Award-winning sports journalist Kindred (Glove Stories, 2002, etc.) captures the spirit of an era in intersecting biographies of two truly irrepressible personalities.
The author, who knew both Ali and Cosell, might be accused of forcing them together here, as each has been the subject of numerous other books, including their own. What common bond, after all, could the offspring of Russian-Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn have with a Kentucky sign-painter’s son 24 years his junior? Kindred quickly answers this question, and dispels any doubts about his project, with a vast barrage of anecdotes, testimonials and riveting summaries of media events that freeze the essential moments as two ambitious careers collide and meld in a decades-long dance of sometimes brilliant and often shameless mutual exploitation. Immediately after their first encounter in the early 1960s, the bombastic doggerel of Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a 20-year-old Olympic heavyweight champ turned pro, and the sesquipedalian arrogance of Cosell, an apostate attorney dreaming of a media spotlight as the prototypical sports journalist, became an irresistible attraction for a TV nation hungering for “telling it like it is.” With Cosell pushing Clay, soon to rename himself Ali, with intimidating questions about his unorthodox boxing style (“Are you, in fact, afraid of being hit?”), and Clay in turn threatening to snatch off his mock adversary’s obvious toupee on camera, the show boomed along into the big time. When Ali turned Muslim draft-resister, Cosell, almost alone, stayed in his corner. As fans of both remember, and Kindred well documents, the lows inevitably came. For example, a past-his-prime Ali suppressing a medical exam that showed neurologically impaired coordination, only to be pummeled by undefeated champ Larry Holmes. Or Cosell being accosted by frustrated broadcasting partner Al Michaels after downing the better part of a bottle of vodka during a baseball game.
Nicely written insider’s compendium on the men, their times and TV’s impact on sports.