Although now widely recognised for his promotion of the "Lean Mean Fat Grilling Machine", George Foreman's boxing career could be mistaken for something straight out of a Hollywood movie. His story is one of incredible early triumphs, age-defying comebacks and a life-changing religious experience, not to mention one of the most famous fights of all time.
Born in Marshall, Texas on 1st January 1949, Foreman’s youth was a troubled one. He was constantly getting on the wrong side of the law, and was involved in dangerous street fighting from an early age.
In a bid to change his life, he joined the Job Corps as a way to provide him with some solidity and focus. Unfortunately, his aggression was still too much to control, and he would constantly get involved in fights with the other trainees. Ironically, it was this very aggression that led him to discover the sport that would eventually make his name.
He was given his first opportunity by the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) in San Francisco, who supported him in his bid to become an amateur boxer. It didn’t take him long to make an impression, and in 1968 he was selected to represent America at the Mexico City Olympics. It was his first shot at the big time.
He was a phenomenal success. He thrashed a string of contenders with style, and finished off by beating the Russian contender Ionas Chepulis in the final to win the gold medal. Almost overnight he had become a national hero.
After building up an amateur record of 22 wins to 3 losses, Foreman went professional in 1969. He won his first fight convincingly by knocking out Donald Walheim in the 3rd round, and carried on his record by going on to win all of his first 12 fights that year, 11 of which were knockouts.
He enjoyed exactly the same knockout ratio the following year, including one of his best ever victories against George Chuvalo. Chuvalo had not gone down once in 90 fights, but Foreman changed that by winning on a technical knockout in the 3rd round.
In 1971, his record went up to 32 fights without a loss, and he became the main challenger for the heavyweight title. The following year saw a string of convincing wins, which led him up to January 22nd 1973, when he got his first shot at the title, against Joe Frazier.
Foreman was by then highly rated, but no one could have predicted his utter dominance in the title bout. Frazier was floored six times in two rounds, the last of which was the winning punch which saw Foreman take Frazier right off the ground.
The Rumble in the Jungle
After defending his title in two one-sided fights against Jose Roman and Ken Norton respectively, his next defence was the stuff of boxing legend. In the summer of 1974, he and Muhammad Ali travelled to what was then Zaire to take part in one of the most famous fights in history, which is now known as the 'Rumble in the Jungle'.
Foreman was the clear favourite and started the fight well by throwing a few heavy punches that made contact with Ali’s body. However, it soon became apparent that his dominance was not so great after all, with Ali using the flexible ropes to lean out of Foreman’s most dangerous blows.
By the 8th round, Ali had taken control of the match against an increasingly exhausted Foreman. A powerful hit to the jaw sent the champion down to the canvas and, even though he managed to get up again, the fight was over. He had lost his title.
A change of direction
After spiralling into depression for a full year, Foreman returned to the ring in 1976 in a fight against Ron Lyle, which he won in the 5th round. His next fight also ended in victory when he knocked down his old adversary Frazier, again in the 5th round.
But in 1977, everything changed. After a last-round knockout where he lost to Jimmy Young, Foreman experienced in his dressing room what he described as a religious experience. He later explained how God came into his life at that very moment, and he became a born-again Christian.
For the next 10 years, although he never officially announced his retirement, he left the world of boxing and became an ordained minister in Houston.
In 1987, Foreman announced his comeback to the sport at the age of 38. At 270 pounds he was out of shape, but he proved his critics wrong by winning his first five bouts in his first year. The following year, he won a further nine fights and, although none of his contenders were particularly rated, he found that he seemed to have a greater stamina than in his youth.
Although he had made a comeback to fighting, he was also by this time a successful businessman, being involved in numerous business ventures that brought him great fortune. He had also changed his personality into a far more likeable presence, as opposed to the hostile character of his youth.
By 1991, following further convincing wins, he was offered a title challenge against Evander Holyfield, which was an achievement in itself. He didn’t win the fight, but he lasted the whole 12 rounds to gain the respect of his peers, and suddenly he was being seriously considered once again.
In 1993, he got another shot at a title, but this time for the WBO championship, which was largely ignored in the world of boxing. As it happened, he lost the fight to Tommy Morrison on decision.
The champion once again
On 5th November, 1994, Foreman got another shot at the title against Michael Moorer, who was the WBA and IBF heavyweight champion.It all appeared to be going wrong for him as, for the first 9 rounds, it was a very one-sided affair. Foreman was taking punishment and providing no answers.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Foreman swung his fist in the 10th round and devastatingly connected with Moorer’s chin, cutting his bottom lip open. He went down to the canvas, and the fight was over. At 45 years of age, Foreman had regained his heavyweight champion title.
It did not last for long. Soon after the fight, as punishment for refusing to take on Tony Tucker in a challenge for his title, he was stripped of his belt. He later went onto defend his IBF title against the German boxer Axel Schulz. However, after winning on a controversial decision, he refused a rematch and was stripped of this title as well.
In 1998 he fought Shannon Briggs in a fight that would see the winner go on to face Lennox Lewis in another title bout. However, when he lost this bout, he announced his retirement at the age of 48.
Although he later hinted at a few comebacks to the sport, he never followed any of these through, and instead became a boxing analyst for HBO, although he soon broke off this contract and left the sport forever. In January 2003, he was elected into the Boxing Hall of Fame.
These days, he is widely known for his ‘Lean Mean Fat Grilling Machine’, a product that has made him a millionaire many times over. His deal with Salton Inc. to promote the product still remains one of the biggest endorsements of any athlete in history.
Although he has made more money from his business ventures that he ever did through boxing, it is certain that he will be always be remembered for the sport which made his name, and the impact he made throughout his career.