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Spirit of Grace Ministries
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George Foreman

An Unusual Life

George Foreman

by Dennis Pollock

George Foreman's life has been a roller coaster. Becoming the heavyweight boxing champion of the world in his mid-twenties, he was celebrated as the most powerful boxer ever, but after being beating by Muhammad Ali in the famous "rumble in the jungle" he was instantly relegated to the lowly realm of the has-beens. Raised in terrible poverty, he became a millionaire while in his twenties, lost it all, and then gained it back with interest. Foreman at one time could have been nominated for the "meanest man on earth" award, but in his later years grew to become one of the nicest and friendliest of all American celebrities. Today he looks forward to heaven but at one point in his life he was sure that he was dead and eternally lost. In his second boxing career he would sometimes box on Saturday nights, feverishly attempting to knock out his opponents, and then hurriedly catch a plane so that he could preach in church the next morning about the love of God.

To understand the enigma that is George Foreman you must recognize the grinding poverty from which he came. As a boy George was one of seven children –  raised by a mother whose husband rarely came home and provided almost no support for the family. Momma's $26 weekly salary was stretched to the absolute limit just keeping the kids alive and a roof over their heads. Breakfasts consisted of corn flakes with watery milk. Lunch was usually a mayonnaise sandwich. The six cent milk the other children drank was too much of a luxury, so George would have to go to the drinking fountain to wash down his sandwich. Sometimes his mother could not afford even a sandwich, and the sensitive boy would blow up a brown paper bag to make it look full, and take it to school. On Fridays Momma would bring home a hamburger in the evening as a treat – but it would have to be split eight ways, so that each child, plus Momma, would get a little taste of the hamburger.

With no father at home and his mother often at work, George had plenty of time to get into trouble. As he grew, his large size and muscular body made him a natural fighter, and he used his fighting ability to both vent his frustrations and make a little extra cash for spending. George writes, "By the time I was sixteen years of age, I was a vicious, savage teenager, picking fights in school or wherever I went… Sometimes I beat up two or three people a day." School could never hold a restless, undisciplined youth like George and so he dropped out well before his senior year.

Chance Remark

Finding any kind of well-paying job proved next to impossible, and eventually George joined the Job Corps to try to gain the skills he would need to have a profession in life. While at the Job Corps one of his classmates made a chance remark that would change his destiny forever. George had been a bully even here, and the young man defiantly said to him, "Hey, George. If you're so tough, why don’t you become a boxer?" George never liked backing down from a challenge, and before he could stop himself, he said, "All right, I will." Nothing came of it immediately, but several months later, he introduced himself to a man called "Doc" who was the head of the Job Corps sports activities, and told him he wanted to become a boxer. Within a short time he was at the local gym, training and learning how to box.

Boxing was a far different world than being a neighborhood bully. The young men he met were skilled, motivated, and most of them knew far more about boxing than George. In the early going he was humiliated by a skinny kid he assumed would be a pushover. The boy danced and jabbed, and George could never get a glove on him. George swung wildly at him and sometimes fell down by the force of his own roundhouse punches that hit nothing but air. The skinny kid was the clear winner. But George was a fast learner and his punches soon began connecting with his opponents. And once they did, the fight was over.

Within a short time, George was fighting in various competitions and winning. Eventually he went to the Olympic trials, and was chosen to represent the United States in the 1968 games in Mexico City. He won the gold that year and achieved national recognition. Howard Cosell described Foreman in his Olympic win as "raw, unpolished, but thunderously powerful." Within a few short years he had been transformed from a wild puncher with zero boxing skills into a boxing machine possessing a power nobody could match. Turning pro the next year, he began to make his way into boxing history. He started with a boxing nobody named Don Waldhelm, who possessed the unimpressive record of five wins, four losses, and two draws. Waldhelm was knocked down and out in three rounds. Fighter after fighter suffered the same fate. Very rarely did anyone last longer than three or four rounds with George. Many were finished in one or two.

Gaining & Losing the Championship

Strangely, during all his years of boxing, both on his way to the championship and afterwards, George was a miserable, dissatisfied, and frustrated man. At times he contemplated suicide; at other times he thought about hiring a hit man to murder people he hated (which made up a pretty large group). Once the famous football player Jim Brown visited him at his mansion. Foreman reported: "After gawking at my manicured lawn, beautiful home, and exquisite furniture, Jim Brown said, 'George, you've got it made. I just hope one day I can get it together like you.'" This seemed bizarre to the young boxer, who lived his life in a state of almost continual frustration, and had assumed that Brown was the one that "had it together." 

Young George ForemanBy 1973, four years after turning pro, Foreman would face "Smokin Joe" Frazier for the heavyweight championship. At this point Frazier was considered the favorite, he also having never lost. However the bigger and harder punching Foreman made short work of him, knocking Frazier down six times in the first two rounds, after which the referee stopped the fight and George Foreman became the new heavyweight boxing champion of the world. All George's hopes and dreams had been realized. There was no higher level to obtain, no greater achievement to accomplish. The money, the fame, the world's applause, beautiful women… Foreman had it all. He simply needed to defend his title a few times each year and he could conceivably extend this dream life for eight or ten more years, and then retire with enough money to last him a dozen lifetimes.

It wasn't to be. Less than two years later, the wily Muhammad Ali used his famous "rope-a-dope" strategy to wear out Foreman out in the first seven rounds, and then knocked him down and out in the eighth. Foreman was more than beaten. He was shocked, depressed, bewildered, and almost in a state of mourning for the next few years. He continued to box. In 1977 he fought a tough fight against Jimmy Young which went the full twelve rounds. Young was proclaimed the winner on points, and George returned to his dressing room in frustration. He didn't know it, but when he left that room, he would be a changed man.

Life Changing Experience

The fight had been held in Puerto Rico, and the air conditioning had failed. By now the building felt like an oven. After George's exhausting physical exertion, sweat poured off his body. He couldn't stand still when he reached his dressing room. Partly due to the heat and partly because of his frustration at losing,  he began to pace back and forth in the room. His mind raced wildly about what he would do next. Should he retire? Should he seek a career in television? In the midst of his thoughts, the idea of death seemed to come out of nowhere. No matter which direction his thoughts took him concerning his possible future, a voice seemed to inject a morbid postscript to his plans – "you will die." Suddenly his knees buckled and he fell to the floor. Instantly Foreman's spirit was transported to a dark place. He writes, "If there's a place called "nowhere," this was it. I was suspended in emptiness, with nothing over my head or under my feet... I knew I was dead, and this wasn't heaven."

The darkness was not like what we might normally call darkness. Most of us have never seen complete darkness. In our homes there are faint lights from digital clocks, computers, routers, and the like. When we go outside at night there are stars and the moon, as well as street lights, and lights coming from homes or buildings. But here there was nothing but darkness. The other overwhelming impression came from the horrendous odor that engulfed this strange place. It was the stench of death – of putrid, rotting flesh. It was many times stronger than the worst smells George had ever experienced during his earthly life. In this place of misery and loneliness, he realized that this was his permanent lot. He would never leave this place.

George was not ignorant of Christianity. Although he had never embraced Jesus as his Savior, he had been slowly evolving in his view of God. He had even considered finding "a religion," although Christianity was at the bottom of the list, since he viewed Christianity as a religion for losers. Now, as he found himself stranded in darkness, he became angry over his foolishness in falling for the devil's lies. He shouted out, "I don't care if this is death. I still believe in God." In an instant the darkness disappeared and he found himself staring into the faces of his friends and staff in his dressing room. They had placed his body on a table and were gathered around him, their mouths wide open in astonishment. Foreman started to get up and then lay back down.

Whether this was a "near-death experience," a vision, a trance, or an actual death, who can say? Whatever it was, it wasn't over just yet. Suddenly he seemed to be transported into the lives of men he had admired and considered his heroes. He was given a glimpse of what it was like to be them – their successes, their failures, and the emptiness of their philosophies and their lives. As he jumped from one life to another in this vision he saw clearly that these men he had so envied, the very men he assumed had it all together, were leading miserable, empty, and unfulfilled lives. They were no better off than he was. As the vision unfolded, he became thankful that he wasn't them, and cried out, "I'm George Foreman!... I lost the fight, and I'm who I want to be. I don't want to be anyone else."

Still the experience continued, but with a different emphasis. As he was lying on the table George began to have sensations related to the death of Jesus. As his doctor held his head he told him, "Dr. West, please move your hands, because the thorns on His head are making Him bleed." Foreman put his hand to his forehead and saw blood there, although he had not been cut in the fight and none of his friends saw the blood. He also felt blood coming from his hands. Somehow it seemed that Christ and he were merged, and it was impossible to say where Christ ended and where George began. Suddenly he understood. Sitting straight up he announced to the others, "Jesus Christ is coming alive in me!" Scriptures started coming to his mind, verses he certainly had never memorized, and could not even remember ever hearing. George spoke them aloud to the astonished onlookers. 

Something else was happening, something entirely without natural explanation. Nearly all his life George Foreman had been an angry, hateful individual. His mind was continually steeped in bitterness and rage. Now all those negative emotions seemed to be draining out of him. For the first time in his life George had a great big taste of the love of God. He could no more keep it to himself than one might restrain the ocean's tides. Jumping off the table he went around to everyone in the room, hugging them and telling his dumbfounded friends that he loved them. All they could do was stare. This was not the George Foreman that they knew. All his carefully orchestrated cool aloofness was slain in an instant, replaced by a friendliness and affection no one had ever seen in the huge, muscular boxer. His friends convinced him to take a shower. As he stood under the streaming water, he could not help but compare the physical cleansing he was getting from the water to the spiritual encounter he had just experienced. He shouted, "Hallelujah, I've been born again."

Fruits of Repentance

Many people, even many Christians, would have a hard time accepting the conversion experience of George Foreman. It is so… unorthodox. He didn't go to a church, hear a preacher, and then pray the sinner's prayer: "Lord Jesus, I confess I am a sinner. Please forgive me of my sins and come into my heart…" And then there are the theological questions. Was he really in hell? If so, where were the flames? And how could he get out just by saying, "I still believe in God?" Could not heat prostration have caused all of this? How can you trust an experience that happens to a guy that's just spent twelve rounds being pounded on, and then goes into a sweltering dressing room?

In my mind, the proof is in the fruit. Regardless of what you may think about George's experience, no one can deny that from that point, George Foreman was a changed man. One of the first evidences of the change was seen in George's sudden desire to patch up relations with people he had hurt or who had hurt him. In the months that followed he looked up old enemies and people he had mistreated in order to apologize. He went to his old neighborhood to ask forgiveness from old friends he felt he had ignored once he became wealthy and famous. And from his lips, both to family, friends, and people he once hated, now came the words, "I love you." Few could understand the new George. Many thought this was some kind of con game he was playing. Some asked him, "Why are you doing this?" Others made it plain they wanted nothing to do with him.

But getting right with people was only part of the equation. George Foreman was transformed from one who scorned Christianity to one absolutely obsessed with all things Christian. He began going to church regularly. Soon he was sharing his conversion experience. He and a friend began preaching Christ on the streets. By this time he had shaved his head, and his weight had increased to over three hundred pounds. Nobody recognized him as the former heavyweight champion, and few had much interest in what he had to say. Finally he decided to tell people who he was: "Yeah, folks, this is George Foreman talking. That's right, I'm the former heavyweight champion of the world. I'm the one who fought the great Muhammad Ali." Suddenly people stopped and crowds gathered around. George would then begin to preach the gospel to the amazed onlookers.

In a very short time Foreman became an ordained minister and within three years found himself pastoring a small church. He had no theological degree, but he loved Jesus, loved people, and delighted in his new calling. Doing pastoral work and preaching to his congregation became the great love of his life. Although George has had enough careers for a dozen men, he says that preaching "is the only thing I've done in my life that was truly me." After his conversion George couldn't imagine fighting anymore and so he retired. Still in his twenties, he could have made millions of dollars by continuing to box, but now he just wanted to preach Jesus and help people.

At the time of his retirement he had a significant amount of money, but due to some poor investments and being cheated by people he trusted, the money ran out in less than ten years. The time came when George Foreman, former millionaire boxing champion, would carefully make his way through the grocery stores, looking for bargains, buying dented canned foods, and choosing only the generic brands to save money. His fleet of fancy cars had been sold and he drove an old car he bought from a used car dealer. The youth center he had established could barely keep its doors open. A strange idea began to stir in George's heart. At this point in his life he had two demonstrable skills: preaching and boxing. Since preaching wasn't paying much, perhaps he should consider going back into boxing as a means to provide for his ministry endeavors as well as his continually growing family. 

Second Time Around

And so at an age when most boxers have retired, George Foreman came out of retirement and embarked upon his second boxing career. He did not immediately attempt to fight the top tier boxers. Instead he started over at the bottom rung of the ladder, fighting men he would not have used as sparring partners in his championship days, using them to polish his skills and re-educate his reflexes. Slowly and steadily George won fight after fight and progressed to more skillful opponents. When he finally got to the top he lost two matches against current champions, Evander Holyfield in 1991, and Tommy Morrison in 1993. Many thought this would be his last chance for the heavyweight title. However in the following year, he was given the opportunity to fight the current title holder, Michael Moorer, for the championship.

Before the fight George had a dream in which he knocked out Moorer by throwing a left followed by a hard right. In the actual fight Moorer fought well for nine rounds and was far ahead on points. It was apparent that the only way Foreman could win would be by a knockout. Throughout the fight he had been watching for the scenario he had seen in the dream. It happened in the tenth round. Foreman threw a left jab which somehow felt just like the one in his dream. Without hesitation he followed it with a devastating right, and Moorer was knocked to the canvas. When Moorer couldn't get up by the count of ten, the fight was over. Rather than standing over his fallen opponent or raising his arms in triumph, George went back to his corner, got on his knees, and gave thanks to Jesus. George Foreman, at the age of 45, became the oldest man ever to win the heavyweight championship. It was twenty years after winning his first championship fight, a record that may never be equaled. 

The world was shocked. Forty-five year old men are not supposed to become boxing champions. There was a euphoric celebration among his staff and friends, but Foreman couldn't participate much. For one thing, he no longer drank alcohol, so he didn't taste the champagne. Secondly he needed to hurry back to Houston that Saturday night, so he could preach the next morning at his church.

Life after boxing

Foreman fought for several more years and finally retired (again) at the age of 48. He made more money in his second boxing career than in the first. And this time he didn't lose his fortune. Indeed, with his fame in boxing matched by a new, friendly, outgoing personality, he was in demand for all sorts of endorsements and business opportunities. One day someone sent him a small electric grill, in the hopes that he might endorse the product and become part owner of the small company that produced it. He thought little about it and was in no hurry to give it a try. Finally his wife grilled a hamburger with it and was thoroughly impressed. She told George he had to try it, and when he did, he too liked the taste and the way the slanted grill drained off the grease. He signed up with the company, and the George Foreman Grill was born. Today over 100 million of these grills have been sold. Very few American  have never owned one or at least eaten food grilled by one.  George made around two hundred million dollars off this grill, far more money than he ever had in boxing. His church and youth center never lacked for finances again.

When Foreman lost to Ali in that surprising match in 1974, it had shaken him to the core. One of the results of this was that he came to absolutely despise Ali. Not only had he been humiliated in the ring, but Ali had constantly mocked him, calling him "the mummy" and ridiculing his boxing skills. Foreman fervently hoped for a rematch and sometimes daydreamed about killing him in the ring with a fierce blow. That would be a way he could regain the respect he had lost. But when Jesus Christ came into his life, all that hatred and animosity was taken from him, and replaced by love. He began to reach out to Ali with calls and notes, and Ali reciprocated. In time they became good friends. In 1990 they were filming a boxing film together. By this time Ali had developed severe symptoms from Parkinson's disease and could no longer accomplish even simple functions. At one point, when Ali's staff was not around, Foreman stepped in to help, buttoning his shirt and tying his shoes. Ali, leaned over and whispered, "George, I never thought it would get to this." Foreman gently replied, "Don't worry about it. I've got to make sure you look pretty." George has tried again and again to persuade Ali to surrender to Christ, or at least go to church with him, but the one who called himself "The Greatest" has never yielded to the Greatest of all. Part of it seems to be pride. When Foreman has begged Ali to go to church with him, his reply has sometimes been, "I can't let people see me do that."

In the area of women and marriage, George's life has been pretty messy, before coming to Christ and even for some years afterward. Before being born again he was married briefly, divorced, and fathered four children by four different women. During his first boxing career women threw themselves at him, and Foreman caught quite a few. After his new birth experience George instinctively realized this was no longer appropriate and restrained himself. But when it came to marriage, he showed little restraint. Refusing the normal process of lengthy courtships, George married three different women quickly and was divorced from them in a short time. He divorced Cynthia, his second wife, when she showed little interest in accepting his children. Wives three and four initiated the breakups themselves. Finally, in 1985, George married the young woman who was acting as a nanny to his children, Mary Martelly. This time it worked, and at this writing they have been married for twenty-eight years. At this point in his life, George seems to be a loving and devoted husband. 

George Foreman - Pastor

Since we live in the Dallas area, I couldn't resist the temptation to drive down to Houston and see George Foreman minister in his church. My wife and I arrived a few minutes before the Saturday evening service. We weren't sure he would be in town, but shortly before the service began he came down the aisle and sat in front, his large, tall body and famous face unmistakable. The service was very traditional – no contemporary Christian praise songs or seeker sensitive emphasis here. When George got up to preach, his sermon was the essence of simplicity. He preached through the fifteenth chapter of Proverbs, reciting every verse and inserting his comments and views. He especially liked and referred to the first verse, which says that "a soft answer turns away wrath." The attendance on this September Saturday evening service was quite small – perhaps around 30 people. We seemed to be the only visitors there. We attended the service the next morning, where they had around 100 in attendance. Again Foreman preached in expository style from a single chapter of the Bible, this time the first chapter of Genesis. Everything about the church was both conservative and traditional, even to the wooden, cushion-less pews we sat on. 

By this point George knows he will never pastor a megachurch. While in boxing he rose to the absolute zenith of his profession. As a pastor he is but one of tens of thousands of small church pastors, faithfully caring for his congregation, preaching the Word, and lifting up Jesus. But it is clear that George Foreman is a happy man. In his career (actually careers) he has been greatly blessed, as well as in his family, and in the influence for good which he has become. The transformation of a life, any life, by Christ is a beautiful thing. Sometimes it happens to the rich and famous; more often it is seen in ordinary folks that drive trucks, wait tables, build houses, and work in department stores. George Foreman is one more testimony to the age old truth which declares, "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

For a full listing of all devos (written and audio) go to our Devos Catalog Page.

     

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