- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

Darrell Foster has been a part of boxing history before. The Largo High School graduate, a former amateur fighter, was part of Sugar Ray Leonard's training staff, helping Leonard, his childhood friend, get ready for some of his biggest fights.
That was nothing compared to the challenge that Foster faced when he was selected to be the boxing trainer for Will Smith. After all, he had just helped Ray Leonard be Ray Leonard.
Foster had to turn Will Smith into Muhammad Ali, or at least the illusion of Ali in the ring. Based on the reviews so far of the Michael Mann film "Ali," which opens tomorrow in theaters across the country, Foster successfully pulled it off.
"They had a nationwide search for trainers, and Will and [director Michael Mann] auditioned each trainer," said Foster, who set up the fight scenes for the film. "I was one of the only ones not influenced by the star power and studio machinery. The only way I would agree to do it was if the movie would be truthful and honest about what happened in the ring. They allowed me to do the fight scenes as historically correct as we could get them."
Foster was convinced that the only way to do that was to literally turn Smith into a fighter. "We approached it like an amateur trying to learn how to box," Foster said. They spent nearly a year preparing Smith running, sparring, weight training, watching fight films, voice lessons to get Ali's speech down and other preparation, about 12 hours a day of work.
But the action in the ring would give the film credibility. So many sports films turn into jokes because of either mistakes made in the athletic action or the actors not looking believable. And, with a well-known icon like Ali, the pressure to convince people that Will Smith was Ali in the ring was perhaps the greatest any boxing consultant ever faced in Hollywood. After all, millions upon millions of people have seen Ali fight, or films of his fights. It is not like simulating Jake LaMotta, a fighter that most filmgoers had never seen before "Raging Bull" came out.
Foster put the pressure back on Smith by giving him an idea of what it really was like to be Ali in the ring. "I started out by sparring with Will myself, and I really roughed him up," said Foster, a former Maryland Golden Gloves amateur lightweight champion he credits Leonard trainer Dave Jacobs for teaching him how to fight who weighs nearly 200 pounds these days, and who had sparred numerous rounds against Leonard.
"So much of boxing is heart, and I needed to know if Will had the heart to portray Ali. I felt if I put him under pressure, to stand in there and take it, it would help him develop the instincts that Ali needed when he fought against [Joe] Frazier and [George] Foreman. In those fights, there was always an intense sense of danger, and I felt it needed to be a real experience for Will."
Traditionally, fight scenes are "choreographed" in films, but Foster said that wasn't the way they developed the fight scenes in Ali. "It wasn't a lot of choreography," he said. "There were a lot of natural moves, with some historic moments that we would set up. But sometimes, in the heat of battle against Michael Bentt (a former heavyweight contender who played Sonny Liston), we had some magic happening. Will really got hit with that left hook by James Toney (the former middleweight champion who played Joe Frazier, who put Ali down in the 15th round of Ali-Frazier I with a left hook), but it was gold, so we used it."
"Ali" may prove to be gold for Foster, who moved out west after Leonard's historic win over Marvin Hagler in 1987. He had been involved in boxing for 25 years, and said he needed time away from it. Foster worked for a spell as an emergency medical technician, and went back to school (he had gone to University of Maryland) to continue his studies as a trainer. In 1994, he opened up a fitness consulting business called Omega Bodies, in Pasadena, Calif. He began making contacts with Hollywood studios, and began finding work as a boxing consultant. "A lot of studios were looking for authenticity, and they were looking for real guys to teach the actors," he said.
Foster got his break when he was the fight consultant for the boxing movie, "Play It To The Bone," with Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas. He worked on a short-lived television program called, "The Contender," and did some fight scenes in the Disney movie, "The Kid." Foster was working with Ving Rhames in a film about Sonny Liston, but production stopped on that movie (Foster said it will begin again soon). He also just got finished working with Eddie Murphy in the film "I Spy," a remake of the Bill Cosby-Robert Culp television series. In the television show, Cosby's cover was a tennis player. In the film, Murphy's cover is a professional fighter.
"Things have really picked up for me," Foster said. "I have been fortunate enough to make boxing work for me, instead of the other way around."
Foster, at the age of 43, is still a licensed professional fighter in California, though he hasn't had an official pro fight for about 15 years. The boxing commission put him through a series of tests before renewing his license recently, including watching sparring sessions against Bentt. Foster said his license is more a point of pride than anything else, but he didn't rule out a return to the ring if Will Smith comes with him. "Will had talked about fighting one four-round pro fight," Foster said. "I said if you do, I will get on the card with you. Line up a fight and we'll do this thing."
That's not likely to happen. There is too much Hollywood money invested in Will Smith for him to risk it taking a fight on a lark, no matter how good a job Foster did. And Darrell Foster is too busy these days creating real fights for Hollywood to be fighting for real.

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