John Harbaugh. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
As 80,000 Baltimore Ravens fans gathered at MB&T Bank Stadium to rally and celebrate their team’s triumph in Sunday’s Super Bowl, head coach John Harbaugh had something to say to the massive crowd. “We had a visit from the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali…. And he used to say, ‘What’s my name?’ We’re going to finish it off right here, with our whole stadium declaring to the football world, loud and clear who we are. Three times. Are you ready? What’s our name? [crowd answers, “Ravens”] What’s our name? [crowd answers, “Ravens”] What’s our name? [crowd answers, “Ravens”] Yeah! Thank you!”
It was deeply moving to hear Coach Harbaugh invoke the champ. Ali visited the team before the start of the season and was a source of inspiration throughout the year. There were stories over the weekend that the great Ali was close to death. Thankfully, this turned out to be false and his daughter Laila tweeted a picture of him getting ready for the big game and very much alive.
The words of Muhammad Ali are also a beautiful thing to hear in the twenty-first century. Harbaugh is keenly aware of its history and what Ali meant in his day. As he said in September, “He molded a generation. He was courage for a generation. He changed the world, but not just in the ring. The ring was his platform to change the world.”
Harbaugh is absolutely right, and the phrase “What’s my name?” encapsulates that courage. In 1967, heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali was defending his title against challenger Ernie Terrell. By now, “the Greatest” had already cemented his position as the most controversial and derided athlete in the history of the United States. Ali had already changed his name from Cassius Clay after joining the Nation of Islam. His name change meant that he had declared allegiance to an organization that called white people “devils” and believed racism was an incurable part of the United States. He had also by this time become an anti-war lightning rod by becoming a draft resister and refusing to be any part of the US war in Vietnam. Sportswriter Murray Robinson echoed the overwhelming majority of the media when he said, “[Clay] the adult brat, who has boasted ad nauseam of his fighting skill but who squealed like a cornered rat when tapped for the Army, should be shorn of his title.”
This is what was swirling before his fight against Terrell yet Ali was his typical, Louisville Lip cool. He uncorked a classic poem saying,
I predict that Terrell will catch hell at the sound of the bell. He is going around saying he’s a championship fighter but when he meets me he’ll fall 20 pounds lighter. He thinks he’s a champ but after I’m finished hell just be a tramp. Now I’m not saying this just to be funny. But I’m fighting Ernie because he needs the money.
But in advance of the opening bell, the tenor changed. “I had a question for him when we met to sign [the fight contract],” Ali said two days before the fight. “It was only three words: ‘What’s my name?’ Terrell said, ‘Cassius Clay,’ using my slave name. That made it a personal thing, so I’m gonna whup him until he addresses me by my proper name. I’m gonna give him a whupping and a spanking, and a humiliation.” Terrell continued to call Ali “Clay” in the lead up which turned out to be a very bad idea. Ali decimated Terrell, calling out with near every punch, “What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name fool?”
It’s beautiful that Coach Harbaugh chose this particular moment of triumph to honor the Greatest. It’s also ironic, given what took place before the rally. To get to the stadium, the Ravens all traveled in massive military Humvees, as adoring crowds cheered. If we are to remember the Ali who said, “What’s my name?” it would be myopic to not also remember the Ali who said, “The object of war is to kill, kill, kill, and continue to murder innocent people.” Many in the sports media saw the use of military Humvees as a fantastic tribute to the troops. One can only wonder what these same sportswriters would have said about Ali in the 1960s. One can only wonder what they would write if a modern-day Ali emerged to say, “The object of drones, the object of assassination lists, the object of war is to kill, kill, kill, and continue to murder innocent people.” We need to remember what it was that made Ali so hated as well as so dangerous. It wasn’t his quotes. It was, as Coach Harbaugh said, his courage.
Dave Zirin, the author of the Muhammad Ali Handbook, just released Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down. Watch his interview with W. Kamau Bell.