I was raised in a one-parent home, and my mother had to work two jobs. When you’re in a single-parent home, they try to give you a good foundation but by the time you’re 4 or 5 years old from that point on you’re pretty much on your own. You get your hand burnt and you learn not to put your hand on the fire. So everything I learned I had to learn the hard way. There are seven of us total, I’m number five of seven kids, four boys and three girls. Most of my childhood I was raised in the city of Houston, Texas, where I am now. But I started my boxing career in California.
How did you get started in boxing? What motivated you?
After I dropped out of junior high school I heard a commercial—a great football player by the name of Jim Brown said if you’re looking for a second chance, join the Job Corps. And I was looking for a second chance—I was in big trouble anyway—and I joined. That’s where I started a basic education and vocational program. I studied electronic assemblies in the Job Corps. One day there was a fight being broadcast between Muhammad [Ali]—he was Cassius Clay, then—and he was fighting Floyd Patterson. All the kids said, George, you’re a bully, why don’t you be a boxer? And I just took the challenge. I said OK, I’ll show you – just to prove it for myself, I went out for boxing.
I didn’t like it, I really didn’t like it. But the boxing coach, Doc Broadus, liked me. He said, “Look, if you stop fighting in the streets and the alleys, you could be an Olympic champion.” I had no idea what an Olympic champion was. He stayed on my back, and I went back to California to work for the Job Corps center, and I learned how to box. In 1968 I became a gold medalist in Mexico City.
That was the highlight of my whole athletic career. I was a 19-year-old boy who had never had a dream come true before, and there I am standing on the platform with the medal around my neck, and I hear the national anthem in the background--there’s never been anything like that in my life since.
You’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in your boxing career. What effect did losing have on you? Was it as important as winning?
In 1973 I became heavyweight champion of the world with 38 victories, no defeats as a professional. You get to a point where you think you cannot lose. I felt like I had the greatest power with my fists, I was the strongest man in the world. I kept winning fights, but then I lost to Ali in Zaire, Africa. It devastated me, it really did have a great effect on me. I told everybody I was going to be heavyweight champion of the world forever, and I was the strongest man alive. And I lost in Zaire, in ten seconds my whole life was changed. One day people walking by you afraid to even ask you a question, and the next day they’re patting you on the back with pity. That was devastating. It changed my life.
But you regained the heavyweight championship…
Twenty years after I lost. I was 45—the oldest ever to do so. Nobody believed it. They said, “George Foreman is gonna get himself hurt, he’s too old.” I heard it all. But one thing I always had going for me, I knew how to box, I always knew how to box. I gave it up to become a preacher, but not because I couldn’t do it anymore. Just that the higher calling penetrated my life.
I didn’t believe in religion, but I knew there was a God somewhere. Everybody I knew who was in [religion] always seemed like they were running from something. So I wasn’t going to take it up, but that night in Puerto Rico, I had my last boxing match in 1977 with Jimmy Young. I lost a decision, a split decision, went back to my dressing room to cool off, and that’s when it all started happening.
I started thinking, I could go home and retire, I got money, I could retire right now to my ranch and die. And before I knew it, that had taken over my whole conversation—You’re gonna die. I realized I was going to die in that dressing room from a boxing match. I thought silently, because I thought if I revealed to anyone in the room what I was thinking that they was gonna figure I was depressed because I lost the decision. So I kept it in. And right within my thoughts I heard a voice within me that said, You believe in God. Why are you scared to die? And I was scared…I didn’t want to die…I mean, I didn’t think that could happen to me so I started jumping up and down, saying, “I’m not gonna die, I got everything to live for.” I tried to make a deal with the voice—I’m champion of the world, I’m George Foreman, I can still give money to charity and cancer. I heard an answer right in my thoughts—I don’t want your money, I want you. And that’s when I knew I was about to die.