What’s in a name? Much more than a few letters, that is for sure.
Teams change their nicknames all the time. Some organizations refuse to change their name despite odd arithmetic — looking at you, Big Ten. Everything from branding to religion has been cited as a reason to change a name. Some have done it simply to gain exposure and command headlines while others have been forced to change due to societal pressures and sensitivities.
However, this list doesn't apply to the men-less Syracuse Orange or 10-team Big 12 Conference. This one is dedicated just to the greatest and most bizarre athlete name changes of all-time. Here are some of our favorites:
Born: Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr.
Growing up in Harlem, Alcindor was quickly discovered as one of the greatest basketball prospects in the history of the sport. He led Power Memorial Academy to three straight New York City Catholic titles before signing with UCLA and leading the Bruins to three straight national championships. He was raised Roman Catholic, however, before his final season at UCLA he joined the Nation of Islam and converted to Sunni Islam in the summer of 1968. The move prompted a name change to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means "generous servant of the mighty one." At an official press conference in June 1971, the reigning NBA MVP told the world he wanted to go by his Islamic name instead of his given name.
Born: Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.
Named after his father and raised a Baptist by his mother in Louisville, Ky., Ali won a pair of national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union National Championship and a Light Heavyweight Gold Medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics as Cassius Clay. Clay won his first World Heavyweight Championship against Sonny Liston in 1964 — the same year he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Eleven years later, Ali officially converted to Sunni Islam. He likely didn't have to change his already intimidating name to become arguably "The Greatest" in American sports history.
Metta World Peace
Born: Ronald Williams Artest, Jr.
Not only is this name change one of the most bizarre, it’s also the most ironic. From the Queensbridge projects in Queens, New York, Artest had a hardened edge from his childhood — one story has him witnessing a murder on the court of a YMCA hoops tournament. After three years at St. John’s, the troubled Artest was a first-round pick by the Bulls. In 2004, Artest sprinted into the stands to attack a fan and was given the longest suspension in NBA history. Artest has gained a reputation for being a great defender on the basketball court, but he also never lost his troubled edge. However, in 2011 in a bizarre effort to change his entrenched image and “inspire and bring youth together all around the world,” he officially changed his first name to “Metta” and his surname to “World Peace.”
Sugar Ray Robinson
Born: Walker Smith, Jr.
Many believe the welterweight and middleweight champion was the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time. But many don’t know his birth certificate from Ailey, Ga., read Walker Smith, Jr. After moving to Harlem, and at 14 years old, he attempted to enter his first boxing tournament. But since AAU had a 16-year-old age minimum, Smith had to borrow his friend’s membership card in order to compete. His friend’s name was Ray Robinson. His manager George Gainford added “Sugar” a few years later because his boxing style was a “sweet as sugar.” The rest is history.
Born: Chad Javon Johnson
The brash wide receiver has made a lot of bizarre — and questionable — decisions in his time as an athlete. Through social media and savvy business moves, Johnson grew his brand both on and off the field until his absurd 2008 name change. Interestingly enough, his official name to change to Chad Ochocinco — which doesn’t even mean eighty-five — coincided with his worst season in the NFL to date. He was never the same player again, has since changed his name back to Chad Johnson and was released from the Dolphins in 2012 due to domestic abuse issues.
Born: Robert Earle Moore
A College Football Hall of Famer, Moore starred at Oregon as both a wide receiver and running back. He was drafted in 1972 in the first round by the St. Louis Cardinals and converted to Islam the same year. Bobby Moore became Ahmad Rashad — meaning "Admirable One Led to Truth" in Arabic — after his mentor Rashad Khalifa. He played for 11 seasons in the NFL and has built a remarkable career as one of sports top broadcasters.
The other Karim Abdul-Jabbar
Born: Sharmon Shah
Shah was a standout running back for the UCLA Bruins in 1995 and was already a member of the Muslim faith when his Imam gave him a new name. The newly minted Karim Abdul-Jabbar quickly gained national notoriety due to its similarities to famed Bruins great hoops star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The basketball Abdul-Jabbar filed a lawsuit in 1998 against the football Abdul-Jabbar, feeling the then Dolphins running back was profiting from the hoops Hall of Famer’s name. Thus, Shah changed his name a third time and is now known as Abdul-Karim al-Jabbar.
Born: Roberto Heredia Hernandez
This story is a long and circuitous one for the current Tampa Bay Rays pitcher. In order to play professional baseball in America, the Dominican native had to obtain an illegal visa under the name Fausto Carmona. He debuted for the Cleveland Indians in 2006 and went 19-8 in his second season, as he helped the Indians to the playoffs in 2007. However, in January 2012, Dominican police arrested Hernandez after leaving the U.S. Consulate, accusing him of using a false identity. When the Indians found out that not only was their starting pitcher not named Fausto Carmona but was also three years older than reported, they placed him on the restricted list. He signed with the Rays 12 months later and is now a member of their starting rotation.
World B. Free
Born: Lloyd Bernard Free
A former NAIA star at Guildford College, Free landed in the NBA as a second-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers. But in 1981, on his third NBA team, Free legally changed his first name from Lloyd to World. His nickname “All-World” was the inspiration. He played for five different NBA teams over a 12-year NBA career. He was an All-Star as a Golden State Warrior, was honored by Cleveland as a “Cavaliers Legend” and is currently a Director of Player Development and Community Ambassador for the 76ers.
Born: Brian Carson Williams
Dele’s story is a tragic and bizarre one that involves a famous musician father (Eugene Williams of The Platters), a nine-year NBA career, a post-career name change honoring his Native American and African ancestry and a terrible South Pacific disappearance. A catamaran trip with Captain Bertrand Saldo, girlfriend Serena Karlan and brother Miles Dabord (born Kevin Williams) ended when Dabord brought the boat into port in Tahiti by himself. No one has ever heard from anyone else aboard the ship since and Dabord eventually overdosed on insulin months after the fatal voyage while reportedly under police suspicion, only adding to the mysterious circumstances.
Born: Edison Arantes do Nascimento
Born in Brazil and named after Thomas Edison, Pele’s name doesn’t come from a religious belief, bizarre self-image or important family heritage. The greatest soccer player the world has ever seen is named Pele because he couldn’t say his favorite player’s name correctly when growing up. Local Vasco da Gama goalkeeper Bile was young Nasciemento’s favorite player but he couldn’t say the name correctly and it stuck — despite years of trying to rid himself of the nickname. Now, his one-word name is the most recognized in all of soccer history worldwide.
Born: Juan Carlos Oviedo
At age 17, the Dominican pitcher started using the name Leo Nunez — his 16-year-old best friend at the time. The former Royals and Marlins relief pitcher was simply trying to gain an extra year to sell to MLB clubs. He signed with the Pirates before being traded to the Royals for catcher Benito Santiago. After four uneventful years in Kansas City and four similar ones in Miami, Nunez was placed on the restricted list in September 2011 in order to return to the Dominican. He signed a statement saying he used fake identification and was allowed to re-sign in the majors (Tampa Bay). He is currently on the 60-day disabled list.
Born: Chris Wayne Jackson
One of the SEC’s best players, Jackson excelled as a guard at LSU. He was the third overall pick by the Denver Nuggets in 1990 and went on to a 11-year NBA career with three franchises. He converted to Islam in 1991 and officially changed his name in 1993 — the same year he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. He is best known for not standing for the National Anthem and calling the U.S. flag a symbol of oppression. He played in Turkey, Russia, Italy, Greece, Saudi Arabia and Japan after his NBA career ended.
He Hate Me
Born: Torrold Deshaun Smart
With a first name like Torrold, it is easy to see why Smart wanted to change his name and went by Rod most of his life. However, the former Western Kentucky running back took it to another level when he put “He Hate Me” on the back of his XFL jersey in 2001. Technically, it was short for his nickname “They Hate Me” but it didn’t fit on his Las Vegas Outlaws jersey. While he clearly wasn’t as committed to his nickname as Ochocinco or World Peace because it was just a nickname and not legally changed, Smart’s “He Hate Me” was the XFL’s top selling jersey. After one year in the XFL and one cup of coffee with the Edmonton Eskimos, Smart actually had a brief NFL career with the Eagles (2001) and Panthers (2002-05). Had he legally changed his name, he might be up there with Ron Artest and Chad Johnson.
Born: Terry Eugene Bollea
This might be a reach because the name Hulk Hogan is simply a character created out of thin air. However, Bollea has built a career as a wrestler, actor, TV personality and entrepreneur due to his brand as Hulk Hogan. No actor has ever absorbed a character like Bollea’s permanent transformation and has turned it into a multimillion dollar brand for himself. Why would he ever go back to being called Terry or Gene?