George Foreman Has More Stories To Tell Than Grills To Sell

george-foreman

March 17, 1977, marked the end of the beginning.

March 9, 1987, marked the beginning of the … well, certainly not the end. More like the beginning of another beginning.

When I called George Foreman last Friday, it was with the idea of getting him to reminisce about the final fight of the first phase of his remarkable boxing career, the transformative points loss to Jimmy Young in sweltering San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well as of the first fight of the second phase of that improbable journey, the fourth-round knockout of Steve Zouski in Sacramento, Calif., a matchup that was initially greeted with snickers and derision from disbelievers who eventually would be won over.

By the time we had finished chatting, I had eight legal pages of notes and quotes, some dealing with names, dates and details with which I was familiar, and some with which I was not, or had misplaced in the attic of memory. But the end result was an even greater sense of appreciation than I had before Big George jabbed the answer button on the Bluetooth in his car and recalled events, great and small, of one of the most interesting lives lived by any boxer, or anyone, for that matter, regardless of occupation.

“Shocked,” Foreman, asked if he could ever have imagined where his massive fists would take him, said as he drove from his Houston-area home to a rodeo, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since he is a born-and-bred Texan infused with that state’s natural appreciation of the cowboy lifestyle. “I went into the Job Corps because the last job I had (before he went off to win the heavyweight gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics) paid me minimum wage, $1.25 an hour. But I never saw that extra quarter; they were only paying me a dollar an hour. I was hoping that if I got some training at the Job Corps, I could get up to $2.50, maybe even $3 an hour.

“To think that one day I’d be on television, doing commercials and twice be the heavyweight champion of the world … impossible. If anyone had told me that, I would have asked my friends to call for that padded wagon to come pick up the guy and take him away.”

But, if the fickle finger of destiny touches you, as it did Foreman, crazy things happen. Crazy-good, as it turned out for Big George. Just as that same finger might touch someone else with the result being crazy-bad. There never are any guarantees, but your path to wherever you wind up certainly can be made easier if you have a singular, bankable talent.

For George Foreman, that skill was an ability to punch really hard, maybe harder than any man ever to lace up a pair of padded gloves. Even the opponent who dealt Foreman his most dramatic and crushing defeat – which, like so many other things in Foreman’s charmed life, turned out to be a positive – is of the opinion that the best of Foreman was a more electrifying power source than anything ever seen in boxing, before or since.

“If you take any two heavyweights you can think of, and multiply (their punching power) by two, that’s George Foreman,” said Ali, whose improvised “Rope-a-Dope” tactics in his Oct. 30, 1974, “Rumble in the Jungle” matchup with the heavily favored Foreman, an eighth-round stoppage of the exhausted champion, is a cornerstone of the Ali legend.

Jimmy Young, whose unanimous, 12-round decision over a gassed Foreman sent the former titlist into a 10-year period of inactivity (George never announced his retirement from the ring when walked away to enters the ministry) – shared Ali’s high opinion of Foreman’s devastating power, noting that “George is the hardest-hitting guy I ever fought.”

And Foreman, now 66, doesn’t dispute that his ability to instantly turn out the lights on anyone he faced is perhaps unmatched in the annals of the sweet science.

“When you’re a puncher, it’s a real mysterious, almost magical thing,” said Foreman, who finally got around to retiring, with a 76-5 record that 68 wins inside the distance, after his hotly disputed majority-decision loss to Shannon Briggs on Nov. 22, 1997. “Guys who can’t punch, one thing they got to have is a lot of bravery because they knew they had to go 10 rounds, 12 rounds, 15 rounds almost every time. Punchers live with the fear that if a fight keeps going another round, another round, they’re somehow going to lose. Sometimes (Dick Sadler, his first manager and trainer) would tell me, `Slow down, we’ll get him in the next round.’ I looked at him as if to say, `Man, you don’t understand. I got to get this over with now.

“Every fight I ever had, I went for the knockout and nothing else. I didn’t really think I could win a decision. Even when I won on points, I felt like I failed.”

The 6-3½ Foreman never had the chiseled physique of, say, a Ken Norton or an Evander Holyfield, but he has a thick frame that, upon occasion, enlarged beyond his personal preferences. His dreams at the Job Corps were minimalistic – Earning $3 an hour someday? Yippee! — and he had an idea of going on to trade school or community college to get enough education to perhaps rise to the giddy heights of $5 an hour, and maybe even a bit more. All that began to change when Foreman, who had dropped out of school at 15 and was no stranger to the seedier elements of his Fifth Ward neighborhood, went to a gym in an effort to lose some weight and discovered his destiny. Only he didn’t know just then that it was.

It was a feel-good moment at the ’68 Olympics when Foreman, just 19 and having logged only 18 amateur bouts before he left for Mexico, scored three victories to take the gold, the last a two-round stoppage of Jonas Cepulis, a Lithuanian representing the Soviet Union. The sight of Foreman, smiling and waving a tiny American flag in the moments after he had battered Cepulis into submission, was viewed by some as an uplifting counterpoint to the black-power demonstration on the medal stand by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Upon returning to Houston, Foreman figured he was through with boxing. But the Job Center he had been at closed shortly thereafter, and, well, a guy has to do something to make some money, right?

“I thought maybe I’d wind up teaching physical education, something like that,” Foreman said. “When the Job Center closed, Sadler said, `Son, why don’t you put on some boxing exhibitions? You might find out you really want to be a boxer.’ I said OK, I’ll try it. I never really thought about becoming a professional before then. Sadler put me in with Donnie Waldheim in Madison Square Garden (on June 23, 1969), on a card headlined by Joe Frazier’s win over Jerry Quarry. I stopped Waldheim in three rounds and made $5,000. I was, like, `Man, I got all that in one day? I want to do this now!’”

But the smiling kid of the Mexico City Olympics had already begun to slip away, replaced by a brooding, more menacing version intent on replicating the withering glare and intimidating aura of another fearsome heavyweight, former champion Sonny Liston.

“I sparred with Sonny Liston before I tuned pro,” Foreman recalled. “I paid attention to what he did, how he acted. Next thing I knew, I fell in love with his personality. I thought, `This is what I want to be. If you’re going to be champion of the world, you need to be like this guy.’ When Sonny stared at people, it sent shivers down their spine. He beat a lot of guys with that stare, and it didn’t hurt that he could punch so hard, too.

“I had the punch, all right, but even then you got to have a little something extra to go with it. The funny thing is, I don’t think Sonny consciously tried to stare people down. He just looked mean. That was no put-on. He even made me a little uncomfortable. But I was a loner who lacked socialization skills, like Sonny, so, like him, I became this … this creature. I’m not sure that transformation would have taken place if I hadn’t been around Sonny Liston.”

Thus began Foreman’s Listonian reign of terror, with opponent after opponent falling like tall grass before the scythe. Big George was 37-0 with 34 KOs when he got his first title shot, against Joe Frazier on Jan. 22, 1973, in Kingston, Jamaica. And, for once, it was the intimidator who was intimidated.

“Sadler would always tell me, `This guy doesn’t have a chin,’ or ‘this other guy can’t punch,’” Foreman said. “He made it seem like everybody I fought had a big chink in his armor. But he and I both knew Frazier was as real as it got in boxing. You couldn’t talk bad about him because who would believe it? I was afraid, maybe because for once Sadler had nothing to say. He had too much respect for Joe Frazier to call him a bum or somebody who had no chance to beat me.”

In less than two rounds, Foreman, who went into the ring with traces of fear and doubt he’d never felt before, floored the great Smokin’ Joe six times as ABC-TV commentator Howard Cosell famously yelled “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”

“All of a sudden I’m beating a guy like Joe Frazier, who could punch like he could and never stop coming at you? I left there thinking, `Nobody can stand up to me.’ I just believed that if I caught anybody with a right uppercut or a left hook, he’s gone. I could knock anybody out with either hand. It seemed impossible to me that I could lose.”

Ali, of course, showed Foreman that he wasn’t as invincible as he had imagined. But maybe the outcome would have been different had not Foreman suffered a cut eye in training, which postponed the fight by more than a month. It was a delay which, Foreman believes, prevented him from turning in what might have been his most memorable performance.

“You go into training camp with the idea of getting everything on track, you rhythm and your timing, so you can be at your best on fight night,” he said. “Usually, you never get it exactly right. For that fight, I got it. I’m in Africa and I had the best timing, the best punching power, I ever had in my life. I couldn’t believe it. The guys I was sparring with couldn’t do anything with me except to cover up. One guy – I can’t think of his name – stuck up his hand to cover up and his elbow him me and cut my eye.

“I had found the rhythm I had been seeking all my life in boxing, less than 15 days before the fight was supposed to happen. Now I’m cut. The swelling went down after about 10 days and I got in some running, but I couldn’t spar until the eye healed up. Even when I did spar, my sparring partners couldn’t really throw punches because no one wanted to take a chance of opening up that eye again. I never did get that rhythm back.”

Interestingly, Foreman now believes the loss to Young, and to a lesser degree the one to Ali, were blessings in disguise. Against Young, a slick boxer with negligible pop on his punches, the tough break came not in the form of a cut in training, but a broken air-conditioning system in the Coliseo Roberto Clemente which made for such stifling heat in the ring that Big George, so used to whacking guys out early, couldn’t handle it as the rounds inexorably tolled on. It was in the dressing room afterward that he had his spiritual epiphany. Lying on a table, delirious and dehydrated, he was convinced his hands and feet were covered in blood, even though he hadn’t been cut in the fight, and several times he yelled, “Hallelujah!” His handlers, convinced he was suffering from heat prostration, took him to a hospital for observation. But what Foreman had experienced proved to be anything but a temporary condition.

Thus ended the George Foreman that had been. He walked away from boxing and its trappings of wealth and fame to become an ordained minister late in 1978, when he opened the George Foreman Youth and Community Center. He shaved his head and trademark mustache and happily gained more than 100 pounds, topping out at 320-plus.

But it takes money to run a church with an ever-growing congregation, and over time the financial assets that Foreman had accumulated and funneled into his ministry dwindled to the point where he became something of a charity case himself. He was at an evangelical conference in Georgia when he experienced another epiphany, after the conference organizer asked attendees, many of whom were poor, to dig into their pockets to aid Foreman in his efforts to help others.

“I had to look at them and pretend I wasn’t ashamed,” Foreman said. “And then the thought struck me: `I know how to get money. I’m going to be heavyweight champion of the world again.’”

Foreman was rustier than a mothballed battleship, and he was hardly in fighting trim when he returned to training. Although he had long since cast aside any notions of personal vanity, it did sting when he attended a Houston Rockets game and a child became excited to see someone he was convinced was a celebrity.

“He said, `I know you!’” Foreman said. “I was so happy. Finally, somebody recognized me. Then the kid said, `You’re `Refrigerator’ Perry!’ I thought, `Man, I got a lot of work to do.’”

The Comeback began modestly, against Zouski, a journeyman, and 5,555 people showed up in Sacramento, probably more out of curiosity than in expectation of seeing a reasonable facsimile of the Big George that had been. Foreman was a fleshy 267 pounds, 49½ more than he had been for his title-winning blowout of Frazier, and even Zouski came away relatively unimpressed.

“There’s no snap on his punches,” Zouski said. “They didn’t really hurt. They were thudding punches. Mike Tyson has much more snap. They hurt more.”

But there is a Chinese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and Foreman had taken that step. Now the antithesis of the youthful intimidator of his first pro incarnation, he reinvented himself as the jolly fat man, smiling a lot, posing with trays of hamburgers and cracking self-deprecating jokes about his girth and advanced age. Still, the skeptics were slow to come around – until the night of Jan. 15, 1990, when he took on hard-hitting Gerry Cooney in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall. “The Geezers at Caesars” matchup was easily the highest-visibility bout of the Foreman return, which by then consisted of 19 wipeouts of mostly second- and third-tier opposition, 18 of the victories coming inside the distance. Foreman’s second-round TKO of Cooney, however, was widely viewed as a signal that Big George’s reemergence was legitimate.

“That was the true beginning, right there,” Foreman said. “All of a sudden people were, like, `Hmmm. Maybe this wagon really is going somewhere.’ Before then, not so much.”

The dream that had once seemed so distant was fulfilled when Foreman landed the overhand right that put WBA/IBF champion Michael Moorer down and out in the 10th round on Nov. 5, 1994, at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, proving, if nothing else, that punching power really is the last asset a fight loses, if indeed he was fortunate enough to have had it in the first place. “I’ve exorcised the ghost once and forever,” he said of the loss to Ali that had haunted him.

Gone, too, are any recriminations he might have harbored following the setback to Young, which likely kayoed the rematch with Ali that supposedly would have been his had he won. Perhaps the air-conditioning going out was divine providence, a signal from above that there is more to life than knocking another man to the canvas to be counted out – and more important, too, than selling hundreds of thousands of the electric grills bearing his name that he came to be associated with as much as boxing.

“I’m so happy things worked out the way they did,” he said. “Now, you don’t want to lose and I wasn’t happy that I lost a boxing match, but it would have been horrible if I had won. I don’t know what would have happened with my life. Inwardly, I was lost. I was following in the steps of some of my predecessors (Liston, maybe?) that didn’t leave any good trails. I had developed this weird personality as a rich boxer who could buy anything he wanted, but didn’t really know what he wanted. I had lost sight of some of things that should have been more important to me.

“When I left boxing, I found an inner peace. You search for that, but it’s elusive. A lot of great champions never find it. I’m so glad I had that peace when I returned. Believe me, it makes all the difference.”

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