistreated them. And Ali was nothing if not the subservient follower of Elijah Muhammad. So, I don't think there was any doubt that it was a political decision, cloaked in religious tones.

CONAN: There was so much criticism of him, at the time, hatred of Muhammad Ali at the time, even questions about whether he should be called Muhammad Ali or Cassius Clay. And Cosell was really the first one, there's a transcript in your book of the interview where he said, Ali corrects him, he says, "My name is not Cassius Clay", and Cosell says, "You're right. You're right. You should be able to call yourself whatever you want."

Mr. KINDRED: Well, a man who began life as Howard Cohen and became Howard Cosell couldn't very well deny the right of another man to change his name. But still, I mean, I worked in Louisville, Kentucky, my first real job, from '65 to '77. I, in researching the book, I looked up my old stuff that I'd written about Ali, who became Ali in 1964.

The Louisville Courier Journal, his hometown, referred to him as Cassius Clay in my stuff, as late as 1970. And I don't remember why that was. It wasn't my choice, I'm sure. It must've been the newspaper's policy. And I dare say that a great majority of people, let's say over 50 years old, in Louisville now, still think of him first as Cassius Clay. Still wanting to deny that they lost Cassius Clay, you know, the sweetheart Baptist, sweetheart son of the Baptist lady, to the Nation of Islam. But they did, and in the rest of the world, certainly, he's been Ali ever since.

CONAN: We're talking with Dave Kindred. His new book is "Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship." Of course, it's about Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

You also talk about the images of these two men, and Ali today, stricken by Parkinson's disease. A saint to many people. Yet, you do not overlook a couple of dreadful episodes in his past.

Mr. KINDRED: What I've tried to do, Neal, in the book, yeah, I've read everything every written about Ali, from, I mean, because he was like, as I said the greatest athlete that I'll ever see--a historic figure in sports, a historic figure in this country. So, I've read everything, because at some point in time, I knew I had to write this book. I had to write something about Ali to get the story down the way I saw it happen.

Every other book about Ali has dealt with him as a political figure, as a racial figure, as a symbol of religious pride. I wanted to deal with him as a man. And so, I do it as a straight biography, chronologically, letting the story develop. I do the same thing with Cosell, because again, he's been reduced to a cartoon, almost. And I wanted to show that there was a real man there, that he had real struggles. That was the thing that combined them, that brought them together, too, was a sense that they both had risen from oppression.

Ali's racial oppression in Louisville. Cosell was always talking about the Catholic kids from St. Theresa's parish chasing the Jew boy through the neighborhood. You know, and his daughter, Jill, told me that kind of the defining standard of her father's life forever was that he, no matter how much fame or money he attained, was that he thought of himself as a poor Jewish boy. And that was a, that colored his outlook on everything forever.

CONAN: You got extraordinary access to Muhammad Ali, as the reporter for the hometown paper, which he certainly recognized. There's a wonderful story you tell. You actually spent time in bed with Muhammad Ali.

Mr. KINDRED: Let me be quick to say, there was a not a Brokeback Mountain moment, and it was nothing personal. It was business, but it was 1973. In fact, I didn't even write about it at the time, because it seemed so strange, like, are we nuts here? Or, you know, one of us was nuts, I'm not sure which one.

But his suite, I had, when you say extraordinary access, that moment probably was extraordinary, but Ali allowed more access to himself than any athlete or any entertainer ever will. His hotel suite was always full of people. That day, I couldn't hear him, he couldn't hear me. He sees me, "Louisville, come...", yeah, I don't know if he ever knew my name. But he said, "Louisville, come here." So, I go, and he's got the sheets pulled up to his chin, and he lifts a corner of the sheets and says, "Get in." It was the only way to conduct the interview, so one of us wearing clothes, that was me, are in the bed now, under the sheets like couple little kids, you know, listening to radio when their parents don't want them to.

He takes my notebook and writes the names of the people in his entourage and what he's paying them. I conducted a long search for that notebook without ever finding it. But that was a memorable moment that, 30 years later, I found a way to write about it.

CONAN: Did you know Cosell as well?

Mr. KINDRED: Well, there's a story again. You know, I don't want to sound like I'm a puriate here or something, but, you know, Cosell wanted me to write his fourth book. I didn't want to write it, because he wanted to excoriate even more people, all those people he had already excoriated several times, he wanted to do once more. I didn't want to do that book.

But I was at his house in the Hamptons. I'm sitting one morning, I'm sitting having orange juice waiting for him to wake up. And I look through the shadows across this long room, and I see this elongated, skeletal figure. Cosell was about 6'2", maybe. About that time he was 71 years old, weighed 150, maybe, and he's in his underwear. You know, the white, sleeveless shirt and the boxers and no toupee. It was altogether a frightening sight.

CONAN: I bet.

Mr. KINDRED: He raises his arms in a body builder's pose and says, "A killing machine, the likes of which few men have ever seen."

CONAN: Those stories and many more about Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell in Dave Kindred's new book, "Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship."

Dave Kindred, thanks so much for joining us here...

Mr. KINDRED: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: ...on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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