Once written off, O’Shaquie Foster has overcome adversity to become champion
The road that O’Shaquie Foster traveled to earn championship gold was paved in anything but that precious metal.
Few boxers today have had a more tumultuous path to the top as the 30-year-old Texan. There were a pair of early losses, the kind that often relegate rising prospects to gatekeeper status, followed by four-month prison stint in 2017 for an aggravated assault case that was originally an attempted murder charge.
He had been an amateur prodigy, coming within just three points of beating Joseph Diaz Jr. in the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, but the promise shown by the boxer from the eastern Texas city of Orange could have gone unfulfilled had he not righted the ship.
Now, after winning the WBC junior lightweight title a year ago, the 30-year-old fighter is where he had always dreamed of being. He will seem a world away from the Orange County Jail when he headlines an ESPN card on Feb. 16 against Abraham Nova at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The fight will be his first under new promoter Top Rank, which gives Foster a powerful ally to help with moving forward with his boxing goals.
For Foster, the surreality of his journey isn’t lost on him.
“I think about it everyday. All day, every day when I’m training and everything. It’s super crazy to me,” said Foster (21-2, knockouts), who goes by “Shock” or “Ice Water” in the ring.
“I’ve seen myself here as a kid, watching it, wanting to be here, but as the journey went on and certain stuff happened, this is definitely not what I expected to happen.”
Among the setbacks were two decision losses, to the late Samuel Teah and Rolando Chinea, which took place in an eight month period from 2015 to 2016. Foster went from top prospect to high-risk, low-reward opponent overnight, and could sense that people who had sang his praises had changed their tune. The only gym in his small town near the Louisiana border closed down in 2011, making it harder to stay focused on his craft, and making him more susceptible to falling into the traps of the streets.
“A lot of people saw me as a write-off. I took a lot of B-side fights coming back. They thought I was food or whatever, I definitely saw it out of people but I always knew what I had in me,” said Foster, who is rated no. 2 by The Ring at 130 pounds.
Keith Mills knew what he had in him also. The Virginia-based manager began working with Foster in 2016 and knew that Foster’s issues could be fixed by putting him in the right situation. Foster says that Mills was always in his corner, but still made sure Foster did the hard work to stay on track.
“It was really tough [to get to the top] but it was more a mental thing, it was never physical with Shock,” said Mills.
“This is one of those sports where you have to completely dedicate yourself. You can’t be 60-70 percent in, you’re gonna lose every time. Talent only takes you but so far in this sport, and that’s really what it was.”
Since walking out of jail, Foster has won eleven straight, though he missed all of 2021 due to a contract dispute with former promoter Lou DiBella. His big moment came in February of 2023, when he faced the previously unbeaten Rey Vargas for the vacant WBC junior lightweight title. The switch-hitting Foster outclassed Vargas over twelve rounds to win a unanimous decision and stamp himself as one of the top 130-pounders in the world.
His first defense, which took place this past October in Cancun, Mexico, was far more eventful. Facing the tough-as-nails Eduardo Hernandez, Foster was pushed to the limit in a fight that appeared to be closely contested, though two of the judges had the Mexican fighter winning widely.
There was no ambiguity to his reality: Foster needed a knockout heading into the final round or he would have lost his belt by split decision. And that’s just what Foster delivered, with just 22 seconds left to spare.
One judge, the inexperienced and inactive Nicolas Hidalgo of Venezuela, had Foster losing all of the rounds, 11-0, heading into the final round.
“Man, you see what they tried to do? They wanted to take the belt, it was crazy man,” remembers Foster. “It was just like, ‘that belt coming home, don’t even worry about it. We’re already planning all these other fights to put them together.’ That’s the energy we got from them.”
As Foster was checking out of the hotel, he was surprised to be greeted by Hidalgo, who enthusiastically identified himself as the judge with the indefensible scorecard, much to Foster’s bewilderment.
Foster saw firsthand the dangers that being a promotional free agent in a sport dictated by politics could be. It was much to his relief when he saw Top Rank was interested in having him join their roster.
“I’ve been looking closely at Top Rank but I never could catch their eye until the last fight. When they did come, I was excited. I felt like the love they showed me when they came to me, it was real love, it was genuine, it wasn’t like we just want him so we can throw him in the mix,” said Foster, who now lives in Houston, where he has trained under Bobby Benton, far away from the distractions of his hometown.
Top Rank chairman Bob Arum expressed his excitement with working with Foster in a press release this past November, stating “O’Shaquie Foster is a supremely talented champion in the prime of his career. We are thrilled to welcome him to Top Rank, and I eagerly await his next world title defense.”
Mills says the relationship with Top Rank makes for great possibilities for Foster’s career. Beginning with Nova (23-1, 16 KOs), Top Rank has a deep roster of boxers around the lightweight divisions who could make for attractive matchups for Foster.
Nova, 30, of Albany, N.Y. by way of Puerto Rico is a long-time veteran of the Top Rank stable and is looking to get his first shot at a world title. He has won twice since his lone defeat, a fifth round knockout loss to Robeisy Ramirez in June of 2022, including a third round knockout of Jonathan Romero last July.
Foster simply says that Nova is a good fighter that he’s had his eye on. Mills recalls far more acrimony between the two than Foster is letting on. He says Nova had done an interview several years ago in which he said less than complimentary things about Foster.
“They went back and forth a little bit but nothing materialized. Nova just didn’t want any part of Shock, he just couldn’t come out and say it. The things that he said were lasting and it’s funny how things come together,” said Mills.
“Shock is giving him an opportunity when he didn’t give Shock an opportunity. At that time, I believe Nova had a bigger name than Shock. He was with the right people to make things happen.”
Now Mills believes it’s Foster who has the right people with him, the kind of people who can make big things happen in his career, provided he gets past Nova.
“The world opens up. There’s unifications, Top Rank has a number of fighters. Oscar Valdez is still out there, that’s a great fight. We’ve always wanted that Valdez fight when he was champion. Of course we weren’t in position but we’re in position now to give him an opportunity. That’s a nice fight out there but if not there are all of these unification fights out there,” said Mills.
Foster adds that unification bouts with WBA titleholder Lamont Roach Jr., who is currently a promotional free agent, could be the easiest route to a unification bout, though a showdown with IBF junior lightweight titleholder Joe Cordina of Wales could also be an attractive fight.
“Definitely looking to unify whether it’s Lamont or Cordina, either one. [WBO junior lightweight titleholder Emanuel] Navarrete, I’m not sure what he has going on, he’s going up to 135 so that might have to be a future fight whenever I end up going up. Definitely Leigh Wood would be cool, the winner of Oscar and [Liam] Wilson would be cool,” said Foster.
There were times when many doubted Foster could have gotten to this point. Now that he has, Foster is looking to make the most out of this opportunity.
“The real problem for the rest of the boxing world now is, Shock’s dedication and his work ethic have finally caught up with his talent and now you’re seeing the product of that,” said Mills.
Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected].