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This Day, That Year: Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, Why The Boxing Legend Decided On His New Name

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"Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it and I don't want it,” he said.

“I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me,” said the legendary champion heavyweight boxer in 1964.

A 22-year-old Cassius Clay earned his first world heavyweight championship title after he knocked-out Sonny Liston. "Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it and I don't want it,” he said. It was back then he declared that he would convert to Islam and become a member of Nation of Islam (NOI). Named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr after his father, the boxing legend denounced his birth name a few weeks after his victory to adopt a Muslim name.

He had already made a name for himself as Clay and had won several fights under the name. Reportedly, it was in the year 1961, Ali attended his first NOI meeting and went on to be a part of many meetings with the African American Islamic religious movement. Malcolm X, an important figure of the movement, became a spiritual and political mentor to Ali before his conversion. He called him as Cassius X before being known as Muhammad Ali (Praised one) in a statement by Elijah Muhammad, the group’s head in 1964.

Ali’s managers believed his association with NOI would jeopardize his career, however that didn't let come in the way of his growth as a boxer as well as political leader.

The boyish-faced fighter, said he disliked the fact that people attached "dire motives" to his Islam connections. In 1975, Ali, descendant of a runaway Kentucky slave, converted to mainstream Sunni Islam from the NOI. That’s how “The Greatest” changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1965, Ali defeated Liston for a second time with a first-round knockout.

The sporting champion and outspoken activist died at the age of 74 after battling Parkinson's disease for more than 30 years. Ali is survived by his fourth wife Lonnie and multiple children. The funeral took place at Ali's hometown of Louisville in Kentucky.

first published:March 06, 2021, 08:15 IST