What’s in a name? When it’s Muhammad Ali, a lot.
Muhammad Ali, the man the New York Times (in its seven-page tribute) called “The Champ Who Transcended Boxing,” died on June 3, just a week after Frank Deford and I “shared” fond memories of him during our virtual Princeton reunion of two old Daily Princetonian editors. Deford’s recollection was one of the snippets I gleaned from his 2012 memoir, “Over Time.” My reminiscence was drawn from memory of two encounters I had with Ali, by telephone in 1968 and then in person in 1969 (U.S. 1, May 25).
The 1968 phone call was made while I was working as a summer reporter for Time magazine in Chicago, where Ali was living at the time. The question probably had something to do with his draft evasion case but I don’t remember exactly. I do remember vividly being anxious about how to address him once I got him on the phone — Clay or Ali? I went with Ali and was glad I did. It was Muhammad himself who answered the phone. No handlers for the champ at that moment in his life.
When I first recalled that now 48-year-old memory, I figured the interaction was indicative of how fast the world was changing. Clay had become Ali just a short time before, I told myself. It was still months before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when 200-meter medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos would raise their clenched fists on the medal stand as the national anthem played in the background.
As I wrote in U.S. 1’s May 25 issue: “A lot of the die-hard sportswriters had not embraced the change and continued to write about ‘Cassius Clay’.”
My memory was hazy on all counts. The name change from Clay to Ali had not just occurred, but rather had happened a full four years before. And it was not “die-hard sportswriters” who had not embraced the change. It was a lot of us.
Seeing a reference to the Clay to Ali name change in my “apologia” for not writing a column last week, my Princeton classmate Jim Floyd sent me a photograph and a link to a March, 1968, photograph and article in the Daily Princetonian about an appearance Ali had made on the Princeton campus to discuss his Muslim faith and his opposition to the war in Vietnam. In the “Prince” article, the fighter turned political activist was referred to exclusively as Ali, never as Clay.
I had totally forgotten Ali’s visit to Princeton in the spring of 1968. As newsworthy as the event had been, it must have paled in comparison to news that followed: The assassination of Martin Luther King, the takeover of the president’s office at Columbia University, which we covered with a “Prince” reporter who gained entrance along with the protesters into Grayson Kirk’s inner sanctum, and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which curtailed even Princeton’s alumni reunions and which got me a press ticket to both the funeral and the train to Washington for the burial.
Since I was the chairman of the paper — the guy in charge of the whole, rapidly melting ball of wax — the implied question about our coverage in the spring of 1968 and my uncertainty that summer was less than flattering: Could I have missed the memo that my own reporters, the co-authors of the March 11, 1968, article, had already grasped?
Possibly. It was also possible that we had learned a little bit in a week. In a March 4, 1968, article previewing the boxer’s arrival on campus, another reporter wrote the following:
“The country’s most prominent draft-resister may be in jail in a month, but he’ll be in Princeton to speak on Friday night. Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay), the former world heavyweight boxing champion, will speak at 7:30 in Alexander Hall. He is sponsored jointly by Whig-Clio and the Association of Black Collegians.
“Clay, 26, has become identified with both draft resistance and civil rights movements since he announced his intention of refusing to serve in the army in March of last year.”
The rest of the article referred to him exclusively as Clay, not Ali.
Possibly we at the Princetonian were in the same tortured state as the rest of the media. We probably were extremely sympathetic to Ali’s outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. We may have raised an eyebrow, however, at his religious conversion, name change, and filing for conscientious objection to the draft. Did Cassius Clay really become Muhammad Ali? Or was Clay posturing to get out of the draft? As college kids, we knew plenty of people who tried all sorts of ploys to evade conscription. But as journalists, we didn’t want to be part of the ploy.
We at the Princetonian were not alone in not initially buying the champion’s religious transformation. In a remarkable instance of self-criticism, the New York Times ran a story one week after Ali’s death titled “In the Ring, He Was Ali. In the Papers, Still Clay.” The pullquote for the story noted that “a name change was resisted for years by the news media,” but the story itself concentrated on the New York Times. “From 1964 to 1968, Cassius Clay appeared in more than 1,000 articles, Muhammad Ali in about 150,” the Times reported.
Robert Lipsyte, the noted Times sportswriter whose story led off the Times’ seven-page obituary/tribute to Ali, objected at the time to the Times’ policy toward the fighter’s name. “I found it very embarrassing,” he was quoted as saying. “We did not ask what John Wayne and Rock Hudson’s real names were.”
And the editors at the Times were not alone either. Shortly after the Times piece was published Slate’s Laura Wagner posted a piece in which she analyzed coverage of Clay/Ali in seven newspapers from 1964 to 1971: the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Baltimore Sun, and the black-owned Chicago Defender and Baltimore Afro-American.
Wagner counted the number of times each paper used “Clay” and “Ali” in headlines. In 1964, she reported, the papers ran 617 items with “Clay” in the headline compared to 13 for “Ali.” It wasn’t until 1970 “that most newspapers started heeding his wishes. And it wasn’t until 1971 that the tide turned completely,” she reported.
In 1968, the year I vacillated over what name to use, the Chicago Tribune ran 12 headlines with the name Clay, 0 with Ali. If I had been reading the Chicago Defender, I would have had another view. It ran Ali over Clay, 30-0. But in 1969 and 1970, the Defender used “Clay” in its headlines more often than “Ali.” Tumultuous times for us all.
As Joyce Carol Oates, a student of boxing as well as of writing, wrote in a New York Times op ed piece after Ali’s death:
“With the passage of time, . . the young man who’d been denounced as a traitor was transformed into the iconic figure of our time, a compassionate figure who seems to transcend race. A warm, sepia light irradiates the past, glossing out jarring details.”
Of my two very brief encounters with Ali, the more jarring might have been seeing him — the greatest fighter of his time — standing, alone and ignored by passersby, on the sidewalk in front of the Americana hotel on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, hoping to catch a cab to a rehearsal of a Broadway show, a way to earn a paycheck for the fighter who had been banned from the ring.
I addressed him as Muhammad Ali that day, as I introduced myself and engaged in some small talk. I’m guessing that he appreciated that. I’m also guessing that, in that time of exile, he appreciated that I addressed him at all.