On this day: Muhammad Ali punishes Ernie Terrell in infamous “What’s my name?” clash
Some people had a problem learning Cassius Clay’s new name.
After this day, most of them didn’t.
On February 6, 1967, Ring heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali took on Ernie Terrell in the Houston Astrodome in a fight that had an unusually emotional and heated build-up.
Even though Ali had changed his name more than two years earlier, some people still referred to him as Clay. Ali took this as a sign of disrespect, and felt that his new name and religion were not being taken seriously.
Many of those who refused to acknowledge his new name were his fellow fighters, who knew that referring to Ali as Clay was one of the quickest ways to get under Ali’s notoriously thin skin.
Adding to that was the fact that the WBA had withdrawn recognition of Ali as their heavyweight champion after he took the lineal, Ring and WBC titles from Sonny Liston, and awarded their championship to Terrell in a vacant title bout against Eddie Machen in March, 1965.
The fact that the bout was billed as a “unification” bout against a man who refused to call him by his proper name made Ali grow increasingly angry.
During an interview featuring both fighters, Terrell referred to Ali as Clay several times, the situation escalated when Ali threatened to force Terrell to “announce (Ali’s name) in the center of that ring if (he) don’t do it now.” He then called him “an old Uncle Tom” and issued further threats as well.
A shoving match ensued, and the stage was set for a grudge match in the ring.
The fight itself was dominated by Ali from start to finish. Terrell’s right eye began to develop a swelling under it by the third round, and the injury proved to be lethal for Terrell’s intentions. He was rendered all but blind for the reminder of the bout, and Ali toyed with him as he taunted him with his question of “What’s my name?” yelled into Terrell’s face a few times, most notably after the end of the eight round.
The fight went 15 rounds, with Ali winning a unanimous decision in he was announced as “the winner and undisputed champion of the world… Muhammad Ali!”
Very few people dared to use Ali’s old name after that.
Some people do, however, contend that Ali’s reputation and popularity were hurt by the way in which he punished a visibly hurt Terrell during 15 rounds while insulting him for no other reason than calling Ali by any other name, when Ali enjoyed bestowing demeaning names upon his foes (such as calling Liston a “bear” and Frazier a “gorilla” among other inglorious nicknames) during the buildup of his fights.
Ali would go on to defeat Zora Folley in what was his last title defense before having his license revoked for his refusal to enroll to fight in Vietnam, and the rest is history.
Terrell continued fighting four more years, and eventually launched a musical career along with his sister (who had replaced Diana Ross in the Supremes’ lineup in 1970) with his band Ernie Terrell and the Heavyweights.
Diego M. Morilla has written for The Ring since 2013. He has also written for HBO.com, ESPN.com and many other magazines, websites, newspapers and outlets since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual writing contest, and he is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Ratings Panel. He served as copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com.