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'What's my name?' HBO documentary explores Muhammad Ali's name change

The two-part special examines the identity in America of perhaps the greatest fighter of all time.

Muhammad Ali in March of 1964, around the

Muhammad Ali in March of 1964, around the time when he changed his name from Cassius Clay. Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Anonymous

Of all the headlines written over the span of Muhammad Ali’s life, there is one critical moment that often gets overlooked.

Winning an Olympic gold medal. Upsetting Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title. Refusing induction into the U.S. Army. The Rumble in the Jungle. The Thrilla in Manila. All covered. Extensively.

But on March 6, 1964, Cassius Clay would change his name officially to Muhammad Ali. Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad made the formal announcement during a radio address. It was the moment that changed Ali’s identity to the world.

That will be one of the themes explored in the upcoming two-part HBO documentary, “What’s My Name / Muhammad Ali,” which debuts on May 14. The film is directed by Antoine Fuqua, with LeBron James and Maverick Carter serving as executive producers. It was produced by Sean Stuart and Glen Zipper.

“For us, we had a real ah-hah moment when we working in the edit bay,” Stuart said. “We were months into the project and Antoine was sitting there working with our editor Jake Pushinsky and we were watching the Ernie Terrell fight from 1967 and Antoine said, ‘Stop, that’s our title.’ We were like what? ‘What’s my name, that’s our title.’ And that was it.”

In the buildup to the February 1967 fight at the Houston Astrodome, Terrell repeatedly referred to Ali as Cassius Clay. At numerous news conferences, Ali warned Terrell against calling him Clay. Terrell refused to heed those warnings. On the night of the fight, Ali punished Terrell, scoring a 15-round unanimous decision. Throughout the course of the fight, Ali yelled at Terrell, “What’s my name?”

“Ali’s boxing against a guy who was a good friend in the early 1960s,” said Stuart, of Terrell. “And this guy won’t even honor the fact that he’s changed his name. They were sparring partners. They knew each other well. But this was a different Ali, too. Up until that point, Ali was a showman. Now this was an emotional response for him. Terrell becomes an emotional response versus Ali the showman response, which is really powerful to watch. It’s a really pivotal moment in our film.”

One of the challenges in producing anything on Ali is that the market is saturated. What can anyone show the world that hasn’t already been seen? Stuart said they found some rare video, including an interview with a local TV station after Ali returned from the Olympics in which he says he had to explore the meaning of the name Clay.

Stuart also said much of the film is told in Ali’s voice.

“We realized this was the most documented, potentially human being, but definitely athlete of the second half of the 20th century,” Stuart said. “There was so much out there. We decided, let’s try to tell this story using the voices of the era, but more specifically, Ali’s voice. Ninety-five percent of our movie is just Muhammad Ali’s voice. In general what the title means for us, the trajectory of our film is an incredible examination of Muhammad Ali trying to find his own identity in America. In American sports. In American culture.”

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