Former light-heavyweight contender Tommy Hicks tells Jack Hirsch how he secured a world title shot against ring legend while holding down a job as a teacher
HAVING one successful career is hard enough, but to juggle two at the same time as Tommy Hicks once did was truly remarkable. That he did so while raising a family only makes it all the more impressive.
The first question surrounding the former light-heavyweight contender from Lockport, New York, should not be how he did it, but why? Hicks was an elementary and middle school teacher, first teaching Physical Education before transitioning to Special Ed. Later he would become a Principal. Clearly there was no necessity for Hicks to don the gloves, but he did for the simplest of reasons: He loved to.
It has been a little over 50 years since Hicks, 18-12-3 (10), challenged Bob Foster for the world light-heavyweight championship. In training for that fight he would be out on the roads at approximately 6am, before reporting to his teaching position. Then at the end of the school day Hicks would head either to Cornell University in Ithaca or to Syracuse, to prepare for Foster. Now this is Bob Foster we are speaking about, one of the most devastating punchers in boxing history, one who struck such fear into opponents many were beaten before the first bell rang, but for Hicks it was all in a day’s work.
“I never had any goals in boxing beyond just trying to be the best I could be” says Hicks modestly. “I was not in the sport to make money or become champion, I enjoyed boxing, liked the challenges it provided. That is why I did it.
“I played football and got a scholarship at Ithaca, but boxing was my favorite sport. As a kid I always worked out with my brothers and sister, playboxing. I got into it for real when my friends challenged me to.”
Hicks had a moderately successful amateur career, winning the sub novice light-heavyweight title in 1965 in the Buffalo Golden Gloves tournament, then taking honors in the same division in the open class in 1967. He turned pro soon afterward.
The opposition early in Hicks’ professional career was less than stellar. That would ultimately change, but what never did entirely was the weight disparity he often had to deal with to get fights. There was no cruiserweight division at the time so Hicks was forced to box heavyweights to get matches.
With a modest 9-4-2 (5) record, Hicks travelled to Cliff’s Pavilion, in Southend, on November 12, 1970 to take on touted British prospect Danny McAlinden who had won 12 of 13. “I thought it was a pretty even fight until it was stopped because of a cut,” said Hicks of the ninth round loss. “The referee [Benny Caplan] did a good job in giving me every opportunity to stay in the fight until he was forced to stop it. Most of my fights were stopped because I was cut. I was a bleeder and my opponents knew it. They would go out of their way to target my cuts.
“McAlinden was a real tough guy who could give and take a punch and was also pretty intelligent. He split me up pretty badly in that fight.” But the match was entertaining enough for Hicks to get a rematch in the UK just three months later. In one of the more noteworthy performances of his career, Hicks held McAlinden to a 10-round draw at the World Sporting Club in Mayfair. “I thought I won the fight but that is a biased viewpoint,” admitted Hicks.
Until informed by this writer, Hicks was unaware that just 12 days after the McAlinden rematch his opponent would box on the undercard of the fight of the century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. McAlinden emerged victorious in handing Muhammad’s brother Rahaman his first career setback, outpointing him over six rounds. That his British opponent could box so soon afterward, and in an event of such high profile, speaks volumes of the mindset of the boxers of that era compared to this one.
Including a later fight in England against Johnny Frankham, it would be the only three times in Hicks’ career he boxed outside of the United States. He has wonderful memories of his time in the UK. “The people could not have been any nicer,” he says. “I was treated very fairly. The publicity before the fights was about me being a teacher. They had me going to the schools and speaking with the other educators. I enjoyed it. It was good for the sport.”
Little did anyone realise at the time, but the draw with McAlinden had positioned Hicks for a title shot against Foster. First he followed up with victories over Billy Freeman (w pts 8) and Walter Opshinsky (w rsf 7), both in Scranton.
The Foster fight came just five weeks after the victory over Opshinsky, a quick turnaround but one that Hicks was comfortable with. “I don’t remember clearly, but I think that I was told about three or four weeks before I fought Foster [October 30, 1971] that I would be getting a shot at the title,” says Hicks. “I felt that I’d earned the opportunity and was ready for it. Getting the call on short notice was not a problem because I always kept in shape between fights. I loved working out.”
Hicks was the crowd favourite having previously boxed nine times in Scranton, but Foster was no stranger to the Catholic Youth Center where the match was held, having successfully defended his title there earlier in the year, stopping Hal Carroll in four rounds.
The match was not televised, but film does exist in which static accompanies a less than perfect picture.
As the challenger, Hicks entered the ring first waving confidently to the crowd. He briefly tried to engage Foster in a stare down during the referee’s instructions, but the champion was disinterested.
Showing no fear of Foster’s vaunted power Hicks rushed at him from the start. The idea was to keep applying pressure on Foster, rough him up and hurt him with a big blow. It was sound strategy, perhaps the only one Hicks could hope to execute being that he couldn’t outbox the long and lanky title-holder from the outside.
Southpaw Hicks scored with a good long left now and then. He also dictated the space of the ring for much of the time by forcing Foster to give ground, but the champion methodically was busting him up with jabs and solitary right hands. The pace was fast, but Foster’s punishing blows were cutting the challenger over both eyes.
By the seventh round Hicks was slowing down. Foster stopped countering and stood at mid-ring and fired away. Hicks’ great chin enabled him to absorb blows that might have felled any other light-heavyweight. When things did not improve in the eighth it was stopped by referee Manny Gelb at 1-04. Hicks protested, but it is more disappointment than an objection. Foster turned and walked to his corner, but then made a beeline towards Hicks. He patted Tommy on the backside and the men show one another mutual respect.
The official scorecards were not made available but you could make a valid case for Hicks having won a couple of the rounds.
Boxing historian Don Majeski was ringside and describes it as thus: “It was the remnants of the last days of an era,” he says. “In those days not every championship match was on television. They relied strictly on the live gate of which the champion would get 40 per cent and the challenger 20. My guess is that Hicks made approximately $10,000 on the fight before taxes, manager and trainer’s fees.
“Foster was such a devastating puncher, one of the hardest in history that some people could not believe Hicks could legitimately stand up to his power. Some thought that Foster carried him, but there is no evidence of that. What I do know is how Hicks got the fight in the first place. It was because of Chick Feldman, the sports editor of the Scrantonian. He pushed hard for it based on Hicks’ past performances in the Scranton area. He felt Hicks could hold his own against Foster. Feldman did so much for boxing as a member of the media that it’s a shame he is not in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Ironically in Hicks’ next fight, a 10th round stoppage of Dennis McNamee that was the main event at Madison Square Garden, Feldman died of a heart attack at ringside.”
Foster paid tribute to Hicks afterward by addressing those who had told him it would be an easy fight. “If that is an easy fight, I don’t ever want to have a hard one,” he said.
Hicks is effusive in his praise of Foster. “He was one of the greatest of all time, period” he says. “My cuts became severe from the sixth round on. His straight right hands were what cut me. The referee was protective of me, letting me know he could not let it go on too long. Foster’s mindset was great. He knew how to set up an opponent for hooks and straight rights. His conditioning was excellent also. And he was a nice guy too. Whenever we were at the same boxing event he would always seek me out, come over to say hello. I respected him a lot.”
Foster continued his run of dominance in the light-heavyweight division in subsequent fights but Hicks would not come close to boxing for the title again. Hicks could still handle average fighters, but the contenders he was matched with were simply better.
In March of 1972, he main evented at MSG again, this time dropping a 10-round unanimous decision to Mike Quarry by scores of 10-0, 8-2, and 7-3. This writer was at the fight and recalls Hicks following the elusive Quarry around the ring, but being unable to corner him. “I taunted him to mix it up with me, but he wouldn’t,” says Hicks. “He was smart, an excellent boxer. I thought I was still a contender and would just have to work harder.” But Hicks could simply not get his career on track, in part due to having tender skin.
After getting stopped by light-heavyweight contender Jimmy Dupree, Hicks won a couple, but any idea of clawing back into title contention evaporated with consecutive stoppage defeats to Bobby Cassidy, Johnny Frankham, and Vince Curto. Cuts naturally played a role in each defeat. The Frankham loss at Royal Albert Hall saw Hicks sustain a badly gashed right eye. A low profile victory over Sixto Martinez in Scranton followed, but one month later (March 13, 1974), Hicks was dropped in the opening round and lost widely on points over 10 against prospect Ray Elson. That convinced him it was time to retire from boxing.
“I would have liked to continue to box,” said Hicks, who was 29 when he had his last fight, “but felt I owed it to my family to give them more of my time. “My wife Jen, son Tom Jnr and daughter Melissa are all terrific. They have always been supportive.
“Being a contender made me a celebrity in Ithaca and Lockport,” says Hicks. “That’s how it is in small towns. People were in awe when they heard I was a professional boxer. It helped me as a schoolteacher in that the students gave me respect.”
Hicks, now approaching 78 years old, was involved in a horrific accident in 2015, while as a pedestrian he was hit by a car. It was touch and go for a while until he recovered, but there are lingering physical issues which have slowed him down a bit. “But I still keep in good shape and watch the fights all of the time,” Hicks says proudly.
Perhaps no other light-heavyweight in history could have beaten Foster the night Hicks fought him. But Tommy can always say he boxed for the world title. Not bad for an after school job.