‘What’s my name?’
The title fight in which Muhammad Ali asserted his identity
His back ached, his hands hurt, the press hated him, and the feds wanted to throw him in jail. Tired of it all, Muhammad Ali announced that he would fight two more times and then retire.
He was 24. The year was 1966, a time of crisis for America and for boxing’s heavyweight champion. That first fight would confirm his peerless skill. The second would confirm white America’s skewed view of him.
For Ali, the crisis had begun two years earlier, when he had announced his membership in the Nation of Islam, an organization that the FBI considered a threat to American security for its anti-white, separatist views. He inspired still more anger when he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, a name chosen for him by the Nation of Islam’s leader Elijah Muhammad.
“I pity Clay and abhor what he represents,” Jimmy Cannon of The New York Journal American wrote at the time, in a view shared by many Americans. Even civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. blasted the boxer, saying, “Cassius should spend more time proving his boxing skill and do less talking.”
Ali’s woes only deepened when his draft status was changed and he indicated he would refuse to be inducted into the military, saying he saw no point in fighting dark-skinned Asians on behalf of a country that still oppressed its own dark-skinned citizens. Later, he said his religious beliefs precluded him from fighting in the war, a view roundly rejected by the court of public opinion.
As race riots and anti-war protests spread across America, Ali found himself at the center of the storm, and he liked it there. “I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want,” he said.
He had grown up asking his mother why Jesus was always painted as a white man. Listening to his father praise Marcus Garvey and the Back-to-Africa movement, he would ask, “Why can’t I be rich?” And his father, a sign painter, had pointed to the skin on his son’s walnut-colored arm and said, “That’s why you can’t be rich.”
Ali boxed because he was very, very good at it, and because it was the quickest way to wealth and fame, and because wealth and fame meant power. He figured that out quickly. Fame was the jab and power was the hook.
But what would happen if he retired? What would happen to his hook? With his next two fights against Cleveland Williams and Ernie Terrell, Ali would find just how much he needed boxing and why.
Ali called Williams his “most dangerous opponent.” But on Nov. 14, 1966, Ali destroyed the slugging, slow-moving Williams before a crowd of 35,000 people in the Houston Astrodome. Moving quickly around the ring, Ali threw jabs, hooks, and four-punch combinations. By the third round, Williams’ face looked like it had been through a windshield. Ali piled punches upon punches until the referee stopped the fight.
Seldom had one fighter inflicted so much damage while suffering so little. No one knew if Ali was serious about retirement, but had he truly intended to quit boxing, this would have been a fine moment for it. He was one of the most handsome and handsomely paid men on the planet. He was largely undamaged by a sport that crippled and stupefied even its best practitioners. And he had just given one of the greatest performances the boxing world had ever seen in front of one of the largest audiences to ever witness a sporting event. Had he quit then, it might have been enough to go down in history as one of the greatest of all time.
But three months later, Ali fought Terrell in a bout that would become part of Ali’s legend. To this day, boxing fans call it “The What’s My Name Fight,” because Ali taunted Terrell in the ring while punishing him for 15 rounds, demanding to be called by his Muslim name, not his “slave” name. But the fight has been terribly misunderstood. With Ali, nothing was ever as simple as it may have seemed.
There was no animosity between Ali and Terrell before the fight. Ali seemed to like Terrell. Both were Southerners. Both fancied themselves singers. Both had fought as light heavyweights in the Golden Gloves. And both lived on Chicago’s South Side through most of the late 1960s.
In 1966, while many state boxing commissions continued to recognize Ali as the heavyweight champ, the World Boxing Association had vacated Ali’s title because of his refusal to enlist in the Army. It awarded the title to Terrell, which lent extra importance to this fight. By winning, Terrell would prove he deserved to be called the champ.
On Dec. 28, 1966, the men were in New York promoting the fight. Terrell, a tall, lean, soft-spoken man, was telling reporters that he’d been waiting years to face Ali, whom he continued to refer to as Cassius Clay. Almost everyone still referred to Ali as Clay at that point. Certainly, every major American newspaper called him Clay. Ali’s parents continued to call him Cassius.
The boxers were in a small room talking to Howard Cosell of WABC-TV, jawing at one another in the way fighters often did while trying to hype a bout, puffing their chests and talking trash. Seemingly out of nowhere, Ali complained: “Why do you call me Clay? You know my right name is Muhammad Ali.”
Terrell didn’t understand why Ali was upset. He answered plainly. “I met you as Cassius Clay. I’ll leave you as Cassius Clay.”
“It takes an Uncle Tom Negro to keep calling me by my slave name,” Ali said. “You’re an Uncle Tom.”
Terrell leaned forward, suddenly angry. As Ali knew, there was no greater insult that could be delivered to a proud black man than to call him a Tom.
“You have no right to call me an Uncle Tom,” Terrell said.
Ali leaped back and whipped off his jacket and took an openhanded swing at Terrell’s head. Terrell raised his hands to block the blow.
Terrell was no Uncle Tom, and he’d expressed no objection to Ali’s faith. Unlike former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, for instance, he had never said that Ali’s religion was inferior to Christianity.
Nevertheless, Ali vowed to punish Terrell for disrespecting his faith and his new name. “I want to torture him,” Ali said. “A clean knockout is too good for him.”
This, too, might have been part of Ali’s brand of psychological warfare, an attempt to get under Terrell’s skin while also hyping the fight to sell more tickets. But it served as a potent reminder that racial conflict permeated everything in the late 1960s, even a fight between two black men.
The fight took place on Feb. 6, 1967, before an even larger crowd in the Astrodome. Ali and Terrell exchanged punches evenly in the first two rounds, before Ali began to land his jabs effectively.
This was the young Ali’s style. He jab-jab-jabbed until his opponents grew weary, until Ali’s gloved hand seemed attached by a cord to their face. He would pound them until the accumulated impact brought on fatigue, headaches, and blurred vision, until one good punch would turn out the lights and send them to the floor and rid them at last of that jab-jab-jabbing fist.
In round one, Ali hit Terrell 10 times. In round two, nine times. In round three, 21 times. In round four, eight times. In round five, 12 times. In round six, 14 times. That was 74 punches that connected, almost all of them to the face. Ali, in turn, got hit 62 times. Though Ali was winning, this was no massacre. It was a fight, and a fairly even one, at that.
Ali knew that anytime you faced a big, strong man like Terrell, you could lose at any moment, the victim of a punch you did or didn’t see. One shot to the temple and you might wake up on a long, cold table, transformed from champion to chump.
That’s why Ali chose not to torture Terrell. Instead, he attacked with everything he had in the seventh round, throwing two dozen jabs and even more power punches. Ali spun Terrell around, shoved him into the ropes, and unleashed a hurricane gust of punches, lifting both feet off the mat to put all his body weight into the shots.
Terrell’s legs wobbled and both eyes bled, but the challenger wouldn’t fall. Terrell gathered himself and fought back, hammering hard on Ali’s head in the final minute of the round. It happened again in subsequent rounds. Every time Ali took control, Terrell fought back.
In the eighth, Ali taunted him, yelling, “What’s my name?” followed by a whistling left-right combination that made the question rhetorical. “What’s my name?” he spat again through his mouthpiece. Terrell closed his eyes as the next combination flew.
Ali had been taunting his opponents since his days as a teenage amateur fighter. “Is that all you got?” he’d ask. “You’re too slow!” he’d bark. Or, “You can’t hit me, old man!”
When the bell clanged to end the round, Ali did not go to his corner. Instead, he stepped close to Terrell and leaned in. His eyes went wide. The tendons in his neck strained. His arms fell to his sides. He barked it this time so it didn’t sound like a question: “What’s my name!”
The fight went on seven more rounds, but not because Ali wanted to torture Terrell. Ali couldn’t end it. In round 12, he stood flat-footed and threw his biggest punches. Terrell took the blows and fought back. Ali threw more punches by far than he’d ever thrown in a fight — 737, almost all to Terrell’s head. But he couldn’t finish the job. As he grew weary, his taunting stopped.
When the fight was over, the judges unanimously named Ali the winner. Announcer Cosell got in the ring and asked Ali if he could have knocked out Terrell if he’d wanted to.
“No, I don’t believe I could’ve,” Ali said. “After the eighth round I laid on him, but I found myself tiring.”
It didn’t matter to the white men covering the bout, who by now looked for any and every reason to criticize Ali. They called him a torturer and a thug. They said he lacked dignity, that he was no Joe Louis, no Gentleman Jim Corbett. They called it “a disgusting exhibition of calculated cruelty,” as if boxing could be anything else. Jimmy Cannon called Ali’s treatment of Terrell “a kind of a lynching.”
Ali, in fact, was a beautiful boxer, changing rhythms and speeds as smoothly as a jazzman, cracking jabs, digging hook to the ribs, sliding away with a shuffle to survey the damage he’d done, and then cracking more jabs. He turned violence into craft like no heavyweight before or since.
And while the white press vilified Ali for bullying Terrell, many black Americans took a different view. They saw Ali as a man exploding with pride and anger. They might not have embraced his religion, but they could relate to a man demanding dignity. Before Ali, black athletes were expected to show respect for authority, to be thankful for the opportunities white America gave them. Ali beat the crap out of that notion.
What’s my name? What’s my name?
Ali did not retire after Terrell, and over the years he would suffer for his inability to knock out opponents, absorbing terrible punishment throughout a 21-year professional career that ended badly, as most boxing careers do.
But the image of Ali shouting at Terrell is the one worth remembering today, as we say goodbye, because it is the image of a man refusing to be defined or controlled by others. It’s the image of a man who fought for his beliefs with his mouth and mind as well as his body.