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BIG SKY’S BIG NIGHT : Todd Foster’s Hometown in Montana Is Decked Out for His Pro Boxing Debut

Times Staff Writer

When last seen by reporters, Todd Foster had tears running down his face, and was being embraced by his girlfriend, his parents, and his brother and sister in a hallway of the Chamshil Students’ Gymnasium at Seoul.

That was last September, on the night the boxer from Great Falls had been beaten in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games boxing tournament. He had just broken down in a news conference and left the room, crying.

Foster, 21, returned to Great Falls without a medal but with his popularity intact. When he came home, 300 cheering people waving placards greeted him at the airport. A band played. They even held a parade for him.

The Great Falls Tribune published a “Todd Foster Commemorative Edition,” for which 130 local firms bought ads. All this, for a guy who didn’t even win a medal.

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They love him here. For one thing, he says all the right things about Great Falls--"It’s the greatest city in the world.” And having a face that could have been in a Norman Rockwell painting doesn’t hurt, either.

This week, though, folks here are a little worried.

Todd Foster turns pro tonight.

Before what is supposed to be a full house of 5,000 Foster faithful at the Four Seasons Arena, they’re throwing him in with a guy known as The Gangster.

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This is his reward?

The way folks here see it, traveling all over the Rocky Mountain states to tournaments in the Great Falls Amateur Boxing Club van was one thing. That was when all the moms had bake sales to pay for the gas. That was for fun. But this? The Gangster?

Is it too late to call this off, Todd?

No, Foster is going through with this. And he says he’s not afraid of The Gangster, who looks as if he lost a half-dozen knife fights.

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Actually, Chris Alvarado, 24, from Phoenix, nearly bled to death in a 1984 auto accident. One scar runs across his throat, another nearly encircles his right eye. So, his boxing management group thought it would be cute to call him The Gangster.

So he’s not really a gangster. But he’s not a tomato can, either.

He’s 13-4 and has gone 10 rounds 4 times. Foster, who has never gone more than amateur boxing’s 3-round distance, will go 6 tonight in a lightweight bout on a card to be televised by ESPN. The main event features Frank Tate, former International Boxing Federation middleweight champion, against Jimmy Bills.

“Todd’s going to school Tuesday,” said his manager, Bob Spagnola. “Todd’s a very talented boxer and fighting tomato cans would do nothing for his development as a pro. We want him to meet tough opponents, we want him to learn.”

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Said Foster: “I told them when I started training 2 months ago for my first (pro) bout that I didn’t want some 3-3 guy. I wanted to meet good fighters.”

Still, uneasiness reigns here. Great Falls folks didn’t even much like the idea of Todd’s moving to Houston, to train at the Houston Boxing Assn. gym under Kenny Weldon. Not enough good sparring partners in Great Falls, Todd explained.

Then there’s that Lou Duva business. A lawsuit already, and he hasn’t even had a pro bout yet! None of this would have happened if he had been training for the state regionals at Helena instead of the pros.

In the summer of 1987, while still an amateur, Foster apparently signed some kind of pro contract with New Jersey trainer Lou Duva’s Main Events group. Then, after the Olympics, Foster told Duva he was going pro with the Spagnola group of Houston.

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Duva sued Spagnola, demanding a return of the $50,000 he said he had spent on Foster when he was his sponsor during Foster’s amateur period.

Spagnola says Duva compromised Foster’s eligibility for the Olympics by coercing him into signing a contract when he was an amateur.

Duva says the contract was approved and signed by Col. Don Hull, who was then president of the USA Amateur Boxing Federation.

“My father spent $50,000 on Todd Foster, including paying Kenny Weldon $300 a week to train him,” said Dan Duva of Main Events. “Everything was cleared by the USA/ABF. It was a valid agreement. But I think at this point if Todd paid back the $50,000, that would be the end of it.”

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Spagnola won’t say how much Foster is to make tonight, but says it isn’t anything like $50,000. He said that Foster would make about $100,000 his first year as a pro, under a promotional arrangement with the Houston Boxing Assn.

Obviously, Foster is perceived as a valuable property. He’s a puncher, and punchers are penalized by amateur boxing’s rules, which favor the boxer of movement and left jabs.

Foster said: “As a pro, I’ll be able to get in there and really throw some punches instead of having a referee stop me every 5 seconds, telling me I can’t do something,”

Spagnola says the plan is for Foster to crack the top 10 rankings at lightweight or junior welterweight in 2 years.

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Weldon, who made the jump to Spagnola with Foster, says Foster is a complete package.

“Todd’s really going to do well,” he said.

“Remember, he’s coming down from 10 ounce gloves to 8 ounces. For a lightweight, that’s a big difference. He’s got great legs. They’re probably his best attribute. He’s fluid in there, getting into punching position so effortlessly, and it’s because of his legs.

“He also listens and learns well. People think of him as a short-armed guy, but he’s really got a good left jab. He already knows how to set people up.”

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Weldon also mentioned two faults, a breathing problem and weight distribution.

To correct the breathing problem, Foster had a deviated septum corrected right after the Olympics.

“Todd’s breathing normally now through his nose, but he breathed through his mouth for 5 years as an amateur, and he has trouble breaking the habit,” Weldon said. “I’m a little worried about it, because with 8-ounce gloves now he could get a broken jaw.”

And the other fault? The weight distribution?

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“He has a tendency to lean to his left, away from his center of gravity,” Weldon said. “We’ve worked a lot on keeping his upper body over his feet, and he’s improved a lot. He’s ready.”

He may be ready for prime time, but is he ready for color TV?

Foster was a member of amateur boxing’s all-bleeder team. One tap on Foster’s nose and you wanted to check the other guy for a razor.

“I had that problem because I had an infection in my nose for a long time,” he said. “I finally got that cleared up with antibiotics. The deviated septum had nothing to do with the bleeding. The inside of my nose was too dry and it didn’t take many punches to start it bleeding, especially if I was boxing in an air-conditioned building.”

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Once, Foster was primarily known as a football star in this town, at Charles M. Russell High. And basketball and baseball, too. He started at second base for a senior Little League team when he was 13.

His dad saw all this coming.

“Vicki (Todd’s mom) and I went to a PTA meeting when Todd was 5, and the PE teacher came up to me,” recalled Vern Foster, 41.

“He told me he’d lined all the little kids up on a basketball court and had them dribble from one end of the court to the other, once left-handed, and once right-handed. He said Todd was the only little kid who could do it.”

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When Todd was 8, his father, as a lark, entered him in a peewee boxing tournament. He not only won, but beat the defending Montana champion.

Foster made his final commitment to boxing before what was to have been his senior football season. Foster was a returning all-league defensive back at the time.

“The coach told me I was going to have to decide between football and boxing, and I said, ‘So long, coach,’ ” Foster said.

Vern Foster is a lineman for Montana Light and Power. A month ago, during a heavy storm, a shopping mall lost its power. In 39-degree temperatures, he was 45 feet up in the air, putting up new lines.

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Todd Foster figures he has the talent that will one day put him in million-dollar casino championship fights, that he will earn enough money to get his dad down off those power poles. But of course, The Gangster will have something to say about that.


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