I grew up with a father who viewed Friday nights with religious fervor. Friday night was fight night on early television. Here were the fighters my father loved: Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Joe Louis, Carmen Basilio and Willie Pep. Billy Conn, almost as much. Is that a great group? He loved others who would fight every few weeks or so (Jimmy Bivins, Joey Giardello et al.), but for his first loves he would drive his '39 brown Ford or, later, his '46 black Ford out of Baltimore and up U.S. 40 to Philadelphia and New York to see a fight. He would drive home through the night.
Muhammad Ali could make people love him. But who else? What fighter today can make you love him, really love him?
No one spoke of love when we gathered in Memphis last year for Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. Not so this week. Because Roy Jones Jr. challenged John Ruiz for his heavyweight title Saturday night, the names of those my father loved were regularly invoked, because a few of them had done what Jones did, that is, step up from light heavyweight to challenge for the heavyweight title. I learned from my father of the 169-pound Conn's brilliant boxing, as long as it lasted, against the 204-pound Louis in 1941. But I lived it with him when Archie Moore, the sweetest scientist of all, took on Marciano in 1955.
It was beyond difficult when two loves collided.
Robinson and Basilio did, twice. Basilio (the muscles rippled across his back) was almost great. Robinson was. They split.
But it could not have been more bittersweet, nor has it ever been, than when Archie faced Rocky.
It was impossible to want one to lose when you lived for both of them to win them all. Rocky, of course, did. Rocky was Rocky. But my father loved Moore, maybe more than any fighter, for two reasons: because he fought in Baltimore 22 times -- "I used Baltimore as a hub for a while, like those airport hubs," Archie told me once, his eyes bright -- and because Moore was an artist when it came to boxing and defending. Try to hit him when he was hunched in his "crab shell."
Of course, Marciano managed to do it. We watched on TV. Archie gave my friend Doc Levin, who used to be a pharmacist in west Baltimore, a ringside ticket, and Doc went. Moore used to come into his drug store and coax Doc out from behind his prescription counter, and they would pretend to spar in the aisle as customers applauded. Archie called him "Kid Cream."
But Marciano kept knocking down Archie before finishing the job in the ninth round. Archie had put Rocky on the canvas as well, but that did nothing to change our emotions, torrid and mixed in a way I'd never experienced and have not felt since, as Marciano's hand was raised in victory.
It has never been easy for a fighter to step up in weight class against a bona fide champion, although it was the heat of the night, not Joey Maxim, that stopped Robinson. Ezzard Charles edged Maxim. In 1946, I was aware that Conn was more pretender than contender in his second go-round with Louis, and, of course, Louis had no trouble. Archie kept trying against heavyweights, but got knocked out by Floyd Patterson and Ali. In recent times, light heavyweight Michael Spinks took Larry Holmes's heavyweight title on a decision -- but Holmes still doesn't believe it, nor do a lot of people.
"Spinks didn't win," Bob Foster said the other day.
Foster fought out of Washington. He was one of the best light heavyweights, the best between 1968 and 1974. He was 6 feet 2, and spindly. He had a right hand that could stop a train.
But not a heavyweight.
Foster fought Joe Frazier and Ali. He fought them the only way he knew, toe to toe, trading big punch for big punch. His idea was to knock them out quickly. They both knocked him out.
Speaking with fight scribes on a telephone hookup, Foster sounded happy and relaxed, confident of his place in boxing history. He is living in New Mexico. He had no illusions when he took on Frazier or Ali, nor any regrets. He felt the same about the other heavyweights he fought: Ernie Terrell, Doug Jones, Zora Folley. Foster lost to all of them. But it took nothing from his "legacy" as light heavyweight champion.
He remembers landing a heavy hand on both Frazier and Ali (in fact, back-to-back rights against Ali). But the punches did not faze the heavyweights enough to allow him to follow up. Ali came out of their fight saying that he was glad Foster was a light heavyweight because he would not have wanted to be hit by a heavier Foster. Foster appreciated the comment.
Frazier, though, instilled doubt in Foster, if not fear.
"If you saw Joe Frazier standing over there," which Foster did after Frazier joined him in the ring, "you knew you were in trouble."
Frazier knocked him out in two.
I watched it in a crowded, hot, dark room at the Washington Hilton. It was 1970. Those were the days of "closed-circuit," when you had to go outside your house to see the big fights. Up on the big screen, Foster all but vanished as he was left flattened. I was happy to get outside in the November night air, but, naturally, didn't feel nearly as badly as Foster.
"Where are you going?" Foster recalled his trainer, Billy Edwards, saying as he began putting on his shoes in the dressing room.
"I'm going out there to fight," Foster answered.
"Son, the fight's over," Edwards said.
Foster chuckled deeply at the recollection.
Light heavyweights, though, he could handle them with ease. Even Dick Tiger.
"I didn't have no fear with Tiger," Foster said.
"When I saw him in New York before the fight, I said to him, 'You might as well take the money and give me the crown. No way in God's creation are you going to beat me.' " Foster knocked him out in four.
My father never saw Foster fight, but I suspect that the opportunity would not have altered his feelings about Moore. My father knew fighters. He assured me that Sugar Ray Leonard, despite being the smaller man, would beat Marvin Hagler. It was his last pick.