While the attention of most boxing fans is focused on the vicissitudes of George Foreman and the antics of Muhammad Ali in Za√Øre, the liveliest division of the sweet science is surely one notch down, where the light heavyweights live. Once the Ali-Foreman confrontation is over, little will be left among the heavies but some reruns—Ali-Frazier, Frazier-Foreman. By contrast, there are a number of attractive matchups among four or five well-qualified light heavies, headed at the moment by a young Englishman named John Conteh.
Last week Conteh captured the WBC version of the light heavyweight championship by winning a clear decision over New York-based Argentinian Jorge Ahumada in London. A few days later in Buenos Aires, another Argentinian, Carlos Monzon, successfully defended his middleweight championship by knocking out Australian Tony Mundine in the seventh round. Monzon, having run out of rewarding middleweight opponents some time ago, has been eyeing the more lucrative light heavyweight division, and the difficulty he experienced in making the 160-pound limit for this fight might impel him to move up.
The day before the fight Monzon took a long workout in sweat clothes to melt off as much weight as he could. At the weigh-in he took off a heavy identification bracelet, a gold necklace and, as a last resort, spit out his chewing gum in order to squeak by just under the middleweight limit.
The sudden flurry of aspirants for the light heavyweight championship was stirred up by the recent retirement of Bob Foster, who dominated the division for six years. Foster, as tall, thin and deadly as a praying mantis, won 51 of 58 fights and all his losses were to heavyweights. He defended his title 14 times and knocked out 11 contenders. In his most recent fight, against Ahumada, he got a draw, but he says he was not in shape.
After Conteh's victory over Ahumada, Foster, now at least 32 years old and a sergeant in the Bernalillo County sheriff's department in Albuquerque, indicated he could be lured out of retirement. "I like the way I'm living now," he said. "I can go out and have a few drinks with the boys a couple of nights a week. But if the English promoters would come up with an offer of $250,000 tax free, I could change my mind."
Foster does not consider Conteh much of a fighter. "I like him," he said. "He's a nice kid. I used to talk to him a lot in London when I was over there for a fight in 1972. But he couldn't beat me if I was 50 years old. I showed him how to throw a left hook. If somebody comes up with that $250,000, I'll go over there and beat him. An English fighter or a foreign fighter will never be as good as an American fighter. They just don't have good trainers over there."
Foster may have an argument with his manager Lou Viscusi if he decides to fight Conteh. "I don't bring people out of retirement," Viscusi said from his home in Tampa. "Once I retire 'em, they stay retired. I retired Bobby so he could take it easy. I don't want him jumping up for everyone who makes him an offer. Anyway, Conteh and his manager got to be kidding. They don't want to see Conteh flattened. There is no doubt in my mind Bobby would knock out anybody right now. The guy those people are going to have to look out for is Lonnie Bennett. Conteh will have a lot of confidence after beating Ahumada, but Bennett will knock him out."
Bennett is a young Los Angeles fighter with 19 KOs in 23 bouts, but knocking Conteh out may not be as easy as Viscusi thinks. Ahumada is a brawling, tough fighter with a strong, solid left hook, but he never had Conteh in any difficulty.
It was the hardest of Conteh's 26 fights as a pro, but it also was the 23-year-old Liverpudlian's biggest payday. He and Ahumada shared $192,000. With the wealth of contenders waiting in the wings for a shot at Conteh, it should be only the first of quite a few good purses to come. "No more chip butties for me," he said after the fight. He was drinking champagne at the time. He explained that chip butties are potato sandwiches—whatever those are.
Conteh's rise has been sudden. He was born in a run-down industrial area of Liverpool, one of a family of eight boys and two girls. His father came from Sierra Leone and married a girl from Bottle, a shabby suburb of Liverpool. Conteh turned professional only three years ago; in his 27 fights since then he has won 26, all but six by knockouts. Last year he won the British, Commonwealth and European titles on his way to the world championship.
Like most European boxers, he fights from a classic, stand-up stance, using a bristling left jab to hold off an opponent and a clubbing right cross for the heavy work. After his sessions with Foster in 1972, Conteh developed a good left hook, which he used several times against Ahumada. He took severe punishment from the Argentinian, several times being tagged with Ahumada's best punch, a hard, long left hook to the head, but he proved he can take a good shot, a sine qua non for any fighter who would want to get in the ring with Foster.
"I thought it was gonna be like Foreman and Frazier," Conteh said after the fight. "I thought I was going to go out there and flatten him, but I couldn't. I hit him with some of my best shots—left hooks and right crosses—but he took them. He had come to stay the distance, and didn't I know it. He hurt me. By God, he hurt me. But when he did, I hurt him right back. I had to show him who was boss. He hit me with a left hook, so I hit him back with a left hook."
The fight marked Ahumada's first setback since he left Argentina to come to New York and train under Gil Clancy. Before the move he had lost twice to countryman Victor Galindez, who has since become a major factor in a division that seems loaded with Argentinians. Now 28, Ahumada is still learning his trade, and in a rematch with Conteh he might do better.
"We changed a few things about him," Clancy says. "He used to come in on a straight line and go back on a straight line. Now he moves around a little on the way back. He gave Foster a real fight in the draw in Albuquerque. After that fight one of the newsmen wrote, 'If Bob Foster is the Sheriff of Albuquerque, he should have arrested the two officials who voted for him.' "
Before he fights Conteh again, though, it would seem likely that Ahumada must face Galindez one more time. Galindez is a big, strong light heavyweight who has won 11 in a row, all of them in South America. His two triumphs over Ahumada came in 1971, one by a knockout in six rounds, and he is now claimant to the WBA version of the light heavyweight title.
"I think I could knock Galindez out now," Ahumada said before he left New York to go to London. "I have learned much from Gil and from Emile Griffith, who works out in the same gym with me." However, Galindez is scheduled next to fight Len Hutchins of Detroit for the WBA championship. Hutchins' fistic style is best reflected in his nickname, "The Stinger."
As for Conteh, he insists he would prefer to fight Foster if he can be drawn out of retirement. And Foster, if he decides to remain idle, would like to see Hutchins fight Conteh. "I'd really like to see Len win this thing," he says, "because he's a brother. Now I'm not prejudiced, but the reason the WBA and the WBC wanted me out is because I'm a brother. I don't think Len is rugged enough to beat Galindez because of the guy's size and strength. I was pulling for Conteh to beat what's his name, uh, Ahumada, but now Conteh thinks he's so smart. Well, I wasn't in absolute peak condition when I fought Ahumada in Albuquerque, and if I do get back in there and get in good shape, they had all better watch out."
Foster dismisses Monzon as a light heavyweight contender. "He should stay in the middleweight division," he says. "He's just not a light heavyweight. It's just like when I tried to fight heavyweights. Among today's fighters I'm the best, pound for pound, but I couldn't fight heavyweights. Anyway, Monzon didn't want to get in my division when I was champ."
Foster may be overestimating his ability a bit. At his best he was probably the hardest-hitting light heavyweight of all time. But if he comes back to fight Conteh, he will be giving away nine years. And they may weigh heavier on him than all the pounds he gave to the heavyweights.