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11 Reasons Athletes Change Their Names

Lakers star Ron Artest made waves this summer when he announce he was changing his name to Metta World Peace. Although it's one of the more extreme moves, it's far from the first time an athlete has adopted a strange name. Here are 11 great (and not-so-great) reasons athletes make the switch.

1. To get more credit

Midway through his career, boxer Marvin Hagler felt that he wasn’t getting enough attention and praise from the media. In 1982 –- after he had already won a world championship –- he finally decided that he would force announcers to start giving him his due. He legally added the nickname “Marvelous” to his name so that nobody could mention him without using the full name “Marvelous Marvin Hagler.”

2. To join the Japanese national team

Although he was drafted to the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1998, Milton "J.R." Henderson never really caught on and eventually left to play overseas. In 2001, he found his way to Japan and became a key player for the Aisin Seahorses. Wanting to play for the Japanese national team and become more integrated in his new home, Henderson eventually applied to become a Japanese citizen in 2008. On top of the standard naturalization process, Henderson thought things might go faster if he took a Japanese name, so he legally adopted “J.R. Sakuragi.” The last name translates to “cherry blossom tree,” but also happens to be the name of the hero in the basketball-themed manga “Slam Dunk.”

3. To (try to) win a Heisman

In 1970, Notre Dame quarterback Joe Theismann (pronounced THEES-man) led the team to a 10-1 record and was named an All-American, gathering a great deal of national hype. To help his bid for the Heisman trophy, Notre Dame publicity guru Roger Valdiserri insisted that Theismann change the pronunciation of his name to rhyme with the award as a marketing trick. Although he lost to Stanford’s Jim Plunkett, the new pronunciation stuck and Theismann (now pronounced THIGHS-man) eventually led the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl victory. Theismann would later tell the Los Angeles Times that in order to make the switch, he had to run it by his grandmother, who gave her approval and revealed that the name was actually supposed to be pronounced TICE-man.

4. To follow a new religion

A number of pro athletes have changed their name after converting to Islam, headlined by Cassius Clay changing his name to Muhammad Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam. UCLA center Lew Alcindor famously became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he converted in 1971. Former NFL running back Bobby Moore changed his name to Ahmad Rashad upon conversion, and NBA player Chris Jackson changed his to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf when he converted in 1991.

5. To settle a lawsuit with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Born Sharmon Shah, the UCLA running back changed his name to Karim Abdul-Jabbar in 1995 after being given the name by his imam. Abdul-Jabbar closed out his senior season with the name and eventually entered the NFL, where he played for the Miami Dolphins. While setting the franchise rookie rushing record, he attracted the attention of the retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 1998, the basketball player filed suit against the NFL star, pointing out a number of similarities between the two. Both had gone to UCLA, both wore uniform number 33 (although the NFL player Abdul-Jabbar insists it was a tribute to Tony Dorsett) and both, obviously, had the same name. In fact, many people mistakenly thought that the running back was the NBA Hall of Famer’s son. Eventually, the NFL player changed his name to Abdul to comply with the lawsuit and, in 2000, changed his name to Abdul-Karim al-Jabbar. In the meantime, all jerseys with his original name were taken off store shelves.

6. To make a nickname more official

If you had a great nickname, wouldn't you want to make it official? For example, there's former Dolphins wide receiver Mark Duper, who legally added the middle name “Super” to go by Mark Super Duper. Or the Minnesota Twins relief pitcher John Paul Bonser, who legally adopted his long-time nickname “Boof” as his first name. Or former NBA player Lloyd Bernard Free who decided to incorporate his nickname “All-World” and changed it to the message-laden World B. Free. And of course there's the mixed martial arts fighter and sometimes porn actor who used to go by Jon Koppenhaver, but changed his name to War Machine.

But the most famous nickname adoption has to be Chad Johnson, the then-Bengals wide receiver who changed his name to Chad Ochocinco in 2008 to reflect his uniform number (85, although the nickname literally translates to “eight five”). He stuck with the change despite some conflict with the NFL and a promise to change it back if he was held catchless in a 2010 game against the Jets (he was). In 2009, he announced that he’d be switching his name to Chad Hachi Go, which translates to “eight five” in Japanese, but did not go through with it.

7. To get rid of a common name

Jose Gonzalez Uribe played eight games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1984 before he was traded, along with three teammates, to the San Francisco Giants. During the trade, he changed his name to drop the Gonzalez, going by simply Jose Uribe. The reason? “There are too many Gonzálezes in baseball,” he told reporters. His name change during the trade led to him jokingly being called “the ultimate player to be named later” by his new coach Rocky Bridges.

8. To be more like Kristi Yamaguchi

When figure skater Rudy Galindo first met fellow skating star Kristi Yamaguchi, he felt there was an instant connection. Although they didn’t immediately start skating as a pair, they did often skate in the same events and started to be seen as a team. When they started competing in pairs competitions together, Galindo and Yamaguchi grew closer. Finally, he took the ultimate step and changed the spelling of his name to “Rudi” to make their names more similar.

9. To be more like a favorite Teen Wolf character

In 2008, Tampa Bay defensive end Greg White announced that he had legally changed his name to Stylez G. White, after his favorite character in the 1985 classic Teen Wolf. The character in question was Rupert 'Stiles' Stilinski, the best friend to Michael J. Fox’s Scott Howard (which admittedly would not have been a very interesting name to adopt). About "Stiles," White told the Tampa Bay Tribune, “I always liked that name. It’s not that I don’t like Greg White.”

10. To not get confused with an All-Star

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitcher Ervin Santana didn’t always go by “Ervin.” In fact, his birth name is Johan Ramon Santana. Early in his career, Santana realized that his birth name might conflict slightly with that of another superstar pitcher, then-Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana. So the minor league star decided to make a switch to Ervin. Why Ervin? According to news reports, he simply said “that sounds good” and decided to stick with it.

11. To honor a new-found heritage

During the offseason before his final NBA season, then-Pistons player Brian Williams started doing some genealogical research. When he learned of his Native American and African heritage as part of his "spiritual journey," Williams decided to honor his roots with a name change. He eventually settled on Bison Dele, the first name to honor his Native American roots and the last name because it was a traditional African name. He only played one season as Bison Dele -- he retired in 1999 and disappeared, presumed dead, in 2002.

For 11-11-11, we'll be posting twenty-four '11 lists' throughout the day. Check back 11 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
Brett Deering/Getty Images
Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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#TBT
Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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