George Foreman exclusive interview: ‘Mum never wanted me to step inside the ring’
Ferocious heavyweight puncher turned preacher tells Telegraph Sport about his enduring boxing memory
For all his huge achievements in a roller-coaster boxing career spanning 28 years, George Foreman’s mother never wanted him to fight due to his temper and when having his life replayed back to him the heavyweight icon was reduced to tears.
But there is no greater testament to the humility deep inside Foreman than the screen saver the legendary 74-year-old two-time heavyweight champion has on his computer at his desk at home in Texas: the moment Muhammad Ali knocked him down in Kinshasa, Zaire, at “The Rumble In The Jungle” in October 1974.
Foreman lost the heavyweight world title that night, but it changed his life forever. Almost two decades later, and with 10 years away from the sport preaching the word of God, Foreman was champion again. Foreman, whose extraordinary life has been made into a Hollywood biopic Big George Foreman, explains to Telegraph Sport:
“I was out of boxing for 10 years, and the only picture that I saved was Muhammad Ali knocking me down.
“There I was going down from that punch, I kept that and looked at it all the time, mainly because I realised what a big moment it was for sports and for boxing. And it kept me humbled. I never forgot that, and it’s made me a far better person than if it had been me knocking him down.”
Foreman was an executive producer on Big George Foreman. Looking back on his life, is he satisfied with the depiction of events? “Well, Hollywood does Hollywood – I do boxing, I never tried to compete one with the other – the idea that the story was centred about my life was a big compliment,” he says.
The movie, directed by George Tillman Jr and released in cinemas this Saturday, shows Foreman as a young boy growing up in privation and poverty and with broken shoes, very proud, and with a temper.
“That part of the movie… with my mum moving into these homes that had rusty old stoves and refrigerators, that made me cry. It brought it all back… sometimes life goes so fast you end up with so many other problems and trials you forget exactly where you’ve come from. That little piece in the beginning really brought back memories.”
Foreman’s mother never wanted him to box. “That’s right, not at all, my mum knew, she always feared my temper, she didn’t want me to play football, anything. She said, ‘Boy, you’ve got too much of a temper’. She never watched me do a boxing match, period.”
Yet after taking up boxing in 1967, after just a handful of amateur bouts the frightening, heavy-handed Foreman was an Olympic champion just one year later. “I had my first boxing match in February of ’67, by ’68 I was an Olympic gold medallist. It was a whole lot to take in. It was unbelievable,” he says.
“I had an Olympic gold medal, representing my country with all of the colours on. Boy, what an amazing moment. I’ve still not gotten over that, it’s like a dream that keeps coming on and on, it’s unreal to me.”
Foreman’s career moved fast and, after knocking out almost all of his first 37 ring victims, he met Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973. Foreman was still just 24, and the WBA, WBC and The Ring heavyweight titles were on the line.
Foreman said: “Joe was the only one I was truly afraid of, because we’d looked at Joe Frazier as the giant killer. He had just beaten so many guys, he had beaten Ali, they were so much bigger than him, but he just played around with all these giants. I wanted a title shot but I didn’t want to fight Joe Frazier, I can remember that just like it was yesterday.”
Yet Foreman destroyed Frazier in two rounds to win the belts.
“Fear will make you do a lot of things,” Foreman says with a laugh. “It really changed my life, because there is no preparation. You don’t meet someone, sit down and they give you advice and tell you what it feels like to be heavyweight champion of the world, what you are going to go through. It was all a brand new experience.
“When I beat Joe Frazier, it was probably the last moment during those years that I found happiness. I was joyous, I felt like Jack Dempsey, Joe Frazier, John L Sullivan, it was like they raised into my being, I felt like heavyweight champion of the world and I was happy, I was very happy, and then I took on another personality, that I could beat anyone, nobody could touch me. That was a big change.”
Yet a huge change was to come in the meeting with Ali the following year in Africa, a heavyweight showdown that has become the most-watched fight in history.
“What I remember most about that boxing match, I was certain I would knock Mohammad Ali out in one round, or two maybe three at the most,” Foreman recalls.
“I had defeated Jose Roman easily, Ken Norton easily, Frazier – and those last two had defeated Muhammad – so I had no fear. I put everything into knocking him out in one to three rounds, and after the fourth round I can remember being shocked that he hadn’t gone down, the fifth round I was amazed, and I realised something different was happening after the six rounds, that this guy wasn’t going to be knocked down, and he was the most strong-willed human being I’d ever met, in and out of the ring. I can remember like it was yesterday. What I remember most is being shocked that I hadn’t knocked him out.”
Yet that defeat, when he was stopped by Ali in the eighth round, was to change the course of not just his career, but his life.
“I wasn’t a happy man after I beat Joe Frazier, if I had beat Muhammad Ali I still wouldn’t have been a happy man, one more victory wouldn’t have made me different at all, but losing that boxing match gave me a rage like none other before to recapture that title and I remember feeling in that boxing match not only that I’d lost the championship of the world, I felt like I’d lost my core, what was important to me. Everything that was important to me was gone, and I didn’t know how important it was until I lost the championship of the world. I was devastated.”
Foreman fought on, but after losing on points to Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico another six fights and two and a half years later, he had an epiphany. It is depicted in the movie that he thought he was going to die in the dressing room afterwards, but found faith. Was that a forged dramatic effect in the movie or was that the moment where God truly spoke to him?
“That probably was the most important piece of my life,” he explains. “Christ came alive in me. For 10 years I didn’t even make a fist, trying to figure out what had happened in that dressing room, it changed my life, the most important change ever. In 1977 when I walked away from boxing I never knew I would go back into boxing. I didn’t even make a fist while I was away, I never thought I would box again.”
Yet in November 1994, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, at the age of 45 years and 299 days, almost two decades later, Foreman stopped Michael Moorer and was the champion once more.
“It was the most unbelievable thing that ever happened to me. Even now I sit and think how in the world did that happen?” he says. “Michael Moorer was skillful, I hit him with a lot of good punches early on, he was strong, he could take a punch, yet in that 10th round I was able to land that knockout punch. Unbelievable. I got down on my knees first of all, and thanked God, right there in the ring.”
The movie Big George Foreman will likely stand the test of time, just like Big George himself.
“I had a lot of fun: going in front of all those audiences, millions of them around the world. Of course, now my life is pretty complete, I’m a minister, I preach every Sunday and that is something to be remembered for. I’ve had a lot of success, but I never could have had it without boxing.”