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Muhammad Ali

Deontay Wilder remembers Muhammad Ali

The death of boxing Hall of Famer Muhammad Ali sent shock waves and sadness throughout the world. Ali defeated the likes of Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes and Joe Frazier to be the best African-American heavyweight of his generation. And in doing so, he paved the way for Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Hasim Rahman and one of today’s star heavyweights in Deontay Wilder.

Wilder, the current World Boxing Council titleholder, was especially fond of Ali as indicated in his recent Twitter posts. He, like many, truly believed that Ali lived up to the moniker of being “The Greatest,” and wants to continue Ali’s legacy in the sport. I spoke with the undefeated champion (36-0) at length about how Ali has influenced his career and those of other African-American heavyweights. Here is Wilder, in his own words, about what Ali means to him:

“Muhammad Ali was the true meaning of the greatest of all time. What he did inside and outside of the ring was phenomenal. I want to leave a legacy like he’s left, and that’s going to be a very hard act to follow. I know that my era is different from his by far, but he’s a great example and that’s what he’s doing for me and my career because I’m looking at the example that he set, and I’m trying to follow his footsteps in my own way.

“What Ali [and others] stood for during the civil rights era means a lot to me. Without their sacrifice, there’s no telling what I’d be doing right now, or how my life would be right now. You’ve got to give respect to that, and you’ve got to pay homage to that. I don’t think this generation that’s coming up today really understood what people like him and the ancestors did to allow us to do be able to do what we’re doing now, man.”

“[Being a top African-American in the heavyweight division] is a big responsibility, because I knew — no matter how many belts are out there — there will never be a belt like the WBC belt, ever! This is the most prestigious, well-known jewel of boxing, period. And to be able to say that I’m the WBC heavyweight champ of the world, I take pride in that, man. I take joy in that, because Muhammad Ali, and a lot of the greats that have come before me have had this same belt. I take pride to say that I can add my name to that list.

“So, with that being said, I pity any guy that faces me and tries to take this away from me. You know, if anything, I’ll collect more to add to this belt to be the undisputed champion. Ali is gone, but his legacy will definitely live on through me and I’m going to express it each and every time I fight.

“His one fight that stood out to me the most was the [second] Sonny Liston fight [in 1965]. I always picture that photo of him standing over Liston. That’s one of the reasons why I posted it on my Twitter page. Ali was letting him know that, ‘I am the champion of this division and I will do what I say I was going to do!’ That means a lot to me.”

“You know Muhammad Ali’s era, back in the day, that was the ‘golden age’ of boxing. The sport was the pride and joy of America.

“I don’t think it will ever be the same like that, but I vow and promise to make it the best of my era, the best that I possibly can. To bring this sport back to the top and bring back interest in the heavyweight, it’s just up to me to get all of these belts and bring them back into America.

“I did get an opportunity to meet Muhammad Ali, thank God. I met him back in 2007 at the AIBA World Boxing Championships. I would be [at] the Olympics the next year, but in 2007 we had to compete against guys from all over the world in Chicago. I had the opportunity to shake his hand.

“We couldn’t really interact with him because we couldn’t really understand certain things he was saying, because of the Parkinson’s disease, but you could tell that he was a funny, funny man.

“You could just tell by the things he was doing with us, like throwing boxing hands. He loved to be around people. As an older man, you can see how he was when he was a younger guy, how he liked to entertain people. I’ll always remember that moment and it felt good to meet an icon, one of my idols, in Muhammad Ali.”

Gabe Salgado is a writer and sports anchor living in Chicago.