I don’t remember having any heroes growing up—I’m thinking of public figures, but come to think of it I’m sure that would be true without that qualification—until I was about 10 or 11. From that point on I definitely did have heroes, and they were Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell.
Why those two? I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, why they meant as much to me as they did during my formative years, and what that says about me.
That my heroes would be from the world of sports is utterly unsurprising, as I was a sports fan to about the same (high) degree that I suppose the typical male American child is. Nor is it surprising that they’d be highly prominent figures that one could see on TV regularly during the era in which I grew up.
It’s perhaps more surprising that one wasn’t even an athlete, and the other at times spewed simplistic, anti-white rhetoric.
So why these two particular prominent American sports figures? A number of reasons suggest themselves to me.
I’ve long had a fascination with larger-than-life figures, people at the very top of whatever it is they do and famous for it, people who speak of themselves and their role in the world in grand and/or grandiose terms or are spoken of that way by others. (Then again, as I think through the characteristics Ali and Cosell had that seem to have drawn me to them, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem. I suppose it’s possible I became fascinated with people who had these characteristics because I had first seen them in my heroes, rather than their becoming my heroes because they had these characteristics.) Hence beyond the world of sports I have been fascinated by such people as the Beatles, Napoleon, and Gandhi.
I’m sure uniqueness was a big factor too. Since I grew up feeling very different from those around me, somehow special, and certainly disinclined to follow others or whatever was most popular, I naturally felt a kinship with non-conformists, eccentrics, “characters”—those who stood out from the norm.
I liked people who were controversial. If someone was extremely well known, then all else being equal I was more drawn to them if they were hated by many than if they were universally loved.
As important as anything in my attraction to Ali and Cosell was the admiration I have for people who stand on principle, people who say and do what they think is right, and if they pay a high price for it then I’m even more drawn to them. I’ve always had an appreciation for martyrs. Indeed, I think that in a highly imperfect world such as ours, those who do not suffer martyrdom—including myself—are highly suspect morally. Speaking the truth and doing what’s right opens oneself up to suffering, and I’m intrigued by the tiny minority of people who have the strength of character to live by that, rather than those with comfortable lives who rationalize all the compromises they make along the way to sidestep such suffering.
Ali and Cosell were also very big in my life because although their being sports figures is how I became aware of them as a child, the fact that they transcended sports opened up a much bigger world to me of current events and major social and political issues. They were important to my ethical maturation.
Obviously these aren’t unrelated factors. The people who are the best at what they do and/or the best known in their field are already by that fact alone unique. Sports figures who take a stand on principle and suffer for it are presumably involved in important areas of ethics and politics; it’s unlikely their controversial nature and martyrdom are due to how they pitch when ahead in the count or what form of zone pass coverage they favor.
So Cosell’s frequent use of the famous quotation “What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right” spoke to me even as a youth. Ali’s most controversial stands, and the ones he was most hated for, occurred more when I was younger and only vaguely aware of him, but certainly in reading about his life—including in Cosell’s books—I was captivated by his strength in standing up for his beliefs.
For years I gobbled up everything I could about these characters. I watched them on TV at every opportunity. I read and reread Cosell’s books, Ali’s “autobiography”—ghost-written and unfortunately all-too-fictionalized in many areas, but still not without value—and books and articles about Ali by Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Wilfrid Sheed, and others.
As I got older and entered adulthood, I followed them a lot less closely. Ali retired and was much less in the public eye. Cosell was still prominent for several years, but well below his peak when he’d been such a phenomenon.
A lot of it is that I drifted away from sports itself for a while. I probably saw 75% of Monday Night Football games when I was a kid, but then in, say, the final five years Cosell was on that show I doubt I saw more than three games total. I was aware of Cosell’s Sportsbeat show, and had a favorable impression of it, but truth be told I virtually never saw it.
I’d see an occasional story on Sixty Minutes or some such show about Ali’s physical deterioration, or I’d become aware of something from Cosell’s later career—I remember the idiotic “little monkey” Alvin Garrett controversy, for instance—but as I say, they just weren’t a big part of my life any more. Ali, it seemed, was barely functional, and my impression was that Cosell was just getting increasingly bitter and irrational, unable or unwilling to listen to others and address their claims on their merits, the older he got. That’s not how I wanted to remember my heroes.
Anyway, given the importance of these figures to my development, even though I hadn’t followed them nearly as closely since the late ’70s or early ’80s, I was naturally very interested when I came upon Sound and Fury. A book about either of them would have caught my eye, but a book about the both of them and their relationship was perfect for me.
This book functions as a dual biography, going back and forth between the two life stories, with ample sections detailing how their lives intersected. So it’s not just about them as a “team,” but includes plenty of biographical material about each of them individually.
That being said, it’s really not that long a book, and so it’s certainly not a comprehensive biography about either of them. It comes closer to being that for Cosell, but Ali has had such an extraordinary, full life, and so much information has been dug up about him over the years that you’d need thousands of pages to properly summarize it all.
A great deal of the Cosell material comes from his own books, which were all in part autobiographical. The Ali material reads at times more like a series of snippets from his life. I think it would be especially tough for a newcomer to Ali to get a good grasp of his boxing career from only this book. It’s more like author Dave Kindred focuses on a handful of fights—including what was going on outside the ring in connection with them—that he regards as especially important to understanding Ali’s life, and the rest are passed over with minimal mention at most.
I’m not criticizing the author for this, by the way, so much as describing his approach. Again, unless your book is monstrously long you’re going to have to leave out a lot of the available material.
Kindred, a sportswriter, knew both Ali and Cosell quite well. So among the many sources he draws upon in the book are his own experiences with the principles.
For me, Kindred strikes just the right balance. He clearly has a fondness for Ali and Cosell, and a high opinion of both, so in most respects his portrayals are sympathetic. Yet at the same time, there is no shortage of critical material here. He may be a friend, but he’s very aware of how flawed both men were. I feel like his attitude is much like mine: he gets what’s heroic about these figures without succumbing to hero worship.
I did catch a few errors in the book. It may be that it has no more errors than the typical work of nonfiction, but given how much I already knew of Ali and Cosell before reading this book I’m in a much better position to spot errors here than in most books I read.
For example, he identifies Cosell’s famous call of “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! The champion is taking the mandatory eight count, and Foreman looks [sic: Cosell actually said “is,” not “looks”] as poised as can be!” as occurring in the second round of the 1973 fight between Joe Frazier and George Foreman. In fact, that was from the first round.
He describes Ali’s punch that knocked down Sonny Liston in their second fight as having been on the “top of the head.” In fact, he hit him squarely on the left side of the jaw, which one can readily verify on YouTube.
Another error is not his but rather Ali’s, but he does not correct it. Ali is quoted as listing a number of boxers he had fought who had died young, among whom is Eddie Machen. But although their careers overlapped, Ali never fought Machen. At least they never faced each other in the pros. I don’t have easy access to their amateur career records, but given that Machen turned pro early in 1955 when Ali was a mere 13 year old in Louisville, I think it’s safe to assume they never fought as amateurs either.
Some of the errors aren’t so much factual errors like that, but instead are instances of one of my pet peeves about journalism: putting quotation marks around paraphrases.
I assume that stems from the days when reporters were frantically writing in shorthand what a person said, and then reconstructing as best they could from their notes when it came time to write their piece. It’s to be expected in such circumstances that what they attribute to a person might not be word-for-word accurate.
I would say in that case don’t use quotation marks, but I gather it’s accepted in the profession to use quotation marks as long as you’re confident your wording is close.
The problem is that now that there’s a good chance what you’re quoting is on film or videotape—or at the very least a tape recorder—you can no longer really use the excuse that you’re working from handwritten notes. It’s not that hard to provide exact quotes—at least when you choose to use quotation marks—rather than paraphrases, even very close paraphrases.
For instance, here is the author’s account of Ali and Frazier getting into a brawl in the ABC studios when commenting on their first fight (on a show hosted by Cosell), from the moment Frazier rises from his seat to the moment Ali stands up to initiate wrestling with him:
Frazier stood and turned his back to the camera. He looked down at Ali, still seated. “I’m tired of you calling me ignorant all the time. I’m not ignorant. Stand up, man!”
Now Ali’s face lit up with mischief, as if to say, You serious?
Frazier leaned over Ali. “Stand up!”
“Sit down, Joe,” Ali said dismissively.
Ali’s brother, Rahaman Ali, had come onto the stage. Frazier said, “You want to get in this, too?”
Ali half-rose from his seat, still with that mischievous smile. In a flash he wrapped his right arm around the back of Frazier’s neck and tugged at him, saying, “Sit down, quick, Joe.”
I read that, and it certainly sounded like it correctly conveyed the gist of what had happened, yet the wording sounded just a little off to me. So I again went to YouTube and found the relevant clip. There’s a little that’s muffled, so it’s possible I misidentified one or two words, but this is either an exact transcript or very close:
(Frazier had just remarked as they watched the film of their first fight that a certain punch was the one that “sent [Ali] to the hospital,” which provoked an immediate “That’s ignorant!” from Ali.)
Ali: I went to the hospital for five minutes.
Frazier: Why you figure I’m ignorant?
Ali: Now, you know—sit down!
Frazier: Yeah, stand up man! I’m tired of you calling me ignorant! Get up!
Ali: Sit down, Joe!
Frazier: Why you think I’m ignorant?
Ali: Sit down, Joe!
Ali: Sit down quick!
Frazier: Why you think I’m ignorant?
[Ali’s brother and another man slowly come up on stage in case the two need to be separated.]
Ali: The brothers are here!
Frazier: [To the other two men] You want to get in this too?
Ali: Sit down [rises from his seat to bear hug Frazier as his voice increases in volume] quick, Joe!
Again, does the author significantly misrepresent the incident? No. But he has material in quotation marks that as far as I can tell watching the tape simply isn’t accurate.
But that’s enough about errors, I have far more positive than negative things to say about Sound and Fury overall.
Although I’d read a great deal about Ali and Cosell in my life, and so a lot of this book felt like going over territory I’d been over multiple times before, there is a fair amount in here I did not already know (or if I had read it elsewhere I had forgotten it). Plus the author’s own interpretations and opinions are consistently intelligent and fair.
The author notes that not only might Liston have taken a dive in the second Ali-Liston fight (which everyone is suspicious of), but the first as well. There’s certainly circumstantial evidence for both claims, and Liston himself reportedly implied he was going to lose the first fight on purpose (by urging a friend not to bet on him), but I seriously doubt the first fight was fixed, and I even think it’s less than 50-50 that the second fight was.
Ali was just ridiculously good when he was young. His victory in the first fight was an upset, but with the benefit of hindsight we know that he dominated the heavyweight division for the next several years until his title was taken from him for political, out-of-the-ring reasons, and that put in that context there’s every reason to think he was capable of beating Liston fair and square. (That’s no knock on Liston, who I think is underrated if anything. It’s more a statement of how good Ali was, not to mention the fact that Liston was getting old by the time they fought—I believe there’s still some uncertainty over how old he really was—and probably starting to decline.)
If Ali needed dishonest help to beat Liston, how was he able to defeat—usually very convincingly—all the top contenders before and after that? Unless one wants to say a bunch of his other fights in the ’60s were fixed too, which I’d say is getting into conspiracy fantasy land.
Also, I could see someone like Liston hinting around that one or both fights were fixed—without being real specific about it—as an excuse for losing rather than because it’s true.
Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam come across quite poorly in the book, though Malcolm X comes across mostly favorably. That’s very consistent with my opinions.
The Nation of Islam was a pretty loony, violent, corrupt bunch from the beginning, and as Elijah Muhammad aged and became even more of a megalomaniac it only got worse. I wouldn’t say they did no good whatsoever in raising the self-esteem of African Americans and getting them to stand up for themselves, but evidently that was largely incidental to acquiring money and power for Elijah Muhammad and those around him.
Ali and others always were offended if the group was referred to as “Black Muslims,” insisting that they were simply “Muslims,” but they weren’t, except in the most watered down, misleading sense.
They used some Muslim terminology (e.g., calling God “Allah”), and copied some of the rituals of Islam, but really the “religion” was more like what you’d get if someone made up a bunch of random, outlandish doctrines and then incorporated a few elements of what he thought Islam was from some children’s book he’d read about Arabs when he was in seventh grade.
There’s nothing in the Koran about an evil scientist creating a race of white devils, nor about savior Black people circling the Earth in a spaceship preparing to rescue the Black Muslims and then kill everyone else.
To call adherents of the Nation of Islam “Muslims” is on a par with calling adherents of Christian Science or of Scientology “scientists.” It’s just a (misleading) name.
To his credit, Malcolm X eventually wised up and saw what a corrupt, evil organization he was a part of and left, dropping a lot of the anti-white racism he’d espoused for years (though without in the slightest lessening his denunciation of past and present racism in America), and seeking to learn more about the real Islam and get a new organization off the ground that would be much closer to that actual Islam. For this, he was assassinated by the Black Muslim terrorist group.
This book only deepened my understanding of what a negative influence the Black Muslims had on Ali. For one thing, he comes off looking pretty bad in breaking off his friendship with Malcolm X in order to stay on Elijah Muhammad’s good side. Malcolm seemed to have handled the break with dignity and understanding; the young Ali most decidedly did not.
It’s possible, though, according to the author, that Ali did what he did through fear, that once they got their hooks in him the Black Muslims threatened his life if he attempted to continue a relationship with Malcolm or to separate from them.
Maybe the most significant matter about Ali and the Nation of Islam discussed in the book is the possibility that he had no particular principled objection to obeying his draft notice, but only took the stand he did because he feared the Black Muslims would murder him if he didn’t.
I don’t think there’s enough evidence to say one way or the other if that’s the case, but even as a maybe it puts things in a much different perspective.
Ali is said to have made some statements later implying that many of his decisions, including the decision to defy the draft, were made under such duress and were intended to keep him safe from the Black Muslims rather than because they were otherwise best for him or things he truly believed in.
But Ali said all kinds of sometimes crazy, sometimes contradictory, things in his life, and you can’t just automatically take them literally.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, though. Maybe he took a stand partly on principle, but partly also on his realization of what the Black Muslims were capable of when crossed.
Certainly the Black Muslims enriched themselves greatly at his expense. They installed one of their own as his manager (Elijah Muhammad’s son Herbert), which gave them a one-third cut of his fight purses right there. They ended up routinely siphoning off considerably more than that. Ali had money problems throughout his life for many reasons (alimony, impulsively buying anything he wanted, giving away money to useless hangers-on and assorted scammers), but the main reason he could make all the millions he did and still be perpetually broke or close to it was that the Black Muslims took such a huge chunk of his earnings.
Thankfully once Elijah Muhammad died and his son Wallace took over the organization in the mid-’70s, the nature of the group changed dramatically. Wallace took things in much more the direction Malcolm X was going late in his life, dropping the bulk of the goofy mythology, racism and violence, and adhering more to real Islam.
And from the outside it certainly looks as though the demise of the Elijah Muhammad version of the Nation of Islam was a great relief to Ali. He largely dropped the anti-white doctrines he’d seemingly felt obligated to at least give lip service to for so many years (which never fit his personality or values), and became just a regular Muslim, studying the Koran regularly and seeking to be a better, more loving, more peaceful person. He went from being a cult member possibly in fear for his life, to being a spiritual person in a much more positive, admirable sense.
One tidbit I got from the book, by the way, is that Ali (then Clay) was exposed to Black Muslim teachings as early as 1959, when he was a teenager. An aunt reports that he was “brainwashed, hypnotized” by a Nation of Islam tape he listened to over and over. The tape was a lecture/sermon by Louis Farrakhan of all people, who I did not know was anyone significant in the organization that long ago. (When Wallace Muhammad tried to take the group in a more positive direction starting in the ’70s, the odious Farrakhan formed a new group to continue all the worst elements of the old Black Muslims, with him as the new corrupt Elijah Muhammad-style dictator.)
The author maintains that for the last several years of his career, starting about when he regained the title in 1974, Ali’s defensive reflexes were shot, and that he remained at the top of his profession not by his previous extraordinary ability to avoid being hit, but by an equally stunning ability to absorb punishment and not get knocked out. Somehow it turned out that there was not only a Willie Pep but a George Chuvalo in that same body.
And while both defenses may be effective in their own way, having a spectacular ability to take a punch is as much a curse as a blessing: it gives you more victories in the short run while destroying your body in the long run. He points out that Ali had a long career, he fought more often than most champions or contenders of his era, he fought the hardest punching heavyweights of his era, and as his own punching power diminished with age his later fights typically went the full 12 or 15 round distance. Insofar as he was indeed surviving—and usually winning—by taking rather than avoiding punches the last several years of his career, arguably he absorbed more total punishment than any fighter back then. It’s no wonder he ended up with a severe case of Parkinson’s syndrome (the early signs of which were clear well before he quit boxing) that’s left him largely unable to speak and almost unable to move.
One thing I mused about while reading this book was just how intelligent Ali and Cosell were.
Cosell liked to present himself as an intellectual, but a fair amount of that, in my opinion, was bluff. He was an educated person with a law degree, but he wasn’t some kind of great intellect compared to the supposedly ignorant locker room denizens of his profession that he so looked down on. Linguists and grammarians will tell you that for all his use of “big words,” he routinely used them incorrectly, and the political and historical references he inserted into his rhetoric missed the mark as often as not. Football experts, and experts in other sports for that matter, are pretty much unanimous that he didn’t have any kind of deep understanding of the nuances of their sport. Actually he considered that kind of thing beneath him.
I’d say he was of above average intelligence, but there were other factors far more important to his success. Maybe some of them are related to intelligence, but they’re very specific things rather than general IQ.
He had an amazing ability to ad lib appropriate comments. There are stories in the book about his being shown footage for the first time for a documentary or a segment where there is very serious time pressure to get it done, and he would spontaneously provide a terrific voiceover on the first take.
Also, his live broadcaster’s “clock in his head” was extraordinary. He’d be told coming out of commercial that he had to fill 45 seconds, and he’d ad lib remarks for precisely 45 seconds—not 40, not 50, and typically not even 44 or 46, but 45.
He had an excellent memory. He may not have understood sports strategy at any very sophisticated level, but what he could do was rattle off the starting lineups for every NFL team, or recount at an appropriate time in a game something relevant he’d once been told by a coach or athlete and had kept in his mental filing cabinet ever since. It was memory rather than insight, but impressive nonetheless.
As important as anything is that he was one of those people who is determined to succeed by simply outworking everyone else. If it meant advancing in his career, he’d work inhuman hours, hop on a plane on short notice to fly to some godforsaken place—whatever it took, regardless of how exhausting it was or what a toll it took on his health and his relationships.
Related to this, he had a fierce determination to succeed and a belief in himself that enabled him to persevere regardless of what resistance he met, or how often he was told someone like him couldn’t succeed in sports broadcasting. Unlike Ali, he wasn’t told repeatedly from when he was a youth that he was destined for the top of his field. He had a much, much bumpier road, and he had to overcome a lot more doubters.
So, yes, he was a bright guy. But contrary to his boastfulness about that, I would guess 30%-40% of sportswriters and sports broadcasters are at least as intelligent and knowledgeable. What he had are a few quirky talents that perfectly fit his chosen field, a willingness to pay his dues and work extremely hard, and a strong will to succeed no matter what.
As for Ali, though I suppose there may be a few people with a vague impression of him as a leader on issues of race or the Vietnam War and therefore presumably at least somewhat intelligent, for the most part it’s no secret that he was far from an intellectual.
But just how unintelligent he was has always been hard to pin down. In some respects, as the author notes, there’s a Chance the Gardener quality to him—a simpleton who people fool themselves into thinking is a sage who believes the same things they do. On the other hand, there seems too much evidence of a quick mind to dismiss his intellect entirely.
I know stupid people can be glib, but at his level? The way he could immediately respond in a logically appropriate way to a question, or the way his spontaneous quips were consistently on the money, are indications of at least some level of intelligence. (That’s not to deny, by the way, that especially toward the end of his career his shtick was so canned that he often did nothing but recycle the same lines over and over.)
Looking at all the evidence in this book and beyond, here’s what I see, or my best guess anyway: Ali was of average to below average intelligence, but well above Chance the Gardener level. However, his education and the amount of knowledge he had—outside of very, very limited areas relevant to his career and such—was below even what is typical of someone of average to below average intelligence.
He barely learned to read and write, so that source of potential knowledge—the written word—was largely closed off to him. And because he so single-mindedly pursued boxing from his early teens, he never really devoted himself to learning much else, so intellectually he never lived up to even what potential he had. He didn’t read newspapers, didn’t keep up on current events, didn’t go to college, and didn’t spend a lot of time thinking and talking about “important issues” beyond maybe working to memorize some Black Muslim rhetoric on race or social issues for a talk he was to give.
People dismissed his stance against the Vietnam War by joking that he couldn’t even find Vietnam on a map, and there’s a large element of truth to that. (Actually that specific claim was almost certainly true.) He had no deep understanding of social and political issues. Yes, he spoke out routinely on integration and such, but that was either more emotional than rational, or was, again, just a matter of repeating Black Muslim rhetoric he’d heard a million times.
Whatever that says about his intelligence or knowledge, though, I’m not convinced it somehow invalidates his defiance of the draft. I don’t think you have to have the intellect and political sophistication of Noam Chomsky in order for your opposition to the Vietnam War to be worthy of respect and even admiration.
Think about if we applied that high a standard to people who cooperated with war rather than refused to. What if you said that everyone who fought in Vietnam, or in Iraq and Afghanistan and all the wars since, all who cooperated with being drafted or who later freely enlisted and went off to fight America’s wars, were frauds or phonies unworthy of respect if they couldn’t justify their cooperation in a way that manifested a profound understanding of everything from moral philosophy to geopolitics? How well would that go over?
But I would say if anything that would be more appropriate than casting such doubt on Ali and his ilk. I’d much rather live in a world where the pro-war side was expected to have to justify itself, where it was considered more outrageous that somebody who couldn’t find Vietnam on a map was willing to bomb it than that he would refuse to do so.
Beyond intellect, it’s also important to me what kind of moral character Ali and Cosell displayed, including how they treated the people in their professional and personal lives.
Ali had his flaws in this area, including a fair degree of immaturity and irresponsibility, but has always seemed to have a humane, caring nature. The author calls him to task on how he turned his back on Malcolm X, as well as how he turned his back on a member of his camp who broke with the Nation of Islam to join Malcolm X (for which the Black Muslims beat him severely to the point he later died of his injuries), and I largely agree that that spoke poorly of him. The author criticizes him for the disrespect he sometimes showed for his opponents, especially the way he brutally insulted Joe Frazier. I actually mostly give him a pass on that, as he frequently reminded people all along that it was an act to promote fights.
He was like a big kid in a lot of ways. He sometimes did stupid and irresponsible things that were inconsiderate of others, but more as an indication of a lack of emotional maturity than any kind of malice or deeper selfishness.
But in some ways he manifested a great deal of strength of character. Whatever you think of the merits of his defiance of the draft, and even if in part it was motivated by fear of violence from the Black Muslims, it remains hugely impressive that he was as stoic as he was about accepting the consequences of that.
He indefinitely lost his ability to make a living in his chosen profession, and quickly went through whatever money he had. While he was lionized in some corners, mostly his refusal to be inducted into the military—as well as his outspokenness on racial issues and his embrace of the Nation of Islam—made him one of the most hated figures in America at the time. He faced the prospect of a five year stint in prison. (That was not just some theoretical possibility. As is detailed in this book, there was a high likelihood of that happening. His case needed a series of highly unlikely breaks to make it to the Supreme Court, and even there the Justices initially voted to affirm his conviction and send him to prison before changing their minds.) Through it all he manifested surprisingly little ill will toward those who hated him or put him through all this.
For that matter, think about the strength of character he displayed in the ring. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who climbs into the ring to fight, including a 10-16 club fighter. Ali fought the best, and he stood in there regardless of how much punishment he took.
Cosell’s record is more troubling, more mixed. As much as he painted himself as a fearless crusader for what was right, as this book indicates he was pretty selective about when to take a stand and when not to. When challenged to sign on with a group of prominent figures—Plimpton, Mailer, etc.—in support of Ali’s fight against the draft, he not only refused to but was indignant and defensive about it, arguing that he had done so much just by calling him “Ali” instead of “Clay” from when he first changed his name that he was under zero obligation to take more of a public stance in Ali’s favor than he already had, especially since, he was convinced, the cost would be career suicide and quite possibly assassination.
Looking honestly at his career, you can find numerous instances of his standing up for something he believed in, and you can find numerous instances of his making whatever compromises he felt he had to make to succeed.
One of the least admirable things about him was that not only did he mix in plenty of sellouts with his acts of courage, but he was equally self-righteous, equally free of self-doubt about both.
And in a lot—maybe the majority—of his interactions with other people, he just wasn’t a nice human being. I don’t mean just that in his later books he took to trashing his long time colleagues. I’m less bothered by that than most people. If he has reasoned criticisms to make, I respect that he’s willing to make them publicly and accept the consequences (which ultimately included being kicked off Monday Night Football and most of his other TV gigs when he crossed Roone Arledge).
I mean things like taunting people for making less money than him. Or insultingly dismissing a sportswriter for being too short, of all things. Just stupid shit like that. The constant need to reiterate how inferior others were to him. The fact that he could be insufferable to work with if he didn’t get his way, and sometimes even if he did.
Not all the evidence is negative, though. I was heartened to read in the book that there were people he worked with who loved him, who raved about how good he was to them. Certainly he seems to have been very good to his family, especially his wife, the sainted Emmy. (Has anyone ever had a bad word to say about her? It seems like the one thing his friends and enemies have in common is that they think she was a wonderful person.)
He could be a real asshole, but some were fortunate enough to experience another side of him. And I think even the unappealing aspects of his character are mitigated somewhat by all the negativity that was directed toward him.
You probably can’t understand it if you didn’t live through that time or didn’t happen to be paying close attention to this particular area of life at that time, but the amount of hatred he inspired was horrible to contemplate. A lot of it was couched in racist terms because of his support for Ali and his liberal positions on racial issues, and a lot of it was couched in anti-Semitic terms.
His image as “the man you love to hate” was no joke, and the hate was very real. If you ever watched a sporting event in a bar, or you ever watched a closed circuit fight telecast at an auditorium, you’d know that the instant Howard Cosell’s voice was heard, or especially if his face was shown, the whole place would erupt in curses and insults. There’s no way you could ever hear a word he said in a public setting like that, as it would all be drowned out by the angry screaming.
He had his fans, and a lot of them, but that was more a function of the fact that almost everyone knew who he was and had an opinion about him. He was like Nixon at his Watergate low point: very unpopular in terms of the proportion of those who disapproved of him over those who approved of him, but still with a huge number of people who approved of him just in raw numbers.
Sportswriters almost all hated him as much as he disdained them. Consider Dick Young, supposedly one of the most accomplished sportswriters of his era, and a bitter foe of Cosell. He made a habit of trying to work his way as close to Cosell as he could when Cosell was taping an interview or other segment for broadcast, so that he could scream obscenities to ruin it and make them have to keep redoing it.
When you’re constantly dealing with utter jackasses like that, it’s no wonder you’re not the nicest guy in the world.
His partly paranoid and partly accurate conviction that the world was against him and trying to hold him down provoked him to greater and greater defiance and determination, which was a big part of why he achieved all that he achieved. It also clearly embittered him.
While reading this book, and for that matter back when I was only minimally following Cosell’s career in the ’80s as it wound down, my mind often returned to a passage in his first autobiographical book. There he recounted how hard he’d taken it when his rise to greater prominence with the start of Monday Night Football brought with it such vituperative hatred and criticism, how it had rendered him angry, depressed, prone to retaliate, and then how he’d thought it through and overcome it, learning not to be affected by the opinions of others when you know you’re right. They’d never “laid a glove” on him since then, he proudly declared.
I think of that as showing a stunning lack of self-awareness. He was always adversely affected by how routinely he was trashed, he always took it personally, he always responded poorly to it. All that happened with time is he got even worse, becoming ever more miserable and embittered about it. They never stopped “laying gloves” on him.
That’s one of the main differences I see between Ali and Cosell. As their fame diminished, as age set in, as Ali became less and less functional physically, as Cosell approached dementia, Ali’s best traits and Cosell’s worst traits seemed to be amplified.
Ali mellowed, becoming ever more warmhearted and dignified. In whatever very limited ways he still could, he always sought to make the people around him feel better, to entertain and amuse them. He adored children, but really he loved everyone. He seemed to have achieved an impressive level of contentment and spiritual peace.
Cosell became more paranoid, more difficult to deal with. He never seemed to develop any ability to be self-critical—at least that he would admit—or to listen to people who disagreed with him.
“Humble” isn’t a word you associate with either of them, except ironically, but over time Ali became humble in a way Cosell didn’t. They both recognized that at some level their arrogance and braggadocio was an act, but Ali was a lot more open about admitting that and was able to jettison the act when he no longer needed it. For Cosell, the act became his reality, and he could never admit that his pomposity and vanity were anything other than justified.
I agree with the author that you can understand both men better when you realize how genuinely insecure they were, and how they craved approval and love. (Which makes the occasions when they made unpopular stands all the more impressive.) Maybe Cosell felt he never got enough of it and that ate him up, whereas Ali eventually became such a beloved figure that he responded to all the love with surprise, humility, and gratitude, and tried to repay it however he could.
Interesting that while Cosell had one very long, seemingly very successful marriage, Ali has been married four times. The first was to a party girl that Herbert Muhammad hooked him up with to get laid, and he spontaneously married her instead. The second was a Black Muslim girl much younger than him who has never come across to me as all that pleasant a person in the little I’ve read about her, but did have to put up with a lot of shit from him in what was at times a tumultuous relationship. The third was a blatant gold digger.
Finally with the fourth, Lonnie, a childhood friend from the Louisville days, he seems to have picked a winner. She missed out on the rich and famous years and has served as a caretaker to him in his time of need, which in itself says plenty about her character.
Actually my highly favorable impression of her dropped to just medium favorable after reading this book. I still think for the most part she’s a good person who has done right by Ali, but I’m less than thrilled with some aspects of her.
One, she buys into some of the quack medicine stuff and insists that Ali’s Parkinson syndrome has nothing to do with boxing but came from some “toxins” from pesticides or something.
Two, while she has to some extent tried to keep the charlatans away from Ali and safeguard what little income he still has, the depressing lifelong pattern of his being exploited for money by those around him apparently only slowed a bit rather than stopped when she gained a larger role in his affairs. A particularly odious creature called Richard Hirschfeld got Ali deeply involved in his scams (for example, Hirschfeld, with at least the knowledge if not full approval of Ali, called various politicians and such to lobby them on issues related to his financial interests, impersonating Ali on the phone, thinking they’d be more likely to respond favorably to a big name like him personally asking them for a favor) well after Ali and Lonnie were married.
Three, she’s gone all out to sanitize Ali’s reputation, to take the very safe, peaceful, devout, almost universally loved Ali of the present and foster the misleading impression that that’s how he’s always been, when in fact Ali spent much of his life as a hugely controversial figure who said and did plenty of criticizable things.
I appreciated reading about Ali and Cosell’s relationship in their later years. They had never been close friends or anything—their relationship was mostly a media one—but when the spotlight left them they seem to have realized that considerable fondness had arisen between them. Cosell spoke glowingly of Ali, no longer needling him but openly praising him for having been every bit as great as he’d ever claimed and more. Ali, able to speak only in a barely discernible mumble, consistently responded to the mention of Cosell’s name with a smile and a muttered “My buddy.”
Actually it’s that last third or so of the book, tracing what happened to them when they were no longer on top of the world, that I liked best. Before that I thought the book was fine—even though it had plenty I already knew, it was a worthwhile read—but it’s the last portion that made the biggest impression on me. It’s there that Kindred truly hits his stride.
It’s beautiful writing. Given how important these figures were to me in my youth, I was primed to get emotional learning more about their deterioration, and it’s handled so well here that I was moved. I spent much of that whole last portion of the book choked up.
For example, there’s a passage about the memorial service after Cosell’s death, where his daughter Jill gave a really lovely eulogy, invoking her father’s favorite poem among other things. When she went to retake her seat amongst the dignitaries in attendance, Ali wanted to tell her something.
Remember, by this time for all intents and purposes he cannot speak. Maybe he can mumble a word or two or three that a person listening very closely could guess at, but that’s about it. For that matter, as far as nonverbal communication he can move only in a very laborious, shaky manner.
When he had her attention, he slowly lifted a finger and touched it to his face just below his eye, to indicate the path of a tear. He then reached out and gently patted her hand, and was able to force the words from his uncooperative body, “That was good.”
I confess I was real close to bawling when I read that.
In closing, one other thing this book caused me to reflect on is how both men, who’d always so craved fame and approval, came to doubt the lasting importance of their lives when they ceased to be so squarely in the public eye.
The post-retirement Ali seemed genuinely surprised when anyone took an interest in him, insisting that he wasn’t famous any more so why would anyone care? Cosell lamented that he’d wasted his life on the triviality that is sports. He reacted to the Alvin Garrett nonsense by wondering that if he could now, after the track record he’d established his whole career, be treated as a racist, what was the point of it all? Had people not been paying attention? Had they already forgotten?
Sure, in the Ozymandias long term, all of our fame and accomplishments and such are fleeting. But short of that, these are two figures who should never have doubted the strength and duration of their legacies. Cosell practically invented serious sports journalism. Ali, as Cosell himself often noted, was that rare sports figure who transcended the sports history books to earn a place in the history books.
Think of how the world is different because of them, how many people they’ve inspired and changed, who’ve then gone on to further impact the world. Good God, if I want to know whether the way they lived their lives made a difference, I need only look within me.
Every time I do something that in some small way embodies the principle that “what is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right,” I’m able to do so in part because of Howard Cosell. Every time I stick with something that is difficult, dig a little deeper so as not to quit, I’m able to do so in part because Ali refused to take the step into military induction in a Houston courtroom in 1967, and remained standing through 14 almost unimaginably brutal rounds against Joe Frazier in 1975 to not only survive but win.
Now multiply me by millions. As long as we millions live, and as long as the people we influence live, the positive influence of Ali and Cosell will continue. They needn’t have ever doubted that.
Sound and Fury took me back to an emotionally very powerful time and subject matter of my life. In doing so in a very fair and sympathetic yet non-hagiographic manner, Dave Kindred helped me to understand that—warts and all—the heroes of my youth deserved the status I bestowed upon them.