I said, “God, I believe in you, but not enough.” When I said that, there was a deep dark nothing over my head, under me, all around me was just a dump yard of every sad thought I ever had in my life, multiplied like nothing. And I was dead, and I could smell death and it was just the most horrible thing. It was like someone dropped me off in the deep sea—no help—there was no way I could get out of this. And I said, as a tough man, I’ve always been tough, I said, “I don’t care if this is death, I still believe there’s a God.

” When I said that, a gigantic hand snatched me out of this “nothing,” and I was lying in the dressing room bleeding, blood flowing through my veins. And evidently they had picked me up off the floor in the dressing room and laid me on the table, because that’s where I was and everybody was standing around me crying, and I said to my doctor, “Move your hands, the thorns on his head are making him bleed.” I saw blood coming down my forehead, and I hadn’t been hit in the boxing match. And I told my masseur, Mr. Fuller, “You move your hand because he’s bleeding and they crucified him.” And I started screaming words I never screamed before that Jesus Christ was coming alive in me. And I jumped in the shower started screaming “Hallelujah, I’m clean, I’m born again, I’m going out to save the world!” and they said, You better put on some clothes first [laughs].

They held me down on the table, and they finally got an ambulance to tie me down and took me to the Intensive Care in Puerto Rico. For ten years after I could never even make a fist, let alone box again, I was just totally wiped out. I had no idea there was really God. I just didn’t know.

I tried to explain it away as much as I could—you got hit too hard, you’re hot, I didn’t believe in religion, Jesus, I never even thought it existed. My mother was so poor, [when] things would get hard and she’d always say, O Lord, O Jesus. I said, One day I’m going to be rich and I’ll never hear that again!

You were running away from it?

{Religion] was for depressed people, just an excuse if you didn’t have anything else. So here I was embarrassed because my friends, we made fun of religion.

After that experience I was still a top contender, but I just couldn’t go back into the gym. I didn’t know what to do with my life. And I started telling this story, one place and one place, and people started calling me brother and I was ordained at the Church of Lord Jesus Christ in Houston at the end of 1978 as an evangelist. I started traveling to hospitals and prisons and telling this story. Eventually I started preaching weddings and funerals. That’s been the story of my life. I never intended to be a preacher, never!

 

I started a youth center, my brother-in-law and I, in Houston, for the kids to hang out. Finally I was broke, I would have to close the youth center if I didn’t quickly move. The only way I knew how to make money and not to beg people for it was to be a boxer again. It hurt me to take my shirt off again and be a boxer but it was the only profession I had. And that’s why I went back.

Was it hard for you, believing in Christianity, which emphasizes peace, to take up boxing, with all the violence that’s involved?

That was a hard thing for me. When I started the youth center, some parents wanted me to get their kid interested in boxing, I said, Look I’m a preacher, I’m not going to be helping boxers, that’s nothing but ignorance and violence. And then one day I inquired about the kid, and [learned] he robbed a store in my neighborhood. The storekeeper shot his friend and he shot the storekeeper. All these lives were devastated because I didn’t want to look like a backslider. I said, I can’t help this kid, but I’ll never let another get away from me.

When I started to teach them boxing, they’d come in like they were going to kill somebody. I said, “Look this is a sport, get the chip off your shoulder.” And I explained to them never punch in anger. I taught them how to box, and in return I learned myself. It’s all about a sport. It’s the grandfather of ping-pong. I learned I’m not in here trying to hurt anybody. I became friends with guys when I fought ‘em, and even better friends after we boxed in the ring. And I think it was needed in boxing to see it as an honorable sport, as honorable as any other sport.

What do you pray for?

You know this peace I found in 1977? More than anything, I pray to keep it. When I was about to die in that dressing room, all I could think of was I didn’t say goodbye to my mother, I hadn’t gotten a chance to embrace my kids, there were friends I forgot to say I’m sorry to. I had a second chance to live, and I’m constantly embracing my loved ones. My friends know that they’re my friends—even my enemies know that they’re my friends. All I pray is to be consistently like this all the days of my life.