They say you should never give yourself your own nickname. You’re supposed to let other people do it for you. It’s almost arrogant to assume everyone else is going to call you any moniker you just decide to tag yourself with.
One exception to the rule is if you actually earn that nickname.
Born in Louisville, KY, in 1942, Cassius Clay would go on to become an Olympic gold medalist and professional boxing’s world heavyweight champion. People called him fast on his feet and a ring scientist. They said he was charismatic and good-looking. He was considered the heir to Joe Louis and was called the new face of the heavyweight division.
That wasn’t good enough for Clay. He gave himself the nickame of the Greatest.
In the process, he also re-named himself Muhammed Ali.
The firestorm that followed is well-documented. Many people in this country had no real idea what Islam was at the time, and what little they’d heard was frightening to them. Then, they watched their new champion go through a muddled metamorphisis- His refusal for military service, being stripped of his title, a return to the ring and his eventual redemption in the court of public opnion. Over time, he went from being identified as a brash, traitorous villian to a symbol of courage, dignity, and American popular culture.
But, no matter what they may have labelled him, he never changed his name.
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.”
His fame grew immeasurably for a professional athlete of any era. At one time more photgraphed than even the President, Ali went from mere superstar athlete to cultural phenomenon. His face on talk shows drew ratings, even as his pomp and politics enraged mainstream America.
The more famous he became and the more battles he fought, the more people started to listen to the man and not just the boxer. As pro sports’ first great trashtalker, he took advantage of the cameras and helped fuel one of the most successful eras of his sport. So, the genius of Ali’s rhetoric served two purposes: It not only made dollars, it also made sense.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
For many of his fellow citizens, he was a voice that shouted when so many others had been silenced. His self-confidence and skill as a boxer was appreciated by men. His charm and humor made him attractive to women.
And his name gave him influence and power.
Ali, the diplomat, certainly changed the world based on the appreciation and understanding he garnered in his later years. Ali, the brand, continues to make millions of dollars to this day. And needless to say, the mark he left on boxing will last forever.
That mark includes the nickname “The Greatest”. While it can be argued whether or not he was the best fighter of all time, there’s no denying he was the most famous. Without his excellence, there may not be the huge purses and pay-per-views that followed. He also blazed a trail for athletes of any sport and any color to engage in political and social activism.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
For many people, the sporting world is something they don’t pay attention to and don’t even think about much. They can’t tell you who the starting pitcher is that night, or even when the game starts. As famous as some athletes seem to be, the average person can’t normally pick them out of a crowd.
A select few others achieve a fame and iconic status where they transcend their sports. Everybody from your grandma to your girfriend knows who they are. And, they are simply called by one name. Jordan, Pele, Gretzky…
Ali. Or, “The Greatest”, as he sometimes liked to be called.
Originally titled “I AM LEGEND,” republished with permission from the book “Pop Music & Peanut Butter: A Collection of Essays about Embracing Life With Love & Laughter” available on Amazon