40 pounds, 8 rounds and 1 cut: Remembering Muhammad Ali vs. Bob Foster, boxing’s heavyweight David vs. Goliath

One of the greatest heavyweights of all time against one of the greatest light heavyweights of all time. Today, such a battle would be contested before 20,000 fans at a swanky Las Vegas casino and the fighters would earn millions.

Well, on November 21, 1972, former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali — then the biggest attraction in world boxing — duked it out with reigning light heavyweight king Bob Foster. The 12-round bout took place in a tiny ballroom at the Sahara Tahoe Hotel in Stateline, Nevada, with a paid crowd of just 1,940 in attendance. Ali’s purse was $250,000 and Foster earned considerably less.

Just imagine unified light heavyweight champ Artur Beterbiev being matched against unified heavyweight titleholder Oleksandr Usyk. Despite the fact that Usyk would be heavily favored to prevail, fans would jump at that match-up just out of curiosity and it would be the hottest ticket in town. Half a century after Ali-Foster, it’s a nailed-on fact that anything outside of the ordinary involving the biggest names is an easy sell.

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Foster was born in Borger, Texas, and fought out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He and Ali had known each other ever since their amateur days and had sparred together. At that time, with their bodies still maturing, Foster was campaigning as a middleweight, while Ali fought at light heavyweight, the very division in which he would win gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Foster floored Ali with a left hook during their sparring session and neither man forgot it.

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After winning the light heavyweight championship from the legendary Dick Tiger, in May 1968, Foster smashed his way through the division. Prior to facing Ali, he’d made 11 successful defenses and only one opponent, Ray Anderson, lasted the distance. However, Foster’s remarkable run at 175 pounds was interrupted midway through when he challenged then-heavyweight champ Joe Frazier in November 1970. After avoiding the worst of Frazier’s monster left hooks in the opening round, Foster was dropped by the champ’s signature shot in the second and knocked out cold by the same punch when he rose.

Muhammad Ali on facing Bob Foster

The fact that Foster had failed to put a dent in Frazier left many experts skeptical about his chances against Ali. And “The Greatest” himself appeared far from intimidated when he spoke to Foster via telephone during the official press conference to announce the fight.

Wings: “Are you seriously thinking you can whip me?”

foster: “Well, I’m gonna be tryin’”

Wings: “My prediction with Bob Foster will be roouuund eight! This is the first prediction in a while – rooouuund eight.”

Reporter: “And if he doesn’t go in eight, then what?”

Wings: “Then he is great, if he don’t go in eight!”

The year 1972 was one of the busiest of Ali’s career with him fighting six times between April and November. After suffering his first defeat to Frazier in their Fight of the Century, on March 8, 1971, Ali had closed out that year with three ho-hum wins over Jimmy Ellis (TKO 12), Buster Mathis (UD 12) and Juergen Blin ( KO 7). However, as 1972 ran its course, Ali was getting progressively sharper in victories over Mac Foster (UD 15), George Chuvalo (UD 12), Jerry Quarry (TKO 7), Al “Blue” Lewis (TKO 11) and Floyd Patterson ( TKO 7). Not only was Foster battling a much bigger man, but he was battling a bigger man who was in very good form.

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At the weigh-in, Foster came in at 180 pounds with Ali at 221. It almost looked like a man against a boy.

However, despite Ali winning this fight, he didn’t get it all his own way. Foster achieved quiz night notoriety in Round 5 by becoming the first fighter ever to cut Ali (over the right eye) in a prize fight. The bad news was that Ali was infuriated by the sight of his own blood and subsequently decked the light heavyweight king seven times between round five and the predicted round eight. At one point in the seventh, Foster connected solidly with three booming rights to the jaw. Ali feigned being hurt and immediately floored his opponent with a right hand and a double left hook. The bout, as expected, was a physical mismatch.

When referee Mills Lane rescued Foster, Ali gave his foe a conciliatory hug before turning his attention to press row. He held up eight fingers and mouthed the words”rooouund eight!”

“I’m glad I’m not a light heavyweight because if I was about his same weight, I think it would have made a difference in the fight,” said Ali, who quickly switched to humble mode for his post-fight interview. “I believe I would have won, but probably not as easy.

“He’s so great he has to fight heavyweights. Light heavyweights just don’t stand a chance.”

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Almost 13 years after Foster’s gallant attempt to conquer Ali, Michael Spinks, then the light heavyweight champ, successfully moved up to unseat supreme heavyweight Larry Holmes. However, there’s one major difference. Spinks had hired the services of acclaimed fitness guru Mackie Shilstone, who succeeded in adding 25 pounds of muscle to Spinks’ frame. This kind of sports science and technology was unavailable to Foster, who added a mere five pounds to take on arguably the finest heavyweight champion of all time.

Massive respect goes to Mr. Bob Foster for “tryin'”.

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