Muhammad Ali appeared to have an affinity for Virginia, where he found he could speak his mind and find a measure of solitude.
In April 1969, Ali spoke at the Randolph-Macon College convocation in Ashland, two years after he was convicted of violating Selective Service law and stripped of his heavyweight boxing title.
“I’m not a draft dodger,” Ali said. “I avoided it. I didn’t burn a statue of the president or break into a draft office and burn records and deface the flag.”
Ali said he would not box again, that he planned to focus on his Islamic religion and “to help bring justice, freedom, equality to my people.”
Ali’s conviction ultimately was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and he returned to the ring, reclaiming the heavyweight title two more times, with victories over George Foreman in 1974 and Leon Spinks in 1978.
After he retired from boxing in 1981, Ali was a businessman who spent three months a year at a 47-acre horse farm near Afton Mountain that he bought the following year.
He made millions off a hotel venture in Virginia Beach. His Ali Motor Cars considered manufacturing luxury sports cars in Halifax County before ultimately choosing a site in Wisconsin.
In March 1986, Ali paid a visit to L. Douglas Wilder, who was then lieutenant governor — and the nation’s highest-ranking black elected official.
During a meeting in Wilder’s small office, Ali quipped, “I swear you’re pretty.”
Later, in the Senate chamber, Ali said he was unemployed and might be interested in Virginia politics. “I’m going to be the governor,” he said.
Wilder, already eyeing the top job, cracked: “I’m going to start fighting!”
Ali found the farm in mountainous Nelson County a comfortable respite.
“I like the people here. They leave me alone,” Ali said in a 1987 interview.
“I can’t walk the streets in big cities. I can’t walk the streets in Russia, Afghanistan, West Germany.”
In 1988 Ali spoke to University of Virginia law school students about how he had struggled for four years to be classified as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
He told the students: “If it happened again, I’d do the same thing.”
In 1993, three years after he made flashbulbs pop at Wilder’s inaugural ball, Ali returned to Richmond to visit hospitals and attend a ceremony for scholar-athletes at the Arthur Ashe Center.
Ali, then 51, told the students that he was 18 when he won an Olympic gold medal and 22 when he first won the world heavyweight championship.
Time is fleeting, he said. “So while you’re young, find out what your purpose is.”
During the 1987 interview, Ali said he was trying to use his celebrity as a force for good. “My focus is on trying to do what’s right, and I don’t just say that. I think I do it. I use my recognition to help other people. I want to stop the abuse of children,” he said.
He added: “What we do in this life is the rent we pay for our room in the hereafter.”