A true odd couple, Cosell and Ali were a great team
This morning Evan Weiner (Sports Talk Florida’s Business of Sports analyst were talking about the death of Muhammad Ali and an interesting question came up. Would there have been a Howard Cosell without the help of Ali?
Both Weiner and I were blessed to have known Cosell on and off camera as a friend for over two decades before his passing in 1997 at the age of 77. Why the larger than life broadcaster liked us and helped along our career paths as twenty somethings, to mature members of the TV community is another story for another time.
The truth is that while Cosell and Ali were not friends, they didn’t hang out together, they didn’t go out to dinner or do anything that friends might do. However, they had an on camera relationship that was electric in so many ways.
The duo of Cosell and Ali were far more than sports personalities. They were world class entertainers and political lightning rods that sought out controversy and often used the sports stage to showcase their many stances on the issues of the day.
The duo made ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a must see show anytime the two were set to appear together. Cosell was a lawyer who found that he enjoyed broadcasting when he began his career doing Little League baseball reports for WABC Radio in New York.
Cosell called most of Ali’s fights immediately before and after the boxer returned from his three-year exile in October 1970. Ali’s fights would be replayed a week after they were aired on pay per view with ABC broadcasting them. Cosell would often have Ali on set with him along with his opponent so they could talk about the fight.
That is where Cosell and Ali were at their best trading verbal jabs at each other to the delight of the many viewers that tuned to see what they would to each other next. Instead of two enormous egos crashing into cacophony, the Ali-Cosell bond created a symphony of sound bites. That, in turn, drove monster ratings and furthered their individual causes.
The bombastic fighter had found a defender; the acerbic broadcast journalist uncovered a perfect foil that helped create his peerless on-air persona.
They shared a common love for social justice and total equality. Cosell was one of the first sportscasters to refer to the boxer as Muhammad Ali after he changed his name and supported him when he refused to be inducted into the military. As part of the 1968 ABC Olympic coverage he was a strong supporter of U.S. sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith after they raised their fists in a “black power” salute during their medal ceremony.
When it most national broadcasters avoided touching social, racial, or other controversial issues, and kept a certain distance from those hot button issues Cosell did not he would simply state his famous catchphrase, “I’m just telling it like it is.”
As iconic and as outspoken as he was Cosell would not have reached the rare air in the broadcasting profession at ABC or any network without his love – hate relationship with his best sparring partner of all Muhammad Ali.
Video used in this story courtesy ESPN/ABC