GEORGE Foreman visited Ireland in 2003 and the then Kildare Nationalist Sport Editor Daragh Ó Conchúir had the chance to sit down and talk to him about an amazing life.
GEORGE Foreman walks out and launches into a practised line in patter.
“I was in Zaire in 1974 preparing for the fight with Muhammad Ali. I was a long way from home. As everybody knows, I love cheeseburgers and three days before the fight I decided I wanted one.
“So, I said, ‘I want a cheeseburger’ and they said ‘no, George, you can’t, it’s three days before a fight’, but I said I want a cheeseburger, NOW!’
“So they brought in this skillet and put on a burger with onions and it was greasy and juicy and I ate it and I was so happy and I went into the ring to beat Ali.
“Well I beat him up good but after six rounds Ali said, ‘is that all you George?’ and I remembered the cheeseburger and skillet and I was gone.
“In 1994, I was due to fight Michael Moorer for the heavyweight title of the world again. And three days before the fight I wanted a cheeseburger. ‘No, no’ they said, ‘don’t you remember Zaire?’
“’I want a burger NOW’, I said and so my friend said, ‘okay, but try this’ and they brought out this little grill. I didn’t like the look of it, I wanted to try the skillet but they said to try it.
“So they put on the burger and the onions and all the grease was running out onto this tray and I thought it wasn’t going to be juicy, but my friend said, ‘if you like it, I’ll put your name on it!’
“And it was delicious. So it was the ninth round against Moorer and he was beating me up and he said ‘George, is that all you’ve got?’ and I said no and knocked him out!”
Cue thunderous applause.
Once all the questions have been asked, the autographs signed, the photographs taken for posterity – I missed out – and a few radio and TV interviews done, yours truly finally gets to sit with the legend.
I don’t have much time and want to find out how this thoroughly likeable individual has been transformed from the animal that enjoyed distilling pain back in the ‘70s and didn’t care if he became unpopular along they way. Much like his former training partner, Sonny Liston, who also suffered at the hands of Ali.
As I sit down I ask George,whose big, black hand has just enveloped my pale, frail one in a firm, but thankfully, not full on handshake, if he’s tired.
“Nah” he replies. “This is what I do.”
And it’s true. That’s what the 54-year-old is now, a performer, entertaining his people, using wit and a million dollar smile. He has been reinvented.
The “Rumble in the Jungle” legend was furthered by that wonderful documentary, When We Were Kings. It comprises footage of the build up to the 1974 fight for the World Heavyweight title between what was becoming THE most destructive force around, George Foreman, who had pulverised Joe Frazier in two rounds to take the title the previous year, and Muhammed Ali, who had lost his title to Frazier and was now seen as a fading force.
Most observers feared that Ali would be very badly beaten.
It’s well recorded now that Foreman punched himself to exhaustion. Ali goaded him and goaded him – “is that all you got George” – as he leaned back on the ropes to take an inordinate amount of punishment and covered up as best he could, a tactic later called ‘rope-a-dope’.
Then, when Foreman had nothing left, he unloaded with alacrity and before George knew it, he was on the canvas, the most coveted title in boxing was no longer his.
He didn’t fight again for more than a year, the hurt eating him up.
So watching him work the room, the humourous repartee, so quick with the quip and wisecrack, and comparing it with his portrayal in When We Were Kings, one has to ask, was he really that mean and angry?
“I was not a nice guy, I’m not going to kid you. And by the time I fought Muhammed Ali I was probably at the peak of being bad. Miserable.
“And I didn’t care about anything. Big guys, knocked them out.”
He tells a story of his first defence against Joe ‘King’ Roman in Tokyo in September 1973.
“You were always told to hit a guy in the chin, knock him out, but don’t go up there (pointing to the top of his head), you could break your hand and plus you don’t knock him out.
“I hit him. Pow! Dropped him. And I thought, ‘these are the weapons, I am the most masterful fighter in the world. No one can take me’. I walked around with that kind of false pride so by the time I got to Africa I was probably the most arrogant of any of the heavyweight champions of the world.”
Given what happened, and how deeply it affected him, one would think that Foreman would sick of being questioned about it.
“Not at all. You know what, that’s a big part of my life, and mostly, that’s a big part of my past. And do you know what the past means? Gone by.
“And when people remind me…I was talking to my son today about Muhammed Ali and I realised I missed him. We used to run across one and other all time. He travels a lot and I travel a lot and we haven’t seen each other for a couple of years. I called him on the phone and we talk all the time but I do miss him.
“I’m glad we met in the ring. I was trying to get him and he had to survive. I let the cat out of the bad, you know, I just missed him and I might have changed history.
“Maybe some time I’d like to put a little statue of that fight in Zaire in my backyard, with me looking up and him with his hand up and leave it there for the ages so people could come by, because I’m happy I had that boxing match.”
The two became friends around 1984, when Foreman had finally come to terms with the events of 11 years previously.
“Of course I realised and I started telling everybody I lost the match fair and square, no excuses. He came in and we spent days together for a celebration in Houston. And I found myself looking out for him, watching out that he would stay out of trouble, that kind of thing. He was a bad boy for a while, you know, mischievous. And I looked at him and I remembered ‘boy, I did love him’.
“They made the film, When We Were Kings. Before the film came out at the movies they gave me a video of it just to make certain (I was happy with it).
“And I did publicity for it. And I would let my kids watch the film. And they were laughing and having good fun. Evert time Muhammed said something they’d laugh. I’m thinking, this guy beat me and my kids act like they like it.
“And I realised, you know, I have been cheated out of all these years of loving this most wonderful guy. And I got back into it, and now he’s my best friend.”
The ‘Kill The Beast’ chant encouraged by Ali in Zaire doesn’t concern him either.
“Oh no, that was just something made up. I had people over in Africa doing the same things for me. I made lots of friends there of course. There were a lot of people pulling for him and why not? He’d made himself a hero and he represented something to a lot of people. And they pulled for him and they pulled against me, but then, even in America, there were a lot of guys didn’t like my style! I look back and it was a wonderful experience…for the world.”
Suddenly, the beast that had been knocking out opponents for years since winning the Olympic Gold medal in 1968, was no longer. Foreman, self-managed throughout his career, could not set foot in a ring again for 15 months, tortured by what had happened in Kinshasa.
Upon his return, he set about knocking people out again, but George was clearly not himself. St Patick’s Day 1977 is when he says it all changed.
To listen to him tell it, it’s like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. He had just been beaten on a points decision to Jimmy Young and in the dressing room, was converted.
“Up to that, I had believed that religion was a place for a fool to hide. But then it happened. I was dead and alive in one second. I saw the blood on my hands and my face and I started screaming and shouting. Everyone thought I was crazy and I was heading that queue, but after 10 years telling the story to people, they started calling me Brother George and suddenly I was a preacher.
“I preach a simple message about loving your fellow man. There’s always some faults you can find in everyone, but, don’t look for the faults, look for the ways to love a human being. I constantly preach that.”
He is sure that had he beaten Ali in the Rumble, he would not have become the man he is today, although the disappointment of losing is still there.
“I look back on that fight and you know what? If I had won that fight, it would have been a tragedy for me. It would have differentiated itself from any other boxing matches. I’m glad, in hindsight, nobody wants to lose a fight, get hurt, and be devastated, but I’m glad it happened that way. I don’t wanna lose again just to get some victory, but that was a true victory for me.
“I started asking myself. How could I lose? How could this happen? I knew there was something going on in the world that I couldn’t imagine. I beat this guy up and yet I lost, you know, so that changed my life, led me to start soul-searching and looking for answers in other places.”
Whatever about getting his reward in Heaven, George has certainly reaped the benefits of his conversion in life, earning millions as the face of the lean, mean, grilling machine. But you get the feeling that the satisfaction gained from finally regaining his world title by knocking out Michael Moorer, a man 19 years his junior, gives him his greatest satisfaction.
“I proved to the young people I had been working with, you don’t need a killer instinct. Get the chip off your shoulder. It’s only a sport. Put a smile on your face. Be happy you’re there. You could make a lotta money. You don’t have to make a lotta injuries. I had been saying these things and then I proved it.”
He seems genuine. One recalls one of his early comeback fights against an unfortunate by the name of Rocky Sikorsky. Sikorsky was out on his feet and Foreman kept looking at the referee to stop the fight.
“The second time around, there was never a punch thrown in anger. There was no need to maim a guy when you had the fight won.”
We run through a couple of other things. He’s never heard of Dan Donnelly, Kildare’s greatest boxer, but he is well aware of Ireland’s pugilistic traditions and recalls how Michael Carruth had so many non-Irish supporters on his way to Olympic gold in Barcelona 1992 – “You weren’t even cheering for the man himself, you were just cheering for the flag because Ireland and the Irish have always supported boxing”.
And there is his belief that Lennox Lewis is one of the five top-ranked heavyweight champs of all time, because he revenged his defeats and then chased Mike Tyson, before obliterating him. And his ten kids, five girls, five boys, the boys bizarrely named George Jnr., George III, George IV and George V.
I failed to unveil the truth of George Foreman and his conversion from Hyde to Jekyll. Maybe he did have a religious experience, maybe he realised the need to be a nice guy and make millions, or maybe he just grew up. I’m none the wiser but I’ll tell you what. It’s an exhilarating experience to meet and talk to a legend.
And that will do for me.
***This article was written by the then Sports Editor of the Kildare Nationalist Daragh Ó Conchúir and appeared in the edition of 2 January 2004.