Thirty odd years after he was dramatically humbled by Muhammad Ali, on that mythical night in Zaire, the door of the London hotel room opened and in walked George Foreman followed by his smaller and much slimmer son, George III (Foreman has five sons all named George). “Good to see you George.” I said to George Snr. George Snr said nothing and neither did George Jnr. I offered my hand and after a pause George snr took it, without a smile.
The Foreman hand was as large as a baseball mitt but the Foreman grip oddly soft and limp. I guessed that the light touch was maybe a product of his fighting days, when protecting fists from any undue stress was a priority, or maybe the former two-time heavyweight champ had no need to confirm his masculinity with such an obvious gesture as a firm clasp of hands with the likes of me. He wasn't a travelling salesman after all. Well, actually, he was. The Foreman's were in town to flog the famous grills. That was the purpose of the visit.
I watched “Big” George as he walked into the room. You couldn't really miss him. His head was like a large boulder and the shoulders were so wide it looked like he’d stuffed a wardrobe inside his blue business suit. From behind, the huge, square-shouldered frame in the blue suit, looked similar to Odd Bod from Carry On Screaming.
“Where do you want me?” Foreman said.
“Anywhere you like, George.” I replied.
George Snr nodded and moved towards a brown leather seat with a quick stride and then he sat down and adjusted his jacket. He still didn’t smile. Jr took a chair opposite and opened a notebook. George Jr also wore the glum of a Victorian butler about to empty the early morning bed pan. I tried to lighten the mood. "So...busy are we George?" It was the sort of thing you'd say to a cab driver after closing time.
"We go straight from here to another interview." said Big George.
"What are they called?" Said Sr to Jr
" Fred and Fern." said Jr after some deliberation.
" Fred and Fern?" I said " You mean Phil and Fern? This Morning?"
" That's right." said George " Straight after this we are talking with them on live TV."
It was little wonder they wore the expressions of the condemned. I took a gulp on my coffee, smiled at the Georges and started on the questions.
I hear you used to get into trouble as a young man... That you were a bit of a tearaway?
I was a juvenile delinquent. Because I didn’t have any parents to watch me. My mother and father broke up early so my mother would have to work and I would get up to basic devious things; shop lifting and stealing and as a teenager I was a serious mugger. I sometimes ran around with a gang in the fifth ward of Houston and we would mug guys on a regular basis. But much of the time I would hang around on my own. I was basically a loner with an attitude.
When did you start boxing?
I dropped out of high school at sixteen and started in something called the job corps programme. Which was set up to help people like me learn skills that could help them get a job and make something of themselves other than a mugger. I started boxing because I was always picking on people in the job corps programme. Always trying to prove myself as the tough guy and one night we were watching Muhammad Ali fight Floyd Patterson on TV and 'cause I was so big one of the guys says ‘Hey, George, why don’t you start boxing? You are big enough to to box.’ That’s when I took the challenge.
So Ali was one of the people you admired at the time. Was he your hero?
I can’t say I really liked him at the time but everybody admired him and that was the fight that got me interested in boxing. Ali was boisterous and nice looking and he was likeable.
Do you think that Ali was important for black people at the time? Ali was saying ‘I’m pretty and I’m beautiful!’ and ‘I’m proud to be black!’ and that was a dangerous thing to be saying in the early sixties in the South was it not?
Where did you hear that? You are trying to rewrite history.
I’m saying that a black man could be lynched for saying, “ I’m the greatest! Or “I’m pretty!” in front of white people in certain states of the South in the early sixties. Do you not think so?
I don’t know anything about that.
You don’t think there was racism in the south?
I didn’t know anything about it until I read about it. When Ali went on television and said ‘I’m the greatest.’ Everybody loved him, it didn’t matter what complexion you were. They didn’t care anything about his colour. It didn’t matter whether you came from Germany, England, wherever, everybody loved him.
"I was a serious mugger. I sometimes ran around with a gang in the fifth ward of Houston and we would mug guys on a regular basis."
You rose to prominence quickly. You were a teenager when you won the Olympic gold medal in 1968 that must have been an incredible experience.
That was great. I was 18 when I had my first boxing match in February of 1967 and in October of 1968 I’m the Olympic heavyweight gold medallist. I had a total of 25 boxing matches. The 25th was me being crowned with the Olympic gold. So I had a brief and very successful career in the amateurs (must be a record) I hit so hard I didn’t leave it to the judges.
There was a lot of controversy after you won the gold medal. It was the time of Vietnam and civil rights protests and ‘68 was the Olympics when John Carlos and Tommy Smith made their raised gloved protest from the medal rostrum and when you won the medal you ran around the ring waving the American flag. Why did you do that?
When you go to the Olympics it doesn’t matter where you are from the only thing you have in common are the colours that you were wearing. Because if you spend time in the Olympic village you see a lot of people who look exactly like you but when you go up to them and say ‘Hello.’ they can’t speak your language. So you start looking for people who wear your colours. I was keyed into the Olympic village. I wanted people to know where I came from.
So there was nobody from the outside telling you to wave that flag so that it looked like you were a good patriot in support of the U.S?
We all carried American flags. And I said if I won I would raise the flag. Also there was frustration because a few of the boxers had had decisions go against them so I wanted everyone to know that an American had won the gold medal.
Was the decision to turn professional an easy one considering your gold medal win and the size and punching power you obviously had.
It wasn’t easy at all because I was still in the job corps and I wanted to be a teacher at that time. I wanted to go to college and get a degree so I could teach physical education. All that was lined up for me. It just so happened the job corps closed down not long after the Olympics when Nixon was elected and a trainer called Dick Sadler approached me. He was the manager of Sonny Liston at the time so I had an instant team. I sparred with Liston and within six months I had my first professional fight in Madison Square Garden.
What did you think of Sonny Liston? Because I’ve heard he was an incredibly difficult and complex character and a bit of a thug. [Liston was rumoured to be owned by the Mafia. He died in Vegas in mysterious circumstances in 1969]
I loved Sonny. Everybody said he was mean and cruel but I liked him. I think he was quite a good guy underneath. Kids liked him. They seemed to gravitate towards him I thought he was a wonderful guy. I admired the way he would try to take on the world. So I tried to take on a few of his characteristics and imitate him a little bit.
Did you ever find out what happened to him? [There were rumours that Sonny was murdered by the mob. He was found with a needle at his side after taking an apparent heroine overdose, but Sonny had a lifelong fear of needles]
He died while we were working together. There was some mystery around it. No one knows what happened. When death comes you have to leave. It’s as simple as that.
When you first started to box as a pro you seemed to box a lot. It seems that fighters today fight once every Pancake Day when they can be bothered.
We didn’t have a lot of money so I used to box sometimes twice a month. I had 37 fights before I got a title shot. Winning them all. When I fought Frazier for the title nobody paid much attention to it but I had had more fights than he had.
You fought for the title out in Kingston, Jamaica.
At the time people started to want publicity for their countries and Islands and also when Ali fought Frazier at Madison square garden the government took too much in taxes. So much that fighting there wasn’t an attractive thing any more and so we went to Jamaica for the ‘sunshine showdown’ .
You hadn’t fought in Frazier’s class before the fight what was going through your head.
Well everybody was afraid of Joe Frazier. But I knew I had the punching power and I knew Joe would come straight for me. A lot of those knock outs I had to chase guys but Joe I knew I wouldn’t have to chase so he came straight for me and I knocked him down six times before they stopped it.
Did you go out and have a good 'knees up' in Jamaica that night?
Well at that time I wasn’t much of a celebrator. I had given up smoking and drinking. Which I had done a lot of during my days as a delinquent. I had turned my life around. I wasn’t religious at that time, not at all, so it was nothing to do with that but a lot of people around me had said if you want to be the heavyweight champion of the world you need to live right. Get a lot of rest, don’t drink and smoke so I had a quiet night.
"We didn’t have a lot of money so I used to box sometimes twice a month. I had 37 fights before I got a title shot. Winning them all."
So on to the famous fight with Ali in Zaire. You had some wise old birds in your corner (ex-Light Heavyweight champ) Archie Moore and Dick Sadler. What kind of things did they want you to do in able to beat Ali. What kind of strategy did you have?
Well let’s face it nobody gave Ali much of a chance. I was the most devastating puncher anybody had ever seen. Even that I’d ever seen. I’d knocked out Frazier and Norton – who had both beaten Ali – in brutal fashion. So we didn’t have much of a strategy. Archie Moore and Dick Sadler would pass me my robe or hand up the water but they really didn’t do much more than that because I was such a devastating puncher I could knock anyone out.
Surely Moore and Sadler were smarter than to go into a fight with Ali without a strategy. Ali had a great chin as much as anything else. He wasn’t going to lie down without a fight and also I saw you in ‘When we were Kings’ practising to cut off the ring. So you could trap Ali in the corners.
Well, if they knew it wasn’t going to be an easy fight they didn’t tell me.
You went in there thinking you would just blow him away?
Well before the fight there were a lot of people who came up to me, who cared for Ali, and they were saying ‘We care for Ali very much please don’t kill him’. Now I didn’t want to kill the guy but that going into the fight was my only problem. How do you decipher between killing a guy and knocking him out? That was my biggest dilemma how to knock him out without killing him.
At that time you always seemed to be very self contained and a bit surly. Every inch the tough guy. You didn’t seem to listen to many people. Was that one of the problems going into the fight? That you just thought ‘Hey, I’m George Foreman I don’t need anybody I can walk through this guy’?
I did believe that but I did listen to people. In fact even during the fight I listened to Sadler and Moore it was just that they weren’t telling me the right things to do.
Yes you seemed to wilt around the 5th or 6th round and I would have thought Moore and Sadler being sharp guys would have been telling you to back of a little and get your breath back. Get Ali out into centre ring and off the ropes.
I think we all went for the ‘oakey dokey’ if you know what I mean. ‘Go get him George!’ I’d go back to the corner and it would be ‘Go get him George!’ They misled me.
A general question. When a fighter is in distress - as you seemed to be towards the end of that fight - when you are tired and on the verge of being beat what keeps you going? Most rational people would just get out of there but what keeps a fighter afloat when it seems like he is about to drown?
I remember the first fight I had wasn’t for money and definitely wasn’t for fame and I fought that first fight no less hard than I did the fight with Ali and the second fight the same thing. You have to have that will to give it your all. That is perhaps greater than anything in the boxing world. Better than having all the titles and the money, having that will and when the bell rings you are still that original guy who started out. Some guys are not like that they go into boxing for the wrong reasons. To be seen and for the money. Some of us are driven by a force that we can’t understand.
After you lost the fight to Jimmy Young several years later you had a visitation in your dressing room? You saw Jesus?
I went into that fight to go the twelve rounds. I still believe I won that boxing match. I didn’t even think about religion about God and Jesus before that fight. That was for the poor. I rejected it. But that day in the dressing room after the fight Jesus came alive in me. I heard an inner voice. I wasn’t seeing anything. I could just hear in my thoughts a voice saying ‘Why are you scared to die.!’ And I thought ‘why am I thinking about dying? I never think about dying.’ it was somebody else’s voice in my head. After the fight they took me to intensive care and one of my trainers came to me and he said ‘George, the media are going to come in and see you. They want to know about this vision you had. They think your crazy. Now when they ask you what happened just say you had heat prostration.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about but the next day as soon as the media came in I said ‘ Heat prostration.’ Trying to define what happened... to this day I don’t know what happened but all I know is that I came out of that fight a better man and there was something alive inside me.
You were out of the ring for ten years what were you doing in that time?
I was learning, teaching and preaching in Houston. I would go to hospitals and schools and I was helping kids at a youth centre. Giving them help showing them how to box and how to live a life that wasn’t just out on the streets getting into trouble. God just took over my life and to this day that’s what I do.
The youth centre was the main reason you came back was it not?
Yes, I needed the money to help build up the youth centre which was in danger of closing down. I’d put a lot of money into the place, my own money, and my accountant was saying you just can’t do this any more you are going to end up broke so I started going out making speeches and people would donate money for the centre but a lot of these people who would donate money were poor. I was begging people who needed money themselves so I said ‘I know how to get money I’m going to win the title back.’
When you came back it was seen as a bit of a joke. But after you beat Gerry Cooney people began to take you seriously and one thing I noticed was that your style had changed you seemed to be much more relaxed. The Foreman part 2 didn’t seem to be as tense and uptight as your first incarnation.
Yes, you have to change. First time around it took me over three years to perfect my style before I beat Joe Frazier. Three years of constant training to get the rhythm. When I came back I was almost forty years old. I needed to get on top very quickly - I thought I didn’t have three years – so I developed another style I would come on you like waves, let you throw your punches and then I would keep coming. It was a style that wouldn’t need my reflexes as much. I would use my body like a bowling ball to smash the opponent.
"Well let’s face it nobody gave Ali much of a chance. I was the most devastating puncher anybody had ever seen."
So you finally won the title back against Moorer at the age of 46 that was some achievement.
All night I jabbed him and jabbed him and then I moved down to the midsection with a hard shot and that got him thinking and brought his hands down, so in the next round, the tenth with his attention on the body I threw jabs to the face. After one of those jabs I brought up a short right hand from the hip that caught him at ground zero. Right on the point of the chin. He hit the mat and I knew he wasn’t getting up before the ref stopped counting.
You seem to have had three careers, George. You’ve been the surly world champ, the cuddly world champ and now the media darling and businessman selling the grills. I reckon you are one of the most successful sportsmen of all time. Your ring earning alone must have set you up for life. When did the grill business start.
I’ve been very fortunate. I was endorsing other products before the grill. Madison Avenue thought 'Hey, George can sell!’ I was endorsing burgers and Nike trainers and Kentucky fried chicken you name them I did ‘em. And as a matter of fact I didn’t like doing commercials because I saw so many people out there doing it. You know ‘Pay me. Ok’ and on to the next one. I was talking to Bill Cosby about it and he said. ‘Hey, you are no different to anyone else you go out there and do it.’ So I decided I would pursue it and one friend told me that I should stop selling other peoples products and I should get my own product. So I got the call from a company who asked me if I would like to promote their grill and call it the George Foreman grill. I said ‘ How much money is in it?’ and they said ‘ There is no money in it at the moment.’ It was a chance for me to start it right from the bottom and I liked the grill. So we did a few commercials and it was almost like word of mouth we sold it on the internet and it became a kind of cult and then we sold recipes and cookery books and before we knew it we were selling millions.
And they are pretty good.
That’s the point they are good.
So whose idea was it to slant the grill so all the grease falls out into the little tray?
The grill was around for a while but it just wasn’t going anywhere and suddenly there I was on TV saying that my training headquarters was right next to MacDonald’s. That I’d gone on a cheeseburger diet, that I was the prodigal son of boxing looking for the fatted calf. “Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got a strength coach - my wife - she gets big chains and at night she puts them around the refrigerator. They’re so strong I can’t break them.”It was just a natural association.
So you’re making lots of money?
I’ve made so much money in my life but if I told you that I was just doing this for money I’d be lying to you. Ten years out of boxing as a preacher and when I came back into boxing. I thought that a man is better with a job. At one point I didn’t know the difference between Monday and Saturday I would just get up when I wanted. This to me is a labour of love. I enjoy it. I love doing what I want to do.
You’ve had a pretty great life.
Yeah but I’ve had some rough times too. I’ve been through several divorces and that was bad. Have you ever been through a divorce?
Well let me tell you it isn’t good. It can tear your heart out.
So what do you believe in George? What is your simple philosophy on life?
I believe in people. I believe in them because I am a person myself. If you make friends with me you don’t need anything else. I’m the best friend anyone can have. There was a song that I used to hear when I was a kid ‘you can never have a friend like me.’ If somebody becomes my friend they have got it made.
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