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On This Date in Sports February 6, 1967: What's My Name

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In a heavyweight unification bout, Muhammad Ali, the WBC champion, defeats Ernie Terrell, the WBA heavyweight champion, in a unanimous decision at the Houston Astrodome. The fight made Ali unpopular as he tormented the overmatched Terrell, repeatedly yelling, “What’s My Name” as he beat him for 15 rounds but refused to knock him out, choosing instead to continue the beating for the length of the fight.

Muhammad Ali has been the face of boxing for nearly three years, after beating Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title in 1964. Over that period, he changed his name and defended his title seven times, improving to 27-0 overall. During this time, Muhammad Ali embraced his new religion and became intertwined with the Nation of Islam. In 1966, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector and refused induction in the United States military, saying he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong.

Ernie Terrell was born on April 4, 1939, in Belzoni, Mississippi, and raised in Chicago. Ellis had a much quieter start to his career but was named the number one contender for the heavyweight title in 1965 by the WBA. However, Muhammad Ali chose instead to give a rematch to Sonny Liston, and the heavyweight title was split, with the WBC continuing to recognize Ali and Terrell beating Eddie Machen for the WBA Championship. Terrell successfully defended the WBA title twice and entered the unification match with a career record of 39-4.

In the lead-up to the fight, Ernie Terrell criticized Ali’s refusal to enter the draft and refused to call him by his chosen name, instead referring to him as Cassius Clay. This created bad blood between the two boxers. Muhammad Ali responded to the criticism by calling Terrell an “Uncle Tom, who is going to get his ass whupped.”

Muhammad Ali was at his worst in the fight as simply winning was no longer the object as he set out to embarrass Ernie Terrell. From the very start of the first, Ali dominated but, like a cat toying with a mouse, did not move into for the knockout; instead, he tormented and mocked Terrell with shouts of “What’s My Name?” Again and again, Ali beat Terrell and shouted the same refrain, “What’s My Name?” As the fight wore on, fans began to boo, as Muhammad Ali perhaps took out his anger about being drafted on the overmatched Ernie Terrell. At no point was Terrell able to respond as Ali could have gone in for the knockout at any time, but chose to continue to punish his opponent and mock him with calls of “What’s My Name?.” The fight would go the full 15 rounds, with Muhammad Ali winning a unanimous decision.

The display against Ernie Terrell would cast Muhammad Ali as a villain as public sentiment was split over his objection to the draft. In March, Ali would defend his title again, knocking out Zora Folley in the seventh round at Madison Square Garden. It would be his final fight for three years, as he was convicted of draft evasion and suspended from boxing.