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Boxing, perhaps more than any other, is a sport of double acts.  The status of Mike Tyson will always be questioned for the simple reason that when he was at his peak, there was no one around who could live with him, and he only fought truly great opponents when he was obviously past it.  Roy Jones, Jr. was perhaps the most lavishly talented and entertaining fighter of all time, but his career is widely regarded as unsatisfactory because he spent so much of it fighting people he could easily beat.  Joe Calzaghe and Rocky Marciano left the stage unbeaten, but left the public cold: likewise, among today’s active fighters, the Klitschkos and Floyd Mayweather.  It is, in short, not enough for a fighter to have immense talent, to put together a long string of wins, to dominate a division for years on end, to retire undefeated, or even to appear unbeatable: in boxing, greatness can only be measured against greatness.  This is why none of these boxers will reach the fabled status of Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Durán or Thomas Hearns: or, for that matter, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, or even Antonio Gatti and Mickey Ward.

Muhammad Ali featured, along with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, in some of the greatest double acts in boxing’s long history.  He and Howard Cosell were a double act of a different kind, but no less significant, and no less well matched.  One tall, young, handsome, athletic, and black, the other short, middle-aged, dumpy, and Jewish, the comic potential was obvious, and rarely underexploited, with Cosell an indispensable part of Ali’s big fights, there to ask the questions before and afterwards, and to absorb Ali’s jokes about his toupee and his love life. But the similarities between them were more important than the differences.  For one thing, besides being immensely talented originals, both were immensely watchable.  No one had ever seen a heavyweight with Ali’s combination of, on the one hand, extraordinary speed and athleticism, and on the other, technical flaws and apparent vulnerability: and no one had heard a broadcaster like Cosell, with his bombastic, aggressive style and his nasal Brooklyn accent.

Together with their huge egos and cartoonish characters, this made them perfect for what Dave Kindred’s remarkable dual biography calls “the hyperbolic demands of television”.  Their forebears had tended to be deferential.  Joe Louis never spoke a word out of turn, and never even smiled after knocking someone out for fear of being accused of getting above his station.  Previously, sports leagues were permitted to approve broadcasters before they went on-air, a practice ended by ABC Sports President Roone Arledge specifically to accommodate Cosell’s unmissable inquisitions.  Raised in Brooklyn and trained as a lawyer, Cosell brought an unprecedented aggression and intellectual rigour to sports broadcasting.  Not seeing himself as in any way inferior to, say, Walter Cronkite, he also brought great seriousness, and a high-minded attitude to journalistic integrity.  But even Cosell’s lack of deference couldn’t compete with Ali’s.  Referring to himself as “the greatest thing that ever lived”, he was the first high-profile black man of the television age to express such pride in himself and his race: he may not have invented the phrase “black is beautiful” but he expressed the sentiment, and embodied its truth, better than anyone.  And it wasn’t only the white establishment to whom he displayed no deference: he essentially invented “smack talk” specifically in order to rile no less a figure than the terrifying Sonny Liston.  So, besides being made for television, they were made for each other.  Cosell liked to stick a microphone in sportsmen’s faces and demand they account for themselves in a way they had never had to before, and Ali liked nothing more than to oblige.

Made for TV, made for each other: but they were also made for their times.  In refusing the draft Ali made perhaps the first high-profile protest against the war in Vietnam.  Uniquely, Cosell was willing to give Ali a platform to express his anti-establishment, anti-white views, and argued consistently for his right to hold them.  Their voices were as new and different in their own way as those of the Beatles and Dylan, and only in the 1960s could they have reached such a massive audience.  Furthermore, only in that extraordinary age could public opinion on an American war have moved so far as to bring it into line with Ali.  Only then, also, against the background of the civil rights movement, could so much of America come to sympathise with a black separatist when, with his case still under appeal, and in direct contravention of the U.S. Constitution, the authorities took away his titles, refused to sanction his fights in the US and then took away his passport so he couldn’t fight abroad either.  Indeed, with the passage of time his stance, which meant public vilification, and cost Ali millions in endorsements as well as three years of his career, came to seem heroic.

Having taken on and beaten the United States, when he returned to the ring he was already more than a sportsman: but following his immediately mythical victories over Foreman and Frazier, with his extraordinary character and unmatched profile now embodied in the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World, Ali made the unique journey from first and greatest sporting iconoclast to ultimate sporting icon.  For this reason, too often he overshadows those whose lives intersected with his own, because you cannot tell their stories without telling his, and his tale is so extraordinary.  For example, it was their brief meetings with Ali that left Joe Frazier so bitter, that made Henry Cooper so beloved in the UK, and that ultimately entirely defined both men.

The signal achievement of Kindred’s book is to give us the human reality of both Cosell and Ali, and the relationship between them, without underestimating the symbolic importance of either man.  This is clearly a function of the unique access Kindred enjoyed.  He literally travelled on the young Ali’s bus as he toured the country from fight to fight, and he was close enough to Cosell to be asked to help write the fourth volume of his memoirs.

Kindred’s intimacy with the lives of both means he can provide some wonderful anecdotes.  According to one, Cosell once stopped a fight in the street by leaping from his limo and delivering a burst of unmistakeable commentary, to the delight of the immediately disarmed pugilists and their audience.  On another occasion, hearing a construction worker criticize the draft-dodging champion, Cosell returned to the site shortly afterwards with an apparently incensed Ali, causing considerable consternation before revealing the gag.

More importantly, however, it allows Kindred to illumine their faults alongside their shared talents, egos, and symbolism.  Kindred paints each one of them as a sort of savant, brilliant at the things they are good at and childishly inept at everything else.  Cosell was effortlessly expert both in front of and behind the camera – notoriously, he could improvise a note-perfect voiceover to any footage and finish it in exactly the number of seconds available, yet he could also script and produce an entire documentary more or less single-handed.  But when his wife died he was helpless in the face of the realities of life, having never so much as paid a bill.  Ali may have shown no deference to the white establishment, but he swallowed every piece of nonsense the Nation of Islam produced, apparently honestly believing that the white race had been created by a big-headed devil called Yacub and that divine spaceships were circling the earth.  The Nation was not afraid to renounce and reject him when it suited them, its head Elijah Muhammad even preaching at times that all sports were wicked; and they appear to have taken even more of Ali’s money than Don King (a figure who, like Bob Arum, who also promoted Ali fights, features surprisingly little in the book).  But Ali never questioned Muhammad’s authority, and even after Muhammad’s death in 1975 his son Herbert continued to mismanage Ali’s affairs until as late as 1988.

This much of Ali’s career has, of course, been well-covered before.  Nonetheless, Kindred has a mastery of detail that manages to make even the most familiar parts seem fresh.  (An example is the story of a triumphant Ali being driven away from the ring in Zaire along roads lined by thousands of locals, holding their children up in the early morning light to see the champion).  He also has no difficulty in showing how charismatic and irresistibly likeable Ali could be.  However, Kindred does not hesitate to bring out themes that are visited less often.  In particular, it is clear that Ali was capable of extraordinary cruelty.  He delayed knockouts of both Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell so that he could prolong their punishment for personal slights.  His insulting of Joe Frazier was, if anything, worse – at one time calling him an Uncle Tom, at another deriding him as subhuman in the crudest of racial terms.  His treatment of women was no less callous.  While in Manila for the final Frazier fight, so badly did he treat his second wife, the statuesque Belinda, that during the fight she willed Frazier to inflict on him the same pain to which she had been subjected.  And Ali’s acquiescence in the ostracism and eventual murder of Malcolm X, once his closest supporter, is truly shocking. The strong implication of Kindred’s book is that these forms of behaviour too were another consequence of Ali’s childish self-obsession and limited intelligence, and on the evidence here it is not difficult to agree.  (When someone later impersonated Ali in a series of bizarre telephone calls to prominent politicians and journalists, the hoax was obvious not from the speaker’s voice – by all accounts the similarity was uncanny – but from his ability to discuss issues of public policy in a way the real Ali never even approximated.)

More original still, and more powerful, is Kindred’s treatment of Ali’s life after retirement.  Having lost his money, his fame, his wife, his retinue and his health, Ali could find nothing to fill his days, which he spent sitting alone and quiet, sometimes in the little office he rented, sometimes just in his car.  This being so, and with his naivete and his ego undiminished, he was a ripe target for further exploitation.  He was taken in by at least two convicted swindlers, and was even prevailed upon by the very US government that had tried to destroy him to make a disastrous trip to Africa to attempt to drum up support for a boycott of the 1980 Olympics.

It is some measure of Howard Cosell’s ambition, even hubris, that when he gave up his legal practice to become a sports broadcaster, sports broadcasting didn’t even exist.  It is, equally, some measure of his determination and talent that this didn’t stop him: he simply went ahead and invented it.  Initially lugging a 17-pound tape recorder on his back wherever he went, sometimes using it as a weapon to barge past competitors on his way to securing interviews, Cosell was the perfect man to fulfill Arledge’s vision, which has since become the blueprint for all sports on TV: “Heretofore, television has done a remarkable job of bringing the game to the viewer – now we are going to bring the viewer to the game!”.  Arledge & Cosell took techniques from news, political coverage, travel and adventure series, in order to “add showbusiness to sports”.  They were the first to add colour shots of girls in the crowd smiling, and of coaches cursing: they were also the first to cover the background of sporting events, interviewing players and coaches before and after the event, building up to matches and fights and making the participants familiar to the nation.  Cosell also helped set the standard for matchday coverage, bringing intelligence and scepticism into the booth at Monday Night Football alongside the professional insights of ex-players Frank Gifford and Don Meredith.  Cosell was not cowed by their purported expertise, and the resultant banter, often with an antagonistic edge, took MNF from nowhere – football hadn’t been shown on prime-time US TV in 15 years – to first place in the Nielsen ratings.

But Cosell’s biggest achievement was to treat sports in general, and boxing in particular, with the respect and seriousness it deserved, being the first to examine its cultural, political, economic and sociological foundations.  It is hard to imagine any other sports commentator, before or since, matching his documentary on the achievements of Grambling College (an all-black school that produced numerous NFL stars), his interviews with Jackie Robinson, or his on-the-spot coverage of both the Black Power salute given by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico games.  At the same time, he knew the limits of his subject: after breaking the news of the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and John Lennon he simply refused to continue talking about anything so trivial as sports, instead, in each case, improvising a moving eulogy.

As he aged, Cosell increasingly felt those limits, and tried to graduate from sports to a bigger stage.  To support his attempt to become the new Ed Sullivan, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, he suggested to John Lennon that the Beatles reform for the show (he was reduced to booking the Bay City Rollers instead, who he pathetically introduced as “the next Beatles”). Despite this apparent hubris, the show was cancelled after just eight weeks, a victim of – in Kindred’s telling – Cosell’s total and uncharacteristic failure of nerve, failing to prevent Jimmy Connors singing, refusing to criticize the unprofessionalism of no-shows (most notoriously Patti LaBelle), and relying on a script, rehearsals and cue cards for the first time in his career.  After that debacle, his further suggestion that he be moved to current affairs (and finally achieve the Cronkite status he always thought he deserved) was never taken seriously.  He gradually faded from the screen, half resigning in exhaustion, and half pushed out following, among other things, performances clearly impaired by alcohol.

Besides setting out his remarkable and unique achievements, Kindred does a brilliant job of bringing out Cosell’s curious blend of arrogance and insecurity, and of bravery and cowardice.  Largely dismissive of the intellectual capacities of ex-players, he was nonetheless afraid of devilish conspiracies between them and network management.  While he was willing to give Ali a platform to speak, and to use the name given to him by the Nation (a courtesy not extended by other boxing journalists for some years after the change, who continued to refer to him as Cassius Clay), he never himself took a position on any of the issues.  When other boxing journalists tried to persuade him to come out in favour of Ali, on the basis that he was the only one with a national audience, he declined, claiming that to do so would potentially be suicidal in the face of such violent, racially-based hostility among the general populace.  While Cosell indeed routinely received hatemail calling him a “nigger-loving Jew bastard”, the strong impression given by Kindred, surely correct, is that Cosell would have seen that the risk in explicitly defending Ali was limited to professional suicide: this was enough, however, for him to rule it out completely.  Only in his final years, freed from network pressures, did he feel entirely free to investigate sports, and especially the business of sports, with a cynical eye.  It is perhaps partly for this reason (though also because towards the end his criticisms became so aggressively personal) that opinions on his legacy are so divided.

Ali’s “legacy”, by comparison, appears settled.  Kindred does an excellent job of tracing the reversal in his fortunes, triggered largely by Ali’s fourth wife Lonnie, boosted notably by Thomas Hauser’s epic biography, and culminating in his sanctification at the Atlanta Olympics.  It is once more to Kindred’s credit, however, that he doesn’t simply go along for the ride, giving plenty of space to alternative views, and expressing a few of his own.  He questions the attempts of those around Ali to make money from his name, though given the way others have done the same thing for the whole of his life, such remarks appear churlish at best.  He even finds space for a typically dissenting quote from Mark Kram, author of the controversial Ghosts of Manila, who paints Ali’s personality in much darker colours both there and here.

But Kindred’s book succeeds where Kram’s fails.  Without playing down his many shortcomings, Kindred refuses to present Ali in such simple and mean-spirited terms.  Rather, he lays out both Ali and Cosell in full, never refusing to offer his own view, never falling for history’s hyperbole, but always leaving room for the reader to draw his own conclusions.  Too often painted in black and white, both men benefit from the many shades of Kindred’s treatment.  It is hard to imagine a biographer of either man could combine sympathy and honesty to greater effect.  And the decision to present both together is triumphantly justified on every page, since each tells us so much about the other: and their stories tells us a lot about America, and about the twentieth century they illuminated in their own ways.

If there is a failing in this book, it is perhaps Kindred’s failure fully to explore Ali’s refusal to leave the limelight (difficult enough for any boxer at any time) was not just down to a need for money and attention.  This is not to whitewash, much less glamorize, the beatings of Ali’s later years: rather, it is to stress that if his resilience and determination also led him to fight on when he should not have, and it certainly did, then Ali himself is not solely to blame.  In 1977 Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s personal physician, famously wrote to Ali, trainer Angelo Dundee, Herbert Muhammad and Ali’s then-wife Veronica Porsche to report evidence of widespread internal damage, to warn them of the dangers of continuing, and to recommend an end to Ali’s career.  None responded.

This resilience was an essential part of Ali’s nature, and indeed a large part of what made him so great.  He accepted defeat in the ring, particularly his first defeat by Frazier, with remarkable magnanimity.  Elsewhere he was the same.  When asked if he would sue the government for the loss of his prime years, he said no: “They only did what they thought was right at the time. I did what I thought was right. That was all.”  It was this same equanimity and determination in the face of impending or actual disaster that allowed him to beat Foreman, and to come back from defeat to beat Frazier, Norton and Spinks, sealing his legend: indeed, it is just this sort of response to adversity and defeat, and not simple dominance of his weight class, or an undefeated record, that can make a fighter great.

There are questions here with which all of us who love boxing must wrestle.  It is no criticism of this magnificent book that Kindred has no better answers than the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

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