By Terence Dooley
Salford’s Steve “The Viking” Foster Senior didn’t dream of world titles and a long undefeated run when making his pro debut in February 1981 with a third-round stoppage win over Pat McCarthy. In fact the fledgling pro came into the sport almost by chance and without the backing of an amateur career of any kind.
The glimmer of promise showed on his debut was obscured by a lengthy break from the sport and a run of mixed form, with losses as well as wins populating his record by the time he met local trainer Phil Martin in the late-1980s. After a brief meeting of minds, Martin asked Foster to join his vibrant Champs Camp stable. Foster agreed and his career turned around, eventually culminating in a Commonwealth light-middleweight title win and IBF world title challenge.
“My career really happened as an accident,” said Foster, who retired in 1999 with a 20-17-2 (10) record. “I’d never had any amateur fights. I walked into the YMCA in Manchester, where they did wrestling and boxing, and a guy called Brian Robertson, the main boxing coach there, who has died now, said to me and my mates: ‘Are you coming in, girls?’ We said: ‘What’s he on about?’, but I went in and just got into it.
“I used to be a bit of a boxer. I had a 72-inch reach — arms like an orang-utan — so I’d stick my left jab out and either win on points or lose on points, but Phil [Martin] turned me into more of a fighter. It all went on from there. My first fight with Phil was against Tony Fernandez [W8 in December 1989].”
“Steve had these good looks and a straight nose, so we wondered how he’d lost some fights,” said his former stablemate Maurice “Hard” Core when telling me about his first impressions of Foster. “He was put in sparring and had a tough time, at first.”
“Well, those lads turned me over big time for the first few months, I was like target practice for them, but I soon turned that around,” admitted Foster.
Martin passed away in May 1994. Foster was training under Billy “The Preacher” Graham, Martin’s former assistant by this point and he hit the headlines after a close decision defeat to Robert McCracken for the vacant British title in September of that year.
A Commonwealth title win over the supremely talented Chris Pyatt (W12) in 1996 was followed by an WBO light-middleweight world title tilt against Ronald “Winky” Wright at the MEN Arena in 1997, which ended in a sixth-round TKO loss. Not bad going for a fighter who had almost walked away from the sport after taking a sabbatical between 1981 and 1985.
“My career was a bit of a fairytale, to be honest,” recalled Foster. “I used to sell a lot of tickets and I would always stand my own ground, but am an advocate, in boxing and in life, that you should always live to fight anther day. If I wasn’t 100% fit in those early fights and had give it my all, then the ref would step in and I’d say: ‘OK, no worries’, or sometimes I’d make a big fuss about it.
“I just had a great, great career. I fought Winky Wright and put a fair account up. I sparred with Nigel Benn in Tenerife — you had to be at it with Nigel because he didn’t mess about in sparring. People got into the career of ‘The Viking’ and to see lads like Maurice, Frank Grant and Ensley [Bingham] at ringside supporting me was a big boost.”
Foster’s career really lifted off when he hooked up with Frank Warren. The promoter appreciated Foster’s ability to shift tens of thousands of pounds worth of tickets, and Foster enjoyed his marquee fights against Pyatt and Wright on those two memorable MEN Arena fight nights.
“Frank Warren wanted me then because I could put bums on seats by selling tickets, so Frank brought me over, I brought over my Salford support and we moved on,” he said. “I was getting eight grand because of ticket sales for fights against people like [journeyman] Seamus Casey [W8 in December 1991], which was great money for that time, so the support of Salford and my fans really helped my career. It was a dream for me. I used to pinch myself every time the likes of Barry Hearn or Frank Warren asked me to box for them.
“I got unlucky sometimes as well. When I boxed Rob McCracken, if anything it should have been a drawn. If I’d have been champion I’d have won, in my mind. A lot of lads that I boxed told me afterwards that I was the hardest lad they’d boxed.”
He added: “When I boxed Winky, he was a young man and I was 37, but the atmosphere was cracking and I loved it. I got rated number five by the IBF and was in the WBC top ten during my career — it was magic. I decided to stop boxing just 10 days before my 40th birthday, but I’d still go out and do it now.”
Foster left the sport in 1999 after a run of three consecutive defeats — to Howard Eastman (L TKO 7), Cornelius Carr (L12) and Mpush Makambi (L KO 4) respectively — yet he admits that he still dreams of lacing the gloves back up and having a final fling despite being 52-years-old.
“So what if I lost a few early fights and have 17 losses on my record, Henry Cooper lost 14 — it’s not about how you start in this business, it is about how you finish,” he said. “I’d always found boxing hard, but easy as well in a strange way. I could always fight so it wasn’t that hard for me, fighting. The hard thing was the training and making the weight. The night of the fight wasn’t a problem.
“I wish I could do it all again, I miss it all so much and think about it everyday. I pinch myself every time I think about my career. I think about boxing every day. I’d still be fighting if there was an over 50s category.”
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