George Foreman is known today as jolly George the entertainer: a genial pitchman with a ready smile, a promoter of products and ideas, an ordained minister with his own church, five wives (not simultaneously), and five sons all named George. It is a remarkable transformation from where he came from.
George was born and raised in the infamous Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas: nicknamed “the bloody Fifth” for all the violence. He grew up with his mother and stepfather and six other siblings, a large clan in a crowded house that did not have a bathroom. George was a big tough kid who liked picking fights more than going to school. He walked down the mean streets of the Fifth Ward, wordlessly punching strangers in the face and leaving them lying dazed on the ground.
After dropping out of school at age fifteen George hung out with gangs until he drifted into the Job Corps. There he learned to box. Boxing got young George out of the “bloody Fifth” and into the summer Olympics in Mexico City in 1968, where he won the gold medal in the heavyweight boxing division.
After his victory in the final match George waved a small American flag in the ring, a sharp contrast to the black fists raised by African American sprinters on the award platform.Foreman turned professional and spent the next five years knocking people out. By 1973 big George matched his record of 37-0, (34 by knockout) against the undefeated (29-0) heavyweight champion, Joe Frazier in a title fight in Kingston, Jamaica. In what became known as the “Sunshine Showdown,” Foreman demolished the heavily favored Frazier, knocking him down six times in two rounds to become the new heavyweight champion.
Foreman defended his new title against Ken Norton in Caracas Venezuala. In the “Caracas Caper,” Foreman destroyed Norton in two rounds. Norton and Frazier were the only fighters to have beaten Muhammad Ali. On October 30 1974 Foreman met Ali in Zaire Africa for the historic “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Foreman came into the fight a prohibitive favorite. There was fear he might actually kill the older Ali, who had so much trouble beating Frazier and Norton. But conventional wisdom got turned on its head when Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round to regain the championship.
Foreman’s glaring, surly persona did not intimidate the ring savvy Ali, who got an assist from his trainer Angelo Dundee. Years later Dundee confessed to illegally loosening the ring ropes so Ali could lay on the ropes out of reach of Foreman’s heavy handed attack. Even so, Ali later admitted that at least twice during the fight he blacked out from Foreman’s punches – he was knocked out without falling down.
Foreman wanted to be champ again, but in 1977 he lost a decision to Jimmy Young in sweltering Puerto Rico. After losing the fight George also lost himself. The twenty-eight year old big bad George Foreman who disdained religion and used intimidation and rudeness to navigate through the world disappeared. What happened?
Witnesses remember Foreman’s small dressing room feeling like an oven. George described the heat as “smothering.” Overheated and agitated, the big man paced. Then he passed out, fell down, and began a remarkable emotional, mental, and spiritual transformation.
Those with him thought Foreman was suffering from heat prostration or even heat stroke. Although his eyes were closed, George was wide awake. Later he recalled his experience at length:
“I was transported into a deep, dark void, like a bottomless pit…I lost my perception of direction, and didn’t know which way was up and which was down. This was a place of total isolation, cut off from everything and everyone…a vacant space of extreme hopelessness, like being dropped in the Atlantic Ocean with nothing to grab on to, a thousand miles from shore.
“I knew I was dead, and this wasn’t heaven. I was terrified, knowing I had no way out. Sorrow beyond description engulfed my soul… I truly felt this was the end of my life, and I saw – too late – that I had missed what life was meant to be about. I got mad, I was furious that I had fallen for the devil’s lies and deceptions. I screamed with every ounce of strength in me, “I don’t care if this is death. I still believe there’s a God!”
“Instantly, what seemed to be like a gigantic hand reached down and snatched me out of the terrifying place. Immediately I was back inside my body in the dressing room. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t in darkness anymore. Even though I had lost all hope of escaping, God had mercifully let me out.”
George Foreman is describing a “near death experience,” where dying people have what they later describe as a supernatural experience. Invariably the person experiencing the near death experience has a profound shift in how they view themselves and the world. Frequently they are changed forever, almost always in positive ways.
Foreman’s behavior upon leaving Puerto Rico followed form. He abruptly retired from boxing and became an ordained non-denominational minister. He founded a church in Houston called The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then he opened a community gym for troubled boys he called “The George Foreman Youth and Community Center.”
So big bad George the puncher became born again George the community activist and philanthropist. Then, as George tells the story, he ran out of money when his accountant drained his funds. What to do? George declared:
“Those kids needed me, and I wouldn't desert them. I'd just have to find another way to raise funds. And then the thought struck me: I know how to get money. I'm going to be heavyweight champ of the world. Again.”
Guess what? In 1994 at the age of forty-five George Foreman became the oldest boxing heavyweight champion ever when he knocked out champion Michael Moorer in the tenth round. Foreman wore the same red trunks he wore when he fought Ali in Zaire twenty years previously. Fortunately, the trunks were elastic enough to accommodate the thirty extra pounds (really) big George carried the second time around.
Foreman retired from boxing for the last time in 1997 with a professional record of 76 wins (68 by knockout) and five losses. He had made more than enough money in the nine years of his second boxing career to keep the community center open and to replenish his finances.
In fact, Foreman’s main income in the 1990’s was not from boxing. He became a profitable pitchman for “the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine.” George made millions off infomercials but the big payoff came in 1999 when the Foreman Grill manufacturer, Salton Inc., paid Foreman $137.5 million in cash and stock for rights to his name and image.
Besides the grill, Foreman’s promoting of Meineke Car Care Centers grew the business to over 1,000 franchises. There are innumerable other projects: a clothing line; several books; a reality show featuring Foreman's wife, Joan, and 10 children, including five boys named George; a line of environmentally safe cleaning products; an exclusive line of personal care products; a prescription shoe for diabetics to prevent amputations; a restaurant franchise called UFood Grille; a stint as color man for HBO Boxing; and resident preacher at his church in Houston, giving the good word to his parishioners four days a week.
In short, from growing up in a shack without a bathroom, George has done all right for himself. It is even tempting to call his near death experience and subsequent life changes not merely remarkable but miraculous. That is George’s opinion anyway, in his autobiography entitled “God in My Corner.” He firmly believes God personally intervened in that hot little dressing room in Puerto Rico, and changed the course of George Foreman’s life forever.
Christian readers of his autobiography will be heartened by George’s experience. Other readers may find it difficult to tell where George ends and his promotional personality begins. Atheists will scoff and attribute Foreman’s change to the power of positive thinking. Perhaps, but here’s some advice for the naysayers: don’t let George hear you. Word is he still packs a punch.
George Foreman (with Ken Abraham), God In My Corner, A Spiritual Memoir, 2007, Thomas Nelson Inc., publisher.