By Scoop Malinowski
Recently a former boxer named Tommy Rainone stated that Howard Cosell disassociated himself from pro boxing because of a sense of immense disgust while announcing on ABC Network the farcical one-sided mismatch of World Heavyweight champion Larry Holmes vs Randall “Tex” Cobb.
I disagreed with that over-simplified assessment. Believing Cosell made his career-altering decision based on a lot more than just one single bad fight, I decided to research why exactly Cosell made his infamous breakaway from the sport he once adored. Boxing is the sport Cosell is most identified with.
In his book “I Never Played The Game,” Cosell talked about the 1982 Holmes-Cobb fight, calling it “as gross a mismatch as I ever saw. In the ninth round alone, Holmes registered no fewer than 26 unanswered blows alone – and yet the referee would not stop the fight. Mercifully, the champion laid back in the 14th and 15th rounds so as not to inflict further damage upon Cobb, who was nothing more than a human punching bag with a tremendous capacity to absorb punishment. During that fight I made up my mind to walk away from boxing forever.”
“My disaffection with boxing, however, did not begin with the Holmes-Cobb mismatch.”
Cosell went on to say that he felt too much power was falling into the hands of promoters, “As the 1970s wore on, I was increasingly concerned about the power that was falling into the hands of promoters Don King and Robert Arum, the kind of power that the courts had ruled illegal years before. King derives much of his power from his friendship with Jose Sulaiman, the president of the World Boxing Council. Arum’s connections are lodged in the World Boxing Association…each has often in the past handed down rulings that defy logic and arouse suspicions or political chicanery. These organizations play by their own rules and create their own champions – and unless a promoter or manager is part of one of the other’s inner circle, he will have a helluva time getting proper recognition for his fighter.”
Cosell was well aware of the dirty dealings in boxing through his prime years as a broadcaster with ABC but his attempts to correct the injustices and unfairness were fruitless. “Through all the years, I wasn’t naive enough to think that I was covering a pristine sport. Corruption was all around and I was trying to cope with it as best I could. But nothing was changing, no matter how hard I tried to expose the dirty underbelly of the sport, and my involvement in it served only to frustrate me more.”
Witnessing the physical damages fighters suffered also began to take a toll on Cosell’s soul. “My attitudes toward the fights themselves was changing too. One man purposefully endeavors to inflict bodily harm on another man. I had seen Benny Paret die and Willie Classen die and Cleveland Denny die, and the dying slowly eats away at you. I had seen Earnie Shavers and Sugar Ray Leonard hurt their eyes, and I had seen Sugar Ray Seales receive permission to fight even though he was close to blindness. And I couldn’t shake the gut-wrenching anguish of watching Ali in his twilight as one comeback after another stripped him of his dignity and stature.”
Cosell never did broadcast another fight on TV but he did promise ABC Sports President Roone Arledge that he would break his boycott to announce one fight and one fight only. Arledge asked Cosell, “Will you at least publicly, for the sake of the company, leave the door open for yourself to cover the Holmes-Cooney rematch?” Cosell agreed to Arledge’s request but, of course, that rematch never transpired.
Cosell remembers Arledge did support his decision to cut ties from boxing. “I think you’ve done the right thing, congratulations and have a good game tonight,” Cosell revealed he remembers Arledge saying to him on the phone before a Tampa Bay Buccaneer NFL Monday Night game.
To get an understanding of how grand a figure Cosell was in sports in his glory days, read the words of Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford: “First and foremost, Howard Cosell is sports. There are all these people, all these fans, who claim that when Howard Cosell does a game on television, the turn off the sound on TV and listen to the radio broadcast. Oh, sure. You probably know critics in your neighborhood who vow the same thing. Well, too bad for them. Don’t they understand? Cosell isn’t television. He’s not audio. Howard Cosell is sports in our time. Feel sorry for the people who turned off the sound. The poor bastards missed the game.”
(Cosell & Ali oil painting by Scoop Malinowski.)