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What's My Name / Muhammad Ali: The Moment

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  • What's My Name / Muhammad Ali: The Moment

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    By Thomas Hauser

    I've watched a lot of documentaries about Muhammad Ali over the years and viewed a lot of additional film footage that wasn't incorporated in them. The images tend to blur. But there's one moment in What's My Name / Muhammad Ali (the two-part HBO documentary that premieres on May 14) that stands out in my mind.

    Ali and Ernie Terrell are being interviewed by Howard Cosell six weeks before their heavyweight championship bout in Houston.

    "I thought Ali and I had a relationship as friends," Terrell told me years ago. "When you’re a fighter coming up, you deal with lots of people, and for me Ali was one of them. In 1962, we sparred together in Miami. In fact, for about a week, we shared a room. I was getting ready to fight Herb Siler, and he was on the same card against Don Warner. Both of us won, and afterward I was getting ready to take a plane home to Chicago. He had this big red Cadillac and offered to drive me as far as Louisville, where I stayed overnight at his parents’ house until I could catch a bus to Chicago in the morning."

    But that was then. Four years later, Ali's world had changed.

    “The way the name thing started," Terrell told me, "I didn’t consciously decide to call him ‘Clay.’ What happened was, when we signed to fight, the promoter told us, ‘You’ll both have to be in Houston two weeks ahead of time and complete your training there to help the promotion.’ He asked me, ‘Is that all right with you, Ernie?’ And I said, ‘It’s all right with me if it’s all right with Clay.’ I wasn’t trying to insult him. He’d been Cassius Clay to me all the time before when I knew him. I didn’t mean no harm. But when I saw that calling him ‘Clay’ bugged him, I kept it going. To me, it was just part of building up the promotion.”

    To Ali, it wasn't "part of building up the promotion.”

    The exchange of words between Ali and Terrell in What's My Name / Muhammad Ali starts shortly before the fifty-minute mark of Part One. It's fascinating because of the anger - even rage - visible in Muhammad's face and body language. Ali was known to voice angry words in those days. This was something more.

    "I'd like to say something right here," Terrell said. "Cassius Clay has --"

    "Why do you want to say 'Cassius Clay'?" Ali interrupted. "Why do you got to be the one of all people, who's colored, to keep saying 'Cassius Clay'?"

    Things escalated from there.

    Ali wasn't playing.

    Ali: "You're making it really hard on yourself now. Why don't you keep the thing in the sport angle? Why don't you call me my name, man?"

    Terrell: "Well, what's your name? You told me your name was Cassius Clay a few years ago."

    Ali: "My name is Muhammad Ali, and you will announce it right there in the center of the ring after the fight if you don't do it now."

    Terrell: "For the benefit of this broadcast; him, all right?"

    Ali: "You're acting just like an old Uncle Tom. I'm going to punish you."

    Now Terrell was angry and stepped forward into Ali's space. That sort of thing didn't happen when fighters were interviewed years ago.

    Terrell: "Wait a minute. Let me say something. You ain't got" -

    Ali: "Back off of me."

    Terrell: "Don't call me no Uncle Tom, man."

    Ali: "That's what you are, an Uncle Tom."

    Terrell: "Why you gonna call me an Uncle Tom?"

    Ali: "You heard me. Back off of me. Uncle Tom."

    At that point, Ali gave Terrell a two handed shove and the fighters had to be separated. For real.

    The HBO documentary then moves to Ali and Terrell in the center of the ring with referee Harry Kessler giving them their final pre-fight instructions. Ali wasn't one for staredowns. But he gives Terrell one here, and not for purposes of intimidation or show. His anger is bubbling near the surface. This time, he's the one who leans forward into Terrell's space. Both fighters decline Kessler's instruction to shake hands. Instead, Terrell reaches out with his left glove and pushes Ali away.

    The bout that followed was ugly and brutal. In the early rounds, Terrell suffered a fractured bone under his left eye and swelling of the left retina. From the eighth round on, he was virtually helpless. From that point on, Ali taunted him mercilessly.

    “Uncle Tom! What’s my name! Uncle Tom! What’s my name!”

    “By the fourteenth round,” Tex Maule wrote in Sports Illustrated, “Terrell could no longer control his tormented body. Instead of reacting normally to a feint, he flinched instinctively with his whole being, and when he ventured to lead with his left, his recovery into a protective crouch was exaggerated and somehow pitiful. It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty."

    Jerry Izenberg, who was at ringside that night, later told me, "’What’s my name!’ It wasn’t a question. It was a demand. Ali was determined to make Terrell say it, and the fight was absolutely horrible. If Ali was an evil person, that’s the kind of person he would have been all the time. Somebody really pushed the wrong button that night because it was a side of him so out of character that, to this day, I find it hard to believe it was him. It was evil. Ali went out there to make it painful and embarrassing and humiliating for Ernie Terrell. It was a vicious ugly horrible fight.”

    What's My Name / Muhammad Ali captures the antecedents of that moment.

    Thomas Hauser's email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Protect Yourself at all Times– was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

    Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel



  • #2
    That was Ali at his very worse. Very cruel. ET was a decent guy very well liked by other fighters. Ali won no friends that night. Shameful and should remain on the left side of his ledger.

    Comment


    • #3
      For the life on me I can't understand why Muhammad Ali would be offended by his own name, his father's name, the name of the great American abolitionist Cassius Clay and I'm further confounded by the fact he gave that beautiful name up take the name of an infamous Egyptian slave driver. So Weird!!!

      Comment


      • Kid Blast
        Kid Blast commented
        Editing a comment
        One he decided to go the Muslim Centrist route, he became a very decent person. Much like Malcolm X did. But X didn't last long as he renounced the hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad. . A trip to the Haj helped both change their ways. But earlier, Ali saw being called Cssius Clay as an insult to his conversion to Black Muslim.

    • #4
      The only insult was from Clay Jr. to Clay Sn.

      Sorry Dad, I reject your free man's name.

      And I replace it with what is demonstrably a slaver name.

      Comment


      • Kid Blast
        Kid Blast commented
        Editing a comment
        No. I think you are wrong there. His Muslim name was a wonderful one from a Muslim perspective. Cassius Clay was a good one as well. In fact, the Clay family was a middle class one if memory serves me correct. Ali was greatly influenced by X, but when X came under attack, Ali did not back him as well as he could have. My thinking was that he really couldn't because he was afraid of retribution from the Elijah's muscle from Chicago. That entire episode was very sad because by then, X had become a centrist ---- something Ali would eventually become. The name game was minor in this, but what he did to Terrell was cruel and nasty. "SLAVE NAME" had no play in this.

    • #5
      I don't feel wrong.

      King Muhammad Ali of Egypt was a slave driver.

      That's how slavery worked. Arabs in Africa bought slaves captured by other black people (slavers) and sold this then legal product to white people (and others) in America, some of whom disagreed with this atrocious arrangement so much that they fought and died by the thousands on American soil so that Clay could call himself whatever the heck he wanted to, even if that meant insulting his own father who WAS NAMED after abolitionist Cassius Clay. I haven't seen the documentary yet.

      Comment


      • Kid Blast
        Kid Blast commented
        Editing a comment
        Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God
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