‘Big’ George Foreman is a former boxer known more today for what he has done outside the ring than for what he did during his legendary boxing career. He has transcended the sport in popular culture and some are not aware of all the great accomplishments he achieved in the ring. During a boxing career that spanned four decades, George Foreman amassed a record of 76-5 (68 KO’s) and fought many all-time greats such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. He also won the heavyweight world title 2 times, once as a young man and then again when he defeated Michael Moorer in 1994 to become, at age 45, the oldest man to ever win a heavyweight championship.
In part 1 of this “On The Ropes” classic interview, Big George talks about how he got into the sport and shares his memories of winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Foreman also discusses his world title shot against Joe Frazier, his 2 round destruction of Ken Norton and his gives his thoughts on “The Rumble in the jungle” versus Muhammad Ali. Additionally, Foreman talks about dealing with defeat, his war with Ron Lyle and the moment that changed his life forever. Here is what George Foreman had to say.
JENNA J: Let’s talk a little bit about your career. How was it that you got into the sport of boxing?
GEORGE FOREMAN: I just went down to the gym to lose some weight, actually. Then I got into a lot of trouble in the Job Corps Center and they seemed to think that if I was interested they would allow me to stay in the Job Corps Center. It would get me out of trouble. I figured I was going to be a good street fighter after a year of my amateur boxing, going back to Houston, Texas and beat everybody up. Little did I know it would lead me into gold medal matches and I would pick up skills on the left jab, the right hand, and all those things where I even lost my desire to even be a street fighter.
JENNA: You ended up winning the gold medal in the Olympics and became the best up and coming American heavyweight, what was that feeling like?
FOREMAN: Oh winning that gold medal, I tell you, just to be on the Olympic team was really wonderful to me. I had a lot of friends who had served in the Armed Forces, and they’d come home with their uniforms and they were so proud, and everybody was proud of them. I didn’t get a chance to serve. By 19 years old, I was on the Olympic team and I had those colors, the tracksuits, the dress-up suits, everything.
I told my mom how proud I was to have some uniforms, even if I didn’t win a boxing match. So to win one match after another and then be in a position to win a gold medal— wow! That blew me away. Winning that gold medal at the end, I wanted the whole world to know where I was from, so I picked up a small American flag and paraded around the ring to make sure they knew. This was my chance to represent my country. That was greater to me then even winning the boxing matches.
JENNA: Now after that you decided to turn professional. What was it like and what were your expectations when you decided to become a professional boxer?
FOREMAN: I wanted to go on and work for the Job Corps Center and finish my college education and all of that, but everyone said I can make a lot of money and become champion and finally someone confessed that I could make a million. So I expected going into boxing that I would make these hundred thousand dollars and eventually make a million. That was my expectation, but I found out along the way that I could punch, really punch. One knockout after another and before long, surprisingly, in three and a half years I was the number one contender in the world. It surprised me.
JENNA: Alright, well getting to that position in the rankings you got your world title shot against Joe Frazier. You were a 3-1 underdog. Was that fact he was favored to beat you extra motivation going into that fight?
FOREMAN: Just getting in the ring with Joe Frazier was extra motivation because I had seen Joe Frazier. I had been matched thirty-seven times previously, and my manager would always tell me the other guy had a weak jaw, he didn’t have this, and we’d concentrate. But fighting Joe Frazier was the first time in the dressing room that he didn’t even tell me anything because we both knew not to go there. This guy had no holes in his armor. This was a great fighter. It was the first time I had gotten into the ring where I was really afraid. I was afraid. I’ll tell you, you corner a cat and that’s when you can get hurt, and I was the cat that night.
JENNA: In that fight you knocked him down 6 times, in 2 rounds before the Ref waved it off. What were you thinking when it was all over and you were the new heavyweight champion of the world?
FOREMAN: After you win the title, the first thing that comes to your mind is ‘unbelievable’. Then your name, just like a cash register, starts going—Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman. Your name fits right in there and you can feel it. In a split second, the heavyweight champion of the world, it was the most dynamite season for a long time. Plus, I was going to get that million dollars.
JENNA: After that fight, you went on to defend the title a couple of times and then you faced Ken Norton. You ended up knocking him out in only 2 rounds. Were you at all surprised that you beat him so easily?
FOREMAN: I expected the Norton fight to probably be the toughest fight I had ever had in my career because he was a big man just like me. He was all really loaded with muscles. He had a record filled with lots of knockouts. As a matter of fact, he had gone two fights with Muhammad Ali and they both looked like he won to me, although he won the first one and lost the other by decision. I really thought this was going to be it for me. I trained harder for the Norton fight than I had ever trained in my life.
JENNA: Well speaking of Ali, you ended up meeting him in the ring in the fight known as “The Rumble In the Jungle.” When you look back at the way Ali fought against you, using the rope-a-dope, what are your thoughts?
FOREMAN: Looking back on it, I had this real thing about cutting the ring off. You get into the ring with me and you try to move, you’re always going to find yourself in the corner. After a couple of rounds with Muhammad Ali, he would hit and then there was nowhere to run. I’d corner him and then just start throwing lots of punches. So the rope-a-dope really was not a design. It was just something he had to do, and because he had this tremendous experience.
I remember, it must have been the third round, I put everything I had on him and he knew he was supposed to have been gone. When the bell rang, he looked up at me as if to say, ‘I made it!’ and I looked at him equally and said, ‘How did he make it?’ From that point on, the fight started to turn. He realized that he could survive my heavy punches. There were hard shots to come after that, but he had this funny confidence that he could make it, but that strategy was not a design. It just evolved.
JENNA: Was there anything about Muhammad Ali that surprised you?
FOREMAN: Brave! I’ve never gone in the ring with anyone that courageous. I hit him one time in the side and it hurt so bad, he looked at me as if to say, ‘I’m not going to take that off of you’. He started to charge and then he said, ‘No, I can’t fight with this guy’ and he backed up into the ropes. Most guys, afterwards, I would hit them and they’d say to themselves, ‘I’m knocked out!’ I hit him, he didn’t say it. He didn’t say anything. He just said, ‘Look, I’m going to get beat up’. I have never seen a human being that brave, never before nor after.
JENNA: How disappointed were you that you never got a rematch again Ali, and do you think if you did get that opportunity do you think you would have been able to reserve the result?
FOREMAN: I tried desperately to get that boxing match, and for good reasons, he wouldn’t allow me to have it. You’ve heard the expression, ‘One’s scared and the other’s glad of it’. I mean, I beat this guy up until about the sixth or seventh round, and I hit him with a good shot and he whispered into my ear, ‘Is that all you got George?’ I knew the punch hurt him, but the point of it is who wanted to get in the ring with someone like that again. Not me, and he got hit so hard he didn’t want it either. It wasn’t like I was praying, please let me have him again. If I had fought him again with the same type of vengeance I had to get even, the results would have pretty much been the same. He had my number, that’s all there is to it.
JENNA: Now George, after the Ali fight you took some time off and when you returned you took on Ron Lyle in a fight that wound up being the 1976 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year. Looking back at it, how tough of a fight was that for you?
FOREMAN: Now Ron Lyle no doubt was the toughest fight I had in my life. He wasn’t the toughest man, but for the first time I was beaten up and I just decided, look I’m just going to have to die in this ring. I’m just not going to quit. I’m going to keep getting up and with Ron Lyle, he beat me up so bad that I think eventually he fainted and I won the boxing match.
JENNA: Was that the most you were ever hurt in your career?
FOREMAN: Yeah, I wasn’t hurt in the Muhammad Ali fight. They counted me out because I jumped up at the eight-count, and they counted ten. So I wasn’t hurt in that fight. I was actually honestly knocked down, but the Ron Lyle fight, I was hurt. I was hit so hard, you didn’t feel anything. You just find yourself on the canvas and this was the test of my life because I couldn’t come back with any excuses like with the Muhammad Ali fight. I had excuses, you know. But this time the whole world saw. No excuse, George. I had to keep getting up. That was as close to what I found endurance, stamina, all of it bottled up. I had it that night. Without it, I wouldn’t have even walked out of that ring alive with Ron Lyle.
JENNA: After the Lyle bout you won more five fights in a row and then you fought Jimmy Young. Most people concede that if you had beat Jimmy young you would have gotten your shot at Ali. Can you tell us what it was like going into that fight in Puerto Rico?
FOREMAN: Well the Jimmy Young fight was going to be a twelve round fight. I was going to make certain, first of all, that I had gone twelve rounds and that I was going to get a decision and show the world that I had the stamina. They said that I couldn’t go seven rounds. I was going to show that, beat Jimmy Young, and then demand a fight with Muhammad Ali because he had previously had a match with Ali and it was a controversial decision where a lot of people thought Young had won that fight.
One of the organizations said if after this fight, Muhammad would not make the match, they would strip him and give it to the winner of the Young fight. So this was going to be a prize that night. I went into that fight basically expecting to get an easy win. Little did I know that that would be the fight that would lead to my ten year absence from boxing.
JENNA: Now can you tell us maybe a little bit about that? A lot of fans have heard went on and maybe they want to hear it from your own mouth, what went on in the locker room after you lost that bout?
FOREMAN: Well after, I waited around for the decision in the boxing match of which I really still think I won that boxing match on points. But I didn’t win. So I was so hot. The air conditioners had gone out in San Juan, Puerto Rico that night. It was the hottest place I’d ever felt in my life. I went back to my dressing room to cool off like you normally do and it was so hot you just couldn’t sit down.
I was walking and I started thinking, ‘Who cares about this boxing match? You’re still George Foreman. You got money. You could go home and you could go to your ranch and you could retire if you want to. You don’t need boxing. You could retire and die’. From that point on, every word in the conversation led that I was going to die, and I knew I was about to die in a dirty, smelly dressing room that didn’t even have air conditioning. I fought for my life in that dressing room and I heard a voice within me ask, ‘You believe in God, why are you scared to die?’ And I was really afraid.
I was scared and I tried to fight for my life. I didn’t want to tell anyone in the dressing room what was going on because they would have thought maybe he was disappointed that he lost the boxing match. Eventually I tried to make a deal because I knew there was a God. I said, ‘I’m still George Foreman. I can still box and give me money to charity and for cancer’ and the voice answered me within, ‘I don’t want your money, I want you’. Well in a split second, my legs gave out on me and I tried to scream to everyone in the room, ‘Hey ya’ll’. Before I could say another word, I was in this deep dark place over my head, under my feet, nothing, and there was a horrible smell that goes along with death and I knew it was the end of me in a big dump yard. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my mother or my children and I was scared. I looked around and I got mad and said, ‘I don’t care if this is death, I still believe there’s a God’. I just didn’t believe in religion. Then when I said that I believed in God, like a big hand reached in and pulled me out of just hopelessness and I was alive in the dressing room again.
Evidently, they picked me up off the floor and I laid on the table, and as I lay there my doctor’s standing behind me. I told him, ‘Doctor, move your hands, the thorns on his head are making him bleed’ and I saw it, no one else did, blood coming down my forehead. I looked on my hand and I started screaming and I saw blood and I said, ‘Jesus Christ is coming alive in me!’ Well, you know what they did. They strapped me down and took me to intensive care, but I’ve been telling that story now for over thirty-three years how I had no idea that religion exists. I stopped boxing. For ten years, I couldn’t even make a fist. I just went to the dressing room and I hit the bag and it was just a big piece of leather when beforehand it had been Frazier and Ali I’d hit imagining they were on that bag, but this time there was nothing. For ten years I just started preaching. I was ordained an evangelist a year after the Jimmy Young fight and I traveled all over the world telling the story I just told you. I just didn’t believe religion existed. I thought it was for people who were depressed, and I had money and I didn’t need I thought, and that’s what happened in the Jimmy Young fight.
JENNA: Let’s talk a little bit about your retirement. You weren’t officially retired, but you did not fight again for ten years. What was it like in those experiences there preaching and telling people your story?
FOREMAN: It was great, because I always say there’s two doors to the world. There’s a front door, you come in as a wealthy famous athlete, and there’s a backdoor where you’re just on a street corner preaching. I shaved my coveted mustache off. I took all my hair off my head so I’d be on the corner and no one would recognize me. I had gone up to 315 pounds and it was a lot of fun, because I thought you had to be rich and famous to make it in this life. People would stop me if I was getting a battery charger, get me a charger, I’d try to pay them and they’d say, ‘Get out of here big’un’. They’d let me get in line to have an extra big piece of meat at the butcher store. Sometimes even the airline stewardesses would allow me to come up front to a bigger seat. They said, ‘We can’t get you in the booth, big guy, but that seat is too small in coach’. I found out it’s a great world. You don’t have to be famous. For ten years I truly enjoyed myself. I could go into the store, no one would recognize me, and I could buy those detergents that didn’t have any names on them. Nobody cared. I’d shop and started learning how to change my oil, do my own dishes. It became a great world. It was a lot more fun than being some spoiled athlete and having everyone do everything for you.
STAY TUNED TO ONTHEROPESBOXING.COM FOR “THE COMEBACK” IN PART 2 OF MY INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE FOREMAN