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The governor on ‘The Greatest:’ Wilder remembers Muhammad Ali

Posted at 9:52 PM, Jun 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-05 22:29:05-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Tributes to the late Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of all time, continue to pour in after the icon's battle with Parkinson's disease ended Friday evening.  Ali was 74 years old.  One of the biggest names in Virginia politics, former governor Doug Wilder, had been a close personal friend of the boxing great for nearly two decades.

In an interview with CBS 6, Wilder said he first met Ali in 1989 at the governor's inauguration as the first elected African-American governor in U.S. history.  Ali showed up unannounced, Wilder said.

"When he did show up, oh people were agog," said Wilder.

A few years later, Ali gave Wilder an engraved championship ring with emblems from all three of Ali's heavyweight titles.  An inscription on the inside of the ring reads, "To Doug Wilder with respect.  Muhammad Ali."

Reporter Jake Burns and former governor Doug Wilder.

Reporter Jake Burns and former governor Doug Wilder.

Wilder said his own admiration for the champ has very little to do with boxing.  Few athletes in history have achieved the social and political impact of Ali, who was a champion of civil rights and famously refused to enter the draft during the Vietnam War.  Wilder said Ali was not afraid to say what was considered unpopular if the champ believed he was right.

"He was so far ahead of people relative to the Vietnam War. He was way ahead! Miles and miles ahead," said Wilder.  "His principles and convictions did more for this country than most ambassadors of the nation in total."

Ali gave Wilder an engraved championship ring.

Ali gave Wilder an engraved championship ring.

Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1984, five years before the champ and the governor would meet.  The disease took away Ali's motor skills and ability to speak coherently.  Wilder said while Ali's physicality diminished, the champ's spirit never did.  Wilder compares Ali to visionaries like Nelson Mandela; leaders who saw problems with the way the world worked and fought to change it in their own way.

"He was one of the purest individuals I have ever known. I will miss his spirit greatly, but I know, in some regards, it will be with us," said Wilder.

Ali will be laid to rest in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky later this week.  Former President Bill Clinton, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, and comedian Billy Crystal will be among those delivering remarks at the memorial service.