Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Main Event: Dave Kindred's Sound and Fury Probes the Nexus of Ali and Cosell's Strangely Symbiotic Relationship

Author: Dave Kindred
Title: Sound and Fury: The Parallel Lives and Fateful Friendship of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell
Publisher: Free Press
Price: $27
ISBN: 0743262115

Yesterday was Muhammad Ali's birthday. He turned 64. I guess that means he's getting to be, officially, an old man. But those who have followed The Greatest since he burst onto the scene as the world heavyweight champion in 1964, will also remember that, by 1981, when he closed out his career with a senseless defeat at the hands of the mediocre Trevor Berbick, Ali had already started to appear physically and mentally over the hill.

With his indisputably beautiful physique, his brash mouthiness, and his media magnetism, Ali always seemed like he would be the one American boxer to avoid a pathetic end. He lives now quietly, with his fourth wife, Lonnie, on a smallish farm in southern Michigan, and maybe, given what happens to a lot of fighters, Ali might be considered lucky. He earned millions and millions of dollars in his nearly 20-year career, but with opportunists and hangers-on constantly lurking nearby—Ali's money often spent before it was earned—it's nice to know that he came away with enough to let him leave the public arena and live with some dignity.

No one wanted to face the fact that Ali had succumbed like many before him to the ravages of his sport's physical demands. But you don't amass a 56-5 record in the ring without enduring thousands of body blows, no matter how adroit you are in returning punches, or how light on your feet you can be. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" was the Ali credo, and it worked for a long while. Alas, the champ was drawn into the same Sisyphian ordeal characteristic of prize fighters: after each "prize" was won, he had to start all over, had to keep fighting to pay the enormous bills.

For a good while, the public listened to official proclamations that Ali wasn't a victim of brutality, that instead it was a Parkinson's-type condition or possibly a pesticide poisoning that accounted for his slurred speech, his plodding gait, and his less-than-attentive demeanor once he entered private life. Ali remained lovable because we wanted him that way, and when he lit the torch for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, we drew some psychic salve from knowing that he at least was able to pull off that symbolic act, however truly death-defying (and touch-and-go) it actually was.

But we get straighter dope from veteran sportswriter Dave Kindred in his forthcoming Sound and Fury: The Parallel Lives and Fateful Friendship of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell. Writes Kindred:

"In layman's terms, dementia pugilistica is 'punch drunk.' It signifies injury to a boxer's brain that results in diminished cognitive ability and can lead to psychiatric changes. Neither of the diagnostic possibilities for Ali was a happy one, but dementia pugilistica was among his sport's most appalling consequences. Joe Louis drifted in cocaine-addled madness. Nurses put Sugar Ray Robinson in a diaper. Floyd Patterson could not remember his wife's name even as she cared for him. Ingemar Johansson lived in a special-care home. Jerry Quarry died at age fifty-three. Maybe the greater the fighter, the greater the brain damage because his career put him against the best competition for the longest time. There was no greater fighter than Muhammad Ali."

Kindred's book is like that. It aims to put Ali and Howard Cosell, his witting TV pitchman, into the spotlight once again, but it also reads us the riot act about the garish elements of both men's controversial careers, which intertwined fortuitously at a time when boxing was still a prime sport (in fact, was entering a Golden Age) and TV sports coverage got bolder and more technically sophisticated. Kindred's own journalism career intersected the Ali-Cosell partnership, and he knew both men well enough. And while the early chapters almost lead one to believe that Kindred is after hagiography, the depth of his subjects, the force of their personalities, and their almost surreally colorful impact on American media eventually leads to imperatively balanced analysis. The biographical details are already fairly well known, but Kindred skillfully weaves them into his broader, more ambitious text.

Here's Cosell, the pushy Brooklyn Jew who, fairly late in life, parlayed his connections as a lawyer into a broadcasting career. "Cosell had passed through sports journalism," Kindred concludes, with Cosell at his apex, after melding with Ali and assaulting football fans in his role as color commentator on ABC's still-newish "Monday Night Football" telecast. "Those elements once thought to be disqualifying liabilities—his vulpine countenance, that Klaxon voice, his penchant for melodramatic blovation—catalpulted him from the simple stardom of a prime-time network television show into the rare air of show-business celebrity."

It's all true, even though there were still millions—maybe even a majority of the audience—who resented Cosell's hucksterism that passed for journalism (of whatever kind) and resented the fact that they had no recourse to his obnoxious, arguably meritless presence. Cosell clawed his way into our ears and before our eyes and all we could do was smirk and think what apparently a bunch of television executives had thought before us: "Well, hell, if he wants it that badly, give him what he wants. Anything to get him out of our hair!" His tactics to success worked because he was one of the boys in all the important ways: Of New York, Jewish, egomaniacal.

Cosell was entertaining because—and maybe only because—he was awful. He didn't really know sports. He wasn't statistically hip, he wasn't historically keen, he couldn't analyze the gamesmanship with any comparative incision. As Kindred illustrates, what we sometimes heard Cosell say during football broadcasts was fed to him by legendary producer Don Ohlmeyer. But it was Cosell himself who extemporized calling African-American Washington Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett "that little monkey" during a 1983 Monday night game, an episode that exposed Cosell as being as insensitive as the rest of us where race relations were concerned. Cosell tried to deny his words, but millions had heard him, and this from the guy who, according to Kindred, had a "record on race [that] was unimpeachable." That assertion remains a subject for debate. Was Cosell an equal-rights activist, or simply an attention-hungry media personality who knew how to exploit the issue of the day?

"He stood alongside Muhammad Ali," writes Kindred, "lionized and befriended Jackie Robinson and Floyd Patterson, gave Tommie Smith and John Carlos their say, praised outfielder Curt Flood's refusal to be a slave to baseball's owners..." All theoretically so. But is there any evidence that Cosell did any of this for any other reason but that it put him squarely in the middle of the controversies, and hence squarely in front of the TV camera?

Cosell emerges here as a self-aggrandizing antihero—"I am a fucking genius!" he once averred—but it's hard not to be reminded that we did listen to him, and we did laugh at his incessant chattery foolishness (when we weren't scoffing). And there's an upside for sure, because Cosell's essential egotism and neediness were ultimately leavened by his success as a family man—married 46 years to one devoted woman, Emmy—and Kindred's reportage makes it clear that, no matter what the public presupposed about the guy, he apparently had his personal priorities straight. Even his occasional overindulgence in martinis couldn't sully a generally well-deserved clean image. Finally, in an image-conscious line of work, Cosell even knew how to joke about his infamous toupee, proving that maybe he didn't take himself so seriously after all.

His bluster notwithstanding, Ali, on the other hand, was a personal mess. He always looked cooler than Cosell—not that that would take much doing—but Ali's hyperactive, if seemingly confident, public displays were in fact analogous to what was going on in his frenetic, undisciplined private life. He married many times—a mistake, a strong woman, a bimbo, a caretaker. He philandered, he allowed marginal characters into his entourage, and he used his own celebrity shamelessly. The public often chortled at his treatment of his rivals, but he was unforgiving and nasty when he called Sonny Liston "a black bear," or when he dubbed Joe Frazier "ugly." So much for being a credit to your race. Ali didn't elevate his sport so much as he hyped it—with Cosell to help him do just that. Everyone concerned profited, but the idea that Ali was a torch-bearer for black equality can't be affirmed. He didn't help his cause when he fought the draft in 1967. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," Ali boasted. But neither, probably, did the 55,000 who died in the dubious fray, many of them black American males.

Ironic it was that Ali's most controversial and ill-advised affiliation was with the Nation of Islam, a relationship that ultimately offered him the "out" he needed when the Supreme Court reconsidered his appeal for draft exemption as a conscientious objector. Ali used his Black Muslim status to bulwark his "anti-war" stance with the Court, and the tide eventually turned his way. He never went to jail—the appeal process took care of that—and in 1971 he resumed his fight career to greater glory and bigger paydays. Kindred quotes Court scholar David O'Brien, who isolated Ali as "a symbol of the troubled '60s." Symbol, yes. But certainly not a casualty.

Ali was an uneducated naif when it came to real issues, and once Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad got his talons into his youthful, impressionable hide, Ali's chance to develop as a savvy, independently minded sports superstar faded almost immediately. At first, Ali's NOI involvement led him to Malcolm X, whom he admired and liked personally. (In fact, Ali's first chosen Muslim name was Cassius X, later overridden by the megalomaniacal Elijah.) But when Malcolm dared to buck the system, seeing Elijah for what he was—a blasphemer, a fornicator—it got him killed. Conveniently, Ali had already distanced himself from the younger minister, and, like St. Peter himself, had denied his ex-master at least three times. Now Ali was eternally in the NOI clutches. They managed him, took their pound of monetary flesh while he got beaten to a pulp, and forever instilled in him the fear of their thuggish wrath.

Ali's premature physical deterioration shocked a public that knew him so well as a godly athlete. Suddenly it was Requiem for a Heavyweight all over again. He hid the erosion of his talents fairly well, but in a trice he'd become a sad, if still sympathetic, figure.

Cosell passed away at 77 in 1995. Emmy had preceded him in death, and he soon deigned to follow her. Maybe because the odds with the hereafter were better for love and devotion than what was left in his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment building. Ali rests on his farm, trotted out occasionally to make an appearance for a cause or two. But he's mostly as absent as Cosell.

Sound and Fury is engrossing stuff. One is tempted to say it's like watching a train wreck, but it's only like that some of the time, and it's otherwise quite a bit more. With all the sports and media history that it encompasses—the great bouts, the galvanizingly self-conscious televised moments, the bigger-than-life personalities, the enveloping sociopolitical swirl of the '60s and '70s—Kindred's volume gets a ton of mileage out of its two leading characters. It's a main event, for sure, with a narrative that rises and falls with the pulse of an involving title fight, its combatants vying fiercely for personal attention and air time.

After 15 rounds, you'd have to score it a draw.

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