Howard Cosell: Thrilla in Vanilla

By Robert Ecksel on November 28, 2011
Howard Cosell: Thrilla in Vanilla
The principled prizefighter and the principled announcer seemed made for each other

The alternately silly and serious, rambunctious and devout Cassius Clay posed a real threat to the status quo…

Not many famous editors of famous magazines give a hoot about boxing, but The New Yorker’s David Remnick is an exception. Author of “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero” (Random House, 1998) and several distinguished articles on the sweet science, he’s a visible, if irregular, contributor to boxing’s ever shrinking canon.

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Remnick has written a review of “Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports” (Norton; $29.95) by Mark Ribowsky, the latest book on the famous, and famously controversial, announcer who dominated the airwaves in the 1960s and ‘70s and played an integral part in the rise of Muhammad Ali.

According to Remnick, this new book runs a distant second to Dave Kindred’s “Sound and Fury” (Simon and Schuster, 2006), which was a dual portrait of Cosell and Ali. But any book on Cosell is of interest because he was, if nothing else, interesting, equal parts compelling and obnoxious, ethical and divisive.

Remnick’s reviews starts with the words, “Sports, not religion, is the opiate of the people,” with its allusion to Nietszche, and he takes the ball and he runs with it.

“There has never been a more theatrically blunt questioner on TV than Howard Cosell,” writes Remnick. “Before a fight between Muhammad Ali and a British tin of tomatoes named Brian London, Cosell asked, ‘Brian, they say you’re a pug, a patsy, a dirty fighter, that you have no class, that you’re just in there for the ride and a fast payday, and that you have no chance against Ali. Now, what do you say to that?’”

Aside from Remnick’s use of the words “tin of tomatoes” (a fancy way of saying tomato can), which any self-respecting lover of the fights would use sparingly if at all, he captures the essential Cosell in all his snide verbosity, speaking the truth in his inimitably circuitous and serpentine manner.

Ribowsky’s book follows the former Howard Cohen’s trajectory as a sports loving Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn through his years at NYU Law School. Cosell’s big break came when he convinced ABC to let him host a show called “Speaking of Sports.” He didn’t know much about boxing, but he could sniff out a good story, and boxing is nothing if not filled with good stories. After watching Floyd Patterson KO Ingemar Johansson at the Polo Grounds in 1960, which ended with Johansson flat on his back, immobile except for his twitching left foot, Cosell approached Whitey Bimstein, the Swede’s trainer, and asked, “For God’s sake, Whitey, is he dead?” Bimstein in many ways typified boxing during that era. “The son of a bitch should be,” he replied. “I told him to look out for the left hook.”

When Cassius Clay appeared on the scene, traditionalists like Dick Young, Jimmy Cannon, Arthur Daly and Red Smith found him unbearable. Clay was the black man of the future, although he never said as much in so few words, and these lions were grounded in the past, old men clinging to the old verities, to which the alternately silly and serious, rambunctious and devout Clay posed a real threat.

(Red Smith, perhaps the most poetic of the aforementioned Old Guard, wrote at the time, “Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”)

Cosell, by contrast, understood that Ali was a harbinger of things to come. The limousine liberal Patterson and apolitical Liston were soon to be African-American artifacts. Cosell came to the mouthy young champion’s defense when he invoked his rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and refused induction into the U.S. Army (“Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me nigger”), before the NYSAC stripped him of his crown: “How did the overwhelming majority of sportswriters, knowing nothing of the law but saying they’re great Americans, support it? How can my colleagues in broadcasting support it? But they did.”

The principled prizefighter and the principled announcer, on the surface as different as night and day, were made for each other.

Angelo Dundee, Ali’s longtime trainer, described Cosell as a “blessing…We knew Howard could do things for us. And Howard knew he could go a long way if Muhammad did and if he kept close to him.”

It was an unlikely pairing, but a fortuitous one, and both men benefitted from having the other in his corner. Each man became a living legend in his chosen profession. Ali’s recapturing of the heavyweight crown, not once but twice (the second time from George Foreman in Zaire) may dwarf Cosell’s elevation as a cultural icon in the TV age. But the enormity of their achievements is inconceivable in our time, where mediocrity is not only encouraged but celebrated.

That Cosell abandoned boxing, in a middle of a broadcast no less, is a black mark against him. But Ali had abandoned boxing as well by then, albeit it for very different reasons.

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  1. Darren 07:18pm, 12/01/2011

    Since someone mentioned all the “play” the little monkey comment receives, it bothers me that references out there on the Internet to “Look at that little monkey run!” are ALL incorrectly associated with former Washington Redskins player Alvin Garrett in 1983.

    FOR THE RECORD: It has already been proven that these comments had nothing to do with racism. Cosell was a strong civil-rights supporter of all athletes including Curt Flood, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Arthur Ashe, Muhammed Ali, and John Carlos/Tommy Smith (1968 Olympics) among others.

    FACT: There were THREE separate “little monkey” comments made by Cosell, (not just one or two).

    #1. “You know that little monkey… again, the theorem was that he was too small for pro football.” - August 29, 1972 K.C. Chiefs vs. N.Y. Giants preseason HOF game (re: Mike Adamle)

    #2. “Look at that little monkey run!” (re: unidentified player, game, during a punt or kickoff return?)

    #3. “That little monkey gets loose doesn’t he.” - September 5, 1983 Dallas at Washington (re: Alvin Garrett)

    Someone please post the identity of the unknown player please.

  2. "Old Yank" Schneider 04:33am, 11/29/2011

    Robert—I largely agree with your post.  However, no amount of protestation or explanation will correct the mistake.  “Limousine liberal” is not an appropriate tag for the conservative Republican Patterson.  I enjoyed the article; and your most recent post.  Your tag on Patterson was simply inaccurate.

  3. Robert Ecksel 06:49pm, 11/28/2011

    The difference between liberals and conservatives is so slight as to be virtually nonexistent. Tweak the status quo here (or not), tweak it there (or not), and the status quo remains. A pig wearing lipstick is still a pig. I liked Patterson’s manner (as did liberal icons like Eleanor Roosevelt and Bobby Kennedy). I liked Liston’s manner as well, as contradictory as that might sound. But Ali was an avatar, the new breed. He was committed heart and soul to fighting the power, not manipulating it for his own ends, despite his humungous ego. He might have been naive and a tool in the hands of others, but he was a young man, and I believe he believed that the system was rotten at its core, rife with inequity, and he was willing to do something more about it than mouth soothing bromides. Ali believed in change, radical change, and an awakened consciousness for his people, which grew to an awakened consciousness for all people. Gradualism looks good on paper. But life is too short for mere salves. Ali knew this and acted accordingly.

  4. "Old Yank" Schneider 06:01pm, 11/28/2011

    I was a sales clerk at Benson’s Men’s Shop in Simmon’s Plaza in New Paltz, NY when Patterson was preparing for the Ali rematch.  The shop owner was prominent in local and county Republican politics (a time when the now liberal town of New Paltz had gone 40 years electing only Republicans).  He was Mr. Patterson to me when he came into the shop.  He was absolutely fearful that Ali was going to set Civil Rights back 40 years by being what he called (his words—I can hear them ringing in my ears today), an “uppity negro”.  Patterson was much more the supporter of a more evolutionary path to progress in Civil Rights.  Patterson was much more a part of the 1950’s than the 1960’s and was a study in contrast to Ali—one a Catholic the other a Muslim; one with a brazen mouth, the other polite and reserved.  And I can assure you that Patterson was no “limousine liberal”.

  5. "Old Yank" Schneider 05:50pm, 11/28/2011

    Robert—FYI.  “The limousine liberal Patterson…” is not likely accurate.  Patterson took to politics behind the scenes from his home on Springtown Road in New Paltz, NY (the community I grew up in).  To the best of my recollection he was a registered Republican and eventually found himself appointed by Republican Governor George Pataki as the Chair of the NYSAC.  If memory serves, Patterson was an effective fund-raiser for Pataki and a collection of NY Republicans.  I seriously doubt he was a liberal (I took him for a conservative), and I don’t think I ever saw him use a driver—preferring to drive himself about town (to Saint Joseph’s Church, Shop Rite and the local mall).

  6. "Old Yank" Schneider 05:42pm, 11/28/2011

    Cosell was a favorite of mine.

  7. Joe 12:08pm, 11/28/2011

    You should have added Brian’s response, something along the lines of “whoever said that can go eff themselves”  Howard and Ali was a match made in heaven - too bad the “that little monkey” barb gets so much playtime - a Monday Night Football faux pas.

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