Unfortunately, that's not the lesson I came away with that day. James came into the waiting room with hundreds of other men, each one wearing identical white pants and big shirts. As I sat and watched with James's younger brother, Willie, one man came through the door who I couldn't take my eyes off. He wasn't any bigger or taller than the others, but he stood out from the rest of the men like the sun from the clouds. Even though he was dressed the same, his uniform somehow seemed tailor-made. The prison seemed like his castle, and he, a king. It even seemed like the guards at the jail worked for him. Finally, when Willie and I got up our nerve to ask James who he was, he told us, "He's a slugger"-a boxing term I'd never heard before that means that person is a hard hitter.
I left the prison that day thinking I wanted to be just like that man. He had no luxurious clothes or fine shoes or money, but he seemed to be everything I wanted to be: He commanded attention. Back then, the people I admired were the street fighters others feared. My role models were troublemakers-guys who had either been to jail or were most likely on their way. I thought anyone with a big, long scar down his face was worthy of being my hero. I wanted so much to be tough I even wore a Band-Aid on my cheek.
From that point on, I tried to put the pieces together to cut as imposing a figure as the guy in prison. When I saw a John Wayne movie, I would try to copy his walk. I wanted sideburns, a mustache, and beard like Jimmy Brown's, and I tried everything to get hair to grow on my face. Later, after I became a boxer, I watched how the people I'd put on a pedestal behaved around others. Sonny Liston was a bully, and I thought that was how you ought to act when you became a big-timer. Once when I ran into Brown and Walt Frazier at a jazz club in Harlem and they brushed me off, I thought to myself, "So that's how stars should behave!" I filed those lessons away so I could make sure I did the same.
Even after I became heavyweight champ, I never bought anything unless I saw that someone I admired had it first: a car like this movie star, a suit like that singer, sideburns and a haircut like someone else. I wanted to be like my heroes. But before I knew it, I had bypassed being like them; I had become them. I had become so many people.
Then one night in 1977, I lost a fight in Puerto Rico to Jimmy Young by unanimous decision. Afterward, in the dressing room, I was sure I was dying, and it was my life I was fighting for. I saw everything I had ever worked for-money, homes, cars, fame-crumble like ashes. That experience changed me. After that, all I wanted was my life-my life. But having spent all those precious years trying to be like so many other people, I didn't even know who I was.
About a year later, as I was trying to trim my hair with a set of clippers, I accidentally cut a big "S" into the top of my head. I tried everything I could to correct it, but nothing helped, so finally I shaved it all off. When I looked in the mirror, I was so ashamed I put on a ski hat so no one else could see how I really looked. I intended to wear it until my hair grew back. But one day I forgot to put the hat on, and by the time I realized it, people had already snickered at me. I was as embarrassed as if I'd walked out in public without clothes on.
When I studied my bald reflection, though, I recognized a person I hadn't seen since I was a boy. I saw me. Looking back was the face I was born with, the boy my mom had always loved. I said to myself, "You are healthy, you have a home and all the things you've ever dreamed of, and yet you're ashamed of yourself because you don't look like other people." You can't hide from yourself; I tried that for too long. I decided to leave the hat at home for good.
That's when I realized why I had admired that man in prison all those years earlier: He was the only person there who liked himself; he was exactly who he wanted to be. He wore his clothes like he loved them. While all the other men tried to act tough, he only had to be himself. My cousin and I had seen this man from the inside out.
From that day on, I have stood in front of any mirror with pride-brushing my teeth, shaving, or sometimes simply to admire the man God has made of me. I feel completely at peace. My only true goal is to be the same guy tomorrow that I am today. Who I am has nothing to do with what I look like on the outside, only with what I feel on the inside. It has nothing to do with what I wear but with how I treat others. My identity doesn't come from my success but from the pride my wife and children have in me. I am me, and I like it. I am alive today with happiness for life itself.
I still admire others. I wish I could dance like Gregory Hines, shoot baskets like Michael Jordan, even act in movies like Robert De Niro. Still, I don't want to be anyone else but myself. I found out the best person I could be was George Foreman. Life is such a short journey. I tell my kids, "Spend it being yourself. Never carry anyone else along inside yourself." That makes it too hard. When you find yourself, hold on with all your might.