HOW-WORD Co-sell - you heard the bell and you came out talking. You bounced off the wall. You covered left field. You went out on a limb. And in the end, there wasn't only one champ, there were two. What a tyro! What a performer! What a man! What a mouth!
"Ali!" you exclaimed during round 10. "So purposeful! So sure of himself! What an extraordinary career and what an extraordinary career man he has been in every way!" You could have been talking about yourself, Howard - your courage in contending with constant, corrosive criticism; your intransigent declination to moderate your immutable and inscrutable modus operandi; your refusal to play the Pollyanna in an industry that encourages diffidence - and, if you will, your pugnacious perspicacity and audacious imperturbability in the face of a chorus of the world's cruel boos.
Howard, you are not only the champion. You are the event.
Let them call you a fifth wheel in the booth on Monday Night Football. Let them refer to you as "his royal heinous" and "old flannel mouth." Let them claim they listen to the audio on radio and turn the television sound all the way down when you are commentating. You are a romantic, and a football game is too prosaic a place for you to be. At the Ali-Spinks fight you proved what few of us had realized: Howard Cosell is not providing the commentary for the sporting event; the sporting event is providing the commentary for Howard Cosell.
Maybe you mangle the language hither and yon, maybe you make an art form of overstatement, and maybe you threaten at times to rewrite Roget's Thesaurus off the proverbial cuff. What matters are not the words you use but the way you use them - like punches, like jabs, like body blows. We weren't watching the Ali-Spinks fight. Howard. We were watching you watch the Ali-Spinks fight. The sound of your voice was virtually visual - the sensory equal of the picture itself - and more than that, it was a transmogrification into a personal and intimate form, a manageable, livingroom form, of the roaring crowd that filled the Super Dome in New Orleans.
You became our own personal roaring crowd. You used your hyperbole and your bombast the way a great pianist uses the fortissimo pedal. Only more so, of course. Howard, you are one of TV's true virtnosos and you understand the kinetics of television with the insight and instinct of a true media being.
It hasn't been easy learning to love you, Howard. There were times when you seemed to be doing your critics' work for them. Now, at sandlot baseball parks across the length and breadth of this fabled land of ours, kids stand on the sidelines imitating your delivery. You are ridiculed even by colleagues and set-upon by the envious.
The night before the fight, Johnny Carson told his audience they could see it "free on television" and then added, "Well, not exactly free. You have to listen to Howard Cosell."
For this, the audience cheered.
It has been a career of trials by fire and by frying pan. At the Sweetwater Tavern in east Denver, Colo., they took turns throwing bricks through television sets when your visage materialized in the phosphorous. At the 1977 World Series, an angry fan propelled a pair of pliers in your general vicinity. In 1975, a bunch of Minnesota Vikings roared with a garbage pail filled with water and dislodging your legendary soupee.
A 1974, headline tells it like it is: "Man Indicted for Threatening Cosell by Mail."
When would you strike back, how would you defend your honor as a man, a champion and a very highly paid television personality? Like the true gentleman that you are and scholar you aspire to be, you refused to meet violence with violence. A 1977 battery complaint claiming you slapped a Philadelphia newsman five times on his head was dismissed by a Los Angeles judge for insufficient evidence.
Though not, one might venture to add, for insufficient provocaton.
And then the final insult. It is 1977. ABC is televisin the World Series. You are clearly out of your element, you are occasionally insufferable, and you have to put up with amateurs in the booth. But Howard Cosell, you do not deserve this:
Joe Garagiola calls you "dumb."
It's as if Nixon had questioned your ethics.
Or Dr. Bourne had told you to lay off Tylenol.
And why do they continue to villify and slur, pillory and deride? Is there perchance a strain of I-Hate-New-York backlash to this calumniation, or at least a quasi-regional prejudice at work, since it has been said that to some you embody, to borrow the phrase of no less a literary solon than Alfred Kazin, the "New York Jew"? It gives one pause to contemplate such a disconsolating contingency.
But there is probably a deeper and less tangible antagonism at work here. Because, Howard, you represent heat in an age of cool, passion in a time of indifference and a thick, gooey slice of what-the-hell cheesecake in a time of tidy frozen yogurt. You will defend to the death the courage of your own preconceived notions. Your rough edges haven't been polished into slick acrylic gloss. You are a living, breathing ham amid a chorus of mannerly, yellow blazer-wearers, a rumpled, crumpled cornball at a party for androids and curriers of public favor. You make trouble, Howard. You're up and at 'em. And when it's clear to the whole wide world that you're as full of beans as a windbag can be, you cling to your occasionally erroneous surmisals with the zealousness of Hamlet, Louis Pasteur and Hercule Poirot. This is a form of heroism:
"And now as this fight nears its end," you roared over the roar in the 14th round, "it occurs to us that Bob Dylan Struck the proper note in his great song. 'Forever Young,'" and you began to recite, "May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a strong foundation - " blah blah blahblahblah. . . .
"One round to go and boxing history apparently in the offing!"
The bell sounded. Round 15. Spinks was beaten. "The fight is - over! I am going to try to go into the ring. It may be impossible!"
Chris Schencked, polite, at ease, a breath of purest Valium, took over while you, Raving Howard, struggled toward the ring, which was now such a mob scene that even the champ, Muhammad Ali himself, had momentarily succumbed to topplement.
"This is as bad a situation as I have ever encountered in a ring," we heard your disembodied voice complain, still punching, punching, punching. "I'm trying to talk to Muhammad Ali! This is an absolutely impossible scene! I believe that my mike has gone out and there's absolutely no way of knowing if I am still on mike! [Pause] The mike cord has been cut!"
Only you, Howard Cosell. You thought your cord had been cut and yet you continued to talk into the presumably moribund microphone. You are still the greatest impersonation of Howard Cosell that ever has been done.
It occurs to us that Cole Porter struck the proper note in his great son, "You're the Top": You're the top; you're a Lindy's waiter. You're the top: you're an alligator. . . .
Howard, may your mouth always be hasty, may your heart always be stout, may you show the holow younger men what it really means to shout.
And may you be, forever Howard Cosell.