Who made you tough?
It doesn’t matter where you’re brought up, if you have a mother trying to raise seven kids, it’s going to be rough. I started hanging round the streets of Houston with the wrong people and getting into a whole heap of trouble robbing people and fighting. I learned how easy it is to end up on the wrong side of the road.
Who inspired you to box?
I was in a programme for unemployed kids called the Job Corps, and a few of us were sitting round listening to a boxing match on the radio between Cassius Clay and Floyd Patterson. Afterwards, everybody said, “Hey George, you’re always picking on people, you think you’re so tough, why don’t you become a boxer?” I told them, “I’ll show you!” That was my initiation. My big mouth pushed me into it.
Who coached you?
A guy called Charles Broadus. I told him I wanted to be a boxer, and he looked at me and said, “Well, you’re big enough, and you’re ugly enough, come down to the gym.” I didn’t fare too well at first, but I stayed with it. He told me that if I stopped fighting in the streets and tended to my manners, I could be an Olympic gold medallist.
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At the Games, I beat a Russian guy in the final. It was the height of the Cold War and the Superpowers, and they spooked us about what magnificent specimens the Russians were. I remember being filled with what you might call a patriotic fear. Made me hit him pretty hard, yes sir.
Who was the hardest puncher you ever faced?
I spent days in the gym sparring with Sonny Liston and I was smart enough to stay out of the way of his punches. I could feel the power even when he missed. He was the strongest guy – the other guys people talk about, they weren’t even second to him.
What was your best fight?
I never enjoyed a fight at the time, but the one I look back on with most pleasure was against a guy called Ron Lyle. I fought him just after losing the title to Muhammad Ali, and he dumped me on canvas. I remember lying there thinking, “What excuses can I come up with now?” I knew I had no choice but to get up, and keep fighting until I won. He dropped me more than once, but I never gave up getting up, so I was more proud of that victory than any other.
What’s the best thing about boxing?
Boxing is the grandaddy of all sports, the first one our ancestors indulged in. All other sports are just a more civilised version of it, and without boxing there wouldn’t even be ping pong! It’s like Scotch: you can water it down, but if you want the real thing, you’ve got to go to the source. There’ll always be some corner, some alley, some pit where men will fight, and they’ll make a few rules.
What was it like being born again?
I had just lost a fight to a guy named Jimmy Young. I went into the dressing room to cool off. I sat there thinking, “You don’t have to worry; you’re still rich, you can retire and die.” Then that phrase kept repeating, “You can die… you can die…” I couldn’t get it out of my head. Before you know it, my legs gave out on me. I said, “Hey, I’m fixing to die!” and then I was gone, into this deep, dark place – over my head, under me, all around me was a junkyard of nothing, all black, and I was dead.
Even as I tell you now, I can remember the smell that goes with death. I started fighting for my life, trying to make a deal and said, “I can give money to charity, do things for cancer,” and this voice answered, “I don’t want your money, I want you.” And just like that, I was rescued, like being plucked from the sea. I jumped up naked shouting, “Hallelujah, I’m clean!” My coaches had to pin me down with no clothes on and rush me to hospital.
What is your best tip for punching someone?
If you find yourself in a situation, remember that you can’t always wait to be attacked. That burglar or mugger is probably afraid that you’re going to fight back, he doesn’t want that, so satisfy that fear in him. Someone’s got to land the first punch in any fight, and it might as well be you.
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George Foreman has been working with Simply Prestige Events. For future events, see simplyprestigeevents.com
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Grub Smith contributed interviews and features to the print edition of Coach, which ran from 2015 to 2016.