The Story Behind Muhammad Ali's Name

On Friday, champion heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74, leaving the sports world speechless. But although the name “Muhammad Ali” has become legendary, what was Muhammad Ali’s real name? “Real,” of course, depends on your definition; I would argue that the names we choose for ourselves are the realest of them all. Here, though, is the story behind his original name, and why he chose to change it.

Muhammad Ali was born on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Odessa O’Grady Clay and Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. — and he shared the name he was given with his father: Muhammad Ali’s original name was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. Cassius Sr. had himself been named after the abolitionist of the same name. Cassius Clay the abolitionist was also born in Kentucky in 1810, well over a century before Ali was; he published the anti-slavery journal True American, was twice elected to the Kentucky legislature, and served as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. He was also instrumental in organizing the United States’ purchase of Alaska.

It was under this name that Ali had his earliest successes: He won his first amateur match as Cassius Clay, Jr. in 1954, the Golden Gloves tournament for novices in 1956, and the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in 1959. Then, in 1960, he traveled to the Olympics in Rome, winning the light heavyweight gold medal. His Olympic gold is what led to his turning professional, and in 1964, his legendary fight with Sonny Liston resulted in his becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.

In 1964, shortly after the Liston fight, Ali joined the Nation of Islam, and with this decision came his change in name: Muhammad Ali. According to the Independent, Ali attended his first NOI meeting in 1961; he also for a brief time went by the name Cassius X, a nod to Malcolm X. Since he had already begun an impressive career under his original name, many journalists were reluctant to make the change; however, Ali stuck to his guns, saying, “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name — it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.” In 1975, Ali converted to Sunni Islam.

The names we choose for ourselves are powerful, and Ali's was no exception. And one thing's for sure: No one will ever forget the name "Muhammad Ali."