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06 June, 2016

THE NIGHT ERNIE TERRELL AND THE WORLD LEARNED TO ACCEPT MUHAMMAD ALI'S CHOSEN MUSLIM NAME

Here is a newspaper column I wrote almost 50 years ago when I was Sports Editor for the Simcoe Reformer newspaper. I resurrected it this past weekend on the passing of the great heavy weight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. The significance of the column was that it was written at a time when Ali was still known by his birth name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, and he was scheduled to meet Ernie Terrell in a bout that would become part of Ali’s remarkable legend.

Little did I know then what the next couple of decades would have in store for the world of boxing.

The fight took place on Feb. 6, 1967, before a sellout crowd in Houston's Astrodome. To this day, boxing fans call the ring clash “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.

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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.


...And the rest is history!

As it turned out, it was Ali who ended up "buttoning" poor Ernie Terrell's lip and becoming undisputed world champion in the process.  Give Terrell credit, he did not go down for the count and gave a good account of himself; but he was no equal to his opponent's lightening fast jabs and unique bob-n-weave style.  He was methodically "punished" for not calling Cassius Clay by his new assumed Muslim name.

There will never be another Muhammad Ali!...No one will ever even come close to the most controversial, yet revered, boxer in the history of the sport.  Who will ever forget the career-launching, stunning upset over the previously "unbeatable" heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and the "Thrilla in Manila" that pitted Ali against the ring warrior Joe Frazier?

Truly an all-time legend who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

*Here is an enlarged print copy of my column...At least you can get a better idea of what I wrote as a lead up to the fight.  



NOTE:  Ernie Terrell predeceased Muhammad Ali by a little more than a year. He died January, 2014 at 74 years of age.  He suffered from dementia the last few years of his life.  Ali died from complications of Parkinson's disease on Friday, June 3. He too was 74.     It is difficult to believe that the two perfect specimen gladiators in the accompanying highlights video are now gone.

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