Muhammad Ali is synonymous with greatness. He even transcended his boxing accomplishments to become one of the most important athletes of any generation. But Ali was a complicated man and that wasn’t the name he was always known by. He was born Cassius Clay. Here’s how and why he changed his name.
Muhammad Ali’s boxing career
According to Biography.com, Ali (then still known as Clay) competed for the United States in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, winning gold in the light heavyweight division. His first major victory came in 1964 over Sonny Liston, a win that gave him his first world title. One of the toughest stretches of Ali’s career came after in the early ’70s.
In 1971, he lost an epic bout to Joe Frazier, following this up with a loss to Ken Norton. Ali defeated Frazier in their first rematch. Ali’s next few fights represented the apex of his career. First, in 1974, he defeated George Foreman in a match he called “The Rumble in the Jungle” held in Zaire. Ali then had his rubber match with Frazier (famously dubbed “The Thrilla in Manila”) which Ali won.
Ali later lost his title to Leon Spinks in 1978 before winning it back from him in a rematch. His career eroded somewhat in the late ’70s and early ’80s as he flirted with retirements and comebacks. He’d lose late-career fights to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. Overall, Ali’s record was 56-5 with 37 knockouts. He retired at 39 in 1981.
While his in-ring accomplishments are legendary, Ali isn’t only remembered today as a generational athlete. He’s also remembered as an activist who fought for multiple causes near and dear to his heart.
The U.S. military drafted Ali in 1967 and Ali refused to serve due to his standing as a Muslim minister. His argument is that his religious beliefs prohibited him from participating in a war. He paid dearly for this. The U.S. Justice Department found Ali guilty of a felony for failing to uphold Selective Service laws.
He received a five-year prison sentence but stayed out of jail while on appeal. He was also stripped of his boxing license and championship title. Eventually, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction, and Ali returned to the top of the boxing world. Unfortunately, he lost three years of his boxing career in the process.
Why did Muhammad Ali change his name to Cassius Clay?
So why was the most famous boxer of all time Ali and not Cassius Clay? Simply put: for religious purposes. Ali converted to a different faith, and changed his name as a part of that conversion. This is a common practice for those converting to Islam. Star basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known as Lew Alcindor prior to his conversion.
Joining the Nation of Islam in 1964, Clay first went by the name of Cassius X. He’d later change it to Muhammad Ali. In the ’70s, he converted to orthodox Islam. One interesting anecdote about Ali’s name change: He never legally changed it. In 2016, USA Today investigated Ali’s birth certificate only to find out that the document doesn’t include any kind of name change on it.
It did have a typo, though — referring to him as “Cassuis.” A spokesperson for the Social Security Administration said no proof of name change was needed for an update with the SSA; the applicant simply had to claim the change had occurred.
Ali’s name was more than just a name to him. It represented his transition to a man of Islamic faith, which was a major part of his life and career.