Heavyweight champion Wilder reflects on the legacy of Muhammad Ali

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Winning a heavyweight title was a dream come true for Deontay Wilder. Doing it on Muhammad Ali’s birthday made it even more special.

Muhammad Ali and Deontay Wilder

Heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder (right) said he is planning to honor Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74, at his next title defense. (Photo illustration by Paul Palmer/Premier Boxing Champions)

After the passing of the legendary Ali at the age of 74 on Friday night, Deontay Wilder reflected on the life and legacy of the three-time heavyweight champion, and his own personal connection to “The Greatest.”

Wilder, 30, defeated Bermane Stiverne by unanimous decision at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to become a heavyweight champion on January 17, 2015, which also happened to be Ali’s 73rd birthday.

“Winning the championship on Muhammad Ali’s birthday, that was a special and very magical moment,” Wilder said from his home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Muhammad Ali was and definitely is still my all-time favorite. I still have VHS tapes on this man throughout his whole career, so I definitely felt like all of this was meant to be.”

In becoming the first American heavyweight champion since Shannon Briggs in 2007, Wilder (36-0, 35 KOs) said he feels an obligation to unify all of the titles and wants Ali’s legacy to live on through him.

"I am considering customizing my uniform in honor of Muhammad Ali [for my next fight], with maybe his name on it or a picture of him,” said Wilder, who is planning a return to the ring in July. “Everlast loves the idea, so we will be discussing that."

While Ali won Olympic gold as Cassius Clay in Rome in 1960, Wilder is the last American male boxer to win an Olympic medal, with “The Bronze Bomber” having claimed a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008.

Wilder said he met Ali in Chicago while qualifying for the Olympics.

“He stood as a man of principle, but he was also a man who made everyone laugh and a man everyone wanted to be around,” Wilder said. “Everybody takes a page from someone’s book to add to their legacy, and Muhammad Ali is the icon of boxing for me. It’s fascinating how he lived his life inside and outside of the ring.”

Much in the spirit of Ali, Wilder is prone to bombastic statements before fights and likes to clown around in general. But he hopes to carve out his own legacy while also continuing to honor his idol.

“There are similarities between us as far as our personalities and the way that I treat people. I’m a silly person on the outside and on the inside, even as a champion fighter,” Wilder said. “People are surprised when they meet and hang around me. Muhammad Ali was the same. He liked to make people laugh and make them feel comfortable.

“It’s not that I try to study him and emulate how he speaks or walks, I just do me. But we’re very similar; I see myself in the same way … but this is a sad time for boxing.”

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