Interview by John Raughter, American Legion Communications Director
"Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell famously exclaimed just minutes before introducing the new heavyweight boxing champion of the world, George Foreman. But patriotic Americans were already inspired by Foreman's display of talent and his waving of a small American flag after winning a gold medal over a Russian opponent during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Despite his sheer dominance and six knockdowns against previous champion Joe Frazier during their title bout in Kingston, Jamaica, on Jan. 22, 1973, Foreman had always been the underdog. Born in Marshall, Texas, he grew up with six siblings in Houston's tough Fifth Ward. He admits to having a troubled youth and dropping out of school at age 15. His life began to turn around after joining the Jobs Corps and moving to Pleasanton, Calif., where he trained to box.
After losing a tough decision in a match against Jimmy Young in 1977, Foreman had a religious epiphany in his dressing room. He gave up boxing and became a born-again Christian. He often joked that Young had "knocked the devil out of me." Foreman was ordained a minister in 1978 and founded The Church of The Lord Jesus Christ in Houston in 1980.
In 1984, the former (and future) champion founded the George Foreman Youth and Community Center, a non-denominational place for kids who needed direction like he once did. Foreman surprised many by announcing his boxing comeback in 1987, 10 years after he retired from the ring.
A substantial underdog once again, Foreman shocked the world by regaining the heavyweight championship over Michael Moorer, a man 19 years younger, on Nov. 5, 1994, in Las Vegas. At age 45, Foreman became the oldest man to ever win the world heavyweight championship and broke the record for the longest interval between his first and second championships.
As successful as he was in the ring, Foreman proved that he could be a champion businessman as well. His success as a pitchman for the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Grilling Machine and other products was so lucrative that financial network CNBC featured him as a "Titan of Industry."
Foreman has been inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The International Boxing Research Organization rates Foreman as the eighth greatest heavyweight of all time and The Ring magazine ranked him as the ninth greatest puncher of all time.
He was selected by The American Legion Past Department Commanders Club as its 2013 James V. Day Good Guy Award winner. Foreman accepted the award at the PDDC luncheon in Houston on Aug. 26. He then spoke to John Raughter, communications director for The American Legion.
The American Legion: Congratulations on being the recipient of the 2013 American Legion James V. Day Good Guy Award, champ. Moving on to one of the reasons why the Past Department Commander's Club may have chosen you for the award, why did you carry and wave the flag at the 1968 Olympics?
George Foreman: Gosh, that is a big question. How could I do it and why? You're at the Olympic Village and you notice that there is no difference between anyone, how they look. Every country has got their lookalikes for George Foreman and whoever. The only thing that differentiated you were the colors that you wore. And I remember thinking that if I won this thing, I got to let them know that I'm from America. So I took up the small American flag to get back at the judges who were stealing our matches. Gotcha! And then everybody applauded. I just waved. Look where I'm from! You just had no idea what people took for granted. So that's what that was all about. Showing where I was from.
The American Legion: Back in 1968 that was controversial.
George Foreman: Patriotism was outdated, out of style. A lot of people just didn't like it. I just didn't want to go to the Olympics as black or white. I just wanted to go as an American. So a lot of people at that time wanted to make that distinction – that we're different this or different that, but the one thing that we all had in common is we love this country, and I wanted to be an American. And then an American who had just won the gold medal! And a lot of people just didn't like it for some reason. I stopped being a follower a long time ago, and it didn't bother me. And I had people say, "George, you're this" or "you're that" on television, and I'd often think, "I wish I could get my hands on you!"
The American Legion: Is it safe to say, you'd wave the flag at the Olympics again, if you had it to do over?
GF: You know my only regret about waving the flag, is that I didn't have two. I was doing an interview with Bryant Gumble on Real Sports, and he asked me about it, and I remember thinking the only regret is that I didn't have two flags to wave. I mean because this country hasn't only been great for me, but I have grandkids now, and I want to show them how great it is.
The American Legion: Didn't Don King wave two flags?
George Foreman: Oh, poor Don King! I think he followed the lead to see what had happened to me. But the point of it is we're raising children, whenever they want to take up this thing, America is waiting to take up with them. Whatever you want!
The American Legion: Was there ever a better age in boxing than the early 1970s, with you, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali at your peak?
George Foreman: I followed the history of boxing a long time. The great Joe Louis, the great Jack Dempsey. and all of their boxing matches, but during the `60s, about the middle `60s into the late `70s, was an era that will never be duplicated. So many punchers and skillful boxers. One could beat the other on a given night. I dismantled Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali took care of me. I took care of Ken Norton. Ken Norton took care of Muhammad Ali. Jerry Quarry just beat everybody. Ron Lyle. There were so many great boxers. I can't foresee another time when there will be that many heavyweights around. I'm just glad that I survived!
The American Legion: What do you think of the state of boxing today?
George Foreman: (In) the lighterweights, skill was always needed, and the middleweights. The skill set is great in the lightweight and middleweight divisions – the best part of boxing. The heavyweights have disappeared. There aren't any good heavyweights. I'm hoping in the future, after the next Olympics, that they will evolve, but there is nothing to write home about now.
The American Legion: Who was your toughest opponent?
George Foreman: I thought it was Muhammad Ali until less than two years later I fought Ron Lyle. That boy had hit me so hard, and it hurt, and I remember being on the canvas and all that I could think about was what excuse can I give now? So I jumped up, and he had me down again. And I couldn't think of any excuse of why I'd get beat like this. And I got up and thought maybe it would be better to get killed and die in the ring than to come up with a good excuse. And I kept fighting and I won the match. And it was the toughest fight I ever had in my life.
The American Legion: What led you to retire the first time?
George Foreman: (In) 1977 after a boxing match with Jimmy Young, I actually had a vision in the dressing room. In a split second, I was dead and alive. I saw everything I worked for crumble like ashes. I remember thinking in this dark place, I was dead, I know there wasn't anything. I said, I don't care if this is death, I still believe there's a God. I didn't believe in religion. And then I had a second chance. They picked me up off the floor in the dressing room, and I saw blood on my head and my hands. And I started screaming that Jesus Christ was coming alive and they thought I was mad. And so did I. And then they rushed me to intensive care and I recovered, after being dead and alive. And I became a minister. To this day I try telling this story about what happened to me in that dressing room. Life and death in a split second. The knowledge of Jesus Christ changed my life. That's why I stopped. And then after 10 years, a phenomenon occurred. I became broke!
I had to go back to making a living in boxing. I never intended to. And I was teaching the young kids in the George Foreman Youth Center – and they'd have a chip on their shoulders – how to box. The first thing I had to teach them was never to punch in anger. And in the meantime, as I was teaching them, I had to learn myself. Because I left boxing, I didn't have any anger anymore. I didn't want to kill anyone. I was teaching them that it could be a good sport, and you didn't need anger. So in 1987, I made my comeback without any anger. I just wanted to try to make a living. Never to punch in anger.
The American Legion: And your personality during your second time in boxing was much different.
George Foreman: Well I had 10 years out of boxing, and I was such a bad boy. I really had been. I was the professional heavyweight champion of the world. The meanest man alive. But after 10 years out of boxing, people were so kind to me. I learned. You know, my car battery would stop sometimes and guys would give me a booster. People didn't know (who I was) or care, I had shaved my head, my mustache. And (wore) overalls. And after they'd give me a booster, I would ask, "How much do I owe you?" And they'd say, "Get out of here!" And I was just in a truck. Or I'd be in a store and they'd say, "Give the last steak to the big guy!" Or a stewardess would come back to the small seats where I was stuck and would say "Come on up to the front, you won't get a meal but you can have a comfortable seat." And I said, if I could do it a second time, I'd sure treat these people nicer. I had a second chance. And that's why everything was better. I was going to have fun and treat everybody nice. Because for 10 years, I was a guest of all the people. I thought you had to be rich and famous to be appreciated. They treated me so kind. And I decided if I ever got back to boxing for the championship of the world and all of that stuff, I was going to be the nicest human being that they met.
The American Legion: What is reason behind the George Foreman Community Youth Center?
George Foreman: When I left boxing, I went by a gym that my brother was working in. People trying to get their little kids interested in boxing. And I am a preacher, I'm not going to hang around boxing. I had my suit on. But a lady looked desperate and had come in with her boy and you could see she had him in to box. She wanted me to get interested in her son, but I said, "I'm a preacher – bring him to church." A couple of months later this kid was in jail. He and his friend had tried to rob a store. A storekeeper had shot one of the boys and the other boy had shot the storekeeper. I said, "Are you kidding me?" It blew me away. I took my life savings and started that youth center. I decided that I can't get that kid back, but I was going to have a place for kids to hang out. I wasn't going to preach to them or do anything but be there for them. And that was 1983. And I've kept that thing. And it had run out of money. That was the reason that I had to go back to boxing. Just to be there. I see kids come back there now with their children. And the idea that I had to go back to boxing to keep it going. I just couldn't ask people for money. I had to earn it. And it's just a place. People ask what do you do there? I don't do anything. I let the kids come in.
The American Legion: And your reaction to receiving The American Legion Good Guy Award?
George Foreman: It's strange because you go around the country and people think – you know, I get a microphone in front of me and I call it a weapon of mass destruction now – and I got a chance to see people. And there's a lot of things I wanted to say that I had on my mind when I was angry and upset. But I always realized that there were a few friends of mine, especially who worked for the Job Corps. They were retired sergeants. Some were colonels. I didn't want to disappoint those guys for being so kind to me in the Job Corps. And most of them have gone on ... they've passed on. But I kept my peace for the sake of them. I know their sacrifice in teaching me and setting me straight. And to get that award today from The American Legion, it's like they're still watching me. My friends are still paying attention to me. I've go to say the right things. I've got to be in the right places. I've got to behave myself. I never thought I'd get such an award. It meant more to me than all of the other awards and ... won the heavyweight championship of the world, because I never competed for that. I wanted to be champ. I wanted to sell a lot of grills. But for The American Legion to give the Good Guy Award, there aren't any words. Because I've been striving to say the right things and be a good person for a long time. I have got a big brother that doesn't die. The American Legion is like my big brother. Time changes, we pass, but The American Legions don't die. That's somebody in my corner so to speak.
The American Legion: What is George Foreman doing today?
George Foreman: I'm hard at work now because the grills were so successful. All college kids use the grill. Now, I want to put in supermarkets all over the world a certain amount of good but inexpensive food that they could put on the grill. Inexpensive, so I'm developing a meat brand now – and for vegetarians, a brand of already marinated vegetables so they could put it on the grill and not have it cost as much as a four-year education. It's for the George Foreman grill, and it's what I'm really working on now. Of course, I work with my sons and they're working with businesses and are active in boxing promoting again. We have GeorgeForeman.com developing products like shoes, clothes, even ties, track suits – anything to put the George Foreman brand out there. Inexpensive, quality things that you can buy. I do all of those things to support my youth center.
The American Legion: Anything you'd like to add?
George Forman: Just so appreciative. When I saw the award it blew me away. Can you imagine you can still blow me away? What a wonderful day. I enjoyed myself. Who was the gentleman (who sat) next to me (at the luncheon)?
The American Legion: World War II veteran and Past National Commander Dick Pedro.
George Foreman: I was sure honored to sit next to him. I got me a friend now.