By the late 1960s, Howard Cosell had, in effect, typecast himself out of the lower classes of the sports-casting realm. He had become too big for not-quite- important events and was relied on by ABC to score the momentous interview.
He was on the scene at the Grand Prix, the Kentucky Derby, though, of course, the Cosell sine qua non -- and, by extension, that of ABC Sports -- was still boxing. And Muhammad Ali.
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So wedded were Cosell and ABC to Ali that the boxer's enforced exile from the ring for evading the Vietnam-era draft could not keep him off the air. He would drop by "Wide World of Sports" periodically to playfully discuss his legal battles with Cosell, who had stuck by Ali.
Once, Cosell twitted Ali that he had gone into exile because he "didn't have the courage to fight Joe Frazier, Jimmy Ellis, and Jerry Quarry." Ali boiled, then parried, "Every college I go to, everybody asks me about Howard Cosell, and my answer is: 'We just don't get along.' I mean… Do you really think these homemade champions can beat me? That's the kind of appreciation I get from you, from you comin' all over the world. If I hadn't been fightin' you wouldn't have gotten to see the world."
As Ali toured campuses, Cosell served as a kind of conduit for potentially exciting news. Once, at a college outside Dallas, Ali went to a local TV studio to tell Cosell on a long-distance hookup that Texas was about to grant him a license to fight. But it was not to be. And promises made by other promoters also proved empty. In California, Governor Ronald Reagan vowed: "That draft dodger will never fight in my state, period."
Fighter in exile
The letdowns took a toll, worsening when the Black Muslims suspended Ali for speaking about his plans without the approval of the Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad. He retreated into a shell that even Cosell couldn't draw him from. Whenever he tried, Ali would tell him, "Can't talk to you no more, not without Elijah's permission."
Although Cosell regarded as illegitimate any attempt by boxing to crown a champion during Ali's enforced exile, life had to go on. When ABC signed on to a World Boxing Association eight-man heavyweight tournament culling the top contenders, Cosell announced it, but would not sugarcoat the fact that the tournament was undercut from the start by the nonparticipation of the No. 1 contender, Joe Frazier, the Philadelphia brawler, known as "Smokin' Joe." (Frazier died at the age of 67 on Nov. 7)
ABC had to make do with Jimmy Ellis, the slick former Ali sparring partner who had won eight fights in a row, as the main attraction. After he stopped Leotis Martin and Oscar Bonavena, Ellis defeated Jerry Quarry in April 1968 to win the WBA crown, one that almost nobody believed he would have if Ali was around. On Feb. 16, 1970, in the first big fight of the new decade, Ellis met Frazier; in Round 4, when the ultimately triumphant Frazier began to pour it on, so did Cosell, at his peak as a boxing announcer.
The ascendance of Frazier seemed to signal the end of the missing Ali's reign. What's more, George Foreman was on a collision course with Frazier. But late September brought a favorable court ruling that eased Ali's way back. Acting on an angle that Cosell had long pushed, Ali's lawyers filed suit in New York, presenting a list of 90 men licensed to fight in the state despite convictions for crimes including military desertion. District Judge Walter Mansfield concurred, ruling that Ali was allowed to fight pending final dispensation of his case.
A judge's reversal
As Ali's cornerman Angelo Dundee recalls of that momentous day, "Howard knew about it I think before I did. I think he knew before anyone except Muhammad and the lawyers who were in the courtroom. Howard had sources all over, not just in boxing or sports, but in the courts. I always considered Howard to be instrumental to those court rulings, because what he said about the case was what the lawyers put in their papers. I thought, and I still do, that we owed a lot to Howard."
The course of boxing was reset when on Oct. 26, 1970, Ali climbed into an Atlanta, Georgia, ring after three and a half years in exile. The opponent was Jerry Quarry, who may have been the only person in the house not there to see an Ali coronation and on this day was the hope of white Middle America.
With so much at stake on either side of the racial and political divide, Ali -- mindful that people of color worldwide had never deserted him -- ventured that "I'm not just fightin' one man. I'm fightin' a lot of men." He went on to say that if he lost, "so many millions of faces throughout the world will be sad; they'll feel like they've been defeated." Thus, as he construed it, "I'm fightin' for my freedom."
Cosell would be calling the fight on a delayed basis for "Wide World of Sports." For a time, it appeared as if he would be handling the closed-circuit broadcast as well, until he made a money demand that the producer of the closed-circuit show, corporate attorney Robert Kassel, told him was "ridiculous."
"You'll pay that, kid, or you won't have anybody," Cosell snarled at Kassel. Kassel gave the job to former football star Tom Harmon, who, astonishingly, called Ali "Clay" most of the time.
For the black bourgeoisie in their furs and diamonds, Cosell would later recall, "it was like Van Gogh discovering the vineyards. They came to rejoice. The king was back. Long live the king."
Early on, Ali landed some good combinations and opened a cut under Quarry's left eye that became a gusher, leading the ref to stop the match after Round 3, upon which an incredulous Quarry stomped around the ring.
Sluggish in return
Amid the euphoria, Cosell was more tempered. Ali, he said, had looked anything but a champ. "The old hand and foot speed seemed diminished," he said, adding that "few conjectured about what might have happened had Quarry not been cut."
Later, even Ali agreed that he profited from Quarry's bum luck and that it was not a fair test of where he stood as a fighter. But the king was indeed back, and it was Frazier's crown he sought. Revving up, he dusted off the old material he'd used against Sonny Liston. Now it was Frazier who was "too ugly to be champ," who couldn't talk, and who was unfit to share the same ring with him.
But if Ali won few points for originality as a phoenix rising, he clearly had more than a few miles left on him -- several of which were logged when he took on another beautiful bum, Argentinian Oscar Bonavena, in the prime-time venue of Madison Square Garden, New York being still the only state to officially reinstate Ali's license. From the start, Cosell mocked Bonavena as "Ringo," for his post-Beatles shag hairdo, and reduced him to insignificance as an "alley brawler."
But after the bell rang, suddenly Bonavena wasn't such a joke. Unable to capitalize on "Ringo's" laughably inaccurate swings, Ali seemed to age by the round. By the late rounds, it had become something of an Ali requiem, with Cosell attributing to Bonavena a "physical confidence that must be apparent to Ali." Not waiting for the end of the bout, Cosell concluded: "What everybody will have to assess is what the years have taken from him… There is no speed, no movement left."
But no sooner was that observation uttered than Ali finally found his way to Bonavena's jaw with an off-hand bolt of lightning; the Beatle wannabe crumpled to the canvas. Switching gears on a dime, as was his wont, Cosell rasped, "That left floored him! It came from nowhere!" And as a suddenly animated ex-champ moved in for the kill, gloves upraised, tassels flying, and "acting like the old Ali," he decked Bonavena twice more, the last hit ending the fight at the two-minute mark of the 15th round.
Cosell intended to grill Ali about his lack of training and elan, but before he could, Ali grabbed the microphone and preened, "I have done what Joe Frazier couldn't do. I have knocked out Oscar Bonavena."
Even Cosell could not poke a hole in that verity, and an Ali-Frazier engagement was already being sold to the public before he signed off that night. Interviewing Frazier's manager, Yancey Durham, Cosell unearthed his usual scoop, getting Durham to say, "I hope we can get together in February."
It actually took until March 8. And it was worth the wait.
• Mark Ribowsky is the author of "Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball. This is the first in a three- part series excerpted from his book "Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports," to be published Nov. 14 by W.W. Norton. The opinions expressed are his own.)