In past blogs, I have mentioned how my favorite books are biographies. I love people and peoples’ stories, so discovering the details and background on the lives of interesting people is a constant source of fascination and learning for me.
But, I am not an avid sports fan and I don’t follow any teams. And Boxing is the one sport that I am least interested in. The thought of people punching each other (many times in the head) with the objective of knocking them out, seems barbaric and ludicrous to me.
So, with this background, it may surprise you to learn that the latest book I read entitled “Sound and Fury” by Dave Kindred is the story of three-time world championship heavyweight boxer Mohammad Ali (aka Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.) and newscaster Howard Cosell. Author Dave Kindred knew both Ali and Cosell, so he wrote the book as a compare-and-contrast study of the athlete and the sportscaster, alternating chapters in the book about each person. The two men interacted many times during Ali’s career and formed a special relationship of uncanny understanding.
I listen to most books on Audible, and the narrator Dick Hill really enhanced this book, as he had an entertaining way of changing his voice to resemble Mohammad Ali’s deep, almost whisper-style, to the fast-talking, blustery, New York-accented Cosell.
If the name Howard Cosell doesn’t sound familiar (he passed away in 1995 at age 77), he is the guy who conceived of Monday Night Football! In his bright yellow jacket, he turned sports broadcasting into its own genre. An attorney by education, he switched to sports broadcasting as a career after he was asked to host a radio show on Little League in 1953. After a decade in radio, he moved to television. His most famous catchphrase was “I’m just telling it like it is!”
Mohammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.) was quite a contrast to Cosell. In the book, you realize that Clay was born to be a boxer, as he started throwing punches and using his fancy footwork when he first started walking. He represented the USA at the Olympics, and at age 18 he was awarded the gold medal in light heavyweight boxing at the 1960 Summer Olympics. He then turned professional and changed his name to Mohammad Ali in 1964 (he became Muslim in 1961).
Surprisingly, he was an activist, being one of the few people who came out publicly against the war in Vietnam. At the time he was considered un-American, and was stripped of his boxing titles and his passport was taken away. In hindsight, it seems incredible that he stayed true to his beliefs and persisted. In one chapter of the book, when his case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, you learn the backstory of how the vote of the justices went from a 4-4 tie, to a 0-8 in favor of Ali! It’s such an amazing story.
“Float like a butterfly—sting like a bee” was his mantra. At the time, most fighters let their managers do the talking, but Ali was considered provocative and outlandish and spoke on his own behalf. He was known for “trash-talking” and often did freestyling rhyme schemes and spoken word poetry. On his Wikipedia page, there is reference to two Grammy nominations he received as a spoken-word artist (aka rapper).
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the 1980s (which some attribute to boxing-related injuries) but remained active as a public figure globally until his death in 2016 at age 74.
Here is my small world story. In the 1980s, I was flying from Chicago to Los Angeles. As I was sitting in flight, I kept hearing an odd noise. It sounded like a bee was buzzing near my head. When I turned around in my seat, I saw this husky black man, sitting directly behind me, rubbing his fingers together. I smiled at him. I think he may have said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” When we exited the plane, Mohammad Ali and his wife were rushed off to a waiting car, like all dignitaries are. It was a moment I will never forget.
I never realized how both men, with such different backgrounds, had a hand in changing the world of sports. Howard Cosell added an intellectual perspective to an otherwise blow-by-blow, rather mundane broadcast genre. And Mohammad Ali truly believed in world peace, in contrast to his chosen field of brutalist boxing.
Sound and Fury is an incredible story and definitely worth a read or listen.