Bob Foster was one of the greatest light heavyweight boxers of all time. He was dubbed “The Fighting Sheriff” as he combined his pugilistic career with his duties as deputy sheriff. World champion from 1968 to 1974, he defended his title a record 14 times and was virtually unbeatable in his weight class. Tall with a long reach, he was a fearsome hitter who caused Muhammad Ali once to comment: “Man,that guy has a punch like a mule.” The statistics backed that up – of his 56 wins, 46 were by knock-out.
In 1968 in Madison Square Garden, New York, he wrested the title from the celebrated Nigerian boxer Dick Tiger, the former world middleweight champion. According to Foster, Tiger had been avoiding him for some time, demanding a purse of $100,000 to fight him and as a means of discouraging him. Foster eventually found the necessary financial backing and with a devastating left hook knocked Tiger out in the 4th round – the first time in his long and distinguished career that Tiger had been knocked out. It was of little consolation to him that the prestigious boxing magazine The Ring declared it “The Round of the Year”.
Foster began boxing as a youngster in Albuquerque where he moved with his mother when aged two, his father having deserted them. But it was not till he joined the US Air Force after leaving high school that he began boxing seriously. He was later quoted as saying that all he ever did in the Air Force was box, and during the five years he served he had more than 100 fights, losing only losing three.
In 1959, he won a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Chicago and was a candidate for the Rome Olympics of 1960.However Cassius Clay, as he still was then, was selected at light heavyweight, with Foster being offered the middleweight berth – he refused as it meant his having to lose excess weight.
Foster had his first paid fight, for $25, in 1961 against Duke Williams, winning by knockout in round two. By a curious symmetry, his last fight, in 1978, also ended in a second round knockout – only this time with him on the receiving end.
He soon began sweeping all before him in the light heavyweight division. As opponents became thin on the ground he fought a few times at heavyweight, though without success as the weight differential was too big a gap to bridge. Frustrated at not getting a light heavyweight title shot, he took time out to work in a munitions factory in 1966 before making a comeback the next year, which led to his championship bout with Tiger.
Once he won that title, he declared to Ring magazine: “My goal is to be the first light heavyweight champion in history to win the heavyweight title.”
To this end, in December 1970 he challenged Joe Frazier for his title, but was knocked out in the second round, having conceded about 21lbs in weight. Frazier later commented: “I knocked him down twice in the second round and he was so shaky after the first one I hoped the referee would stop it. Afterwards in the dressing room Foster could not recall fighting me.”
When interviewed a few years ago, Foster recalled: “My toughest fight was Smokin’ Joe Frazier, the two rounds seemed like a year. He was the closest you could come to facing death.”
Two years later he also fought Ali for the American title but was knocked out in the eighth round, having conceded 42lbs. Foster was knocked down seven times before the final knockout. In the same interview, he commented: “Ali never stood still and he was so fast I could hardly see his hands. I finally managed to cut him with my jab.” Ali said after the fight: “I have cuts alongside my left eye and that’s something no other professional fighter has been able to do.”
Foster by now had joined the sheriff’s office in Bernalillo County, New Mexico and concentrated on defending his light heavyweight title. He came to London, where he defeated Britain’s former Olympic champion Chris Finnegan by a knockout in the 14th round, and twice defeated South African champion Pierre Fourie, the second fight taking place in South Africa. This attracted controversy as it was the first professional contest between a black and a white boxer during the apartheid era.
After drawing in defence of his title with Ahumeda of Argentina in 1974, he retired, making an ill-starred comeback the following year that culminated in the 1978 defeat.
He was one of the first inductees to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, and his place in the pantheon of world boxing greats is richly deserved.