No Foolin’: The “Smarts” Bet on Bob Foster When He Fought Muhammad Ali

On Nov. 21, 1972, forty-five years ago this week, Muhammad Ali fought reigning light heavyweight champion Bob Foster in a non-title bout (actually there was an NABF belt at stake) at the Sahara Tahoe Hotel in picturesque South Lake Tahoe, Nevada. This was Ali’s 41st pro fight and his ninth fight since suffering his lone defeat at the hands of Joe Frazier. Bob Foster, three years older than Ali at age 33, brought a 49-5 record that included 12 successful world title defenses.

It was plain that Bob Foster, the most active light heavyweight title-holder in ring history, was Hall of Fame worthy (he would be ushered into the IBHOF in the inaugural class of 1990), but a wager on him against Ali violated the precept that a good big man will always beat a good little man. At the weigh-in, Ali came in 41 pounds heavier than Foster, tipping the scales at 221.

Moreover, Foster had been in this situation before. Three of his five losses had come at the hands of full-fledged heavyweights, namely Ernie Terrell, Zora Folley, and Joe Frazier. In these bouts, in which Foster was out-weighed by an average of 24 pounds, he was out of his league. (His other defeats were inflicted by Doug Jones, a fighter who today would be classed as a cruiserweight, and South American champion Mauro Mina on Mina’s turf in Peru.)

For some savvy bettors, however, a geographical consideration weighed more heavily than Bob Foster’s bad history against bigger men. The little town of South Lake Tahoe, 455 miles from Las Vegas, straddles the Nevada-California border (the Nevada side is also called Stateline). Several large ski resorts, including Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, sit nearby.

South Lake Tahoe is 6,300 feet above sea level. That didn’t figure to bother Bob Foster who was accustomed to the altitude. He came from Albuquerque (elevation 5,312) where he had a part-time job as a sheriff’s deputy. Muhammad Ali then lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. LA Times wag Jim Murray noted that Ali didn’t get much altitude there because he lived in a one-story house.

Ali arrived in South Lake Tahoe on Nov. 14 and commenced his public workouts at the casino-hotel the next day. Foster was already there, having arrived a week earlier.

It appeared to some that Ali was having difficulty catching his breath during his workouts. This impression was hardened when Ali took to bringing a prop to his sparring sessions, an oxygen tank.

Was this a put-on? Undoubtedly it was. Throughout history, clever publicists have gone to great lengths to spark interest in a boxing match by counterfeiting a chink in the armor of the favorite or, more commonly, endowing the underdog with a new weapon. A favorite ploy was to say that the underdog had found a new punch, a cosmic punch, with which he had crumpled all of his sparring partners.

The mischievous Ali played the ruse to the hilt when he petitioned the Nevada Boxing Commission to allow him to have an oxygen tank in his corner. His request was denied. “Oxygen is a stimulant,” said Jim Deskin, the head of the commission, “and stimulants are banned in this state.” The story played out in all the papers.

According to young reporter Mike Marley, a correspondent for the Nevada State Journal, Ali’s alleged breathing problems played hob with the odds. In a story that ran on the eve of the fight, Marley told his readers that the odds favoring Ali had tumbled from 12/5 to 7/5 at a prominent (but otherwise unidentified) Las Vegas bookie joint.

Ali vs. Foster was held in the hotel’s 2,200-seat showroom. The announced attendance was 1,941. Tickets were priced at $50, $75, and $150. Adjusted for inflation, those tickets would run about six times higher today.

Those in attendance included comedian Bill Cosby and soul singer Isaac Hayes who were booked to appear in the showroom. Hayes sat in with the broadcasting crew and assisted with the color commentary. That gave him a chance to plug the movie “Shaft,” whose soundtrack earned him both Oscar and Grammy awards.

This was one of the smallest crowds that ever witnessed an Ali fight in the flesh, but this was the closed circuit era and the bulk of the revenue would come from theater owners and other exhibitors and foreign TV rights. Those that saw fight, whether live in the showroom or at a remote location, witnessed a hog-butchering and poor Bob Foster was the hog.

Foster may have been 41 pounds lighter, but he wasn’t faster. He was on the canvas seven times before the bout was stopped 40 seconds into the eighth round. Ali knocked him down four times in the 5th, twice in the 7th, and once in the 8th. In the co-main of the three-bout program, rising heavyweight contender Ken Norton stopped late sub Henry Clark who was unable to answer the bell for the 10th and final round.

The Sahara Tahoe is no more. The property has been sold and rebranded four times since the Ali-Foster fight. Bob Foster died in 2015, ironically on Nov. 21, the same month and day that he fought Muhammad Ali who left us last year. As for those that were drawn to bet on Bob Foster because of the altitude factor, it’s likely that many of them are still around and perhaps still ruing their folly.

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