If 22 knockouts in 22 fights mean anything—and they don't necessarily mean much, since the amiable Lamar Clark piled up a record of 44 straight knockouts before someone named Bartolo Soni carelessly belted him out one night in Ogden, Utah—then a big, power-laden former Marine sergeant named Mac Foster may have a rich future in the heavyweight division, which could use a little help. The future might even include the world championship.
The importance of Foster's knockouts is not so much their number as their quality. His left hook is deadening, his right is a caution. His jab is dire punishment. His coolness under stress is worthy of his record as a Vietnam veteran with 14 major combat operations behind him. And he studies diligently to perfect a straight-up, ever-advancing style that no one so far has been able to resist for long. Only twice has he been forced to go as many as seven rounds.
Although Foster is scarcely known nationally, he soon will be. Madison Square Garden is interested in him, for the Frazier-Ellis card. So are other promoters. But as of now most of his fights have been in his home town, Fresno, Calif., to which Foster's parents brought him from Alexandria, La. when he was eight months old. In high school he showed signs of becoming a star in the shotput and discus throw, both abandoned when he joined the Marines in his senior year. With help from his manager, Pat DiFuria, whose last fighter of note was Wayne Thornton (now a radio announcer), and Pete Rokas, a promoter, Foster has made a prospering fight town of Fresno, a wealthy agricultural city of 162,500.
Mac's full name is MacArthur Foster. He was so christened by his father, a retired career Air Force sergeant and admirer of General Douglas MacArthur. That military flavor in his background is not the only thing that distinguishes Foster from the heavyweight he truly dislikes, Muhammad Ali. He speaks softly and even though he carries a big fist, too, he has yet to be heard boasting. And this is not because of modesty but because his sense of personal dignity is involved in everything he does.
At 27 Mac Foster is probably the oldest young threat to the heavyweight title in many a year—a real Johnny-come-lately who did not begin to box until he was in the Marines in Japan and only began his professional career in 1966. But, as Pat DiFuria optimistically points out, Rocky Marciano did not get started until he was 24.
Foster's amateur record—17 knockouts in 21 fights—shows one loss, and that one controversial. But even more controversial is a knockout victory that never will be listed in Nat Fleischer's Ring Record Book. When Sonny Liston was preparing in Oakland, Calif. for his fight with Henry Clark, Foster was offered $30 a workout and $20 travel expenses to box with Liston. A meager sum it was, but DiFuria felt Foster could benefit by sparring with a man who might be a future opponent.
"So we went up there," DiFuria says, "and they worked the first round and it was pretty even. The second round, they started to work the same pace, and then all of a sudden Mac hit him with a left hook and Sonny sagged into the ropes. He sat on his butt almost. Mac just stood there looking at Sonny, and Gil Sanchez [Mac's trainer] told him, 'Keep working.' Mac walked up and hit Liston with a right hand and down he went on his knees. He got up, got spun around, backed up and started to pitch forward on his face. They grabbed him under the arms and took him to his corner. He was out."
Foster confirms this version, naturally, but convincingly, too, and adds some details. He and Dick Saddler, Liston's trainer, assisted the former champion to the corner.
"I was straining," Foster says, "because he had all his weight going forward. Saddler kept saying, 'He's O.K., he's O.K.,' but I could see that, you know, that he wasn't. And when I turned him loose he fell down on one knee."
Did Foster, even though they were wearing big 16-ounce training gloves, mean to hit Liston that hard?
Foster's reply is ambiguous. "This wasn't trying to see who could outdo who in the gym," he says, "because it was a thrill to me to have the honor to go down and train with a man of his status. So when Gil told me to keep working, you know, being a marine and disciplined, I walked right up and hit him again."
That is the Foster camp version of the knockout. Liston's entourage insists the big fellow was not hurt at all. But there were witnesses other than members of the two camps and they confirm it—Liston was knocked out.
Foster describes his start in boxing as "a little comical." This was 1963, in Japan. "They had boxing matches every week, so I went and was having a lot of fun, eating popcorn, and shouting things. You know how you kid around: 'Get the bum out of there! I could beat the bum with one hand!'
"One guy was a Navy first classman. So I put it to him, 'Oh, I'll beat you up tomorrow.' After the tournament I forgot about it. The following week there was a phone call for me down at the command post. The Navy guy was on the phone saying, 'Are you going to fight me tonight?' And I said, 'I'm no fighter. I was just joking.' So he said O.K. and hung up.
"My commander of the guard was there and he says, 'Corporal Foster, you are going to fight tonight. You are going to fight and you are going to win and I'm going to give you the next duty day off.' Wow! You know, a duty day off was a treat." He never had put on a pair of boxing gloves, but Foster agreed to the match. His opponent turned out to be not the Navy man he had challenged but an Army representative. "This guy," Foster continues, "was pretty good-sized, but I was more lean and trim than him. And in the Marine Corps we always have rugged physical training. No matter which post you go to you do strenuous exercise. You never have a relaxed duty like in the Army.
"The guy was a fairly crafty boxer," Foster says, "and he gave me a lot of respect until he saw the style I came out with. I didn't move, you know. I didn't know how. He started smiling. He moved around from here to there and he kept hitting me right on the forehead. The bell sounded and I was getting a little dizzy from getting hit. Everybody was laughing.
"In the second round he came out doing the same thing. So I put my head down and I throw an overhand left real hard. I felt it hit something. So I look up and I had caught him on the jaw and he was walking around in a daze. I drew back and hit him one more time and that was it. He was down."
Far more to the point than a wild punch in an amateur bout are the two knockout victories Foster scored over Cleveland Williams, who, for all that he has seen better days, must still be rated as one of the supreme punchers in the heavyweight ranks. In their first fight, in Fresno last September, Williams ruptured one of Foster's eardrums with a solid blow, but Foster got to him in the fifth round and knocked him out.
Their next meeting was two months later in Houston, where Williams is still something of a draw. Foster won the first two rounds, landing lefts and rights with equal facility. Before the third round Williams was instructed by his corner that boxing was getting him nowhere and to use his only remaining weapon of substantial value—the left hook. At the bell he charged off his stool with a barrage of hooks and rights to the head and body and Foster was momentarily stunned—rather more than he likes to admit—by a hook that would have knocked out a lesser man.
Recovering quickly, Foster took charge once more with a hook that sent Williams down for a count of two. In a matter of seconds Williams was down again, this time while Referee Jimmy Webb counted nine. And Williams was scarcely up once more when Foster blasted him back to the canvas. On the three-knockdown rule, the fight was over. It would have been over in any case because Williams was flat on his back and out.
"He come in for the kill and he got killed," Foster explained on his way back to the dressing room. There an admirer, eyes shining with esteem, said of Foster: "When he's hit, he retolerates."
There is a relationship between Foster and Pat DiFuria that does not always exist between fighter and manager. They respect each other. DiFuria glows as he describes Foster's dedication to the tough training regimen he has prescribed. "He doesn't drink or smoke and he's no chaser," says DiFuria. "He's at the gym every night at 6 o'clock for his workout and he's out on the road every morning at 5."
Foster attributes a good deal of his dedication to the disciplines he learned as a marine. "After you've been knocked down a few times in those boot camp days," he says, "you learn to do what you're told. They don't have to tell you in a loud voice."
Naturally, he would like to fight Muhammad Ali and, in fact, he and DiFuria and Rokas have been putting on a premature campaign to get such a fight. At this stage it is pure ballyhoo, but it would make an elegant grudge match. Foster's voice lowers to a growl when he recalls a remark Ali is said to have made, as reported in The Stars and Stripes. "Clay didn't want to go in service," Foster sums up. "Well, that's fine. But there's one thing he said that irritated me real bad. He said it takes more courage to face a man in the ring than to face bullets. Me and my sergeant, you know, we talked a lot. He says, 'I would like to see that guy face a 100-pound Viet Cong with a submachine gun and we'd see how much courage he really has.'
"I'm going to whip that guy. Just before I got out of service, before I ever turned pro, I said I'm going all the way to the top, regardless. I wanted to fight Clay real bad and I never waned it from my mind." This Marine mountain dreams of moving to Muhammad.