On this day in 1964, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad proclaims that the prize fighter previously known as Cassius Clay would be renamed Muhammad (one who is worthy of praise) Ali (most high). Causing shock, awe and anger throughout the US, the religious conversion of Muhammad Ali had been underway as early as 1959.
In 1962, Clay met Malcolm X, who soon became his spiritual and political mentor. By the time of the first Sonny Liston fight, Nation of Islam members, including Malcolm X, were visible in his entourage. This led to a story in The Miami Herald just before the fight disclosing that Clay had joined the Nation of Islam, which nearly caused the bout to be canceled. After the announcement, Only a few journalists (most notably Howard Cosell) accepted the new name at that time.
Ali later announced: “Cassius Clay is my slave name.” Not afraid to antagonize the white establishment, Ali stated, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X ended as Malcolm split with the Nation of Islam a couple of weeks after Ali joined, and Ali remained with the Nation of Islam. Ali later said that turning his back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes he regretted most in his life. In 1966, two years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali further antagonized the white establishment by refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Ali was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges, and stripped of his boxing titles. He successfully appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971, by which time he had not fought for nearly four years and thereby lost a period of peak performance as an athlete. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.
Religion notwithstanding, Ali is regarded as one of the leading heavyweight boxers of the 20th century, and remains the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion. During 1964, Ali reigned as the undisputed heavyweight champ. His record of the most wins in heavyweight title bouts in modern boxing history at 22 remained unbeaten for more than 35 years. Ali is the only boxer to be named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year six times. He was also ranked as the greatest athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC, and the third greatest athlete of the 20th century by ESPN SportsCentury.
Imminently quotable, while there is plenty of bombast to plumb, including lines such as “I’m so mean I make medicine sick,” Ali has two particular utterances this scribe borrows on occasion. “Don’t count the days; make the days count,” is a phrase helpful to motivate temporarily stalled young men. And lastly, turning to one’s place in the world, Ali poignantly said “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”