George Foreman, two-time former heavyweight boxing champion and globally renowned corporate spokesman, is also an ordained minister and founder of the George Foreman Youth and Community Center in Houston.
In your book, you talk about your childhood–how you were raised in extreme poverty and had to learn everything the hard way. What was it like for you growing up?
I was raised in a one-parent home, and my mother had to work two jobs. When you're in a single-parent home, they try to give you a good foundation, but by the time you're 4 or 5 years old, from that point on you're pretty much on your own. You get your hand burned, and you learn not to put your hand on the fire. So everything I learned I had to learn the hard way. There are seven of us total, I'm number five of seven kids, four boys and three girls. Most of my childhood I was raised in the city of Houston, where I am now. But I started my boxing career in California.
How did you get started in boxing? What motivated you?
After I dropped out of junior high school, I heard a commercial–a great football player by the name of Jim Brown said if you're looking for a second chance, join the Job Corps. And I was looking for a second chance–I was in big trouble anyway–and I joined. That's where I started a basic education and vocational program. I studied electronic assemblies in the Job Corps.
One day there was a fight being broadcast between Muhammad (Ali)–he was Cassius Clay then–and he was fighting Floyd Patterson. All the kids said, “George, you're a bully; why don't you be a boxer?” And I just took the challenge. I said, “OK, I'll show you.” Just to prove it for myself, I went out for boxing.
I didn't like it; I really didn't like it. But the boxing coach, Doc Broadus, liked me. He said, “Look, if you stop fighting in the streets and the alleys, you could be an Olympic champion.” I had no idea what an Olympic champion was. He stayed on my back, and I went back to California to work for the Job Corps center, and I learned how to box. In 1968, I became a gold medalist in Mexico City.
That was the highlight of my whole athletic career. I was a 19-year-old boy who had never had a dream come true before, and there I am standing on the platform with the medal around my neck, and I hear the national anthem in the background–there's never been anything like that in my life since.
You've been through a lot of ups and downs in your boxing career. What effect did losing have on you? Was it as important as winning?
In 1973, I became heavyweight champion of the world with 38 victories, no defeats as a professional. You get to a point where you think you cannot lose. I felt like I had the greatest power with my fists, I was the strongest man in the world. I kept winning fights, but then I lost to Ali in Zaire, Africa.
It devastated me. It really did have a great effect on me. I told everybody I was going to be heavyweight champion of the world forever, and I was the strongest man alive. And I lost in Zaire. In 10 seconds, my whole life was changed. One day people walking by you were afraid to even ask you a question, and the next day they're patting you on the back with pity. That was devastating. It changed my life.
But you regained the heavyweight championship.
Twenty years after I lost. I was 45–the oldest ever to do so.
Nobody believed it. They said, “George Foreman is gonna get himself hurt; he's too old.” I heard it all. But one thing I always had going for me, I knew how to box, I always knew how to box. I gave it up to become a preacher, but not because I couldn't do it anymore. Just that the higher calling penetrated my life.
You're talking about the religious awakening you had in 1977?
I didn't believe in religion, but I knew there was a God somewhere.
Everybody I knew who was in (religion) always seemed like they were running from something. So I wasn't going to take it up. But that night in Puerto Rico, I had my last boxing match in 1977 with Jimmy Young. I lost a decision, a split decision, went back to my dressing room to cool off, and that's when it all started happening.
I started thinking, I could go home and retire, I got money, I could retire right now to my ranch and die. And before I knew it, that had taken over my whole conversation–you're gonna die. I realized I was going to die in that dressing room from a boxing match.
I thought silently, because I thought if I revealed to anyone in the room what I was thinking that they was gonna figure I was depressed because I lost the decision. So I kept it in. And right within my thoughts I heard a voice within me that said: “You believe in God. Why are you scared to die?” And I was scared; … I didn't want to die. I mean, I didn't think that could happen to me so I started jumping up and down, saying: “I'm not gonna die; I got everything to live for.”
I tried to make a deal with the voice–I'm champion of the world, I'm George Foreman, I can still give money to charity and cancer. I heard an answer right in my thoughts: “I don't want your money. I want you.” And that's when I knew I was about to die.
I said, “God, I believe in you, but not enough.” When I said that, there was a deep dark nothing over my head, under me, all around me was just a dump yard of every sad thought I ever had in my life, multiplied like nothing. And I was dead, and I could smell death, and it was just the most horrible thing. It was like someone dropped me off in the deep sea–no help–there was no way I could get out of this.
And I said, as a tough man, I've always been tough, I said, “I don't care if this is death, I still believe there's a God.” When I said that, a gigantic hand snatched me out of this “nothing,” and I was lying in the dressing room bleeding, blood flowing through my veins. And evidently they had picked me up off the floor in the dressing room and laid me on the table, because that's where I was and everybody was standing around me crying, and I said to my doctor: “Move your hands. The thorns on his head are making him bleed.”
I saw blood coming down my forehead, and I hadn't been hit in the boxing match. And I told my masseur, Mr. Fuller, “You move your hand because he's bleeding and they crucified him.” And I started screaming words I never screamed before–that Jesus Christ was coming alive in me. And I jumped in the shower, started screaming, “Hallelujah, I'm clean, I'm born again, I'm going out to save the world!” and they said, “You better put on some clothes first.”
I tried to explain it away as much as I could–you got hit too hard, you're hot, I didn't believe in religion, Jesus, I never even thought it existed.
You were running away from it?
Religion was for depressed people, just an excuse if you didn't have anything else. So here I was embarrassed because my friends, we made fun of religion.
After that experience, I was still a top contender, but I just couldn't go back into the gym. I didn't know what to do with my life. And I started telling this story … and people started calling me “brother” and I was ordained at the Church of Lord Jesus Christ in Houston at the end of 1978 as an evangelist. I started traveling to hospitals and prisons and telling this story. Eventually, I started preaching weddings and funerals. That's been the story of my life. I never intended to be a preacher, never!
I started a youth center, my brother-in-law and I, in Houston, for the kids to hang out. Finally I was broke, I would have to close the youth center if I didn't quickly move. The only way I knew how to make money and not to beg people for it was to be a boxer again. It hurt me to take my shirt off again and be a boxer but it was the only profession I had. And that's why I went back.
Was it hard for you, believing in Christianity, which emphasizes peace, to take up boxing, with all the violence that's involved?
That was a hard thing for me. When I started the youth center, some parents wanted me to get their kid interested in boxing. I said: “Look, I'm a preacher. I'm not going to be helping boxers; that's nothing but ignorance and violence.” And then one day I inquired about the kid, and (learned) he robbed a store in my neighborhood. The storekeeper shot his friend, and he shot the storekeeper. All these lives were devastated because I didn't want to look like a backslider. I said, “I can't help this kid, but I'll never let another get away from me.”
What do you pray for?
You know this peace I found in 1977? More than anything, I pray to keep it. When I was about to die in that dressing room, all I could think of was I didn't say goodbye to my mother, I hadn't gotten a chance to embrace my kids, there were friends I forgot to say I'm sorry to. I had a second chance to live, and I'm constantly embracing my loved ones. My friends know that they're my friends–even my enemies know that they're my friends. All I pray is to be consistently like this all the days of my life.
I never pray for things–just to consistently be the same way I am. I never get upset about what I read in the newspaper. I realize that every human being can make a difference in this world. Just make certain that I'm consistently making a difference.
What's your relationship like with Ali?
We've become great friends. Muhammad Ali and I–I love him like a little brother. I'm always talking the Bible to him and he's saying, “Uh-oh, here he comes!”
Does Ali ever come back and quote the Koran to you?
Never, never. It's always like, “George, if God wants me to know about it, he'll tell me; don't do it, George, don't!” That kind of thing.
Is there any minister that you admire as a role model?
There are so many guys who do so many good things. I hate to say just ministers. There are so many people out there who do so many good things. Dr. Robert Schuller, I told him what happened to me … I said, “I know you may think I'm crazy but I'm telling you I was dead.” He said, “George–I'm a reverend and I'm a psychologist, and I believe you.” I've never forgotten that.
That was all I needed. From then I started running. I thanked him in my book for being a good corner man–to push you off the stool when you don't want to go on. In the ring sometimes when a guy is whipping you bad, you sit on your stool and you say to your corner man, “I think I had enough.” And it takes a strong trainer to pick you up and say, “Get back out there; don't you quit!”
Interview by Wendy Schuman of Beliefnet. Distributed by Religion News Service.