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What’s in a (Nick) Name?

It’s not even open to argument. Sporting nicknames aren’t what they used to be. Pin the blame wherever you want: the global paucity of sports writing, the all-encompassing dominance of hip-hop culture, or the increasing commercialisation of sports. It matters little.

But how difficult was it, in the age of Jennifer ‘J-Lo’ Lopez and Kevin ‘K-Fed’ Federline, to christen New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez ‘A-Rod’? Is that the best America’s creative minds can come up with for the dominant player in Major League Baseball? And if that wasn’t lame enough, five minutes later the LA Angels’ relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez becomes ‘K-Rod’. Surely I’m not alone in praying that one of the other 17 Rodriguez boys in the Major Leagues comes out of the closet, purely so announcers are obliged to call him ‘Gay-Rod’?

I’m not picking on athletes going by the surname ‘Rodriguez’. But a good nickname should have nothing to do with fleeting linguistic trends. In 10 years’ time, people will look back on ‘A-Rod’ and cringe. Language changes. No one says “Daddio” or “forsooth” any more, so pity the player whose nom-de-field is cast into permanent historic ridicule by the fickle finger of verbal fashion.

A sporting nickname should be a badge of honour, telling the watching world that this is a special individual. Before he became Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay was the Louisville Lip. Would his glorious career have been so memorable if he had simply been labelled ‘Double C’? Would Babe Ruth’s legacy be so revered if The Sultan of Swat had just been ‘The Big Baby’? Where, with all due respect, is the sense of fun of calling Michael Jordan ‘MJ’ or LeBron James ‘LBJ’ or LaDanian Tomlinson ‘LT’, the same can’t-think-of-anything-better nickname that was gracelessly handed to Lawrence Taylor 20 years ago?

Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis

A good nickname can do so much. It can show the reverence fans or the media have for the athlete in question. It can, in a few notable examples, demonstrate a wicked sense of humour (old New York Giants cornerback Elvis Patterson was known as ‘Toast’ as he was repeatedly burnt by opposing wide receivers). It can do many things. But whatever the nickname’s origins, it should demonstrate that sport, at its essence, should maintain a sense of fun. And more importantly, it should prove that discussing sport, whether in print, on line, or while sitting on barstools and full of beer, isn’t necessarily a witless and pointless occupation.

It seems like I’m picking on Americans. They’re not the only culprits. Across the English-speaking world the nickname well appears to have run dry. David Beckham, depending on who you ask, is ‘Becks’ or, as he was described by his wife, ‘Goldenballs’. Wayne Rooney, potentially the greatest British soccer talent of his generation, has picked up the nickname ‘Roo’, seemingly for its simplicity in slotting it into tabloid headlines. ‘Roo Cannot Be Serious!’ and the like.

As sports fans, we shouldn’t be sitting down and taking it. The global fight back starts here. Make a pledge today. And obey these three simple rules.

1. Refrain from calling sportsmen corporate names like ‘A-Rod’, ‘LT’, ‘Ocho Cinco, or ‘T-Mac’. Anything that will obviously look good when slapped on a poster was probably thought up by someone making money from that poster.

2. If named after a place, non-alliterative words are strictly forbidden. We’ll allow Robbie Fowler to be The Toxteth Terrier and Jack Dempsey to be The Manassa Mauler. But Toni Kukoc as The Croatian Sensation? We don’t think so.

3. Stealing another athlete’s nickname is unacceptable. Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock was one of the few heavyweight boxers to challenge Mike Tyson’s reign in the early ’90s. The fact that overweight English journeyman footballer Neil Ruddock started calling himself ‘Razor’ shortly after that is quite possibly the lamest thing ever.

Eddy ‘The Cannibal’ Merckx

It can be done better. Some of these nicknames are vintage. Some are modern. Each of them shows that sports watchers can think out the box, and use language effectively while they’re at it. Sportswriters of tomorrow, please take note.

Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis

It seems hard to believe now, but in the early ’80s the game of snooker was a big ratings winner in the UK. Essentially a slower, more boring version of pool, hours of the television schedule were set aside to provide live coverage of two men in suits dragging themselves around a billiards table, occasionally knocking one ball into another. In a bid to promote the game top players were handed nicknames. Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White were so called for their fast (and allegedly exciting) style of play. The only player who didn’t have a nickname also happened to be the best – the consistent but monotone-voiced World Champion, Steve Davis.

Enter satirical TV show Spitting Image. Seizing upon the public perception of Davis having the personality of a lump of cheddar, they ran a sketch in which Steve Davis, unaware of his own tedium, christened himself ‘Interesting’. Ironically, As Davis’ snooker talents faded, he revealed a charming, self-depreciating sense of humour, perfect for all kinds of TV work. Although he hasn’t won a snooker tournament for decades, Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis remains one of Britain’s best-loved sports personalities.

Brian ‘The Chiropractor’ Lima

The Chiropractor

Rugby is a violent game. It’s hit or be hit. Even so, there was something so aggressive about the tackling of Samoan centre Brian Lima that stood out from the norm. Hard hitters in all sports have had nicknames for decades. The Hammer is an old favourite. The Bull, Raging or otherwise, is another classic. Neither has the gallows wit of Lima’s nickname, known by everyone around the world that loves rugby. As Homer Simpson so eloquently observed, it’s funny because it’s true.

The King of Spain

Sometimes you couldn’t make it up. To celebrate spin bowler Ashley Giles’ brilliant performances for the England cricket team in 2000, the management ordered a set of mugs that predictably declared him to be ‘The King of Spin’. The folks at the mug factory obviously weren’t cricket fans, as the shipment arrived bearing the legend ‘Ashley Giles: The King of Spain’. Word of the typo quickly escaped the in team’s inner sanctum, and for the rest of his career England cricket fans would dress as matadors and paint banners to pay homage to ‘The King of Spain’.

The Cannibal

Lance Armstrong may have won two more Tour De Frances than the Belgian cycling God Eddy Merckx, but he never even had his own nickname, let alone one as fearsome as ‘The Cannibal’. There’s nothing unusual about the undisputed top athlete in any sport having a nickname indicating just that. Muhammad Ali was ‘The Greatest’. Wayne Gretsky was ‘The Great One’. Sooner or later every soccer team has a player the fans call ‘The King’. But still, there has only been one sportsman known as ‘The Cannibal’. It conjures up images of a man totally dominating his sport, willing to inflicting pain and suffering on his rivals without a shred of pity. Which, strangely enough, was exactly what Merckx did during his decade-long reign of terror over cycling.

Der Herminator and The Turbanator

There’s something painfully predictable about anyone nicknamed ‘The Terminator’. Granted, its message is clear, but it’s lacking in subtlety. Thankfully it comes with enough imagery and history to work perfectly as a launch pad for a nickname for those willing to go beyond the obvious. Austrian Hermann Maier was arguably the world’s greatest alpine skier in the late ’90s. Proving that Germanic types do have a sense of humour after all, his fans labelled him ‘The Herminator’, the name by which he was known by all for the rest of his career. As great as this nickname was, it was eclipsed by the emergence of Sikh Indian spin bowler Harbhajan Singh at the turn of the millennium, whose destructive bowling and on-field headwear earned him the title ‘The Turbanator’. This could quite possibly be the finest nickname ever.

Dr J

In its greatest form, a nickname should be known beyond the individual’s given name. Such is the case with Julius Erving, known to the basketball world as ‘Dr J’. Indeed, what’s left to say about this glorious nickname, other than he had already made it his own by the time he had graduated high school? It works perfectly; creating the image of the on-court professor, slicing through the opposition defence like a surgeon. Earvin Johnson had the ultimate basketball one-word-tells-everything name, but even Magic would have to pay homage to The Doctor, owner of the ultimate on-court nickname.

Whispering Death

A nickname handed to him by umpires who were routinely startled by his light-footed approach to the crease; West Indian cricket legend Michael Holding was the fastest and most feared bowler of his generation. A welcome twist on the more familiar ‘Silent Assassin’ theme, ‘Whispering Death’ has a grace and dignity all of its own. Come to think of it, there are a lot of cricketers with really great nicknames. Probably because the people watching it have so much time on their hands. Regretfully, Brian Johnston’s famous line of commentary before one of Whispering Death’s deliveries, “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”, is merely an urban legend.

The Fridge

Never in human history has a nickname alone propelled an individual so far. Arguably the worst player on the great 1985 Chicago Bears team, William Perry remains its greatest celebrity. It turns out that no one could resist the tubby guy named after a bulky domestic appliance. Travel outside North America and only NFL enthusiasts could tell you about the brilliance of Walter ‘Sweetness’ Payton. But even my mum could tell you about The Fridge. He was the fat one, she’d say. And she’d be right. 22 years later, who would Americans trust more to recommended a rotisserie? And they’d be right. The guy obviously loves eating.

Through sports history there have been hundreds of athletes that have been given the epithets ‘Tiger’, ‘Bulldog’, ‘Ace’ or ‘Big’ someone or other. There has only ever been one Fridge. And there only ever will be.

‘One Size’ Fitz Hall

All soccer fans know Fitz Hall, defender for largely irrelevant English soccer team West Bromwich Albion, as ‘One Size’. Self-explanatory really.

William ‘The Fridge’ Perry