Mythical Head2Head: Bob Foster vs. Michael Spinks
By Lee Groves and Martin Mulcahey from Max Boxing
On February 17, 2004, Marty Mulcahey and Lee Groves wrote a "Classic Head2Head" article about who would win a mythical showdown between Julio Cesar Chavez and Aaron Pryor had they met during their respective primes at the weight. Groves chose Pryor because he thought Chavez was slightly past his best form at 140 and Pryor’s whirlwind attack would eventually wear down "J.C. Superstar." Mulcahey thought Chavez’s solid fundamentals, concrete chin and withering, accurate attack would break Pryor.
After a long hiatus, MaxBoxing’s resident historians have decided to revive the series and discuss more fantasy matchups. Today’s edition pits Bob Foster and Michael Spinks, who occupy two of most experts’ top 10 lists of top 175 pounders. Let the debate begin.
Lee: Hey Marty, it’s good to be back in the swing of things after such a long break. I don’t know about you, but I hope I won’t suffer from ring rust on the brain.
Marty: Ah yes, mental ring rust. Well, it could apply since rust only settles upon immobile and solid objects, and my mind is solidly set as well as unmovable in its opinion that Bob Foster is superior to Michael Spinks in a head-to-head matchup.
The Case for Foster: First, I have to concede that this is an extremely even matchup between two men with God-given talent, hard-earned skill sets, and the willingness to challenge themselves beyond their natural weight classes.
With both men pretty evened up physically and skill-wise, this bout should turn on basis of intangibles. This is where I believe my man has the edge. In Spinks' lone loss, he collapsed mentally and was clearly intimidated by Mike Tyson. Spanning the long history of the light heavyweight division, there was no more intimidating sight than the long and lean figure of Bob Foster stepping out of a corner, and into your face with his precision punches. Foster also displayed his mental toughness by traveling to England and South Africa against Chris Finnegan and Pierre Fourie to face two of his more accomplished challengers. Spinks has probably never seen the inside of an international airport, and rarely fought before hostile crowds.
Foster was not the one-dimensional slugger many see him to be either. He was a well-schooled and accomplished amateur – He was 94-7 with in incredible 89 knockouts and he won the All-Air Force light heavyweight title, the Brittania Shield Tournament in London, a Golden Gloves crown in Washington, D.C. and a Pan Am Games gold medal. He only missed out on the Olympics because he refused to fight as a middleweight instead of his natural weight class of light heavyweight. This is another notch on the belt for my mental toughness case, which shows that Foster did not bow to any demands he thought beneath him, or unreasonable. Even after all the mental intangibles have been exhausted, I will fall back on a decisive advantage Foster had over Spinks in the ring. His punches were more compact and straighter than Spinks' in my opinion. Given the way these two could bang, the first to reach the destination should win.
Lee: Thanks, Marty -- that’s just the shot of Rust-O-Leum I needed. You present good arguments, but there are some openings that can be exploited.
The case for Spinks: First, Spinks was not alone in being intimidated by the young Mike Tyson. One can make a good argument that the Tyson who flattened Spinks was at his absolute physical and mental peak, especially with all the emotional anguish leading up to the June 1988 fight. Tyson was able to put aside managerial and marital difficulties to blow away a Michael Spinks that had yet to be beaten as a professional.
As for the amateur career, Spinks was pretty accomplished as well as he ended this phase of his evolution in the best possible way – with an Olympic gold medal. During his days as a simon pure, Spinks engaged in numerous bouts overseas and came out victorious far more often than not, so I think he’s seen more than a few international airports, thank you. Plus, he overcame a tough childhood on the streets of St. Louis, so I wouldn’t worry about Spinks’ mental fortitude.
Unlike Foster -- who was pulverized by Joe Frazier in two rounds, knocked out in seven rounds by Ernie Terrell, stopped in eight rounds by Muhammad Ali and decisioned by Zora Folley – Spinks enjoyed success as a heavyweight, going 4-1. He became the first reigning light heavyweight champion to win the heavyweight title, beating heavily favored Larry Holmes by split decision. In fact, the conventional wisdom said Spinks would lose in four of his five heavyweight fights – twice against Holmes, once against Gerry Cooney and, of course, once against Tyson. In the one fight in which he was the favorite, he splattered Steffen Tangstad in four rounds. This argument establishes that Spinks is the greater fighter overall.
The crux of my argument for Spinks lies in the oft-repeated adage "styles make fights." At 6-3, Spinks could look Foster in the eyes and his 76-inch reach compared very favorably to the New Mexican’s. Foster usually enjoyed height and reach advantages over his 175-pound opponents so it would be interesting to see how he would have handled a fellow giant.
Spinks would use his vastly superior foot speed and difficult, herky-jerky style to throw off Foster’s timing. As Sam Soliman proved against Winky Wright a few weeks back, there’s nothing like a weird style to offset a fundamentally sound fighter. Spinks’ bouquet of unpredictable combinations would force Foster to hesitate because he couldn’t bank on Spinks’ next punch coming from the usual angle. Spinks’ style would also present a challenge to Foster’s formidable mental strength. He will have to resist the urge to become frustrated because if he does, he will provide Spinks with even more counterpunching opportunities.
The bottom line is this: Foster is a great fighter, and I have him at the very top of my light heavyweight champions list. But even great fighters have styles with which they have trouble, and Spinks’ style is as difficult a puzzle that could be presented. As the old saying goes, he who hesitates is lost, and if Foster is forced to hesitate he will lose to Spinks.
Marty: Just as I suspected. The expert opposition has chosen to open by replying to my argument, instead of taking the initiative by formulating a credible argument for Spinks' supremacy in the ring. True, you did present a feasible scenario and some good rationale (advantage in foot speed being the best) at the end of your rambling soliloquy. Ironically, this is how I would envision a fight between Foster and Spinks playing out. Spinks would hesitate in taking the initiative early, thus giving the important formative rounds away. This also gives the play to Foster, who, when allowed to dictate pace, range, and come forward, was nearly unstoppable at light heavyweight.
Spinks had the talent to adjust and use Foster's aggressiveness against him, then begin to time Foster while employing his own awkward rhythm. However, it would not happen with a sudden burst, and giving away the early rounds could certainly influence how the judges see the rest of a close fight. This means that if the fight went to the judges, Spinks' faltering in the early rounds would lead to a loss on the scorecards -- if a continually advancing Foster would allow it to get to that stage. Put in the role of the aggressor, Foster had no equal at light heavy, and Foster showed in the late stages of his career that he had no problem going the distance when it was called for.
In closing, I would like to concede that Spinks beat a better list of title challengers at light heavyweight, and even agree that Spinks had a better record against the heavys. But remember that this fantasy bout would take place at light heavyweight, and given the way Foster destroyed his challengers, I believe it warrants the assumption that he could have beaten Spinks' challengers just as handily. Besides which, Foster's opposition at heavy was a bit superior to Steffen Tangstad, Gerry Cooney, and an excellent, but past his prime Larry Holmes (Holmes was 36 in his first closely contested match with Spinks).
You also mention that a prime Spinks had not been beaten before the Tyson fight, which I am sure one Eddie Davis would disagree with. Davis was a good light heavy with a questionable chin, whom Spinks struggled to figure out (KO Magazine's Steve Farhood scored it 114-114). Many thought the win went Spinks' way because of a million-dollar rematch with Dwight Qawi that was already signed and funded by HBO. It is notable, and again it comes down to Spinks' mental predilections, that Davis was never given a rematch. Foster, in his prime, left little to no doubt when he beat his light heavyweight challengers.
Lastly, I would like to invoke the words of famed boxing trainer and television analyst Teddy Atlas, who states "Boxing is 75 percent mental" (many others in the sport also use this axiom, with respected trainer Freddie Roach and Emanuel Steward at the high end claiming it is 90 percent). With that, I come full circle. It is Foster who has the superior mindset, where in every other respect it is hard to give the edge to either Foster or Spinks. Anyone who has read, or listened to interviews of both fighters cannot help but come away with a sense that Foster was the more mentally decisive of the duo. That, my friends, is the difference in an otherwise balanced competition between coequals.
Lee: Ah, so the gloves come off. The reason I chose to respond to your points is because if I want to persuade the readers out there that my argument is superior -- and it is -- I must pick apart your statements point by point. I’m a counterpuncher by nature and so was Spinks, who sized up his opponents, exploited their weaknesses and got the victory by any means necessary.
One of Spinks' greatest assets was his intelligence, and that intelligence would tell him that Foster was nobody to mess with right out of the gate. Foster was a time bomb waiting to go off, so Spinks would have approach Foster as if he were a human bomb – find a way to get within range, snip a wire and get out before the shrapnel comes.
True, Spinks was a slow starter most of the time, but he did have some very good moments early in fights. He seized the initiative in one of his most important title fights -- his unification bout with Dwight Qawi -- by landing his vaunted "Spinks Jinx" in the first round. The strength of the blow sent a powerful message to the intimidating Qawi, and for the rest of the fight he never was able to unleash the buzzsaw attack that twice cut Matthew Saad Muhammad to bits. In a crucially important match with a monster like big, bad Bob, who cut an more imposing figure than Qawi, Spinks would do what he needed to do to come out the winner, and if it meant starting slowly only to finish quickly, he could do so. After all, he won two fights against Holmes that way.
Another one of Spinks' virtues is patience -- with the help of master trainer Eddie Futch, Spinks walked into the ring with a definitive fight plan and he had the discipline to carry it out step by step. Foster would be the one coming forward, which was just fine for the counterpunching Spinks. He would use his speed to take advantage of openings and his more than respectable power to keep Foster honest. I think Foster would remember the way Spinks knocked the tough Marvin Johnson unconscious with a single left uppercut to the jaw. He wouldn't be afraid of Spinks' power, but he would be mindful of it -- and rightly so.
Foster was never a ball of fire in the ring as far as number of punches thrown, and like it or not, activity counts as much as effectiveness in many judges' eyes. Spinks was a hustler while Foster was a stalker who worked the jab while looking to land a fight-ending bomb. The possibility is great that Foster could spend the entire fight looking to land the big one while Spinks would sneak in the back door and take the decision.
As for questionable decisions, you bring up Eddie Davis. In return, I give you Jorge Ahumada, whose fight with Foster was somehow judged a draw. I don't know if there were political shenanigans behind the verdict, but in the ring it seemed the younger Ahumada did enough to dethrone the 35-year-old Foster. Foster himself got the message loud and clear -- he was no longer a dominant force – prompting him to vacate the championship three months later.
Throughout his career, Spinks has been candid about his misgivings going into fights, but they didn't stop him from doing the job. He was a realist who was fully aware of the risks boxing posed and because he knew he could get hurt, he trained his butt off to give himself the best opportunity to win – as well as exit the ring safe and sound. Cus D'Amato often spoke of using fear to its best advantage, and Spinks' definitely did that. Yes, Spinks would be worried about Foster's gifts, as he should be. That concern would fuel him into acquiring that certain "edge" that would bring his athletic performance to a fine sharpness. It wouldn't be easy, but Spinks would peck, poke and hustle his way to victory against one of the greatest 175-pounders who has yet lived.