In an article on Muhammad Ali and deadnaming is an illustration on Ali in boxing gloves and in a fighter pose.

How a Muhammad Ali Fight Shows the Malice Behind Deadnaming

The refusal by many to respect Ali’s name change parallels a dilemma facing the transgender community.
May 5, 2023
9 mins read

Heavyweight Muhammad Ali entered the Houston Astrodome on Feb. 6, 1967, with a single goal in mind: punish Ernie Terrell, the long-limbed challenger vying for his championship titles. Ali was no newcomer to the high-stakes sport of boxing; he was an Olympic gold medalist renowned for his graceful footwork, pugilistic accuracy and masterful use of the jab. Ali, who had battled under stadium lights since his professional debut in 1960, generally maintained his composure when inside the ring.

Ernie Terrell, however, infuriated him at the pre-fight press conference, disrupting his characteristically cool demeanor. Terrel’s grave offense? Referring to the champion as “Cassius Clay” — Ali’s birth name.

What’s in a Name?

Muhammad Ali officially changed his name in 1964 after joining the Nation of Islam. The NOI is a political Islamic organization founded in Detroit, Michigan in the 1930s. It became increasingly popular during the Civil Rights Movement due to its support of Black nationalism and racial independence.   

Under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, members of the NOI were expected to change their names. The organization rationalized this requirement by explaining that African American surnames were derived from the slaveholders of their ancestors. According to the NOI, these “slave names” should no longer be representative of its members. Renaming themselves allowed African Americans to find a greater sense of self-identity while distancing themselves from the injustices of the past. 

Malcolm X, the NOI’s most influential minister, replaced his last name with “X” to symbolize the unknown African surname stripped from his ancestors. Many followed his example, including heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, who briefly went by “Cassius X” before Elijah Muhammad bestowed him the moniker of Muhammad Ali.

Response to Name Change

Elijah Muhammad announced the name change during a radio address on March 6, 1964. Media outlets were slow to conform, and many continued to refer to Ali as “Clay” for years to come. The New York Times, for instance, used the name “Cassius Clay” in over 1,000 articles between 1964 and 1968; “Muhammad Ali” appeared in only around 150.

There were varying reasons for this lack of respect. A lot of it had to do with the NOI’s religious and political stances, which proved controversial among white Americans and Christians. However, a lot of the malice had to do with Ali himself.

Ali spent his career engaging in boastful, narcissistic showboating that was unprecedented at the time. He constantly raved about his attractive appearance and unmatched boxing abilities. Many reporters were charmed by Ali’s quick wit and explosive personality, making him an immediate American sensation.

“I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I’m pretty, and can’t possibly be beat,” Ali once claimed.

His overabundance of bravado did not please everyone, however. Many disliked Ali’s prideful nature, much preferring the mild-mannered heavyweights of the past such as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. New York Times sportswriter Arthur Daley referred to Ali as a “loudmouth braggart,” and others echoed this sentiment.

Naturally, writers like Daley disapproved of Ali and sought to discredit him whenever possible. Their insistence on using the moniker “Clay” worked as a subtle jab (no pun intended); by neglecting to respect Ali’s decision, they robbed him of the acknowledgment he deserved.

“Clay was not my name,” reasoned Ali in a 1964 interview, “Clay was a slave name. I’m no longer Clay. I’m no longer a slave. So, now — Muhammad Ali.” He appears tired and uncharacteristically glum as he provides this answer.

A Modern Lens

The symbolic act of name-changing has populated headlines in recent years under a wholly different context. Members of the transgender community typically adopt new names to better reflect their identities. A name change is an important, powerful step toward becoming one’s truest self.

Refusing to acknowledge a name change of this kind is known as “deadnaming.” Deadnaming occurs when a person refers to a transgender individual by their birth or given name. While ill-intent may not be involved, the act is considered extremely disrespectful. In effect, deadnaming invalidates the conscious decision of the transgender individual. Their identity is, at best, put into question and, at worst, discredited altogether.

Adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Jason Lambrese addresses the effects of deadnaming in an interview with the Cleveland Clinic: “It can remind them of that period in their lives before they could take steps to affirm who they are. Deadnaming might bring them back into those more negative times in their lives.”

Deadnaming creates an unnecessary link between a person and their painful history, forcing them to potentially reexperience the trauma of their past. It invalidates their lifestyle and diminishes their choices. Referring to anyone by an unwanted moniker, especially one with negative associations, cruelly robs them of respect and acknowledgment.

Also, calling someone by their preferred name is just basic human decency.

Transgender issues have only become more mainstream in the last few years, and some may struggle to understand the hurt deadnaming can cause. They may fail to recognize the power and malice it holds.

Those people may reach a greater understanding by revisiting the case of Muhammad Ali. While what Ali experienced was not, by definition, deadnaming, it shares notable parallels. By exclusively referring to him as “Clay,” many publications discredited his new identity, linking him to an unwanted surname that reminded him of the enslavement of his ancestors. They attempted to disarm his sense of self. To grapple away his shred of control. To belittle him for even trying.

No wonder Ernie Terrell infuriated him.

Ali Punishes Terrell (Feb. 6, 1967)

Ali won the fight via unanimous decision after maneuvering around Terrell for 15 rounds, battering him with vicious combinations and snappy jabs. After 45 minutes of boxing, Ali accomplished his singular goal. Terrell, bruised and defeated, had clearly been punished for calling the champion “Cassius Clay.”

But it was never about beating one man. Terrell wouldn’t be the last person to disrespect Ali’s name. In fact, one of ABC’s commentators referred to him as “Clay” for the entire fight.

Perhaps, on that night, Ali saw Terrell as an amalgamation of every writer, sportscaster and American citizen who refused to acknowledge his name change and discredited his identity. Over the course of 15 rounds, Ali whupped them all.

In one of boxing’s most iconic moments, Ali shouted at Terrell at the end of the eighth round.

“What’s my name?” he asked.

Terrell knew it after that night. America has known it ever since.

Joshua Laine, Emmanuel College

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Joshua Laine

Emmanuel College
Writing, Editing and Publishing

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