The tributes are pouring out for Muhammad Ali, who died last night at age 74. I recommend perusing the links in this tweet from The Ringer + the two links I tweeted in reply to that tweet + pretty much Dave Zirin's entire timeline, but especially his eulogy.
Naturally, one of my favorite stories I've seen in the past 24 hours came from Mike Royko, published March 7, 1971, in the Chicago Daily News. The column, "Barrow, Cream, Marchegiano, Smith, Who?" explored the long history of prizefighters changing their names, and the indifference and acceptance of sportswriters for each of them until one Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Royko's column ran the day before Ali's fight against Joe Frazier, his third fight following his three-year suspension from boxing for draft evasion. Ali was 29-0 and the undisputed heavyweight champion before he was stripped of his titles and suspended. In 1970, with Ali suspended, Joe Frazier won the vacant WBC belt.
When the two men fought, Frazier was 26-0 and Ali was 31-0.
A big thank you to Robert Loerzel for tweeting not just text of the story but a clipping as it appeared in the newspaper.
— Robert Loerzel (@robertloerzel) June 4, 2016
Because the column is not online in an easier-to-read format, I have transcribed it here.
"Barrow, Cream, Marchegiano, Smith, Who?"
by Mike Royko, March 7, 1971
Originally published in the Chicago Daily News
The world of sports experts is still split over what to call Muhammad Ali.
Most of them insist that his name is Cassius Clay, because that is what he was born and that is what they are going to call him.
Others get cute and call him Ali (nee Clay), and some lump the two names together and make him Ali-Clay.
Only a few respect his request to be known as Muhammad Ali, a name he has chosen because of his affiliation with the Muslim religion.
THE NIGHT that Rocky Marciano beat Joe Louis none of them insisted on writing that Rocco Francis Marchegiano defeated Joe L. Barrow, the names the fighters were born with.
And when Arnold Raymond Cream preferred another name the sports writers gladly went along. So he became as Jersey Joe Walcott, another heavyweight champ.
Old-timers will have trouble identifying Joseph P. Zukauskas. He became heavyweight champ as Jack Sharkey.
Dropping down to the light heavyweight division, does anyone remember that great title bout in 1952 when Archibald Lee Wright beat Guiseppee Antonio Berardinelli. Probably not, because the headlines said: "Archie Moore whips Joey Maxim."
IN FACT, prizefighters have been almost as quick to change their names as are movie stars, and until Clay came along nobody made a fuss out of it.
Among past middleweight champions there have been Stanislaus Kiecal (Stanely Ketchel), George Chipulonis (George Chip), Al Rudolph (Al McCoy), John Panica (Johnny Wilson), Morris Jaboltowski (Ben Jeby), Vincent Lazzaro (Vince Dundee) and Henry Pylkowski (Eddie Risko).
For real brawlers, though, you couldn't ask for more than the three legendary fights between Rocco Barbella (Rocky Graziano) and Anthony Florian Zaleski (Tony Zale).
Neither of them, however, was a match for the fighter many people consider to be the greatest of all time -- the one and only Walter Smith.
YOU DON'T remember the one and only Walter Smith?
That's because he preferred being known as Sugar Ray Robinson, and the sports writers didn't get petulant about it.
There were some fine welterweight champs who underwent name-changes, too.
In the '20s, Joe Dundee (born Sam Lazzaro) was beaten in a title bout by Jackie Fields (born Jacob Finklestein).
In the '30s, Young Corbett won the title. He was born Ralph Giorando.
And the fight buffs still talk about the night that Henry Jackson fought and won the title from tough Barnet Rosofsky. Who? They went under the names Henry Armstrong and Barney Ross.
IN THE LATE '40s and early '50s, the top welterweight was somebody born Gerardo Gonzalez. He became famous as Kid Gavilan.
There was a time when hardly any lightweight champion used his real name.
In the '20s, Benny Leonard (born Benjamin Leiner) was succeeded by Jimmy Goodrich (born James E. Moran), who was beaten by Rocky Kansas (born Rocco Tozzo), and he was beaten by Sammy Madnell (born Samuel Mandella).
In the '30s, there was Lou Ambers (born Louis d'Ambrosio). Then you had Lew Jenkins (born Verlin Jenks), and he lost to Sammy Angott (born Samuel Engotti), who was succeeded by Beau Jack (born Sidney Walker).
AND THE GREATEST featherweight of them all may have been that long-time champion William Guiglermo Papaleo.
Try Willie Pep.
I suspect that most sports writers merely reflect public opinion. They dislike Ali for most of the reasons that the majority of people dislike him. Arrogance, his draft situation, his Muslim connections and his big mouth.
They preferred someone like sweet, loveable Joe Louis (nee Joe L. Barrow), because he was a good white's black man, respectful, grateful and never stepping out of line in word or deed.
THIS GOOD conduct got him fleeced by his advisers, plucked by the tax people and helped put him in a mental hospital.
So if they can't poke Ali in his pretty face, they can get in a jab by refusing to extend the courtesy of using the name of his choice.
And that is why Joe Frazier finds himself in a strange position for a black man in 1971.
Frazier has become, of all things, the great white hope.