Nearly 30 years after his last fight and almost 20 years since his voice could be heard above a whisper, Muhammad Ali remarkably remains a tool of inspiration in sports.
Baseball manager Jim Leyland used stories about Ali to motivate and inspire two of his World Series teams, the Florida Marlins in 1997 and Detroit Tigers in 2006.
Last year, after meeting Ali at an event in Louisville, Ky., U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger encouraged his players to look to Ali for inspiration in their campaign to win back the cup from Europe.
Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. The U.S. women’s hockey team that won gold in Nagano in 1998, looking to him as an example of perseverance and determination, watched “When We Were Kings,” the documentary of Ali’s famous battle with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.
And now the Baltimore Ravens, who meet the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday in the AFC championship game, are using Ali as their rallying cry for this season.
Unfortunately, they picked as inspiration one of the lowest moments of Ali’s career, an ugly performance of which Ali himself to this day probably still is ashamed.
“What’s Our Name?” has been the Ravens’ inspirational slogan since the start of the season.
I can tell you what their name is not. It is not honor or glory. That slogan represents neither.
Before the start of the season, Ravens coach John Harbaugh asked his father, Jack, a former head coach at Western Michigan and Western Kentucky, to speak to the team.
Jack Harbaugh had used Ali’s career as a point of motivation in speaking to his teams. According to the Baltimore Sun, he told the story about how Ali beat Ernie Terrell to his Western Kentucky team before the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA national championship game against favored McNeese State.
Western Kentucky won 34-14, so Harbaugh used the story again when he spoke to his son’s Ravens team. He told of how Ali had beaten Terrell badly because Terrell insisted on calling him Cassius Clay, his birth name, instead of Muhammad Ali — three years after Ali had taken his Muslim name.
I am not quite sure how this qualifies as an inspirational moment. I wonder if the Ravens realize exactly what happened Feb. 6, 1967, when Ali beat Terrell in this supposedly inspirational bout.
Terrell became a heavyweight champion after the World Boxing Association stripped Ali of its title in 1964 when he announced his association with the Nation of Islam.
The WBA determined its new heavyweight champion would be the winner of a bout between Terrell and Eddie Machen. Terrell won and successfully defended the belt twice before finally facing Ali, who still was recognized as the heavyweight champion by the World Boxing Council.
Before the fight, Terrell repeatedly referred to his foe as Cassius Clay, infuriating Ali, who vowed to punish him. Ali did, beating Terrell mercilessly but never going for a knockout, instead allowing him to stay in the fight so he could beat him some more.
For 15 rounds, Ali battered and bloodied Terrell, who could barely see out of his swollen eyes. All the while, Ali kept shouting at Terrell, “What’s my name? What’s my name, Uncle Tom?”
I wonder if Jack Harbaugh included the Uncle Tom reference in his story.
The fight was a disgusting display of the humiliation of a man — hardly the stuff of inspiration.
There is much about Ali’s career from which people may draw strength: his valiant fights against Joe Frazier, his willingness to put his career on the line for his beliefs about the Vietnam War, his remarkable victory against Foreman chronicled in “When We Were Kings.”
“What’s my name?” though, is not one of them.
If Ali could talk to the Baltimore Ravens before Sunday’s game, he would tell them as much.