by Fox Doucette
Bob Foster is a tale of two reputations in one man. He is perhaps better remembered for his multiple knockout losses in the heavyweight division, losing to Ernie Terrell, Joe Frazier, and Muhammad Ali via the stoppage route, than he is for his six-year reign as the greatest of the 175-pound fighters.
Meanwhile, Roy Jones Jr. got what Foster never did; a heavyweight championship belt around his waist. Sure, Jones fought in a heavyweight dead zone while Foster fought in quite possibly the greatest golden age that the big men of boxing have ever known, and Jones had plenty of champions to choose from, cherry picking stationary target John Ruiz, while Foster fought during a time of well-defined title lineages when becoming heavyweight champion demanded wins over the likes of Ali and Frazier and George Foreman.
Against the backdrop of each man scoring a devastating knockout victory before getting in the time machine, our main event matches the best 175-pound fighters of the early Seventies and the late Nineties against each other.
The co-feature is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fight between two heavyweights with a penchant for first-round knockouts against undersized opponents. Mike Tyson comes in off his 91-second knockout of Michael Spinks on June 27, 1988, while Sonny Liston steps into the time machine on July 22, 1963, fresh off a repeat performance in which he knocked out Floyd Patterson in the first round for the second consecutive time, itself capping a five-year run that included early stoppages of guys like Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley. This fight could be a four-rounder and Vegas would give odds to anyone betting on it going the distance; the 12-round length is academic.
From the Historical Fight Night Arena Presented By Your Name Here Cheap, in San Dimas, California, these fights are scheduled for 12 rounds using the Unified Rules of the Association of Boxing Commissions. Scoring is on the 10-point must system, there is no three knockdown rule, no standing eight count, only the referee can stop the fight, and a fighter cannot be saved by the bell in any round including the twelfth and final round.
Now, for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching from around the world…
Let’s Make History.
“Iron” Mike Tyson (June 27, 1988, 35-0, 31 KOs) vs. Sonny Liston (July 22, 1963, 35-1, 25 KOs)
At this point in each man’s career, neither man had yet established himself as a boxer. Liston and Tyson were both the types to walk their opponent down, get inside, then go to town. Such boxing subtleties as “working the jab”, except as a means to close range against a counter puncher, were dispensed with; indeed, it was the undoing of both men. Liston got outboxed and stopped by the man still known as Cassius Clay; Tyson lost first to Buster Douglas and later on down the line to Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis on account of that same weakness.
So what do we get in the meantime?
Tyson came out with no intention toward subtlety in this fight either, knowing that even though he was only giving up two inches in height, he was working against a substantial reach disadvantage thanks to Liston’s long arms. Tyson was short, compact, and as explosive as a snake lashing out from a coiled position.
Liston landed a couple of jabs, testing whether he could try to control distance, but it was going to take more than a lead hand thrown straight to keep a determined opponent from closing range. Tyson got right inside and started ripping hooks to the body of Liston; when Liston lowered his guard to try and stop the body shot, he got a left hook right on the bean for his trouble. Twenty seconds into the fight, there was the first count of the fight from referee Arthur Mercante.
Liston rose at four, took the rest of the eight count, and collected himself, coming forward to again face his opponent. Liston tried to find the right range to use his superior reach, but the hook he threw to start the action? Tyson bobbed right under it, lunged forward with a big right hand, and crashed it right on the temple of Liston.
Liston got up at seven. Half a minute and a ton of power shots later, he wished he hadn’t.
At 91 seconds of the first round, Liston went down for the third and final time. Tyson had re-created his biggest triumph. Just for a nod to history, Tyson stood over his downed opponent and struck the same pose Muhammad Ali struck over a downed Liston in a gym in Lewiston, Maine in 1964.
RESULT: MIKE TYSON KO1 SONNY LISTON.
Now wait just a damn minute…
After the fight, while setting up the main event, the TV commentators took a moment to consider what they had just witnessed. The consensus was that the knockout, while spectacular, didn’t really prove anything.
The funny thing about a Liston-Tyson fight is that it comes down to who lands the big shot first. If Liston had caught Tyson coming in, if he’d dispensed with trying to use his jab and force Tyson into a boxing match, or indeed if he’d just been a few inches to the left or right of where Tyson’s punch ended up, this could just as easily have been a KO victory for Liston. The comments are going to explode on this, I’m sure, but this isn’t a seven-game series (which Liston probably wins in six); this is a single fight.
Now then, with that out of the way…
Roy Jones Jr. (August 7, 1997, 35-1, 30 KOs) vs. Bob Foster (May 24, 1968, 30-4, 24 KOs)
Roy Jones comes into this fight fresh off the rematch against Montell Griffin, where Jones avenged what was at that point his only professional defeat, a dubious disqualification for hitting a guy he’d already destroyed when he was down. A supremely pissed-off Jones knocked out Griffin in a single round, throwing his left hook with vicious intentions.
Bob Foster comes in from a powerhouse left hook of his own, thrown in the fourth round to seize the light heavyweight championship of the world from Dick Tiger at Madison Square Garden. Tiger, in brighter days, had been one of the greatest middleweights ever to fight—indeed, the commentators remarked that Dick Tiger and Sugar Ray Robinson, had they ever fought, could have settled a lot of questions that the sorts of people who talk about this stuff talk about fifty years later. This was not Tiger’s night, however…it was the beginning of a legendary run during which Foster made his case for all-time greatness at 175 pounds.
The matchup here is chosen as much for stylistic reasons as for “greatest fight” reasons; Roy Jones, an infamously slow starter who was often risk-averse against highly skilled opponents, climbs into the time machine fresh off a win on a night where he succumbed to his anger at an opponent he felt had wronged him and went for the knockout. Foster, for his part, comes in off a fine demonstration of both his strengths and his weaknesses, as Tiger got to him a few times in the first two rounds before Foster finally was able to control range and establish his superior hand speed and the strength of his jab.
Foster’s jab was legendary. Don Dunphy, calling the fight with Tiger in 1968, compared it to a piston. Foster came out right away knowing that slowing down Jones would be the best chance to do damage in the later rounds.
All the same, it was a bit like trying to beat up a cat with one of those punching hand puppets. Jones was so quick, so agile, and so adept at moving his head that all the jab accomplished was to keep Jones from hitting back and getting into a rhythm.
For three minutes, it was a feeling-out process, Foster trying to learn Jones’s movement patters, Jones trying to gauge the cadence of the punches coming at him to look for an opportunity to counter. Neither man landed anything of note in the round, but Jones put on a show of defense easily the equal of Pep and Greb and Whitaker.
Speaking of Willie Pep, an old boxing legend holds that Pep once won a round without throwing a single punch, dodging so adeptly that he was not hit a single time despite his opponent throwing literally all the punches in the round. While that is probably apocryphal, it was certainly on the minds of people watching Roy Jones put on a clinic.
One thing that became evident in the Tiger fight was Bob Foster’s tendency to fall in and give up his height when he tried to overreach on the outside. Even though Foster held a five-inch reach advantage on Jones, 79 inches to 74, and despite Foster standing four inches taller, at 6’3” against the 5’11” Jones, the quickness of the smaller man negated the reach of the bigger guy. Against Tiger, who was smaller still, it was particularly self-evident when Tiger would score off the counter, catching Foster with some big shots.
Jones landed the first such big shot about a minute into the second round, and it made Foster tentative. Jones, rather than press the attack recklessly, simply popped a flurry of his own, a four-punch combination, before retreating to the safety of the range where he could see the punches coming at his and stay out of trouble.
Fans started to get a little restless, but such was the chess match unfolding this night in San Dimas.
Two more rounds that were a philosophical exercise in boxing judging left the impression that the decision was going to be yet another example of subjectivity in what each individual judge valued. Or, more fundamentally than that, it was going to reflect what each judge saw from his own vantage point. Your judges tonight, Harold Lederman, Jerry Roth, and Chuck Giampa, have historically rewarded the more effective puncher rather than the volume puncher, but all that means is that the mere act of moving his hands wasn’t going to score Foster any extra points; he would have to land them.
That changed in the fifth, when one of Foster’s left hooks finally found its mark, hurting Jones and sending him into retreat. Foster pursued, his frustration at last turning to opportunity, but Jones retained that quickness that had so flummoxed his enemy through the first four rounds. Foster got some good shots in, and he certainly indisputably carried the round, but Jones was never in any danger of being dropped after standing up to the first punch; when the bell rang, it was time to evaluate whether the fifth round had given Foster a narrow lead, extended one he already had, or in fact closed a deficit between himself and Roy Jones. Any argument could have been made; we were in for controversy.
Not everything coming from Foster was directed at Roy Jones’s head, mind you. Foster had landed several shots to the body, and the beginning of an advantage developed in Round 6. From a position of advantage in height, Foster could punch down and work the body at less risk of landing a low blow than if he had to punch upward the way Jones was required by circumstance to do.
Foster started playing…well, not cat and mouse exactly, but more cat and cat, moving his head more, feinting more, relying less on the brute force of a constant jab to try and lure Jones in without himself getting caught out of position the way he’d done several times in the earlier rounds, usually by way of setting up the best punches for Jones in the fight.
Jones, sensing that perhaps he’d managed to tire his opponent, got more aggressive, and the tone of the fight shifted from a dance on the outside to…well, not a mosh pit, but certainly something far more up close and personal for the combatants.
The problem with this for Foster was that his own long, lean body on that 6’3” frame was often open for punishment, and Jones, a man who was so often described in his prime as technically perfect and without flaw, a man who in his capacity as a color commentator so frequently points things out that even the fighter being described fails to see, showed off that ring IQ and began to show Foster the error of slowing down the one defensive weapon that kept this from a contest of strength.
Foster re-established the jab in the seventh round, knowing that in terms of ring experience he was at a point in his career where he had only gone 12 rounds once, a win over journeyman Henry Hank in 1967. Jones had been 12 rounds three times and scored a knockout in the 11th against Eric Lucas, for a 4-0 record in long-haul contests, the other three wins coming against Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, and Mike McCallum.
Jones, pressing his advantage, began to bull rush a little, determined to work the inside and continue to do damage to the body of Foster. The next three rounds turned into a case of possibly giving up the battle to win the war, once again coming down to the judges’ subjective views of whether Jones’s accuracy was better than Foster’s volume, but in terms of actual damage done by the punches, there was little question that Jones was getting the better of the exchange, Foster beginning by the start of the ninth round to tie up as soon as Jones got inside the range of where Foster’s long arms could land the jab or the hook effectively.
The press row scorecards were all over the map after nine rounds. One reporter had it 89-82 for Jones; another had it 87-84 for Foster, and both guys could justify the method by which they arrived at the score. The consensus was that Jones was narrowly ahead, but a string of rounds nearly impossible to score was delivering on its promise that someone would go home feeling righteously slighted.
Meanwhile, the fight in the ring began to get ugly, as Foster refused to allow Jones the inside and grabbed hold with more regularity. What’s more, Foster had during the Tiger fight frequently engaged in the dirty tactic of holding and hitting, and not all of the clutching was of the two-handed variety; Foster would hook the right arm to immobilize Jones while keeping his left free to throw hooks and uppercuts.
Referee Mills Lane, showing a disinclination toward letting this fight degenerate into a bicycle race from the very beginning, did little to discourage the infighting, knowing that it was ultimately better for the television audience that it be allowed to continue.
Jones, for his part, got the message. He wasn’t going to get a fair shake when he was getting hit inside, so he began to use his quickness rather than his power, getting in, throwing a couple of punches, then slipping out the side rather than try to maul his opponent.
Still, Foster undoubtedly got the better end of the exchange throughout the tenth round.
With Foster once again able to control range, the last two rounds played out much like the first three. Foster pumped the jab out with all the force his stamina allowed him to muster; Jones, looking fresh even after the entirety of a closely-contested fight, slipped and ducked and occasionally got inside to do some work before escaping. It was once again up to whether that jab from Foster swayed the judges more than the defense and the work Jones did on the inside did. The last two rounds played in such a way that they may have favored Foster, but there was no way to know for sure until the final bell rang and the fight went to the judges’ scorecards.
The most common score on press row was a draw; very few reporters had it more than a round either way. With that in mind and twelve rounds of boxing complete, we go to the judges’ scorecards.
Judges Harold Lederman and Jerry Roth see the bout 116 to 112, and judge Chuck Giampa sees it 115 to 113, all for your winner, by unanimous decision…
Roy Jones couldn’t believe it. The look on his face, the same look Tim Duncan gives in basketball when he’s called for a foul, suggested that getting soundly out-jabbed throughout a fight did not in his view count as his opponent having won it.
Later, breaking down the footage, the apparent paradox between Foster’s volume punching and Jones’s greater accuracy was resolved; the simple fact was that the jab and controlling range won Foster the fight on the ring generalship criterion. Jones was a great defensive fighter, but throughout this contest, he was fighting the bout on Bob Foster’s terms, and that was enough to influence the judges to score the toss-up rounds Bob Foster’s way. The question was one of which man decided the timbre of the fight, and that was the guy who won it.
RESULT: BOB FOSTER W-UD12 ROY JONES JR.
Next week, we fire up the Gimmick Machine for your intrepid narrator’s 38th birthday (next Thursday.) Cassius Clay takes on Muhammad Ali, with ten years of life and boxing experience between them, as the same Clay who whupped Sonny Liston gets the older version of himself who beat George Foreman.
The co-feature is a question of the value of the eye of the tiger, as George Foreman, fresh off his retirement after the loss to Jimmy Young in 1977, takes on the 1994 version of himself who seized the title from Michael Moorer. The younger Foreman is the better fighter, but the older version, in this matchup, has the unquestioned mental advantage. Boxing philosophy plays the third man in the ring on this one.
As always, Historical Fight Night airs on The Boxing Tribune on Fridays at 6 PM Eastern, 3 PM Pacific. Stay tuned, and suggest fights you want to see in the comments!