"THE GREATEST"
MUHAMMAD ALI

Steve Foster Former Commonwealth Light Middleweight Champ And World Title Challenger SIGNED And INSCRIBED Action Shot Photo Against Robert McCracken

Steve Foster Former Commonwealth Light Middleweight Champ And World Title Challenger SIGNED And INSCRIBED Action Shot Photo Against Robert McCracken

Steve "The Viking" Foster former Commonwealth light middleweight champion and WBO World title challenger to Ronald "Winky" Wright SIGNED (silver sharpie) and INSCRIBED "The Viking" original action shot 8" x 10" press photo against Robert McCracken.

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"Salford's Viking king ready for a rampage"
When Steve Foster steps into the ring, a horde of followers push the longboats out. (Glyn Leach reports Wednesday, 21 August 1996).

Eyelids did not bat when Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, Americans of Jewish descent, played The Vikings in the eponymous action movie that has become a Bank Holiday/Sunday afternoon staple - hardly Jeremy Irons being asked to play a Pakistani, was it? But it is doubtful that the Dimple and the DA knew what they were starting with their cult of the counterfeit Norsemen.

Longboats in Nineties Greater Manchester? Horned hordes roaming through Salford? At the beck and call of a pseudo-Scandinavian warlord with not a dram of Nordic blood in him?

Nobody could have predicted the advent of Steve "The Viking" Foster, the Commonwealth and IBF Intercontinental light-middleweight champion and a man approaching The Rev Jim Jones's standards of power over the flock, but Foster's congregation is more capable of spending its disposable income.

Foster, in training at Salford's Phoenix Camp gym for what until recently seemed a most unlikely world title challenge next month, has long been British boxing's premier hands-on ticket-seller.

No beneficiary of multimedia marketing, but a man with huge grassroots popularity in his own locale, who knows the people buying tickets to his fights because he has sold them those tickets himself. Foster shifted a best-yet pounds 40,000 worth for his last contest, when he outpointed Chris Pyatt for the Commonwealth title, all taken from friends, family and in the pubs and clubs of Salford. Hardly surprising, then, that Foster should recently have made his first foray into legitimate boxing promotion. The show sold out, with a thousand prospective punters having to be turned away. He stages his second promotion tomorrow night in Salford.

Foster, 35, candidly admits that exquisite boxing skills are not the root of his status. "We all know I'm not Sugar Ray Leonard," he said. "I trade on me fitness. I'm always in great shape. I'm a believer that most of the skill goes out of a fight after five or six rounds. After that, it's down to who wants it most."

Modestly, Foster attributes his popularity to Salford having been starved of boxing success. True, but a theory making light of Foster's charisma and reputation locally as an all-round decent guy. And until the end of last year, Foster was anything but successful, having lost three mid-level title challenges. Yet his following was no smaller than now.

Central to the success that causes his promoter, Frank Warren, to term Foster "a phenomenon" has been the Viking theme introduced five years ago when someone suggested a catchy French nom de guerre might perk up a flagging career.

As a teenager, Foster's long blond hair, cropped today, and love of a brawl - "I were a bit of a handful" - earned him his Norse nickname from drinking friends: "You're like a bloody Viking, you." Two and two made four.

But a teenager's drinking name would become Foster's meal ticket in his mid-thirties as a father of three (a 19-year-old daughter and sons aged 15 and 8), a former bricklayer and Salford publican who readily admits: "It's no secret, I still like a drink, me."

It is surreal in the extreme to witness the thousands of horned helmets and borrowed fireside-rug cloaks in the crowd when Foster fights. Roaring out an approximation of the theme tune to the Douglas-Curtis movie, the chant appropriated by supporters at the City Ground and Ewood Park when Lars Bohinen has had "on" days.

Such is the devotion to Foster that a band of Viking raiders - "I know 'em all, went to school with 'em, drink with 'em" - travelled, in full regalia, on a flatback truck dressed as a longboat to a Foster fight in Birmingham. When Foster lost (as he has done 13 times in 34 fights), they returned to Manchester, torched their wheeled ship and sent it sailing down the River Irwell as a Viking funeral for their vanquished chieftain.

Criminally imaginative. Thankfully, the Foster family dog escape a fiery fate.

But the mischief had turned to mayhem earlier that evening in September 1994 when Vikings from Salford, a Manchester United stronghold, and the notorious "Zulu" Birmingham City supporters who followed Foster's opponent, Robert McCracken, clashed inside the National Exhibition Centre in one of the worst British boxing riots ever - though it was chicken feed compared with July's Madison Square Garden disturbance. "It were terrible," Foster said. "Those Zulus attacked us. We're never any trouble. Me Vikings used to take their wives and kids along, but they stopped after that. It took four fights before the Vikings felt safe in bringing the family again."

They will be there in force at the Nynex Centre, Manchester, on 19 September. Only Odin knows what Florida's Ronald "Winky" Wright, the World Boxing Organisation champion, will make of it all.

"And wait till he gets a load of me, Foster said. "I'll be in his face all night. Me trainer, Billy Graham, is getting me fitter than ever for this. It's been weeks since I've had a drink with me Vikings."

Unsurprisingly, Graham is nicknamed "The Preacher". But no, he does not inspire dog-collar wearing support. One cult will do Salford nicely.