Muhammad Ali said yesterday at a news conference in New York City that he has become a boxing promoter and will attempt to rescue an all-star show scheduled at Madison Square Garden Feb. 23.

Four fights arranged by Muhammad Ali Professional Sports Inc. (MAPS) were imperiled when the company, and Harold Smith, MAPS board chairman, were named in a $21-million fraud suit brought by the Wells Fargo Bank. The bank alleges that $21.3 million was fradulently withdrawn from a Beverly Hills branch in Los Angeles.

Late last night, Smith called Bud Furillo of KABC in Los Angeles and accused bank officials of trying to kill him. He also said the real amount of the theft is between $200 million and $300 million, an amount that he said could reach 20 different Wells Fargo Banks and some 35 bank officials.

[Smith, missing for more than a week, told Furillo in a confused narration that he had returned from Switzerland, where he had fled for his life when the embezzling story came to light. He also said that his son had been kidnaped, that his family was hunted in Switzerland and that he had returned now to face his accusors because his family was safe. He also said that he had been used by bank officials in a scheme over the course of eight or nine years.]

The Madison Square Garden card was to feature a 10-round fight between heavyweight Gerry Cooney, ranked No. 1 challenger by the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Association, and Ken Norton, former WBC champion; Matthew Saad Muhammad and WBA champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad; a WBA welterweight title fight between champion Thomas Hearns and former WBC champion Wilfred Benitez, and a WBC super bantamweight title bout between champion Wilfredo Gomez and Mike Ayala.

Ali had lent his name to MAPS for a consideration but, after the reported embezzlement at the Los Angeles bank, he rescinded that permission and was asked to help save the fight show when it appeared to be in danger of collapsing.

Ali criticized harshly Smith's handling of funds, adding, "The card (whose total purses exceeded $8 million) as originally presented was unreasonable from the start. Now when we read the papers, we know where he got those unrealistic figures from. But people shouldn't condemn boxing. Because Nixon was no good doesn't mean the government was bad. Boxing just had a bad man in a key spot.

"I made Don King," boasted Ali. "I made Bob Arum. I am the greatest name in boxing and I will be the biggest promoter. Everyone will come to me. I will use my name and run things.

"I will become the No. 1 promoter in boxing history." He and Ed Franklin, attorney for MAPS, said negotiations will have to be concluded by Feb. 11 to save the promotion, and will involve the principals accepting smaller purses than previously agreed to by Smith, chief executive of MAPS. Smith was named as codefendant, along with Sam Marshall, MAPS president, in the bank's suit.

Meanwhile, in Albany, N.Y., Jack Prenderville, chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, said, "There is a good chance that three of the bouts will be staged; it depends on television network negotiations." He did not specify which bouts.

MAPS and Tiffany Inc., are the co-promoters of the card, with MAPS owning the television rights. The Garden is renting its arena for the show.

MAPS attorney Franklin said he talked to Ali about "making the transition from boxing to promotion and taking over the show if all the pieces could be put together."

But he will not invest in this card. "We might start (promoting) in this show," he said, but noted, "I'm not putting up anything for this show. I'm not going to put up any money. We've got investors. We've got oil money."

Some fighters were reluctant to revise their purses downward. Some of the boxers indicated they could earn as much fighting on different shows at different times. Hearns' representatives reportedly do not want him to fight for less than the $1.25 million he was guaranteed.

Cooney was supposed to receive $1.2 million and Dennis Rappaport, his manager, said, "I'm going to take the most dollars available." Norton's advisor has been quoted as saying he would not take a cut from his contracted purse of $1.1 million.

John F. X. Concon, president of Madison Square Garden Boxing, said, "If MAPS dissolves as a corporation and no longer has contracts with the fighters and they become available to every promoter in the country, we would like to be one of those promoters."

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been conducting an investigation of the sport for seven months.

The inquiry reportedly centers on the contracts and financial records of bouts involving Ali against Larry Holmes in October 1980, Sugar Ray Leonard against Roberto Duran a month later, and Ali against Chuck Wepner in 1975.

The investigation is concerned about the distribution of money from the closed-circuit telecasts of Ali-Holmes and Leonard-Duran.