One man was an African American who grew up in Louisville, KY. The other was a Jew raised in Brooklyn, NY. The pair, Muhammad Ali then Cassius Clay and Howard Cosell met in 1962 and from then on, they forged a unique athlete-reporter relationship that lasted into the 1990’s. Ali and Cosell clicked and wherever Ali went, Cosell would be there to cover and in many cases, call his fights. Ali traveled the four corners of the earth to fight – New York, Miami, Houston, San Diego, London, Frankfurt, Zaire, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila among them and Cosell would be there for ABC.
Ali was perfect for television. The camera loved him. He was handsome, brash, confident, polarizing, but no matter what he did, Ali lit up a room and backed up his words in the ring.
Cosell came at a time when sports television was gaining prominence. He had a New York accent. Cosell didn’t have classic anchorman looks, but in searching to find his niche with ABC Sports, he saw Ali as someone who was a star.
In a sense, the two men helped to make each other. Ali suffered racial prejudice. Cosell grew up having seen religious prejudice. Ali and Cosell could not have grown up more differently, but when they got together, they made TV gold.
Ali’s trainer/manager Angelo Dundee told author Mark Ribowsky in his book Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports, “When Cassius got to know Howard, it was a matter of respect. They both respected each other.” He continued, “Howard really helped to define who Cassius Clay was. Howard was a blessing for us, and boxing. Boxing was my thing, my life. And Howard sold it to the public like it hadn’t been sold before. Muhammad always appreciated Howard. He enjoyed Howard. They were two originals, and they knew it.”
Cosell and Ali had a well-honed act. Cosell would act as the straight man, Ali would tell a joke at Cosell’s expense, whether it was pointing him out in a hoard of reporters or pretending to peel off his toupée. Here’s a sample of their act when Cosell guest hosted on The Mike Douglas Show in the early 1970’s. Watch for Ali’s answer to a question from the audience on whether Cosell was really his friend.
As Ali’s career rose, Cosell was there to call some of his fights for either ABC Radio or TV, some would be a taped delayed basis, others would be live.
Cosell was one of the first reporters to embrace calling Cassius Clay by his new name of Muhammad Ali after he coverted to Islam. When other reporters refused to identify him as such, Cosell remained steadfast, but during a 1966 interview for ABC before Ali’s fight with Henry Cooper in London, Cosell identified him as “Muhammad Ali, also known as Cassius Clay,” something that Ribowsky writes that Ali quickly corrected:
Ali looked hurt, asking him “Howard, are you going to do that to me, too?” making Cosell feel three inches high and ashamed he’d ever done it.
“You are quite right,” he told him. “I apologize. Muhammad Ali is your name. You’re entitled to that.
By calling him by his desired name, Cosell won Ali’s respect and perhaps endeared himself to the fighter. The relationship got closer and some good evidence was in London.
Before the Ali-Cooper fight, ABC had produced a 30-minute feature of Ali in London, but the bout before Ali-Cooper ended early and organizers wanted both men to come out and start. ABC producers told Cosell to go to Ali’s locker room to plea with his camp to stall and delay his entrance to the ring. Ali asked Cosell how much time he would need and Cosell told him ABC needed 18 minutes. Ali agreed to remain in his dressing room for that period so the American audience could see the fight start right after the feature.
Cosell would not make a Clay reference unless it was to do a career retrospective before a fight as he did before Ali’s second fight with Leon Spinks in 1978.
In 1967, Ali was drafted into military service and Cosell was one of the few who defended his right to refuse to go to Vietnam due to his religious beliefs. Cosell would receive angry letters calling him “n*****-loving Jew” for defending Ali. And after he had his heavyweight title stripped and lost his boxing license preventing him from participating in the sport for three years, Cosell would have Ali stop by on ABC’s Wide World of Sports for interviews to talk about his fight against the U.S. Government. And in 1970, ABC took the step to hire Ali as an analyst on an amateur boxing competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Two years later, they would work together again on the 1972 U.S. Olympic Boxing trials especially on this fight involving Tim Dement and Jesse Trujillo:
When Ali returned to boxing in 1970, ABC continued its relationship with him and Cosell would be there to call his fights. By this time, Cosell had become ABC’s Voice of Boxing, calling bouts involving other fighters including Joe Frazier and George Foreman, but the man who was ABC’s star was Ali.
In 1973, ABC obtained the rights to show Ali’s first fight against Ken Norton in 1973 and Cosell called it on Wide World of Sports on a Saturday afternoon:
Cosell would continue to be at Ali’s fights throughout the decade including the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in Zaire and the Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier, but his last fight involving Ali would be his devastating defeat at the hands of Larry Holmes in 1980. Ali would fight once more against Trevor Berbick, but Cosell refused to go feeling the event would be a farce and it was. It was a sad end to a great career.
Ali’s physical condition worsened due to Parkinson’s Disease. As for Cosell, his career with ABC came to an end in 1985, he wouldn’t see Ali as much. Time took their toll on both men. By 1992, Cosell had lost his beloved wife, Emmy and he was diagnosed with heart and kidney disease. He also had Parkinson’s Disease, the same affliction that hit Ali. But Cosell would take part in Ali’s 50th birthday celebration which aired on ABC, but only in a taped tribute after a video montage of some of their best verbal spouting:
“It’s hard to believe, all the years, everything that’s passed between us. It’s so hard to believe and so memorable, and now it’s time to say to you, Muhammad, God bless you, and happy birthday to you. Fifty years old! I never thought that could happen, not to you. But it has, and you are something. You are exactly who you said you are. You never wavered. You are free to be who you want to be. I love you. Happy birthday.”
Cosell would die in 1995 and Ali was one of the first to issue a statement:
“Howard Cosell was a good man and he lived a good life. I have been interviewed by many people, but I enjoyed interviews with Howard the best. We always put on a good show. I hope to meet him one day in the hereafter. I can hear Howard now saying, ‘Muhammad, you’re not the man you used to be.’ I pray that he is in God’s hands. I will miss him.”
With Ali’s passing this past weekend, perhaps the two are doing their act once again. This is a relationship that was perfect for its time. Both men knew they could make magic using the medium of television, Ali knowing that Cosell would be in his corner, Cosell knowing that Ali would bring eyeballs to ABC. The two were perfect for each other. And while Ali outlived Cosell by 21 years, in a sense, a part of him died when Cosell passed away.
It’s likely we won’t see a close partnership between an announcer and an athlete like Ali and Cosell. In this day and age of social media and the Players Tribune, athletes can use various platforms to get their messages across, but back in the 1960’s, TV was king. Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell used the medium perfectly to both of their benefits and to forge a friendship that lasted a lifetime.