The legend Muhammed Ali and how vital his name change was for him and for others after him.
“I am the greatest” he roared to the skeptic reporters ahead of his 1964 world title match with Sonny Liston. No one believed his claim, as he was the heavy underdog in this match, yet he boldly continued to predict his imminent victory.
At the time, his birth name was Cassius Marcellus Clay, and he was the gold medal winner of the Summer Olympics that took place in Rome in 1960. When he was interviewed after his win there in Italy, the reporter told him he had a Roman name and if he knew what it meant. He admitted he didn’t know, and that he wasn’t expecting someone to ask him that. I wonder what he would’ve answered, had the young and cocky boxer knew that Cassius comes from Latin meaning Vain or Empty.
After winning the fight against Liston he announced that he had changed his name. First he changed it to Cassius X when he converted to Islam, and then to what everyone in the world knows him as today, Muhammed Ali.
The world had never seen such an athlete before. He was a boxer who wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind. A sportsman who wasn’t controlled or spoken for by his manager or coach.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
He denounced his old name and asked everyone to call him Muhammed Ali after he converted to Islam. “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammed Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when speaking to me and of me.”
He was so true to his conviction that he balked at accepting the award of “Fighter of the Year’ because it bore his old name. He also once left a boxing fight because the announcer refused to call him by his new name.
Even though changing his name had so much backlash and resistance by the public and media alike, he never surrendered. Almost all newspapers and magazines still called him Cassius, 6 years after he changed his name, including The New York Times, Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. He stated in his biography that a lot of people change their names everyday and none of them were being treated the same way. Actors like John Wayne and athletes like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson changed their name, even the Pope. No one would’ve protested had he chosen a more “American” name.
Muhammed Ali fought so hard and won on and off the boxing ring. His triumph paved the way to people like Lew Alcindor who changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and many more who were immediately called by their new names.
“Changing my name was one of the most important things that happened to me in my life.” he stated in his biography: “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” written by Thomas Hauser. People who knew him well have declared that with the change of name his whole demeanor changed. How disconnected he was to his old name, and how much he embraced the new one.
In 2002, they wanted to put his name on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, but he refused unless his name was not put on the ground like the others. “I bear the name of our beloved Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him), and it is impossible that I allow people to trample over his name,” he said. He also stated that he didn’t want his name to be walked on by people who had no respect for him.
The legend who got into his opponents’ heads well before the match started, the legend who always stood by what he believed and was outspoken about his principles.
“Will they ever have another fighter who writes poems, predicts rounds, beats everybody, makes people laugh, makes people cry and is as tall and extra pretty as me?”
They most probably never will; you were the greatest. May you rest in peace.