George Foreman is fueled by a desire to never stop working-and earning
This story appears in the March 16, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It's a mild February day, and George Foreman is piloting a golf cart around his 45-acre property in Huffman, Texas. He points out the basketball and tennis courts. He opens the spotless garage that holds more than 38 cars (among them Ferrari, Porsche, and Maybach). He drives alongside the horse stables he owns.
"Money has to be spent," Foreman says. "It is not made to be saved." The two-time heavyweight champ knows how to spend, which works well with his greater philosophy of business and life. "Don't ever stop earning," he says. "It's a curse to think you have enough. I remember my first million-dollar check for a boxing match. What a joy. And then my first $5 million check. What a joy. But today, I can go out and get a $5,000 check, and the joy is as great because I'm earning."
To that end Foreman, 66, is preparing to launch George Foreman's Butcher Shop, a mail-order meat company with an emphasis on quality, healthfulness and products sourced from family farms in the Midwest. "These days, man, how careful do you have to be with meat," he says. "You want to know about the cow's brother, sister, the spot she stood on."
As he flashes his familiar grin from behind the wheel of the golf cart, Foreman looks like a shining example of someone who did everything right after his athletic career ended. That he may be better known for hawking grills than for punching them in is a testament to how far he's come. But the trip wasn't an easy one.
Foreman turned pro after winning gold at the 1968 Olympics. Fueled by an internal anger—and featuring one of the most powerful right hands in boxing history—he seethed and scowled his way to a 40--0 record (37 KOs) and, after knocking down Joe Frazier six times in a 1973 bout, the undisputed heavyweight championship. But in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle against Muhammad Ali in Zaire, Foreman was knocked out in the eighth round, a defeat that left him emotionally destroyed and bitter. "If I watch it 100 times," says Foreman "each time I still think I'm going to win."
Foreman won five fights over the next three years, including a 1976 rematch with Frazier, but his life changed after a loss to Jimmy Young in March 1977. Foreman had a religious awakening in the locker room after the fight; he decided to retire from boxing and soon became a born-again Christian and a preacher. After he stepped away, he realized that his surly fighting persona had been a construct: He'd modeled his walk after John Wayne, his manner after Sonny Liston and his moustache after running back Jim Brown. When he quit, he let it all go. "It took so long for me to find me," he says. "Once I did, my mom even liked me. She didn't like me much when I was trying to be those other guys."
But preaching didn't pay as well as prizefighting, and by 1987, Foreman needed money for his three-year-old youth center in Houston. "I was not enthusiastic, realizing what a horrid person he had been," Bob Arum says of promoting Foreman's return to the ring after a 10-year absence. That may seem a harsh assessment, but it's one Foreman does not dispute. "After spending an hour with him, I said, 'This is the greatest con man in history,' because he was so different from what he had been before," says Arum. "But it wasn't a con. He had really changed."
Bald, 47 pounds heavier than he had been in his prime and always ready to joke and smile, Foreman became a fan favorite. When his comeback culminated with the defeat of 26-year-old Michael Moorer in 1994, Foreman became, at 45, the oldest heavyweight champion ever. His second act in the ring brought opportunities the younger Foreman never could have imagined.
He had initially been wary of hawking products, but that changed after an unlikely phone call in 1991. Foreman was in a hotel room when comedian Bill Cosby called to offer support. Decades earlier Foreman had appeared on The Dating Game with Cosby's brother Bob. Foreman told Cosby that companies were coming to him with offers but said, "I don't want to be on TV saying this and that." Cosby admonished him for ignoring the opportunities. "Come on, man. You're no different from anyone else. You want to be on television, you want to be known," Foreman remembers him saying. "If you don't take 'em, I'll take 'em." From then on Foreman embraced the pitch.
Over the years he has done endorsements, for Nike, Doritos, McDonald's and Meineke. In 1994 he agreed to lend his name to and appear in commercials for a line of indoor grills. The George Foreman Grill became such a runaway success that he has earned more from the cookers than he ever made in the ring. In 1999, Salton Inc., the maker of the product, gave him $137.5 million in combined stock and cash to avoid having to continue paying him royalties.
Last year he became a spokesperson for InventHelp, which helps people get patents for prototypes of products—a sensible fit, since it's often wrongly assumed that Foreman invented the grill. Foreman, who does everything from radio commercials to corporate speaking engagements, summarizes his approach as "never say no."
Aside from the endorsements, Foreman (aka Big George) is in business with three of his five sons, all of whom are named George Edward Foreman. George IV (Bigwheel) serves as his dad's publicist and is managing the meat company. George III (Monk) became the only son to box. Big George trained him, and Monk went 16--0, last fighting in December 2012 before deciding to put his degree from Rice to use in the business world. He now owns a gym in Boston called Everybody Fights, in which his father has a small investment. Two years ago, Big George and George Jr. (Junior) launched Foreman Boys Promotions, which has partnered with Arum's Top Rank to put on seven fights in Macau and a few in Texas.
Whenever they can, Big George and his wife, Mary, head out to his ranch in Marshall, Texas, about three hours away from Huffman. There he keeps about 50 horses and raises Black Angus cattle. When they arrive at the ranch, he and his wife go horseback riding and feel instantly relaxed. But after two days Big George says, "Let's leave!" At 6'3" and a self-reported 255 pounds, he moves more slowly than he used to, but he still likes to be active. Besides all his business interests, he preaches three days a week and teaches Sunday school. "The best thing that can ever happen to a human being is a job," he says. "You don't have a job, you're going to die!"