TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Jul 1, 2016

Journal Issue Date: Jul 2016

Journal Name: July 2016 - Vol. 52, No. 7

One was a fighter, and not just any fighter. He bragged that he was “the greatest” of all time, and he was right. The other was a lawyer who had an ego as big as the fighter’s.

The fighter was an African American who grew up fighting racism in the 1950s and ‘60s in his segregated hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

The lawyer had grown up a Jewish kid in Brooklyn, fighting anti-Semitism.

The fighter admitted that he never read a book his entire life.

The lawyer was a scholar and a writer who became one of the most recognized and celebrated journalists of his generation.

The two men came from backgrounds and experiences that could not have been more different. But remarkably, they had some very important things in common.

First, they were both poets. The fighter who never read a book loved to write and recite poems. (“Float like a butterfly/Sting like a bee/The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see!”)

The lawyer loved both the written and spoken word, and quite frankly, liked to show off his extensive vocabulary.

They were both fabulously successful, and ironically, both very insecure. They demanded to be at the center of attention and wanted people to respect them.

And either by fate or serendipity, they met each other and became close friends.

Their friendship played out on a very public stage called television.

The fighter became the heavyweight champion of the world. Even more significantly, he became the most recognized person on the planet, a hero not just to millions, but literally billions.

After graduating from NYU law school where he was a member of the law review, the lawyer built a fabulously successful career in Manhattan, representing actors and athletes, including the legendary Willie Mays. But his love for sports and journalism led him to WABC, a radio station in New York City where in the 1950s he began a weekly show called “Speaking of Sports.” The show was soon picked up by radio stations across the country, and the lawyer then made the move to the ABC television network where he became a national personality.

Unlike the fighter, people did not adore the lawyer. In fact, by some surveys, he became one of the most hated men in America. The lawyer laughed about his negative image, and in fact took pride in it. He once bragged of himself, “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. There is no question that I’m all of those things.”

In the mid-1960s, he became an interviewer and commentator on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports”, a weekly television show that prior to the advent of ESPN was the sports TV show in America, promising in its opening segment to cover “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

In 1970, he became the color commentator for “ABC’s Monday Night Football,” spreading both his fame and infamy.

And it was on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” and other radio and TV broadcasts that the fighter and the lawyer displayed their deep friendship for each other as millions watched.

They argued vociferously, and would appear at times to be enemies, rather than friends.

In televised interviews with the lawyer, the fighter would brag about how he beat his opponents and would recount his victories in the boxing ring with his trademark poetry. (“He wanted to go to heaven, so I sent him in Round Seven!”)

The lawyer would shake his head and condescendingly say to the fighter, “Oh, please! You’re being so truculent!”

And the fighter would respond, “I don’t know what the word means, but if it means bad, I am!”

They traveled the world together. The fighter would climb into the ring everywhere from Madison Square Garden in New York City to Wembley Stadium in London to the Philippines to Zaire. The lawyer would be with him at all those events, often broadcasting the fight (“Down goes Frazier!”) to television viewers and radio listeners around the world.

They were the greatest promoters in the history of boxing. The fighter would gently kid his friend, the lawyer, bragging that he would still be practicing law in Manhattan had he never met the greatest fighter in the world. The lawyer would laugh and respond, “You would still be in impoverished anonymity in this country if I hadn’t made you.”

While the lawyer never represented the fighter, he did stand beside him when the fighter found himself in a legal battle that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

During the Vietnam War, the fighter was drafted, but refused induction in the United States Army, objecting that service in the American military would violate his religious beliefs as a Muslim.

The fighter was stripped of his heavyweight championship crown, and for a number of years, joined the lawyer as one of the most hated men in America. The lawyer refused to turn his back on his friend, becoming his biggest advocate, not before the United States Supreme Court, but in a much larger courtroom — the courtroom of public opinion.

For three years, in the very prime of his career, the fighter was banned from boxing.

But after winning his case before the nation’s highest court, the fighter went back in the ring, eventually reclaiming the heavyweight championship of the world, then losing it, and then winning it back again. And through the entire incredible journey, the lawyer was with him, sharing the fighter’s story with the entire world.

From the “Thrilla in Manilla” to the “Rumble in the Jungle,” they were always together, with the fighter proving he was the greatest, and the lawyer bragging that he was even greater. They sparred and traded verbal jabs to the delight of viewers across the globe, even those viewers who were not boxing fans.

The fighter was, of course, the greatest, Muhammad Ali. The lawyer was the inimitable, arrogant and bombastic Howard Cosell.

Muhammad Ali died on June 2. Cosell passed away in 1995.

To this day, very few people, including even the most ardent sports fans, can tell you the name of the current heavyweight champion of the world. But everyone remembers the greatest, Muhammad Ali. And all of us who grew up watching “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” and the early years of “Monday Night Football” will never forget that lawyer from Brooklyn, Howard Cosell.

The fighter became the greatest, and the lawyer helped make it happen.

Bill Haltom

BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.