Boxing Champ Turns Spiritual Leader

People, Sports
on March 22, 2008

The pounding of the teenagers heart was so loud, he thought the police would surely hear it. Hastily, the boy covered himself in mud to throw off the scent of search dogs headed his way, then crawled wormlike on his belly to a hiding spot underneath a nearby house. This is no way to live!, George Foreman thought to himself. A young life woefully full of hard times, thievery and flying fists had led him to this most desperate of circumstancesfleeing the cops after yet another petty crime.

I said, Youre a thief, youre no good. Why would you be hiding like this? recalls Foreman, now 59. I said, If I can get from under this house and the police dont grab me, Im going to do something with my life.

And he did indeed. Foreman shed his cloak of teenage crime to later distinguish himself as a two-time world heavyweight boxing champion, a smiling pitchman for an indoor grill sensation and a multitude of other products, and an ordained minister. He came to live what many would call the ultimate American dream.

Breeding ground for trouble
But such success wasnt a remote consideration in young Foremans dreams. Growing up in Marshall, Texas, in a household with his mother, stepfather, and six brothers and sisters, Foreman remembers being so poor that my mother had to decide which we needed moregas or electricity. She couldnt afford both at the same time. On rare occasions, as a special treat, she would bring home a single hamburger to be split eight ways. It felt like we were all rich for a second, Foreman recalls.

His impoverished conditions were a natural breeding ground for trouble, and Foreman found it early and often, earning a reputation on the streets for his meanness and flying fists. One day he happened to catch sight of two of his boyhood heroesfootball greats Jim Brown and Johnny Unitason a TV public-service announcement urging young men to join the Job Corps, a national vocational training program to help people better their lives.

If those fellas said something, I certainly would do it, says Foreman, who wound up at 16 enrolled in a Job Corps training center. But once in the program, Foreman continued to brawl with anyone and everyone. His counselors, at wits end, knew that only one man among them stood any chance of harnessing the kids unfocused angerand as it turned out, recognizing his potential. The centers boxing coach, Charles Doc Broadus, transformed Foremans explosive rawness into a purposeful, competitiveand legalfighting machine.

The difference between the young George and the old George is the difference between a rainy day and a sunshiny day, chuckles Broadus, now 88, a legend himself who continues to train boxers in Las Vegas. When I saw that meanness in him, I figured it needed to be turned in the right direction. We had to take that meanness over onto the other side of the fence.

Olympic gold
In just two years, Broadus young charge would develop into a champion, claiming a gold medal in the heavyweight division at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where he is remembered for waving a small American flag around the ring following his victory.

In his post-Olympic professional career, Foreman surged through 37 fights undefeated before getting a shot at the world heavyweight title in 1973, which he secured after knocking down incumbent champion Joe Frazier five times in two rounds. The following year, Foreman lost his belt to Muhammad Ali. Two and a half years later, Foreman, then with an awe-inspiring 45-1 professional record, was positioned for an Ali rematch and a return shot at the title should he defeat Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico.

The night of the fateful match, March 17, 1977, was one Foreman would never forget. He lost, but what followed the crushing defeat altered his life forever.

Witnessed by his handlers and two of his brothers, the defeated Foreman dropped unconscious to the ground in his sweltering, un-air-conditioned dressing room. When he revived, he was a changed man. It was during those suspended moments that Foreman, not previously religious by any means, began spouting verses from the Bible, passages he had never heard before let alone read. Something holy and uplifting surged through him. From that moment on, Foreman began to rebuild his life on a foundation of Christianity.

If I had beaten Young and then Ali, Foreman says today, I never would have hit rock bottom and found Jesus.

Launching a ministry
As his newfound belief took root, it inspired him to help others. Foreman began preaching on the streets of Houston, became a minister and, in 1980, launched his own house of worship. Today, he preaches every Sunday at Houstons Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, which attracts a core group of regular attendees.

Local radio talk show host Michael Harris has known Foreman since the mid-1970s and has seen the boxers spiritual breakthrough at close range. Young Foreman was kind of an angry guy, kind of a bully, Harris says. During this second chance that he had, I think he realized that money was not for power but for good.

Three years after opening his church, Foreman used the remainder of his savings to found Houstons George Foreman Youth and Community Center. I wanted a place where kids could just hang out, he says. Twenty-five years later, I still have it. Kids are welcome, welcome to play. Parents are welcome to come with them. A deal of a fee enables kids to participate for $1 a year for each year of their age, so an 18-year-old pays just $18 annually.

Elevating the Foreman legacy is an accomplishment as yet unmatched in sports history: returning to the ring after 10 years in retirement, and at age 45, winning the world heavyweight championship a second time, with his inspirational 12-round decision over Michael Moorer in 1994. Foremans Turning 40 isnt a death sentence march through a field of younger fighters rallied many other soon-to-be seniors along the way. Prior to the victory, Foreman stated, I want every 40-year-old and 50-year-old to stand up and have a toast of Geritol for George Foreman!

Grill master
No story of Foreman is complete without mention of his renowned Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine. But it might never have come about had not Mary, his wife of 22 years, tested the device once the prototype was inside the Foreman home in Houston.

She said, George it worksthe meat still comes out juicy, Foreman recalls. She gave me the whole story, fixed me a steak, and I said, Ill do it! Since 1994, an astronomical 100 million units have been sold worldwide, making Foreman a wealthy man. Again.

Foreman, the father of 10 children, named all five of his sons George. I wanted to give them something in common, where they would remember the family name, he says. When one George Edward Foreman does well, we all do well.

Athlete, evangelist, youth motivator, businessman. Foreman has worn an impressive array of hats. One logically wonders what lies ahead for him.

Im just trying to hang in there, says Foreman, whose new book, Fatherhood by George, will be released next month. Some of my children have gone into business with me. I try to explain to them that being a kind person is not a crime. Even if people have seen you weep, being kind is just what you need.

If I can just paint that picture before I leave to my children, I will be pretty happy.

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