50 Years: Those who were there recall Muhammad Ali’s exhibition fight at Stoney Field

Local News

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – The City of Charleston is marking the 50th anniversary of an often forgotten piece of history.

On June 30, 1971, Muhammad Ali came to Charleston for an exhibition fight at Stoney Field, and some of those closest to it shared their story with us.

Michael Barrett’s father, Reggie, is the reason Muhammad Ali came to Charleston. He said it was initially meant to be a fundraiser in July of 1970 for Reggie Barrett’s boxing team, Barrett’s Bombers. They were the first all-black boxing team in South Carolina. With Ali unable to fight in sanctioned bouts because of his refusal to be drafted into the armed forces during the Vietnam War, Barrett said his dad took a shot.

Henry Nielson worked for what was then the Charleston Evening Post as a sports writer at that time. He was among a handful of people Barrett told that Ali was coming. He said, as soon as Ali stepped off the plane people spotted him and started running from the terminals to catch a glimpse of “The Greatest”.

“He had this idea, reached out and the next thing you know he is here,” said Barrett.

Nielson and a then six-year-old Michael Barrett rode with Ali into the city. They were forced to stop along the way as people jumped from their cars to wave and try to meet the champ. Ali asked Reggie Barrett to stop at Hampton Park as they drove by, and Ali went straight to the basketball courts where some people were playing.

“He said, who wants a shot at the greatest?” Nielson recalls. “And there were some kids who came up to spar with him and he played along with them and he was a lot of fun.”

Barrett says the original bout would be abruptly canceled just before it started because of a supposed bomb threat.

“Obviously things were canceled and he vowed to return and 11 months later he came back,” Barrett said.

Fast forward to June 30, 1971, and fresh off the Supreme Court siding with Ali in his fight to be a “conscientious objector”, he returned and fulfilled that promise. Ali, complete with a military honor guard, held that exhibition fight at Stoney Field marking his return to the ring.

Barrett says, the city’s commemoration of the events of 50 years ago means everything to his family and to Ali’s family.

“It gives recognition to the cause and what was going on back then, the fact he was denied, turned away, and actually came back and it actually happened,” Barrett said.

There is a chance more could be done to permanently remember that night. The possibility of a historical marker at Stoney Field is among the ideas.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg issued a proclamation this week in observance of the 50th anniversary of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Exhibition. You can read that below:

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