George Foreman and I have been playing phone tag for the past week, although the voice leaving me messages doesn't sound anything like the former world heavyweight champion and self described "grillionaire."
"I'm George Foreman the third," explains the 24-year-old, who is nicknamed "Monk" and now serves as his father's manager.
With a household of 10 children, including five sons named George, it's understandable to confuse George with, well, George. How Foreman manages his career and his family is the subject of a new reality show, "Family Foreman," which premieres Wednesday night on TV Land. I recently sat down with George, (Sr. that is) to talk about hopping into the competitive ring of reality television, avoiding the pitfalls of other reality show families (anyone still think Hogan knows best?) and how he keeps from mixing up all those Georges.
SI: You're a successful businessman, husband, father of 10 and an ordained Christian minister who has his own church. Why add reality-show star to that list?
Foreman: Well, in reality, when you leave boxing life can really get kind of boring. It doesn't matter what you're doing, nothing can recreate that kind of excitement. I did a television show in the 1990s ("George," which was cancelled after one season on ABC in 1993) and I've been looking to do another and at the same time my son (George III) became my agent and he thought things had changed and maybe it was time to do a reality show. I never thought much of it, but the next thing I know, the deal is done because he wanted to do it. He felt it would be good to showcase the family.
SI: We've seen this before with shows like "Hogan Knows Best," and the comparisons make even more sense when you look at the exposure this will bring to your daughter Natalie, an aspiring singer and model. Did you watch Hogan's show and were there any concerns about the cameras and attention changing your family?
Foreman: I've gone through and seen all those reality shows and you see people how they really are and I've always thought that I'd like to show my family too. The key is working with people that you trust and I think TV Land is a nice, clean network -- at least so far -- so they weren't going to make it a drama. You look at some of the other shows and you see they've had some misfortune because of the success that they've had so I have mixed feeling about success in this business.
SI: So what do you do to try and prevent that? This is the first time many will be seeing the other Foremans and the first time they'll be dealing with any semblance of celebrity of their own.
Foreman: You have to sit down with them before the cameras come and tell them to be themselves. The really good thing is that I've been a "celebrity" for the past 40 years, since the 1968 Olympics, and I've had cameras coming in and out of my home since then so my family has been exposed to everything and they're accustomed to the cameras and seeing themselves mentioned in newspapers and on television so it didn't blow them away to see the cameras. They dealt with a lot of that in school with a father that was the heavyweight champion of the world, so this isn't going to blow them away. The camera is nothing new to them. One thing that did blow them away, at least my wife and my daughters, they saw themselves on television after taping and said, "I know that's not me looking that big." These guys went out and starved themselves until they became the smallest people I've ever seen in my life. So that's one effect, they really wanted to alter their appearance for the sake of being on television. But other than that there are no fears. I've always said it's a privilege to be on television. It's every kid's dream to be on television and there's no way I would ever say I don't want to do that when in reality it's always been my dream.
SI: Was there a turning point for you when you became comfortable with the cameras and the microphones and being on television? I know there was a time in your life when you weren't the most media-friendly person.
Foreman: Yeah, when I first left boxing in '77 I just didn't want to be associated with athletics or even look like a boxer. I had these custom-made suits that made you look sharp and small in the middle and I had this mustache and became this person I detested. I was a selfish person that just wanted to hurt people so I cut off my hair, my mustache and I didn't care much about appearance. I even traded my Rolls Royce for little small cars. One day I was out in the street preaching and the sad thing is people passed me by. They didn't know who I was. They thought I was this big guy with overalls. That was the first time I felt that celebrity was something good so I started screaming, "I'm George Foreman, yeah I'm standing on the corner but I fought MuhammadAli." They stopped and started paying attention so I used that boxing and celebrity as a way to get people stop and listen to me preach on the street corner. It made me want to get back into boxing, and, when I did, I realized I could sell. If I could sell to a man who's heading somewhere on a street corner and make him stop for 15 minutes and make him miss his bus, I could sell anyone. So that's when I started to sell George Foreman. I bought into selling myself and I've never relinquished that.
SI: Speaking of selling, you're just as famous for your grills now as you were for your boxing career, what has that been like?
Foreman: Yeah, I got hooked on selling as I told you, almost as much as boxing. I loved boxing but I really loved selling myself more than anything. So I was approached with this little grill that was there for years but no one was using it. We made it look prettier and I started selling them and it worked so well that I decided to do an infomercial. I agreed to be the major controlling partner just so we could get 16 of them at the beginning. I didn't think they would sell that much so I gave the ones I had to family who cooked for me during my training camp. The next thing I know the thing has sold 10,000, 100,000, as of today it's sold over 100 million. I'm just as surprised as anyone else.
It's scary because I'll be talking to kids and I get introduced as the former heavyweight champion, Olympic gold medalist, whatever, and they'll know me just from the grill. One time a 6-year-old said, "That's the cooking man." He didn't even know me as a boxer. He thought it was a joke that I was being introduced as a boxer.
SI: On Hogan's reality show a while back he said that he could have been the name behind those grills, but he missed the phone call and you got it. Any truth to that?
Foreman: Yeah, I heard that. I don't know, that was news to me.
SI: You have 10 kids in the Foreman household and they all do their own thing it seems. How do you keep up with all their interests and not confuse any of them?
Foreman: It is kind of confusing. I have 10 kids and the one mistake you don't want to make is to think that they're all the same. That's the only time you get into trouble when you start thinking the all want the same thing when they might want something completely opposite. I mean I got a daughter who wants to sing of all things. It was something I couldn't believe. I got another one that wants to play sports. So I have to sit back and watch them develop more than try to point them in a direction I thought they should go. It's confusing because you can not get them mixed up. Each one is an individual. Some of them have the same name but they're totally different, each one of them.
SI: You haven't made it easier for yourself in the confusing department by naming all five of your sons George. It's a great name, but why name all five of your sons after yourself?
Foreman: My biological father -- until I had lost the heavyweight championship of the world and one of my sisters told me that dad isn't really my dad -- I loved. [My sister said that] I had a biological father and I actually met him. It was a tough time because I had lot [going on with] my title and I was devastated and I had a father out there that I didn't even know. I actually ended up preaching at his funeral. This was my father and I didn't even know him and I decided then I would give all my sons something in case they got separated or divided, something they would all have in common and that's why I gave them my name. That's the reason I really did it.
SI: What's it been like to have one of your sons now, George III, who's only 24 years old, managing your career now?
Foreman: That's rough because he gets the brunt of everything and the blame when things go bad. It's rough, but he chose that. I saw him go through Rice University and I saw the way navigated his way through a quality education and I knew this boy could do anything. From that point on, I've had confidence in him.
SI: What's something that people will see on the show that might surprise them?
Foreman: People are going to blown away that I have daughters. You've heard the stories about George, George, George, George and George, but few people know that I am also the father of five daughters and that's going to blow people away how I'm actually controlled by the girls in the family.
SI: Your daughter Natalie, who sings and models and aspires to be a physician one day, may turn out to be the biggest star of the show. Was it hard seeing your daughter enter the entertainment industry?
Foreman: That bothered me because I'd put away every dime into these funds so they could be educated. I wanted them to be doctors, lawyers and writers. I made certain the money was there for a quality education so they wouldn't have to be going out there and sing and model. When you're trying to entertain people, it's a rough call because sometimes they love you and sometimes they don't, and then they get tired of you. So it hasn't been easy for me to embrace that, but so long as Natalie is still working on her masters and gets her Ph.D. sooner or later, it's fine if she wants to sing like a bird on the way. I'll let it be.
SI: It's clear from the show that your wife, Mary, really runs thing inside the Foreman house. Was it hard getting her to do the show since she's never done anything like this before?
Foreman: She's really been my guiding force because I left boxing and was living on a low budget and didn't care about celebrity or anything. I found the greatest wife and I remember thinking one day, I wish she had known me when I had a lot of things. I would have given her this, that and the other. So when I made my comeback into boxing, it was like I could do it all over again. She still has this little ring I bought for her that costs less than $100. There's a diamond in there, but you wouldn't be able to see it, but she's been my jewel and she runs the family. It was a hard thing to get her on television. She didn't like the idea of being out there but I told her to come out up front and let people see you and she really made the show.
SI: What does boxing need to do to become the sport it was when you were fighting? There aren't many fighters left, and certainly no heavyweights, that the average fan can gravitate towards.
Foreman: You need a hero. Someone's got to be sold to a generation that [believes] boxing is not just boxing and [about] making money; you really have to stand for something. When you look at guys like Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, these people know that the world heavyweight champion stood for something more. Today's fighters have forgotten that. They just want to fight and make money and that's all that counts. All you need is two heavyweights to turn this thing around and we're back on our feet in boxing. Sportswriters also need to help out. They used to give us names like "Louisville Lip," "Big George Foreman," "The Brown Bomber." Writers gave us those names, but they don't name us anything anymore. That's another reason why we're fading.
SI: Well, I'll try and think of some. In the meantime, Brett Favre just can't seem to stay retired and I wonder what it is about athletes that make them not want to admit that their career is over. You came back and won the world title at 45 and even tried to have one last fight at the age of 55. When do you say enough is enough?
Foreman: The scariest thing in the world is when you box and box and say you want to make a million dollars and then you want to make two or three and then you look at the bank one day and you got four or five million dollars and you're set and then you say, "I want to box again." That's when you need to say, "Houston we have a problem." There's a problem there. When you start fighting and you're not fighting for money, you get lost. I was getting ready to go back in the ring a few years ago because I had some agreements on the table and people want to pay me big money and I trained and got ready and then my wife said, "You're not doing it." I kept telling her that I could still do it. I showed her some of my moves and she said, "George, is that the way you want to leave the sport? Feeling that you could still do it?" I never brought it up again. That's the way I wanted to leave. I had forgotten about that. You never want to leave when you can't do it anymore. Without a wise wife, I'm certain I would have been fighting until I fell dead one day.