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Ringside Report Looks Back at the Late World Light Heavyweight Champion Bob Foster (1938-2015)

By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

The Deputy Sheriff was a tremendous light heavyweight champion who also went up and mixed it with Joe Frazier and Muhamad Ali. With over 60 fights to his name during a spell professionally that stretched from 1961 until 1978 Bob Foster 56-8-1, 46 KOs, managed to accrue the light heavyweight championship which he defended an incredible 14 times holding it against all comers from 1968 until 1974. Having lost his life in 2015, his legacy was not just the defenses but being named as one of the 100 greatest punchers by Ring Magazine. Quite rightly he entered the inaugural International Boxing Hall of Fame whilst still with us in 1990.

A Texan, Foster was born just at the point that America joined World War Two after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was therefore quite fitting that it was whilst serving his country in the air force that he came to prominence in the ring. Inter service matches followed, fighting within the Golden Gloves and also representing his country in 1959 at the Pan American games gaining a middleweight silver medal, all of which were to distinguish his service and record as an airman and as a pugilist. In his obituary for the Independent, British boxing pundit and guru, Steve Bunce was to claim that Foster knocked out 89 of the 94 men he beat as an amateur and claimed to have lost just four times.

During his amateur period, he sparred in a pre-Olympic camp, with Cassius Clay who was to eventually represent America in a slot which Foster believed should have been his. Clay, as we all know, went to Rome, returned with the Gold and went on to bigger things; perhaps had Foster gone he too would have won and not thrown his medal away in disgust some years thereafter as the man Clay became did.

Ironically, he had been offered a slot on the Olympic team – as a middleweight. The irony is that as he turned professional his success was at light heavyweight, but he kept going up to heavyweight to feed his family – weight was always with him as a boxer. But at 6 foot 3, he was never going to be a middleweight and the slot went elsewhere.

He entered the professional ranks in 1961 on the 27th of March, when he knocked out Duke Williams in Washington in the second round. His early years were tough, and it as reported he was earning as little as $25 for each fight in the beginning. As he emerged as a contender, he was never able to secure the bigger fights as the politics of international boxing would often intervene and he would not the chances he deserved. To keep himself current and to pay the bills, he showed his skills at a higher weight.

In 1962, his first foray into the heavyweight saw him lose when he was stopped by Doug Jones in the 8th round at Madison Square Garden on the 20th of October. Foster had been a late replacement and tasted the canvas in the 1st round and referee Teddy Martin stepped in in the 8th to avoid any further punishment.

But this merely was a bump on the road.

At the end of 1964, at light heavyweight he came up against Henry Hank. What followed was him stopping Hank in the 10thround. Hank had fought for the world title, so this was a big win for Foster.

In 1967, Foster became the number one ranked light heavyweight in the world.

That meant there as only one thing missing – a title fight. 24th of March 1968, in Madison Square Gardens that was resolved, and he went in against Dick Tiger. The contest did not get beyond the fourth round as Foster knocked Tiger out to win his first world title – the WBC and the WBA titles. It was a massive win for the Texan. Tiger had been a two-time middleweight world champion. At that point he had amassed 29 light heavyweight wins and 4 heavyweight defeats. Claiming he had absolutely no nervousness that night Foster had gone in against a huge crowd favorite and quite literally done the business. He was now the world champion.

Foster’s career was never dull and his very first defense of his title saw him hit the canvas in the first round, rise up and knock out his opponent to successfully defend both belts. It was back in MSG on the 22nd of January and his opponent was Frank DePaula.

His defense of his title then started to stretch into the 1970’s after he stopped Andy Kendall in 4 rounds in May 1969, then in April 1970 he saw Roger Rouse retire at the end of the 4th round in Missoula and then in June 1970, Mark Tessman got knocked out in the 10th round in Baltimore.

But 1970 was notable for another world title attempt for Foster.

1970. 18th November. Detroit. The opponent – Joe Frazier for the WBC title. The result – knocked out in 2 rounds… a few months thereafter Frazier was in the Fight of the Century against Ali.
For Foster, his world title defenses continued and in 1971, there were 4 defenses ending with the December stoppage of Brian Kelly in 3 rounds in Oklahoma City, after stopping Tommy Hicks in October in Scranton, which followed the points win against Ray Anderson in April in Tamp but had begin with Hal Carroll being knocked out in Scranton in March.

It was after the Carroll fight that he lost one of his belts. Hardly carelessness but the WBA took the crown from him. Foster, enraged by this set his sights on regaining that belt and in 1972, in April, in Miami Beach, the new WBA champion Vincent Rondon was stopped in the 2nd round to become the former WBA champion. Then, in June, in Las Vegas, he knocked out an undefeated in 35 contests, Mike Quarry in the 4th round before coming to the UK in the 1972 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year, brutally beat Chris Finnegan; you have to watch the contest through your fingers…

Then came his 1972 fight when he was in against a former sparring partner, no longer called Cassius Clay.

1972. 21st November. Sahara Tahoe Hotel, Stateline. The opponent – Muhammad Ali for the NABF title. The result – knocked out in the 8th round after being floored 7 times… But Foster gave Ali his very first cut eye.

Whilst his attempts at heavyweight were unsuccessful, and the offer made to him for the 1960 Olympics to be a middleweight difficult to fathom, the yo yoing that would have been necessary to just go from one size to another was beyond him. There was little doubt that he was not a heavyweight and no matter of overindulgence was going to make him a natural heavyweight contender in the same way that his size at middleweight would have weakened him beyond resolve.

But Foster’s position in the sport and his legacy and more to give and in 1973, he was in South Africa as a black athlete fighting a white South African – Pierre Fourie. Having beaten Fourie the first time in Albuquerque on the 21st of August 1973 on points he travelled to apartheid South Africa, where the government had to sanction the fight and amend regulations to allow a mixed sport. He then beat Fourie a second time in Johannesburg on the 1st of December the same year. He was only allowed to fight if he refrained from political comment. It was not seen as positive internationally as he had the opportunity to speak out and did not.

His final defense was against Jorge Ahumada on the 17th of June 1974 when he drew on a split decision in Albuquerque. In September he announced his intention to retire from the ring.

He came back in 1975 and kept fighting till 1978 and at the age of 36, he finally rested the gloves and went back to putting on a uniform to make a living. This time it was in the Albuquerque police department where he served for over 20 years. Foster died in 2015, aged 73 but his legacy is assured. He was some puncher as two former opponents in Steve Bunce’s obituary testified and it is to them I leave the final word. Chris Finnegan remarked: “When you’re in there with Foster it’s like having a loaded gun pointed at your head. One wrong move and the lights go out.”

And to his former sparring partner: “Bob Foster had the punch of a mule,” said Ali their fight in 1972.

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