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Shoeless, Yogi & Catfish? The Stories Behind 16 Athlete Nicknames

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Floss editor extraordinaire Jason English recently found an interesting fact: Reggie Jackson's famous "Mr. October" nickname was originally a derisive jab from teammate Thurman Munson when Jackson was struggling his way through the 1977 playoffs. Soon after Munson coined the mocking nickname, Jackson started hitting like his normal awesome self, and the name stuck as a testament to Reggie's slugging prowess.

What about the famous or unusual nicknames of other athletes? Here are the back-stories on a few notable ones:

1. Pelé

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History's greatest soccer star got his nickname when he couldn't pronounce the name of local soccer team Vasco da Gama's goalkeeper Bilé. Friends teased the young soccer player about getting tongue-tied, and soon the mispronunciation became his lifelong mononym.

2. "Oil Can" Boyd

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The longtime MLB starting pitcher took his odd nickname from his hometown of Meridian, Mississppi. In Meridian some folks refer to beer as "oil," and apparently as a young man Dennis Ray Boyd enjoyed a tipple or two, hence the nickname.

3. Chili Davis

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The first Jamaican ever to play in the big leagues got his unique nickname from a terrible childhood haircut that prompted a friend to question whether the barber had used a chili bowl to guide his clippers.

4. "Three Finger" Brown

Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown's nickname doubled as an accurate description of his pitching hand. As a young man Brown accidentally fed his hand into the family farm's feed chopper, which mangled the digits and lopped off most of his index finger. Although the remaining mangled digits disqualified Brown from working as a hand model, they helped him put a ridiculous amount of spin on his pitches, which turned him into a groundball machine.

5. "Hot Rod" Williams

Everyone's favorite longtime Cleveland Cavaliers big man "“ sorry, Brad Daugherty "“ got his famous nickname as a baby. Young John Williams would crawl backwards around the house while making motor-like noises, so his family started calling him Hot Rod.

6. Night Train Lane

The Hall of Fame cornerback took his famous nickname from a Buddy Morrow song of the same name. Dick Lane enjoyed the "Night Train" record his Los Angeles Rams teammate Tom Fears liked to spin, and soon his teammates started calling the hard-hitting DB "Night Train." The song itself isn't quite as intimidating as Lane was:

7. Deacon Jones

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One of history's most legendary pass rushers wasn't actually a Deacon, and there's no real back-story with the nickname, either. David Jones simply started calling himself "Deacon" one day because he thought "nobody would ever remember a player named David Jones."

8. Billy "White Shoes" Johnson

The Hall of Fame return man got his nickname in high school. Johnson was whitewashing a fence when some of the paint spilled on his shoes. His friends and family teased him for making the mess, and the name never wore off.

9. Robert "The Chief" Parish

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The man in the middle for the 1980s Celtics owes Ken Kesey some credit for his famous nickname. Teammate Cedric Maxwell dubbed Parish "The Chief" because the looming, quiet center reminded him of the similarly stoic Chief Bromden character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

10. Digger Phelps

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The longtime college hoops coach, analyst, and highlighter enthusiast takes his unusual nickname from time spent around his undertaker father when Phelps was a boy in Beacon, N.Y.

11. Muggsy Bogues

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The diminutive point guard got his famous nickname when he was growing up in Baltimore's housing projects. Going up against Tyrone Bogues' scrappy, aggressive style on the court reminded fellow ballplayers of being in a mugging, so they started calling him Muggsy.

12. Calvin "Megatron" Johnson

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The Detroit Lions' quickly rising star wideout received his nickname from former teammate Roy Williams, who thought Johnson's giant hands were similar to the famous Decepticon leader's mitts.

13. Yogi Berra

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The always quotable catcher received his nickname from a buddy who said that Berra's serene posture before at-bats and while sitting on the bench reminded him of a Hindu yogi they had seen in a movie. Yogi's real name is Lawrence Peter Berra.

14. Jim "Catfish" Hunter

Longtime Kansas City/Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley loved the potential when he signed a young pitcher named Jim Hunter, but he hated the hurler's bland name. Ever on the lookout for a new promotional opportunity, Finley then informed Jim Hunter that his new name was "Catfish." Finley even created a back-story for the newly fabricated nickname: Hunter was to tell reporters that he had run away from home as a child, and by the time his father found him, he'd already caught five large catfish. You have to admit that "Catfish" is much more memorable than "Jim."

15. Satchel Paige

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It's not clear exactly how Negro Leagues legend Leroy Paige got his famous nickname, but it definitely stems from a childhood job of carrying passengers' bags at the local rail depot for a little extra money. According to Paige, he got the nickname because he could carry so many bags at once. A friend who worked this beat with Paige, however, said he gave the pitcher the nickname after the young Paige was caught trying to swipe a bag he was carrying.

16. Shoeless Joe Jackson

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According to Jackson, he got his famous nickname well before he reached the Major Leagues. He was playing in a game as a teenager when a new pair of cleats began giving him a blister. Rather than suffer through the rest of the game in ill-fitting shoes, Jackson simply went barefoot. Opposing fans heckled him for being shoeless, and the name followed Jackson.

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Evel Knievel, Insurance Salesman
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To his coworkers at the Combined Insurance Company of America in Chicago, he was just Bob. A few months shy of his 24th birthday and newly married, Bob was ambitious, charming, and sincere—all qualities company president W. Clement Stone valued in his salesmen. To push high-volume, short-term disability insurance, customers needed to trust their words. Bob Knievel could look a man in the eyes and tell him that $3 worth of insurance was money well spent, and they'd believe him.

Years later, when Bob adopted the Evel Knievel persona and made breaking his bones a spectator sport, his former colleagues would stare at their televisions in amazement. There went Bob, clearing 10 or 14 or 20 cars on a motorcycle. There lies Bob, a heap of fractured limbs that needed to be scraped off the pavement like chewing gum.

In the span of just a few short years, the best insurance salesman in his assigned district had become the most famous daredevil in the world.

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Born in Butte, Montana, in 1938, Robert Knievel stole his first motorcycle at the age of 13. Prone to delinquency and petty crime, he failed to get a high school diploma and instead entered the U.S. Army Reserves. By the time he was 19 years old, he was out of uniform and starting up a semi-pro hockey team, drawing crowds at local arenas and even playing Olympic hopefuls from the Czech Republic. (Knievel’s team lost 22-3.)

By 1960, any discernible skills beyond mediocre athleticism and amoral behavior weren’t quite ready to reveal themselves. Knievel struck upon the idea of becoming a merchant policeman in Butte, which was a fancy term for being a private security specialist. Knievel would approach businesses and promise he’d act as a kind of sentry, checking their locations for suspicious activity and thwarting any robbery or vandalism attempts.

What Knievel wouldn’t admit until much later was that he was frequently the perpetrator of that activity, breaking windows and robbing the registers of businesses that didn’t sign up for his services. It was his version of property insurance.

A few things conspired to redirect Knievel’s ambitions. He married Linda Bork in 1959, and the couple started a family. He also grew concerned that Butte authorities were close to catching up with his security monitoring scam. In the summer of 1962, Knievel decided to go straight and become a salesman for Combined Insurance.

The company’s district manager in Montana dispatched Knievel to Chicago, where he underwent a two-week training course in sales tactics endorsed by president W. Clement Stone. Stone had co-authored a book, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, and considered it his business gospel. The lessons were at the level of fortune cookies and free of cynicism (“Big doors swing on little hinges,” “Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will”) but Knievel never once rolled his eyes. He absorbed the strategies and hit the road back in his home state, prepared to sell the $3 policies and collect his 60 cents per signature.

Earning an honest living at that rate would require volume. So Knievel traveled to working-class towns and paid bars to allow him to set up an “office” in a booth, where he could catch the steady stream of farmers coming in for a drink. He stopped workers at a train repair station during lunch breaks, and preached the virtues of the payments Combined would offer in the event the insured had an accident. Sometimes he’d pass up the $3 and do barter trades, like when a rancher once offered to give him a lame horse.

If Knievel had a crowning moment in his gone-straight, suit-and-tie life, it was when he set a district record for the most policies sold in a single week. He had talked his way into a state mental hospital in Warm Springs, Montana, and sold coverage to the staff—and if company legend is to be believed, to many of the hospital's patients as well. Knievel logged 271 sign-ups that week.

For this, Knievel got an award and recognition; he was feted by company executives as an example of the can-do spirit their president endorsed. While he enjoyed the attention, what Bob really wanted was to occupy the office of the vice president. When Combined refused to promote him, he quit. Without advancement in sight, making a living out of a suitcase ceased to be appealing. Knievel wanted to do something else.

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After leaving Combined, Knievel returned to his rudderless lifestyle. He found work at a motorcycle shop in Wyoming and thought a good way to drum up business would be to hop on a bike and try to jump over a pit infested with rattlesnakes.

It was.

That then gave him the idea to jump greater distances, which eventually led to him convincing the operators of Caesars Palace that he could make the 150-foot jump over the fountains near the front entrance of their Las Vegas resort and casino. He didn’t make it, but footage of the 1967 wipeout was absolutely mesmerizing: Airborne one minute and tumbling on the ground the next, Knievel looked like a crash test dummy. Convalescing in the hospital with multiple broken bones, Knievel’s popularity soared. He became one of the most famous men in America in the 1970s, rivaled only by Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali.

Matt Tonning, one of Knievel’s former coworkers at Combined, was one of the millions of people who saw the footage. He was alarmed, but not because of the gruesome outcome. Over the years, Knievel had phoned Tonning to catch up and buy policies—10 in all, which was nine more than a salesperson was technically allowed to sell to any one person. Tonning liked Knievel so much that he usually just entered another salesman’s name to complete the transaction. The policies could not be canceled and covered any accident.

At no point did Knievel ever list his current occupation: daredevil.

Tonning was fired. When Knievel heard of his friend’s dismissal, he agreed to drop claims on nine of the policies.

If there were any hard feelings, Knievel never voiced them. He would later credit the unflinching optimism of Stone and his book as one of the key reasons he became a professional cheater of death. Staring up at the ramps that would launch him into the air, those sales lessons led him to believe he could make it—even when past experience proved otherwise.

Additional Sources: Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel.

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20 People You Didn't Know Were Southpaws
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Pernell Whitaker
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The "southpaw advantage" is more than just a boxing superstition. Fighting with a dominant left hand has helped some of the sport’s fiercest competitors rise to the top of their class. Here are 20 boxers who assumed the southpaw stance.

1. PERNELL WHITAKER

Pernell Whitaker launched his career at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when he defeated Cuban fighter Luis Ortiz (a fellow southpaw) to take home the gold. As a professional he claimed the world champion title in four weight classes: lightweight, light welterweight, welterweight, and light middleweight. Popular boxing magazine The Ring declared him the best boxer in the world pound-for-pound for a period in the 1990s.

2. MANNY PACQUIAO

Manny Pacquiao in the boxing ring.
Sunil Grover, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the best boxers of the 21st century also may be the most famous southpaw of all time. The Filipino athlete has racked up numerous distinctions over his career: He’s the first and only eight-division world champion, the first boxer to earn the lineal title across four weight divisions, and the first to win 10 world championships in eight classes. After achieving all that, he took a break from boxing to become a senator in the Philippines.

3. MARVIN JOHNSON

Marvin Johnson made a name for himself at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where he won a bronze medal boxing for the U.S. team. After returning to the States, he broke into the professional circuit and gained a 43-6 record during his 15-year career. He told his local Indianapolis news station in a 2008 interview, "Not trying to sound boastful, but I would describe myself as one of the best in the ring during my time."

4. TIGER FLOWERS

Portrait of Tiger Flowers.
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Theodore "Tiger" Flowers entered the professional boxing ring at a time when the sport was still segregated in America. He broke racial barriers in 1926 when he became the first black man to earn the world middleweight title. Flowers is also credited for helping make integrated audiences a more common sight at boxing matches.

5. RAFAEL LIMÓN

Born in Mexico in 1954, Rafael Limón won world titles in the super featherweight division. His performance in the ring earned him the volatile nickname “Bazooka.”

6. ADA VÉLEZ

Boxer Ada Velez in the ring.
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Ada Vélez became the first Puerto Rican boxer to secure a women's world boxing title in 2001. In this case, it wasn’t her southpaw that gave her the winning advantage—the champion she unseated, Kathy Williams, is also a leftie.

7. LEW TENDLER

He may have never won a world title, but that didn’t stop Lew Tendler from becoming a boxing legend. The athlete ascended to prominence in the 1920s, a golden age for boxing in the United States. Today he’s immortalized in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

8. YOUNG CORBETT III

Two boxers in the ring.

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Born Ralph Giordano in Italy, Young Corbett III was most famous for holding the world welterweight title for a short stint in 1933. Of the 151 professional matches he fought in the 1930s and '40s, he came out victorious in 123.

9. CARMEN BASILIO

Portrait of Carmen Basilio.
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Italian-American athlete Carmen Basilio is best known for his matches against boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson. He won the first of the storied fights in 1957. He was challenged to a rematch in 1958, and the second time, Robinson came out on top. After relinquishing his middleweight champion title to the victor, Basilio boxed only occasionally before retiring for good.

10. MARVELOUS MARVIN HAGLER

In 1987, Marvelous Marvin Hagler (his legal name) was the most formidable name in boxing. The American boxer was riding high on a seven-year reign as middleweight world champion, one of the longest streaks the class has ever seen. After defending his title 12 consecutive times, he made headlines for a different reason: losing to Sugar Ray Leonard in one of the most anticipated fights of the decade.

11. JACK PETERSEN

Boxers pose for photo in the ring.
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Jack Peterson was 18 years old when he reached the finals of the Welsh Amateur Boxing Association in the late 1920s. He returned the next year to win two titles (he also claimed a title from the British Amateur Boxing Association that same year). After going professional, Jack Petersen earned his place in history as the first Welshman to be crowned British heavyweight champion.

12. OSCAR DE LA HOYA

Portrait of Oscar De La Hoya in the boxing ring.
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Mexican-American boxer Oscar De La Hoya represented the U.S. at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when he was still a teenager. Earning gold in the featherweight division was just the start of his decorated career. From there he earned world titles in six different weight classes and became the top-earning pay-per-view athlete of his day.

13. CHRIS BYRD

Boxer Chris Byrd hits Andrew Golota.
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There was a second southpaw competing for the U.S. at the Barcelona Olympics. During the 1992 games Chris Byrd took home the silver medal in the middleweight division. In the years to follow he rose to the ranks of two-time heavyweight world champion.

14. HECTOR CAMACHO

Hector
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Hector "Macho" Camacho’s quick punches and fancy footwork helped him bag world titles across multiple weight classes in the 1980s and early '90s. He was known for his flashy brand of showmanship: Some of the outfits he wore in the ring included a Roman gladiator costume and a monogrammed fur robe.

15. HOLLY HOLM

Holly Holm celebrates victory over Ronda Rousey.
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As a boxer, Holly Holm has earned and defended world champion titles many times over. She’s also known for being one of the few fighters to defeat superstar Ronda Rousey in the mixed martial arts ring.

16. GUILLERMO RIGONDEAUX

Guillermo Rigondeaux throws a right to the face of Drian Francisco during their junior featherweight bout.
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Cuban boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux is the current holder of the super bantamweight world title. He's also the owner of two Olympic gold medals—one he received in 2000 and the other in 2004.

17. SERGIO MARTINEZ

Sergio Martinez in boxing gear.
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From 2010 to 2014, Argentine boxer Sergio Martinez dominated as champion in the lineal middleweight division. He officially retired one year after losing the honor to Miguel Cotto.

18. REGGIE JOHNSON

James Toney throws a punch at Reggie Johnson during a fight.
Ken Levine / Getty Images

One of only eight men to win a world light heavyweight title after earning a title in middleweight, Reggie Johnson was one of boxing’s brightest stars in the late 1990s. He lost his light heavyweight title to Roy Jones Jr. in 1999, but even his rival had nothing but respect for the native Texan. Jones spoke of him to The Ring: “You won’t find a better person than Reggie Johnson in boxing.”

19. VICENTE SALDIVAR

Vicente "Southpaw" Saldivar is famous for more than his left-sided fighting stance. The Mexico City native competed in the 1960 Olympics, held world featherweight titles, and fought before massive crowds. He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.

20. ERISLANDY LARA

Erislandy Lara in the boxing ring.
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The junior middleweight world title currently belongs to Erislandy Lara. He adopted the nickname "The American Dream" after defecting from Cuba, and in early 2017 the boxer became an American citizen.

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