Early last Wednesday in a small room of a slightly rundown Detroit hotel, just hours before he went off to face the fists of Joseph Billy Frazier, Bob Foster sat down and wrote a 32-line message to the world, which he then had mimeographed. The consensus of those who read it was that the light-heavyweight champion had penned his last will and testament. "Also," growled one cynical observer, "that guy not only is skinny, he's nuts."
"In 1967," Foster wrote, "I was living in Washington, D.C. I woke up early one Autumn morning and Gee! Osh! Gosh! I was broke, busted, disgusted and distrusted. We had nothing to eat. We did not have two nickels to bump together. I kissed my wife Pearl, saying, 'Darling, everything is push to shove—our four children need groceries. Something has to be sold or stole.' "
Then, after telling of how he spent all that night walking Washington's streets and praying and twice reading a small pamphlet, Our Lady of the Rosary, Foster closed his message to mankind with:
"Yes, folks, America is the land of milk and honey. The land of Liberty Bell, the country of the State of Liberty, and the nation of the Freedom Train.... America will last till the sound of the final trumpets...tonight I dedicate my part of this heavyweight title fight to our military personnel in Viet Nam. For once I was a soldier boy. Praying with the Blessed Virgin for everlasting world peace—with tears in my eyes, if the Good Lord be willing and the creek does not rise, perhaps I will be the next heavyweight champion of the world. Peace, peace, peace."
But there was little peace for Bob Foster last Wednesday night, for the creek was rising rapidly. Nor were there many nickels to bump together. For Foster, facing Frazier was a disaster, financially as well as fistically. In Detroit people do not venture out and pay $100 for a seat to watch a 3 minute, 49 second execution, not even if the executioner is one of our heavyweight champions. The promoters promised Foster 22½% of the net gate, and that very well could be 22½% of nearly nothing. Fewer than 6,000 customers turned out, most of them filling the $10 seats, and none of them were stunned when Frazier dumped Foster twice in the second round and an army of medical specialists with stethoscopes rushed in to see if the light-heavyweight champion was worse than just unconscious.
If Foster is to make anything, it will have to come from the receipts of closed-circuit TV, which was shown in 110 places in the United States, and in 27 other countries. But it is said the TV people needed $400,000 just to break even. The only sure money winners were Frazier, who wisely got a $150,000 guarantee against 40%, and Madison Square Garden in New York, which drew 18,036 fans (and $196,026) to watch both the closed circuit from Detroit and a live George Foreman knock out the inept Boone Kirkman in :41 of their second round.
For Foster, there was a consolation prize of sorts. Fighting the first round mostly in retreat, he did manage to score with several good right hands to the head. "Man, he was rattling my brains," confessed Frazier. "Once he hit me so hard and so fast I didn't know if it was a left or a right. I had to go back to the corner and ask Yank."
He also asked Yank Durham, his manager, what he was doing wrong. Usually opening with a barrage of punches, Frazier had begun by throwing surprisingly few against Foster. He spent most of his time snorting and weaving, and always pressing forward. Only in the last few seconds of the first round, as though stung by Foster's rights, did he punch in quantity.
"One thing," Durham told him between rounds, "you are holding your left hand too low. I'm getting hit. You've got to get closer and put on more pressure."
Frazier's real problem was Foster's mouth, which had been open all week saying the heavyweight champion was a dumb fighter. And so Frazier had spent the first round trying to prove he was a clever boxer. That done, he went out in the second round and beat Foster unconscious, which is what he does best.
"Joe is a curious guy," Eddie Futch, one of the champion's handlers, had said before the fight. "He never reveals his feelings. But that remark Foster made about his being dumb really got to him. He works hard, and he prides himself on being a craftsman. He's too serious about his work to take a remark like that lightly. I've seen it before. Tony Doyle did it. Quarry tried it. And when an opponent's mouth gets to Joe, they are in trouble. They had better run—run like thieves."
So Frazier brooded in silence before the fight. Curiously, Foster spent the same time exuding calmness and confidence. Even his manager, Lou Viscusi, was unnerved by Foster's tranquillity. "What kind of a fighter have I got?" asked Viscusi, who only recently became Foster's brain trust. "I wish I knew. All I know is that he's had bad luck with heavyweights. It's crazy. I didn't want this fight, but Foster insisted. That's why he got no guarantee. He could be fighting for nothing. And when I have doubts, I have to run to the fighter to be reassured. Crazy. Real crazy."
"No sweat," Foster kept telling Viscusi. "Frazier is easy to hit and I can punch."
"Yeah?" Viscusi would respond. "Then how come nobody has beat him? Don't sell me, I ain't buying no tickets to the fight. Just go out and fight. And if you make it back to the corner and listen to old Bill Gore [Foster's trainer], then maybe you've got a chance."
Foster made it back to his corner only once, and he had no chance. "Just take your time," Gore told him.
"Take my time?" Foster said later. "It's kind of hard to take your time when you look up and see that big thing coming at you."
And how Frazier came at him in that second round. No more fooling around proving he was a smart boxer. Wham! One hook fired over a Foster jab and Foster's 188 pounds were down and struggling. At nine, he made it to his feet, hardly in shape to walk, much less fight. But Referee Tom Brisco waved Frazier in for the kill.
"I didn't want to go," said Frazier. "I could see he was in serious trouble. But I'm not the ref, all I do is fight. The man said I should come back, and so I did."
A hook to the body and then one to the head were all that was needed. Foster fell like a stone and lay still. Durham rushed into the ring and cradled his head. "Let him go," said Referee Brisco. "Let the doctors take care of him."
"Shut up, you stupid s.o.b.," Durham snarled. "Why didn't you stop the fight? This man could be seriously hurt."
Later Foster said he hadn't heard the count after his knockdown. "Both times?" someone asked.
"Both?" said Foster. "I thought I was down only once." Then he sighed. "Oh, well, I still say Frazier is a dumb fighter. But that Cassius Clay is pretty dumb, too. I hope Joe beats him."
"I'm dumb, huh?" Frazier said. "Well, he ain't so smart. He fought me, didn't he?"
The next stop is Ali and Oscar Bonavena, on Dec. 7 in Madison Square Garden, and then maybe it will get down to where it really counts: Frazier and Ali. For real money, this time.