George Foreman

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George Foreman Photographs courtesy of George Foreman

Former Heavyweight Champion George Foreman on Muhammad Ali

From Fighting to Peace and Compassion

On June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali, three-time heavyweight champion and one of the most significant and renowned sports figures of the 20th century, passed away at the age of 74 after a long fight against Parkinson’s syndrome. The self-proclaimed greatest boxer of all time, famous for his ability to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” in the ring, was also known for his efforts to promote peace and compassion outside the ring. His 1967 stand against the Vietnam War transcended the realms of faith and politics and resulted in Ali being arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles. However, he successfully appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971. After retiring, he devoted his life to charitable work by promoting world peace and condemning bigotry — two things that all faiths could relate to. He met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and successfully negotiated the release of American hostages, served as a United Nations Messenger of Peace in Afghanistan, walked with Malcolm X, exchanged jokes with the Dalai Lama and lit the torch opening the 1996 Olympics.

One of the most historic boxing matches in history was the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Held in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) on October 30, 1974, Ali was pitted against the undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman. Despite Foreman’s punching power, size and sheer physical dominance, Ali won by knockout. George Foreman is a two-time heavy- weight champion and Olympic gold medalist who went on to become an ordained Christian minister, author and entrepreneur, selling more than 100 million George Foreman Grills worldwide. The International Boxing Research Organization rated Foreman as the eighth greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. When he came out of retirement and regained the title of heavyweight champion in 1994, Foreman broke three records: at 45 he became the oldest fighter ever to win the World Heavyweight Championship; he broke the record of having the longest interval (20 years) between his first and second world championships; and he had the largest age difference (19 years) between the champion and challenger of any heavyweight boxing championship fight. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with George Foreman about his relationship with Muhammad Ali and how Ali’s legacy transcends popular culture, history, religion, politics and social justice.

TJ: What is one of your favorite memories of Muhammad Ali?
FOREMAN: I was at a gym in Miami in the 1970s. He came up to me and told me, “I’m going to show you what you’re going to get when you become a champion.” I was excited. I thought he was going to show me $100,000 in cash, but he opened a briefcase and there was this mobile phone. He put the phone up to his ear. He said, “Do you see this? One day when you’re a champ you’ll have a phone like this.” I’ll never forget that because I was expecting so much more.

TJ: How well did you know Muhammad Ali outside of the boxing ring?
FOREMAN: We got to be very close — more than close. After I left boxing, I became a minister and Muhammad Ali called me up once when he was still boxing. He talked with me for about 20 minutes and then he said, “George, I need you to do me a favor. Please come back and beat Ken Norton for me because they are forcing me to ght him. They are going to strip me of my title and I can’t beat him. But you can, George. Please come back.” I convinced him I wasn’t coming back and he started using the Bible. He said, “But David slew Goliath — that was in the Bible!” I insisted, “I’m not coming back.” From that day forward in 1978 to the day he passed away we were as close as close can be. He was my best friend.

TJ: When was the last time that the two of you got together?
FOREMAN: More than a few months ago I went to Louisville. Sports Illustrated renamed their legacy award the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, which was really something, and I went down at the request of his wife to be with him and enjoy that night. I spoke at that event and whispered in his ear that I loved him and he looked good. He was able to understand everything. He wasn’t able to respond well. He was well taken care of and he did look good. I spent some time with him and I call those the last quality moments I had with him.

TJ: Muhammad Ali’s funeral is going on right now as we speak. Why are you not there?
FOREMAN: I saw there were a lot of friends and family. This is Muhammad Ali’s day today. Let all the world enjoy Muhammad Ali. I see a lot of the speakers were using my name and I wouldn’t want them looking over their shoulder thinking, “Ha! Should I tell them about old George Foreman?” This is his day and they should be fully celebrating his life. I had good years with him to sit and chat with him, hug him and tell him that I love him. Let the world celebrate Muhammad Ali.

TJ: I saw his wife speaking at the funeral today. She seems like a sharp woman herself.
FOREMAN: Yeah, they’ve known each other forever. One time I called him up, about four years ago. He was having some therapy done and his daughter put the telephone to his ear. I said, “Hey, Muhammad! I want a rematch.” He said, “You’re crazy!” I said, “How’s Lonnie? How’s your wife?” He said, “She’s crazy!”

TJ: I understand the “Rumble in the Jungle” was arranged by Don King. Did Muhammad Ali have a good relationship with Don King?
FOREMAN: Don King was the promoter of the “Rumble in the Jungle.” They got the right person for Muhammad Ali and me, and I went there for the sole purpose of fighting for the world title. Muhammad Ali had a good relationship with everyone. If you talked [negatively] about someone around him, he would say, “Oh, don’t say that about him.” He truly liked everyone. If you told him you love him, he would love you more.

TJ: It must have been tough to fight someone that everyone loves so much.
FOREMAN: I don’t know about so many people loving him, but it was absolutely tough fighting him because he kept hitting me with that straight right hand.

TJ: What made Muhammad Ali different in the ring?
FOREMAN: When I got into the ring with him, and I am sure that Sonny Liston and quite a few others felt the same thing: he wasn’t the best fighter or the best jabber. He didn’t have a strong right hand. But he had this presence in the ring. When you hit him, it wasn’t like you were hitting one man. It was like you were going up against dreams and ambitions. All of that is what made him tough — his presence. I have never forgotten that. I have never been in the ring with anyone like him before, nor did I get in the ring with anyone like him after. To get in the ring with him, you realized after a couple of rounds that this is a train loaded with all kinds of boxcars — too much to be knocked down.

TJ: Was his rope-a-dope technique effective?
FOREMAN: Oh yeah. I tell people, “Have you heard about the rope-a-dope?” They say, “Yep.” I say, “I’m the dope right here.” He laid on the rope and I, like a dope, kept punching until I was beating myself.

TJ: Was he dodging your punches just by moving his head while holding the ropes?
FOREMAN: I hit him with a lot of good punches — more punches than I had ever hit the average man with — one punch after another. I saw that pain in his eyes. I saw him being shook up a few times. But I never saw in his face what I had seen before in other fighters — quitting. It just didn’t occur. He never thought about quitting.

TJ: Was his trash talk effective?
FOREMAN: I couldn’t knock him out! Muhammad Ali and I had never had a press conference before the fight. We never met in Africa, but just before the fight during the pre-fight instructions, I put the stare down on him and he looked at me with this little kid face and said, “When I felled Liston, you were in school! You have no business being in the ring with me.” Then he kind of smiled. I almost burst out laughing thinking, “Is he crazy?” That was the conversation I remember the most with him. He talked during the fight, but I would always think I must have hurt him because he’s talking. But in reality, I didn’t hurt him, he hurt me.

TJ: Why did you guys never have a rematch?
FOREMAN: Muhammad Ali and I never had a rematch because one was scared and the other was glad of it.

TJ: Was there a fight that Muhammad Ali wanted that he never got?
FOREMAN: Muhammad Ali fought just about everybody in the world. [He] was the one guy that never said no to anyone. I didn’t like boxing. I was pretty much out there for the championship of the world and in the early days just trying to win money. He was the only one that really liked his career in boxing. I didn’t like my career in boxing. I wanted to be other things other than a boxer.

TJ: How did he feel about you going back into boxing later in your career?
FOREMAN: When I went back into boxing, I think the whole world thought it was a joke — “George, he’ll never do it!” But then I got into the ring for my first title shot after coming back with Evander Holy eld, and Muhammad Ali was in the middle of the ring with Joe Frazier. [Muhammad Ali] said something to Holy eld, and he came over to my corner and said, “Keep punching, champ!” So for him to tell me to keep punching, he must have had some faith that I could do it.

TJ: What did he say to you when you won back the belt?
FOREMAN: I got a letter from Muhammad Ali. I opened it up and it was a certificate written out to me saying, “Congratulations George Foreman for becoming the heavy- weight champion of the world again. I know you will make a good champion.” He put it in writing. Isn’t that beautiful?

TJ: That is beautiful. Did he do a lot of charity work?
FOREMAN: Muhammad Ali will really be admired and looked at because he was so good at charity. You could sit here right now and call him and say, “I need to raise some money for this, can I get some gloves? Or maybe you could stop by and if I advertise that you’re going to be here, I could raise some money,” and he would be on a plane. It didn’t matter who or where you were, he would be there for you to help gather money for charity. That’s the kind of man he was.

TJ: What did he do for the plight of African Americans?
FOREMAN: I think to corner him and to use something like African Americans would be a put-down to Muhammad Ali. I have traveled almost the four corners of the earth from Switzerland to China, Japan, Africa ... and I would always hear this whisper in the corner, “Ali, Ali, Ali ...,” and I realized how important he had become to the world — every human being, every boy and girl. He didn’t belong to one aspect [of society]. He belonged to the world.

TJ: Were you able to communicate well with him even after Parkinson’s had set in?
FOREMAN: I did get to have communication with him. I had even seen some of his medicine he was taking. For a long time, a lot of people didn’t want to accept it, nor did he. After he realized, “I’m just like half the people in the United States of America — I have to go get my prescription,” he started living a better life. By him coming out lighting that Olympic torch with his condition, that made it a better world for those who were suffering and were sick — not just with Parkinson’s, but with any disease. He made it alright — as if to say, “Hey, we are still who we are.”

TJ: Did he feel boxing had something to do with his Parkinson’s?
FOREMAN: Muhammad didn’t speak too much about his condition because he loved life so much. He looked at whatever could have been wrong with him for a way to make his life right. He enjoyed living. That was one guy I will always remember because he loved getting up in the morning and being Muhammad Ali. He loved it!

TJ: If Muhammad Ali didn’t have Parkinson’s, do you think he would have run for President of the United States?
FOREMAN: Muhammad Ali dabbled in politics by way of his voice, but he never would have been interested in running for any political office at all. I think he had better things to do with his life.

TJ: Did he have a George Foreman Grill?
FOREMAN: [Laughs] I made sure that Muhammad Ali had more than one George Foreman Grill. I sent some to him myself.

TJ: What is it about him that you respected the most personally?
FOREMAN: I have 10 kids of my own and I’ve done everything I can to make certain they would grow up loving and adoring one another. Muhammad Ali was the same. He really cared about his family. He pulled his daughters and his sons all together. He truly tried to make them understand what family meant. I respect that about him. He was such a nice guy. I have seen celebrities go into a restaurant and look for the quietest place, and they would make certain that they had dark glasses on not to be recognized. I have never seen anyone like him. He would come out in front of a crowd and start making noise — “Hey! I’m the greatest!” Then he would sit in a place that was the most exposed position of the restaurant as if he wanted people to see him. He would shake hands and sign autographs. There was never a celebrity who loved people more than Muhammad Ali.

TJ: Did he inspire you?
FOREMAN: I think that over the last 45 years if anyone said they had seen Muhammad Ali and not been inspired, they would be lying. If you were a singer and you went to see Muhammad Ali, you became a better singer. If you were a dancer or a writer or an attorney, a lawyer, a doctor — everyone was inspired by the greatness of Muhammad Ali. You became better at what you did just by seeing him once. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

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