Muhammad Ali didn’t stray from character in his only visit to Fresno.
It was the night of May 20, 1971, and Ali was a celebrity guest at a benefit boxing card at Selland Arena.
Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74, arrived late. The crowd was disappointing – just 257. Maybe Ali’s star power was waning then; he was barely two months removed from his first pro loss, in a title fight against Joe Frazier at New York’s Madison Square Garden. And it wasn’t until June 1971 that he got his conviction for draft evasion overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court (leading one Fresno fan to bellow, “Hey Clay, when are you going to jail?”).
I don’t like Foster, he talks too much and I don’t like fighters who talk too much.
Muhammad Ali, in a quip during a 1971 Fresno boxing show about the city’s heavyweight contender, Mac Foster
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Ali warmed to the occasion that night in Fresno, The Bee’s Terry Betterton reported, exchanging heckles with a fan rooting for an overmatched Terry Lee during the main event against Eddie Jones.
“He’s nothing, Terry, he is tired,” the fan yelled.
Ali: “Terry say he tired, too.”
Later, a fan asked the former Cassius Clay for an autograph. The reply: “Mr. who? All the hell I raised about my name and you ain’t heard about it?”
Someone mentioned Fresno heavyweight Mac “The Knife” Foster, a rising contender. “Is Foster from here? I shouldn’t be here. I don’t like Foster, he talks too much and I don’t like fighters who talk too much.”
Ali showed his softer side, too. He was introduced to Elicia Pace, the 7-year-old daughter of one of the show’s intended beneficiaries. Ali smiled. “Hi, pretty, how are you? How about a kiss?” During the main event, with very few fans noticing, Ali gave Elicia $500. “This is for you. Give it to your mommy and buy something nice.”
Proceeds from the show were supposed to help the families of two boxers who had recently died, George Kennedy of Fresno and Eddie Pace of Los Angeles, and United Cerebral Palsy of Fresno. The light turnout skewered those plans, and Ali suggested to promoter Pete Rokas that he had a plan: “I’ll come back with three sparring partners and do 10 rounds. We’ll have a real benefit.”
There is no record that Ali ever returned to Fresno. But he did have one more connection to the city. He beat Foster in a unanimous decision after they went 15 rounds in a non-title fight March 31, 1972, in Tokyo. Foster died in 2010 at age 68.
Research by Ashley Gravano, Fresno Bee librarian. 559-441-6128.