How Muhammad Ali decided on his new name

How Muhammad Ali decided on his new name

Updated Mar. 5, 2020 2:18 a.m. ET

In ''Muhammad Ali: Athlete of the Century,'' a collection of Associated Press stories and visuals, AP reporters and photographers captured the life of the boxing champion as he made news in the sports world and far beyond. Here are two excerpts from the book, , that discuss what Ali called the `slave name' that he rejected when he converted to Islam. The first excerpt, by reporter Rick Warner, looks back on Ali's defeat of Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964. (This report was first published on February 23, 1989). The second excerpt, by reporter Will Grimsley, tells how Ali adopted the Islam religion and the ''inner peace'' his religion brought him was responsible for his upset victory over Liston. (This report was first published on February 28, 1964).



On Feb. 25, 1964, a brash young fighter named Cassius Clay stunned the experts by beating Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, was a new breed of champion.


''Ali changed the perception of what a sports hero was,'' said Ferdie Pacheco, the fighter's longtime physician and one of his cornermen for the Liston bout.

''Back then, sports heroes had to be self-effacing, `aw-shucks' kind of guys. Now here was a guy who told everybody he was the greatest and backed it up. But he did it with such spontaneity and childlike glee that people accepted it.''

Pacheco was co-host of an NBC special commemorating the silver anniversary of the Clay-Liston bout, which aired in 1989. The show included the original closed-circuit telecast of the fight and rare footage of the press conferences before and after the bout.

Liston was an ex-convict with a devastating left jab, a surly demeanor and a baleful stare that scared most opponents before he ever threw a punch.

''To say Liston was the Tyson of his day is to understate it,'' Pacheco said. ''Everybody they put in front of him, he knocked out. It didn't seem like there was a human being on earth who could beat him.''

At times, people wondered whether Ali was from this planet. At the weigh-in, he screamed at Liston and became so excited that his blood pressure soared to a dangerous level.

''He wanted to convince Liston that he was fighting a lunatic,'' Pacheco said, ''because a bully doesn't know what to do with a crazy man.''

That was an act.

It was no act, however, when Ali tried to quit in his corner following the fourth round. Liniment that had been rubbed on a Liston cut somehow got into Ali's eyes and practically blinded him. Ali tried to convince his handlers to stop the fight but his manager, Angelo Dundee, refused to throw in the towel.

''Angelo saved Ali's crown,'' Pacheco said. ''If he doesn't send him out for the fifth round, the fight is over.''

With Ali struggling to see, Liston quickly cornered his opponent and began pounding him with vicious body shots. But Ali staved off the attack, eventually regained his vision and went on to win when Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round.

''I knew Ali had the fight won after he made it through the fifth round,'' Pacheco said. ''Liston hit him with everything he had, the kind of shots that knocked everyone else out, but they didn't have any effect on Ali.''

While the NBC special brought back memories for Pacheco, it was a history lesson for producer David Neal.

Neal, who was 8 years old at the time of the bout, said he knew very little about the fight before he began working on the show.

''I knew it was the first of two fights between Clay and Liston, and that it went longer than the second one,'' he said. ''I also knew it was the last time Ali fought as Cassius Clay.

''But I had no idea how monumental an upset it was. I had thought Liston was just a stepping stone for Ali. As I put the show together, I felt like I was experiencing a lot of it for the first time.''



The new heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay, said Thursday, February 27, 1964, he had adopted the Islam religion. He called Islam the best way to bring about lasting peace.

''They call it the Black Muslims,'' the 22-year-old Clay said. ''This is a press word. It is not a legitimate name. But Islam is a religion and there are 750 million people all over the world who believe in it, and I am one of them.''

He said he had made an extended study of the religion over a period of months and had become convinced it was ''the truth and the light.''

''A rooster crows only when it sees the light,'' he said. ''Put him in the dark and he'll never crow. I have seen the light and I'm crowing.''

''Clay, who stopped Sonny Liston in their 15-round title fight in Miami, Tuesday night, was relaxing at his temporary quarters when he was told that the leader of the black supremacy sect, Elijah Muhammad, had told a meeting in Chicago that the new ring champion was a disciple.

''That is true, and I am proud of it,'' Clay said. ''But what is all the commotion about? Nobody asks other people about their religion. But now I am the champion, I am the king, so it seems the world is all shook up about what I believe.

''You call it Black Muslims, I don't. The real name is Islam. That means peace. Yet people brand us a hate group.

They say we want to take over the country. They say we're Communists. ''That is not true. Followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world.

They don't carry knives. They don't tote weapons. They pray five times a day.

''The women wear dresses that come all the way to the floor and they don't commit adultery. The men don't marry white women.''

Clay said that his religion, which had brought him ''inner peace,'' was responsible for his sensational upset victory over Liston, an 8-to-1 favorite.

''All they want to do is live in peace with the world. They don't hate anybody. They don't want to stir up any kind of trouble. All the meetings are held in secret, without any fuss or hate-mongering.''

''God was with me--I couldn't have done it without God,'' he added.

The new champion said he as disturbed to find that the Islam group had drawn the fire of intregrationist forces among the Negro people.

''We believe that forced and token integration is but a temporary and not an everlasting solution to the Negro problem.'' he added. ''It is merely a pacifier.

We don't think one people should force its culture upon another.

''I get telephone calls every day. They want me to carry signs. They want me to picket. They tell me it would be a wonderful thing if I married a white woman because this would be good for the brotherhood.

''I don't want to be blown up. I don't want to be washed down sewers . I just want to be happy with my own kind.''

Clay said it was only natural that people of the same culture and heritage should live together.

''Animals in the jungle flock together,'' he said. Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese and Japanese all live better if they are together.

''I don't like hot Mexican food and I would be unhappy if somebody made me eat it. At the same time, you may not like what I like--turnip greens and hominy grits, or country music. If you don't like it you shouldn't have to accept it.''

The boyish-faced fighter, descendant of a runaway Kentucky slave, said he resented the fact that some people attached ''dire motives'' to his Islam connections.

''I am a good boy, I never have done anything wrong,'' he insisted. ''I have never been in jail. I have never been in court.

''I don't join any integration marches. I don't pay attention to all those white women who wink at me. I don't carry signs. ''I don't impose myself on people who don't want me. If I go in somebody's house where I'm not welcome, I am uncomfortable. So I stay away. ''I like white people. I like my own people. They can live together without infringing on each other. You can't condemn a man for wanting peace. If you do, you condemn peace itself.''