Monday night, someone telephoned Howard Cosell in the ABC-TV truck outside Tampa Stadium. Did Cosell want to do the blow-by-blow of two important fights the network would carry soon? This is in his contract. He gets first call because across four decades Cosell's masterly work on televised fights has made him as celebrated as the men he covered: Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson and Ray Leonard.
So his answer Monday night is important at a time when Alexis Arguello is punished terribly, when Duk Koo Kim is dead, when Larry Holmes could have killed the pathetic Tex Cobb with ABC-TV and Cosell at ringside for Friday night's heavyweight championship fight from the Houston Astrodome.
"They asked me if--in the wake of that terrible, terrible scene in Houston--I wanted to do these fights coming up," Cosell said from his New York office the other day. "I told them no."
Not only that, Cosell said, he has made another decision after what he calls boxing's "two weeks of disgust."
He won't work another professional fight.
"I'm not doing any more boxing," he said. "Let me qualify that only a little. I love amateur boxing, and if the company wants me to, I would do Olympics boxing. But professional, no. I have walked away from it. I am past the point where I want to be part of it. I don't want to be party to the hypocrisy, the sleaziness . . . I'm worn out by it."
The blame for boxing's sickness today falls on three groups, Cosell said.
"First, the networks who make possible the continued existence of organizations such as the WBA and WBC, which exist only for the purpose of creating championships that in turn create fights that the networks, including ABC-TV, can sell for top dollar.
"Second to blame are the ruthless, sleazy promoters. And third is the vast majority of the print-media members who are apologists for boxing."
Cosell's break with boxing is not unexpected. He hadn't worked a fight since Holmes-Gerry Cooney last summer. His dissatisfaction with, even contempt for, boxing promoters and other parasites is so profound that, in his words, "I went to Larry Holmes' room for a set of gin rummy so I could avoid the sleaze in the hotel lobby."
There was in Cosell's voice the melancholy of a man who has passed from love to anger to resignation. Once, he railed at authority, asking that fighters be protected from injury and exploitation. In 1972, he testified before the U.S. Senate. He once came to boxing's defense before the New York state legislature.
But on Friday night in Houston -- 10 years after the U.S. Senate did nothing, 10 years in which boxing has done nothing to help itself -- there in the Astrodome, Cosell saw revealed in its ugliness the sport he once loved as art, that moved him to song one night when Ali won. "Forever young," Cosell sang, using Dylan's lyrics.
From the fifth round to the 15th in the Holmes-Cobb fight, Cosell saw it for what it was. This was not sport. This was savagery licensed for profit. At the microphone, Cosell for a half-hour cried out for someone to stop the fight.
"Doesn't he know," Cosell said of the referee, "that he is constructing an advertisement for the abolition of boxing?"
As Ali moved Cosell to song, Friday night's fight moved him to fury. The only touch of saving grace, he said, was Holmes' resolve to keep Cobb alive. However he came by the dubious ability to "take a punch," Cobb stood up under Holmes' heaviest punches. Holmes did Cobb a favor, however, by throwing those punches only often enough to win a round. Had Holmes mounted an animalistic assault, even a granite chin would not have kept Cobb upright.
"I admired Holmes because he comported himself with dignity," Cosell said.
Cosell loves fighters, hates fighting. "I have a deep feeling for the men who fight . . . The other day, Ken Norton walked into my office. My God, he's as thick-tongued now as Ali . . . Somewhere along the road, Tex Cobb will pay for the punishment he was allowed to take."
From the ninth round on, Cosell made no comment on the fight strategy or tactics. "It was," he said, "as measured a performance as I've ever given."
From Cosell, we heard again and again that the fight should be stopped. He repeatedly named the referee, fixing blame. He spoke of the pall over boxing and said Holmes-Cobb could not have come at a worse time.
Good for him.
We didn't need how-tough-Tex-is anecdotes.
We didn't need a shill telling us to stay tuned because, you never know, Tex might win the championship with one punch.
Right now, we need a polemic on boxing. We need someone to shout at the top of his voice that the game is terminally sick.
"If I were the networks," Cosell said, "I would declare a moratorium on boxing until some form of legislation was passed to, 1: protect the men who fight with the strictest rules for safety and medical examinations, 2: create an honest system of ratings and records, and, 3: create one federal government group to administer boxing.
"The print media should support such legislation instead of, by saying the federal government has no business in sports, villifying those who suggest it. There should be licensing of promoters, and there should be an accounting of money on every fight.
"It has to be in all 50 states under the administration of one group. Either that, or abolish the quote-sport-unquote."