A former bricklayer took on a former munitions factory worker and produced the Ring Magazine Fight of the Year for 1972. Chris Finnegan won middleweight gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and turned professional almost immediately afterwards. His career had progressed solidly and winning the European light-heavyweight title in 1971 had made him a contender for the world title. His party-loving life motto of "win or lose, drink your booze” shouldn’t distract from the fact that he was committed to his sport.
Bob Foster was finally getting the acclaim his vast talent deserved. 6 foot 3 with awesome power, Foster was avoided for all of his early career. He had to fight for free to get his world title chance against Dick Tiger. His attempts to break into the more lucrative heavyweight division had been successful but at light-heavyweight he was untouchable. By the time he fought Finnegan, he’d made eleven successful defences of his title. Most of them didn’t take long; he was expected to win quickly. Finnegan recognised the challenge, describing being in the ring with Foster as “like having a loaded gun pointed at your head – one wrong move and the lights go out."
The pattern is set from the start. Finnegan is always in motion, doing circuits of the ring while Foster comes forward. In these early rounds, Foster’s superior reach seems unbridgeable; how is Finnegan ever going to get inside that rangy jab? The Londoner, however, isn’t awed by the champion. He may not be landing much of note but he’s using the ring with intelligence and purpose. In contrast, Foster looks rather plodding and aimless.
Halfway through the third comes the first reminder of the danger. Finnegan slips inside and walks straight onto a jolting right hand. He takes another big shot early in the fourth. Their power leads commentator Harry Carpenter to declare: “Foster used to work in a bomb factory. And it looks as though he carried some of those bombs out of the factory and stored them in his gloves.” But neither shot slows Finnegan down and he goes onto have his best round of the fight so far. Dive in, land, get out of range and repeat. The prospect of a crushing early finish has been averted and a contest is breaking out.
The best proof of Finnegan’s success is Foster’s frustration. He talks to Finnegan while they’re in a clinch. He fires a wild right hook air shot near the end of the sixth. He earns boos for catching Finnegan after the bell for the end of the seventh. Foster will later admit that Finnegan’s southpaw stance gave him trouble. It is clear that he is struggling to throw his punches with any timing or fluency. There’s a perfect demonstration of this when late in the sixth, Foster gets into range and hesitates, allowing Finnegan to catch him with a straight left.
Finnegan is caught hard early in the seventh and responds by opening up. The next few rounds see tactics give way to a tear-up. Finnegan comes out of the exchanges surprisingly well, with his hand speed helping him to land numerous shots. Ominously, however, there’s no evidence that he’s hurting the champion.
The fight settles into a rare lull at the start of the tenth. Just when it seems as if Finnegan might be able to plot a path to victory, a jab followed by a big right puts him down. The combination is thrown with a sharpness that Foster has lacked for most of the night. The challenger is up quickly but he can no longer keep running. No choice but to stand in front of the man who throws bombs. In contrast, Foster is suddenly all energy. He’s bouncing on his feet, jiving around the ring with his hands down. He has the relieved cockiness of a man who’s struggled but finds himself back on top. The crowd boo his showboating and roar with delight when one bit of fancy footwork leads him to slip.
Having offered so much, Finnegan now looks vulnerable. On a couple of occasions, he absorbs more than seems possible. Finally the end comes in the fourteenth with the jab and straight right combination again putting him down. He slumps onto his backside and if it wasn’t for the support of the ropes, he’d slump into the ringside seats. He stares at the ground and makes no attempt to beat the count.
In what was almost certainly an understatement, Finnegan declared “I’m tired, thoroughly tired, but I'm ready for the return when he is ready.” Foster promised him a rematch but it never happened; Finnegan was gazumped by Muhammad Ali. Foster was stopped in the eighth but earned Ali’s respect, with “The Greatest” describing him as having “the punch of a mule.” Finnegan would never fight at the highest level again. Within a year, he had lost his European title and then suffered successive defeats to fellow Brit John Conteh.
To some extent, we have a lack of adequate preparation to thank for the fight’s drama. Foster simply hadn’t worked out an effective strategy for fighting southpaws; he admitted that he struggled with trying to throw punches over Finnegan’s right hand jab. Yet Finnegan deserves credit for a performance of nous, skill and guts. For a fighter who spent most his career at a high but not a world-class level, he rose to his greatest challenge. Ultimately, however, the night underlined Foster’s greatness. You could run and outfox him for a while but ultimately the Deputy Sheriff’s power would catch up with you.