A Brief History
On March 6, 1964, the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, dubbed convert to the religion boxing champion Cassius “The Louisville Lip” Marcellus Clay, Jr. as Muhammad Ali. (Note: Elijah Muhammad was born Robert Poole.) Many White Americans did not take kindly to the name change, and many continued to call Ali “Clay” throughout the life of the controversial and highly vocal boxing legend. Sometimes sports name changes occur before the person is famous, but when they occur after the athlete has achieved fame it seems awkward for some fans to remember who they are cheering for. Today we list some of the notable name changes, official or unofficial, that have taken place over the years in the world of sports. Heck, singers (David Jones became David Bowie) and actors (Marion Morrison became John Wayne) change their names, even politicians (President Gerald R. Ford was born Leslie King) change their names, so why not athletes? (Note: Many sports teams have also changed their names, a topic for another day!)
Questions for Students (and others): What is your favorite sports name change? Did you have any idea Abdul-Jabbar’s given first name was Ferdinand?
1. Cassius Clay-Muhammad Ali (Boxing).
Winner of the Olympic Gold Medal for Light Heavyweight Boxing in 1960, Clay was on the fast track to fame, and let everyone within earshot know it! While he loudly proclaimed his “greatness,” he marched his way through 19 boxing opponents until winning the Heavyweight Championship from Sonny Liston in February of 1964. In 1966, at the age of 24, Ali was drafted into the US military, but refused induction. His refusal to serve alienated many (mostly White) boxing fans and aggravated the trend to refuse to call him by his chosen name. Eventually the snide calling of Ali as “Clay” seemed to disappear and is rarely heard now. Ali died in 2016, a quivering wreck of man apparently victimized by years of being hit in the head. He always referred to himself as “The Greatest,” and though the title is debatable, many agree with Ali.
2. George Herman Ruth, Jr.-Babe Ruth (Baseball).
Not really an official name change, but “Babe” is associated with only this one great ballplayer (except for the female uber-athlete, “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias). Ruth is probably the most famous baseball player of all time and is arguably the greatest baseball player of all time. This particular author insists that Ruth is indeed the best player ever, and that means including all aspects of the game. Not only was he the greatest hitter of all time (714 major league home runs and a lifetime batting average of .342), he was also a premier left handed pitcher before switching to everyday play in the outfield, posting a won-loss record of 94-46 and an ERA of 2.28! Wow, how could anyone compete with such mastery of 2 separate aspects of baseball? He is indeed, the “Babe Ruth” of baseball!
3. Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr.-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Basketball).
Lots of juniors on this list! Kareem was known publicly as “Lew Alcindor” as he dominated college basketball at UCLA, gaining tremendous fame and when he made his eagerly awaited debut in the National Basketball Association he was immediately compared to the “other” 7 foot superstar, Wilt Chamberlain. The 7 foot 2 inch Kareem did himself proud, notching more points than any player in NBA history, while earning 6 Most Valuable Player Awards, 6 NBA Championships and earning 19 trips to the All Star Game (another record). He also piled up more games and more minutes played than any NBA player ever and blocked more shots while grabbing more defensive rebounds than any NBA player in history. He changed his name to a Muslim name after winning his first NBA Championship in 1971 with the Milwaukee Bucks. While Kareem’s chosen form of Islam was not the controversial Nation of Islam, there was a certain amount of resentment felt by some White Americans at the name change. Too bad for those people, because Kareem has made a lifetime of social justice activism his second calling and has never hesitated to speak on behalf of civil rights and social justice.
4. James Cleveland Owens-Jesse Owens (Track and Field).
Born in the South, but raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Owens’ name actually was merely a coincidence that he lived and grew up in a city matching his middle name. The “Jesse” comes from a contraction of his initials, “JC” by which he was called, those initials morphing into the familiar “Jesse” we know him by. Owens starred at The Ohio State University (where Dr. Zar got his PhD in History) and made history as an Olympic athlete in 1936, in Berlin, Germany, winning 4 Olympic Gold Medals. Adjusted for the technology of the day, Owens is either the fastest or second fastest human known to athletic history, depending on how the analysis is made. In a college track meet, Owens set the World Record long jump, 220 yard dash, 220 yard low hurdles and 100 yard dash (tied) records in the span of 45 minutes! (Note: The Dachshund, smallest of the Hound Group of dogs, famous for his little legs and fierce disposition toward Badgers, can run 50 yards faster than any human in history! Dachshunds go by many names, such as Wiener Dog, Hot Dog, Sausage Dog, Badger Hound, and Teckel.)
5. Lloyd Bernard Free-World B. Free (Basketball).
A flashy and prolific scoring offensive basketball player, Free played in the NBA from 1975 to 1988, during which time he was called (or called himself) “The Prince of Midair” or the more familiar “All-World.” Free claimed he earned the “All World” name as a junior high school phenom, with merely being an “All Star” or “All State” not good enough for his prodigious talents. While he gave credit to his playmates for labeling him “World” (short for “All World”), it was up to him to change his name legally in 1981, at the age of 28 to World B. Free. He managed a very commendable 20.3 points per game in the NBA, but only made the All Star Team once. He was never on a NBA Championship team. Free now works in public relations for the Philadelphia 76ers. During the 1979-1980 NBA season, Free averaged 30.2 points per game, a career best.
6. Ronald William Artest Jr.-Metta World Peace (Basketball).
A rough and tumble basketball player, Artest was known for his defense, earning a trip to the All Star Game in 2004, the same year he won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. Known for some on-court rumbles and controversies, Artest made amends in that regard by winning the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2011, the same year he changed his name to Metta World Peace. Now a coach with the Los Angeles Lakers player development system, Artest has also had domestic violence incidents, but those came prior to his name change. By the way, his first name is “Metta,” and his last name is “World Peace.” (Did you think his middle name was World? We did.) Artest-World Peace played in the NBA from 1999 until 2017. During the 2004-2005 season he scored 24.6 points per game, pretty good for a defensive specialist.
7. Chad Johnson-Chad Ochocinco-Chad Johnson (Football).
This outgoing personality played wide receiver in the National Football League and sought to honor Hispanic Americans during Hispanic Heritage Month in October of 2006 by changing his name to the Spanish form (sort of) of his jersey number, which was 85 (originally using “Ocho Cinco”). Chad got a bit testy when told over and over again that in Spanish “85” is NOT “Ochocinco.” Give the guy a break! He was not trying to say “eighty-five” in Spanish, but more along the lines of “eight-five” and did not want to deal with a hyphen. In any case, he got his name legally changed to “Chad Javon Ochocinco” in 2008, but in 2009 he announced he would be changing his name once again, this time to “Hachi Go” which apparently means “8-5” in Japanese. Ochocinco once again legally became Chad Johnson when he officially changed his name back to the original one in 2012. Johnson was a pretty good football player, serving 11 seasons in the NFL and another season in the Canadian Football League, racking up 766 receptions in the NFL and leading the League in receiving yards in 2006. A 6 time Pro Bowl player, Johnson caught 67 touchdown passes in his NFL career. Johnson has had some legal problems related to domestic violence and probation violations.
8. Robert Earl “Bobby” Moore-Ahmad Rashād (Football).
An NFL receiver from 1972 to 1982, this college running back turned receiver made it to 4 Pro Bowls and caught 44 touchdown passes in his career. The highlight of his NFL career came in 1980 while playing against the Cleveland Browns (of course) when he caught a “Hail Mary” touchdown pass from quarterback Tommy Kramer to win the game 28-23. The catch, known as “The Miracle at the Met” is one of the most celebrated in Minnesota Vikings history. The one-handed catch on the last play of the game was actually the second touchdown pass Rashād caught during the last 2 minutes of the game. After having legal (criminal) issues in college, Moore converted to Islam and changed his name to reflect his new religion, a frequent reason for famous athletes to change their name. (Remember singer Cat Stevens? Born Steven Demetre Georgiou, he has been Yusef Islam since converting to Islam in 1977.) Rashād has been a highly successful television announcer since retiring from football.
9. Eldrick Tont Woods-Tiger Woods (Golf).
How often have you ever heard of the second greatest golfer of all time called Eldrick? He has been “Tiger” from the start of his professional career and that is how America and the world knows him. (Okay, some may argue that Woods is the best golfer of all time, and if you think so go ahead and explain why in the comments section. We will listen respectfully.) While racking up an incredible number of golfing victories and accomplishments, Tiger became a bit too enamored of the ladies and was publicly outed for extra-marital affairs by the ever vigilant National Enquirer tabloid in 2009. Shortly after that public embarrassment, Woods was (allegedly) beaten with a golf club by his wife who pursued him down the street late one night. He has not been the same since. (Note: We consider Jack Nicklaus as the greatest golfer of all time.)
10. Johan Ramon Santana-Ervin Ramon Santana (Baseball).
This name change came about for a novel reason, that being there was already a pretty good major league pitcher named Johan Santana, and the (now) Ervin wanted to change his name so that he would not be confused with the other Santana and vice versa. (Think about the 2 beautiful and accomplished actresses named Vanessa Williams.)
11. (Bonus) Walker Smith Jr.-Sugar Ray Robinson (Boxing).
Did we say 10 Name Changes? Let this one count as a bonus entry. One of the greatest boxers of all time, perhaps the greatest “pound for pound” fighter ever, Robinson competed at the welterweight and middleweight levels. His name change came about when Smith needed to prove he was 18 years old (he was not) and used someone else’s birth certificate for “proof” to be allowed to compete in an AAU boxing tournament. Smith was only 15 at the time, and the friend that loaned him the birth certificate was, obviously, someone named Ray Robinson. The “Sugar” addition came later, because Ray’s boxing was so “sweet.” Or because a female boxing fan said Ray was “sweet as sugar.” (Note: Boxing is called “The Sweet Science.” Why, we do not know.) Robinson compiled a massive record of 173 wins and 19 losses among his 200 professional fights. Like many professional fighters, Robinson lost his money and was broke upon retirement, dying in 1989 at the age of 67, suffering from a variety of ailments including Alzheimer’s Disease.
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For more information, please see…
Meltzer, Milton. A book about names: In which custom, tradition, law, myth, history, folklore, foolery, legend, fashion, nonsense, symbol, taboo help explain how we got our names and what they mean. Crowell, 1984.
Vincent, Woody. What’s In A Name: The stories behind some of the best known companies, products and names in the world. CreateSpace, 2012.
Zirin, Dave. What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States. Haymarket Books, 2005.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Muhammad Ali from 1966 from the Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang 2.24.01.04 Bestanddeelnummer 924-3060, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license.