By Dean Berks
As a Police Officer in Alburquerque, New Mexico, Bob Foster was required to carry a fire arm. But in the ring, he carried weapons of a very different variety, two that rendered most of the top light-heavyweight contenders of his generation unconscious. The extraordinary leverage he could muster from his sleek, 6 ft 3 inch frame was awe-inspiring. He was one of boxing history’s most destructive forces.
He was born 15th December 1938 in Borger, Texas, but grew up and lived his life in Albuquerque. He took up boxing aged twelve, having been introduced to it in school, and went on to compile an overall record (according to Foster) of 100 wins, with just 4 defeats, and 50 ko’s (although there are reports of 94 wins and 89 ko’s). This also included time spent in the US Air Force, which he joined in 1955 and picked up several titles in services competitions. In 1960, he won the Olympic trials at light-heavyweight, but a young Cassius Clay was chosen instead to take that spot. Foster was offered the opportunity to move down to middleweight, but there was no way he could get down to that poundage. So the natural progression was turning over to the paid code.
Foster made his debut on 27th March 1961, knocking out Duke Williams in two rounds. Fluctuating between light-heavy and heavy, he won his next eight fights, four inside the distance, fighting in a relaxed manner with his left hand low, snaking out his long 79 inch reach, before finding the target with his fight ending power. However, in fight number ten, he found the size and strength of Doug Jones too much, and was halted in the eighth. He regrouped, winning his next two by knockout, before he was outpointed by the vastly more experienced Mauro Mina. He stopped his next three but then took another chance at the higher weight, this time getting stopped in seven by future WBA champion, and world rated contender, Ernie Terrell. A run of seven wins, six by stoppage, including two wins over former world 175 lb title challenger Henry Hank (tko 9, W12) followed, before yet another chance to gatecrash the big men ended in defeat, this time a ten round points one to contender Zora Folley. Despite his frustration at not being able to make his mark at heavyweight, Foster continued his assault on his own natural division, reeling off eight wins, seven inside the distance, setting him up for a shot at the world light-heavyweight crown held by two-division champion Dick Tiger. It was a fight that ushered in the start of a new era.
A Legend Is Born
Nigerian Tiger had been a main staple of boxing throughout the fifties and early sixties. He had won the world middleweight title against Gene Fulmer and beaten such celebrated opposition in Terry Downes, Joey Giardello, Spider Webb, Florentino Fernandez, Henry Hank, Ruben Carter, and then Jose Torres to win the light-heavyweight title. He had run up a record of 57-17-3 entering his third defence against Foster, and had never been stopped. At just 5 feet 8 inches, the bustling Tiger conceded a huge 7 inches in height and 8 inches in reach to the challenger.
They came together on 24th March 1968. It was nip and tuck for the first three rounds. Foster looked to work behind his long left jab, but Tiger used his experience to launch fast counters from out of a crouch, landing solid shots over Foster’s low guard. But with under a minute to go in the fourth, Foster struck. A succession of right hands stunned the champion. He tried to punch back, but was struck with a sledgehammer of a left hook. His legs folded as he slammed back in to the canvas. The count was a mere formality as Tiger propped himself on to his elbows, oblivious to what was going on around him. Foster was the new light-heavyweight champion of the world and in utterly devastating fashion.
Three non-title wins followed, before he made history in his first defence, when he became the first fighter to rise from a knockdown and then stop his opponent all in the first round. Frankie DePaula caught Foster off balance with a right to the side of his body, but it was incorrectly ruled a knockdown. Foster responded by dropping DePaula three times for an automatic stoppage win. Andy Kendall was rescued in four in his second defence then, after four more non-title wins, Roger Rouse was also stopped in four rounds in defence number three. Foster followed that up with another defence, a tenth round stoppage of Mark Tessman, before once again allowing himself to glance at boxing’s heaviest division. But he wasn’t just looking at a top ten contender, he was looking at the heavyweight champion of the world. And he just happened to be one of the greatest fighters to have ever held the title.
Smoked By Frazier
“Smoking” Joe Frazier eptimosed “a Philly fighter”. Unbeaten at 25-0, 22 ko’s, he had won the vacant New York State version of the heavyweight title after Muhammad Ali was stripped of his undisputed crown. Four defences followed before he stopped Jimmy Ellis in four to unify the title once again. A ferocious puncher, Frazier only knew one direction: forwards. Bobbing and weaving in his perpetual motion style, he looked to blast opponents out with one of the very best left hooks in history. A daunting task for ANY fighter, let alone a light-heavyweight rising in weight.
As they came together in the centre of the ring on 18th November 1970, it was apparent that although Foster had a 3 1/2 inch height and a 6 inch reach advantage, Frazier was much thicker set and powerful looking, outweighing his man by 21 lbs.
Foster tried to keep Frazier at bay with his jab, but Frazier pressed, unloading hooks whenever close, suffocating the naturally smaller challenger. Foster was hurt throughout, and it became a question of how long he would last against the relentless champion. The answer was not very long as Foster was floored heavily by a hook at the start of the second round. He somehow dragged his elongated frame off of the canvas, but it was a brief respite. Frazier pounced, backing Foster to the ropes, before crushing him with another left hook. Foster lay flat on his back as he was counted out. It was short, it was brutal, and it should have signalled the end of Foster’s heavyweight campaign. But he was a stubborn and proud man.
However, his challenge of Frazier had led to him being stripped of his WBA title, as he had shown little interest in facing the number one contender Jimmy Dupree, splitting the belts. Foster was seriously unhappy as Venezuelan Vincente Rondon stopped Dupree in six to capture his old title.
He returned to 175 lbs, defending his WBC title, stopping Hal Carroll in four, before being extended the full fifteen rounds by Ray Anderson. It was the first time he had been the distance in fifteen wins and four years. Tommy Hicks and Brian Kelly were extinguished in rounds eight and three respectively, before he set his sights on the man impersonating as “world champion”, Rondon.
Reestablishing Who’s Best
Rondon was a solid fighter who, in compiling a 36-5-1, 2 NC, 22 ko’s, had beaten Bennie Briscoe, Roger Rouse and Eddie Jones. He had survived a second round knockdown before stopping Dupree to become WBA champion, and had defended the title four times, three inside the distance, leading to some experts favouring him to defeat the 33 year old Foster.
Foster took control from the get go. Holding the centre of the ring, he whipped out his long jab, letting Rondon know who was in charge. In round two Rondon got a taste of Foster’s power when a right cross left hook sent him down. He climbed up but was now in the danger zone. Foster measured him for the finish, a right hand followed by two thudding left hooks sending Rondon down and out, face first, his body twisted beneath him. It was a definitive answer to who the main man in the division was.
But in his next defence, he delivered what many experts have called one of the best knockouts in history. Mike Quarry was the younger brother of heavyweight contender Jerry, and unbeaten in 35 fights. Aged just twenty one, he approached his title opportunity with the brashness of youth.
Quarry tried to use his movement to offset the champion, launching fast counters as he used the perimeter of the ring. But Foster oozed with the confidence of the veteran he had become, calmly stalking his younger opponent. Quarry boxed well during the first two rounds, but Foster started getting to him throughout the third and fourth. Then suddenly, just a split second before the bell sounded to end round four, Foster exploded a devastating left hook on to the side of Quarry’s jaw. Quarry was rendered unconscious instantly, falling flat and laying motionless on the canvas. There were worrying signs as Quarry remained still, the ringside doctor using smelling salts to bring the stricken fighter round. Gradually he started to become responsive, much to the relief of all. But it was yet another demonstration of the concussive power that this future hall of famer possessed.
Breaking British Hearts
For his next defence Foster traveled across the Atlantic to meet Chris Finnegan. Finnegan was the reigning European, British and Commonwealth champion, and Gold medal winner at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. A clever southpaw, he had only lost twice in a record of 23-2-1, 14 ko’s. He had garnered wins over Roger Rouse, Hal Carroll and Jan Lubbers. It was Foster’s first fight in England, and the Wembley crowd were treated to a classic.
Finnegan kept moving to his left, away from the champion’s vaunted left hook, whilst unloading quick counters, looking to steal rounds and put them in the bank. And for the first two rounds it looked a sound strategy as Foster struggled to find his range. But in the third he gave the challenger a stark warning of his power, striking a fierce right hand on to Finnegan’s jaw. The crowd reacted with the punch, and in round four Foster started to time Finnegan, getting through with powerful counters. But the Englishman was known for his durability, and on this night, he would need it. The fight became a tremendous war of attrition, and gradually a role reversal of styles developed, with Finnegan forcing himself forward as Foster used movement and his jab to set up his right hand. The back and forth action thrilled the fans but in the fourteenth round, Finnegan’s resistance was finally broken when a crushing right sent him down on to the seat of his trunks. With the fight finally knocked out of him, Finnegan listened to the referee’s ten count as he sat, his back up against the ropes. It was a night that would live in the mind of many for a very long time and was named The Ring magazine’s Fight of the year for 1972.
But once again, an opportunity to compete with the heavyweight’s presented itself again. Unfortunately for Foster though, opposing him this time was a man who would become known by his own catchphrase. Put simply “The Greatest”.
Muhammad Ali was rebuilding after losing a fifteen round decision to Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight championship back in March 1971. It had been his only loss in forty fights and he had run up eight straight victories since then, including capturing the NABF title that would be on the line against Foster. Although no longer the speed demon of the 60’s when he first won the heavyweight title and dominated the division, he was still the second best heavyweight on the planet and determined that he would one day reclaim his crown.
Despite being the same height, Foster, at 180 lbs, was outweighed by a huge 41 lbs, and the size difference was obvious to all. But for four rounds, Foster matched Ali, exchanging jabs, and raising a mouse around Ali’s left eye. But early in the fifth, the eye started to bleed, a rare occurrence for the former champion, and Ali started to let his hands go with more venom. It was then that the natural size difference between them took over as Ali floored Foster with a right hand. Foster got up but was sent down again with a short left hook. Arising again, he was knocked down twice more, the second time as the bell ended the round. Beating the count, he returned to his corner, but was not particularly hurt, just simply being physically overpowered by the size of Ali.
Ali curiously did not look to press his advantage in round six as Foster fought himself back in to the fight, landing several rights on Ali’s jaw. The crowd cheered his punches, getting behind the light-heavyweight champion. And in round seven, Foster had his best success, drilling Ali with long right hands. But the punches that had crushed so many in his own weight class bounced off the granite chin of Ali, although he acknowledged them with a fake leg shake, pretending to be hurt. But as swiftly as Foster had enjoyed his success, Ali opened up again, knocking him down twice. He bravely made it to the end of the round, but was being worn down by the sheer size of Ali. And it didn’t take long before the end came when he was knocked down for the last time and counted out at the start of the eighth. But Foster had shown his greatness, matching the skills of one of the finest fighters in history. The only thing that had separated them that day was weight. Ali always said that Foster punched “like a mule”, while Foster always maintained that it was the size difference, not Ali’s punches, that cost him victory. Nevertheless, it was Foster’s last foray in to the ring with boxing’s biggest men. He set his sight back on defending his title.
South African challenger Pierre Fourie was next. A technical fighter, Fourie had wins over Roger Rouse, Don Fullmer and Mark Tessman in building a record of 43-1-1. The fight was set for Foster’s home town, and he sent the fans home happy, though had to go the full fifteen in winning a unanimous decision. But an idea to make history, plus being offered a career high purse, persuaded Foster to meet Fourie in a rematch, only this time in South Africa.
With Apartheid controlling the country, there had never been a fight between black and white boxers. But on the 1st December 1973 that changed. The law had been amended in November and so with that, fighting in Johannesburg, Foster and Fourie battled over fifteen rounds. Fourie put forth a stronger showing than before but Foster, who became a hero for the black community out there, once again won a unanimous decision, although it was closer in the cards this time around.
But there was no doubt that father time was catching up with this dominant champion. Now aged 34, the fights were taking there toll, and when he struggled to a draw with challenger Jorge Ahmuda in his next defence, he knew that after a then division record of fourteen defences, and the WBC stripping him of his title for not facing Britain’s John Conteh, that it was time to call it a day.
But like most great former champions, he returned a year later. He won five fights, four inside the distance, against nondescript opposition before being stopped in his final two fights. He retired, his final record read 56-8-1, 46 ko’s. Only three of his defeats came at light-heavyweight.
His achievements throughout his career included being voted Fighter of the Year in 1968 by the Boxing Writers Association of America, being inducted into the Ring Magazine Hall of Fame in 1983, being inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1984, and being one of the charter inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In lists compiled by the Ring Magazine he was rated the 3rd greatest light-heavyweight in history, the 8th hardest puncher in history and ranked 23rd on the list in 1996 of the “Top 50 fighters of the last 50 years”.
In retirement he became a detective at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department in Albuquerque. He eventually joined the great immortals in the sky when he sadly passed away in hospital on 21st November 2015. He was 76.
There is no doubt that had Foster had fought in this era that he would have taken advantage of modern training methods and nutrition, enabling him to move up through the divisions to, in this writers opinion, become a three-weight world champion. He was a dominant force at 175 lbs and, Frazier aside, his lack of natural size had been his downfall when trying his luck in boxing’s highest division. With sports science, he could well of found himself ranked even higher on historians list. Because, quite simply put, Bob Foster really was just that damn good.