Cosell: No broadcaster made a bigger impact on boxing
The International Boxing Hall of Fame will induct 13 people on Sunday in Canastota, N.Y. Living inductees: junior flyweight titleholder Jung-Koo Chang, featherweight titleholder Danny “Little Red” Lopez, manager Shelly Finkel, referee/commissioner Larry Hazzard, promoter Wilfried Sauerland, matchmaker Bruce Trampler and journalist Ed Schuyler. Posthumous honorees: light heavyweight Lloyd Marshall, featherweight titleholder Young Corbett II, lightweight titleholder Rocky Kansas, light heavyweight and heavyweight contender Billy Miske, broadcaster Howard Cosell and boxing pioneer Paddington Tom Jones. Inductees were voted in by members of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a panel of international boxing historians.
Howard Cosell inevitably became what many people believe broadcasters shouldn’t be — part of the events he covered. That rankled some people, as did his oversized ego. It’s safe to say that no broadcaster in history annoyed more people than Cosell.
We all listened, though. He was a force in boxing and other sports precisely because of his monumental personality and sense of drama, which sucked us in and wouldn’t let go.
An example would be his famous call of the initial knockdown in the first Joe Frazier-George Foreman fight — “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” Foreman won the heavyweight championship that night but it’s Cosell’s words that stand out in our memories.
Even Muhammad Ali had to share some of the spotlight with Cosell, which played an important role in the figure Ali became. Their relationship played out in front of millions of viewers, everything from amusing interviews to serious discourse over Ali’s refusal to enter the draft.
Cosell also became the conscience of professional boxing, threatening to leave the sport after Larry Holmes pummeled a helpless Tex Cobb and then doing so. He never worked another pro fight. He was criticized by some for turning on the sport that helped make him but he remained true to his convictions.
The late author David Halberstam ranked Cosell No. 1 on the list “The top 50 network TV announcers of all time” he did for Yahoo! Sports.
“Cosell was there to complement the event,” said journalist and broadcaster Larry Merchant, who knew Cosell well. “At some point, though, the event ended up complementing him. That’s how big he became, or overblown in a sense.
“ÔÇª He used the medium very cleverly to make himself a big star. He was really smart.”
Cosell was a lawyer from Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1953 when he got his first sports-oriented radio show on an ABC affiliate and three years later decided to pursue a full-time career in broadcasting. He became a sports news anchor at WABC-TV in New York in 1961 and remained in television until he retired in 1992.
He developed early in his career a reputation of interpreting what he saw and heard and then “telling like it is,” which became a trade mark.
Cosell’s bosses quickly realized that his style attracted viewers. That included Roone Arledge of ABC, who would oversee much of his career.
“In the early stages of television, when networks were more closely aligned with the games and contests they broadcasted, there was a kind of boosterism,” Merchant said. “Announcers typically saw no evil, heard no evil, spoke no evil. Cosell’s contribution was when he thought something was evil, he commented on it.
“He brought a kind a of bombastic journalism style to television, most obviously on Monday Night Football.”
Cosell developed a national reputation long before Monday Night Football because of his relationship with Ali.
The two met in 1962, when Ali was still Cassius Clay and a rising young contender, according to sports writer Dave Kindred, who explored the relationship between Cosell and Ali in his splendid book “Sound and Fury.” They would feed off one another throughout Ali’s career.
Their interviews after fights or in the studio were like beautifully orchestrated comedy routines, Cosell playing the straight man and Ali the comic. The viewers seemed to eat it up — at least until the trouble started.
Clay announced after he defeated Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship in 1964 that he had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He refused induction into the U.S military in 1967, leading to a three-year hiatus from boxing while his case was adjudicated.
The fun, it seemed, was over. Many journalists and others distanced themselves from Ali for obvious reasons. Not Cosell, who was known for his social consciousness.
Merchant said Cosell led people to believe that he was the only one who championed Ali’s cause, which wasn’t true, but acknowledged that the broadcaster did stand by the fighter.
“Cosell and Ali kind of shared a life story,” Kindred said. “They both knew discrimination [Cosell was Jewish], both coming up from nothing to become the best in the world at what they did. ÔÇª Cosell was careful, though. He knew Ali was a lightening rod. He never said in public that he agreed with Ali’s positions on anything. He just defended his right to have those positions.
“That led to a lot of resentment toward Cosell, too. A lot of people resented Ali. They saw Cosell standing with him so that resentment spilled over on him.”
Cosell also stood for the protection of fighters, often testifying before Congress on the issue. And he ultimately put his career where his mouth was.
He watched Holmes brutally pummel a hopelessly overmatched Cobb over 15 rounds in 1982, two weeks after Ray Mancini delivered the blows that killed Duk Koo Kim, and vowed he would never again work a professional boxing match because the fight wasn’t stopped. He never did. His stand apparently played a role in subsequent reforms to protect fighters but boxing lost its most-important voice.
“I think some people thought, ‘Well, Ali is gone and so is the spotlight so now Cosell is turning against boxing and leaving,'” Kindred said. “I don’t think that was the case. Maybe I trusted Cosell more than anyone else but I think he took a legitimate position. He thought the fight should’ve been stopped because Cobb was helpless.
“ÔÇª Cosell, as he often did, did go overboard on his criticism. He beat a dead horse. That was Cosell’s personality.”
Cosell, who died at 77 in 1995 of a heart embolism, is such a broadcasting legend today that several boxing insiders with him his induction was discussed assumed he already was in the Hall of Fame.
No one would say he doesn’t deserve it, even those who couldn’t stand him in life. He became bigger than all but a few of the fighters he covered, a clear indication of the impact he had on the sport for many years.
One person definitely wouldn’t be surprised that he will be honored on Sunday: Cosell.
“Cosell was determined to become what he became — a great sportscaster and great figure in entertainment,” Kindred said. “Would he have been as big without Ali? I don’t think so but he would’ve been big whether or not he connected with Ali.
“He would’ve found a way to be Howard Cosell.”