Fortune's Daniel Roberts sits down with two-time heavyweight champion George Foreman to talk about the upcoming May 2 bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao and the current state of boxing.
Mike Tyson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson—they were all great boxers, and they all went broke at one point.
If they had followed George Foreman’s business philosophy outside the ring, they might have held on to their money. The two-time former champ, now a preacher and, still, a pitchman, says it’s simple: he doesn’t turn down an opportunity to earn money, no matter the size of the check.
As part of the ongoing Pro-Files series with Fortune, SI.com sat down with Foreman in his home in Huffman, Tx., just outside of Houston. A conversation about earning a living after sports naturally led to questions about young boxers today, and Foreman had a good deal to say about everything from Floyd Mayweather to football.
What follows is an edited transcript.
SI.com: Boxing purses have certainly changed since your time. Floyd Mayweather gets more than $50 million from one fight.
George Foreman: The greatest curse in the world is for an athlete to get $50 million for an event. Money has to be spent. You only earn it to spend it. You can’t save it, not in America. It is not made to be saved.
Athletes today, they’ve been accustomed to making millions a year, so then when someone says, "Come out here and do this thing" and they say, "Well, how much?" And the offer is $15,000. The athlete says, "WHAT?!" And they don’t know, you gotta keep earning. It doesn’t matter how much. Otherwise you're going to retire and die.
I didn’t like boxing. I never liked boxing. I hated it. I hated that I had to hit to make my living. I had to come back into boxing because I stopped earning.
I remember, when I left boxing the first time [in 1977], I was getting a million for a fight. I could do one of those every six weeks. The second time [starting in 1987], I was getting offered like $5,000 to fight. And one fight I did at the Hitchin Post in Springfield, Mo., I think I got like $2,000. But I didn’t mind, because you just keep on earning.
At this time, guys like Tyson were making millions. And I’m making $2,000. But I was a sure bet to bring people in. And the purses kept going up. And finally I was offered $12.5 million to fight Evander Holyfield in 1991. I lost that fight, but here I had $12.5 million. Back in business.
There are so many athletes who are literally walking dead now. Only because they don’t earn.
And athletes also spend a lot, right? They buy cars, or fancy houses…
Sonny Liston once said to me, when we were really young, "One day I’m going to get me a Rolls Royce." The thing about a Rolls Royce is it’s supposed to be a great car. People aspire to have one.
So finally in 1972 I bought my first Rolls Royce. And…everything was wrong with that thing. It was the worst purchase. And I… [whispering] I kept it a secret. Because you don’t tell anybody that the Rolls Royce is the worst car—worst brakes, worst everything. And that’s the same with having your $50 million in the bank, because everybody’s always weaseling trying to steal your money.
So, what’s a better car?
A ’77 Volkswagen Beetle, that is pound for pound the best car you can get. If you took all my cars [Foreman has 35 of them, including a Maybach, Tesla and Ferrari, in his garage], that one you’d have to leave me. Because it works. You can have all the rest.
I don’t think you’d see Mayweather in a Beetle.
No, because he probably doesn’t know a thing about a Beetle. He’s probably in the worst thing you can drive.
Do you mentor young boxers on how to manage their money, or have any come to you for guidance on that?
Yes, and I tell them to smile. I’m always joking with young boxers, I try to get them out of that seriousness and get them to laugh at themselves.
I remember Oscar de la Hoya, he was a great fighter, but he would get in the ring and be so serious. And I’d tell him, just smile. And he did, and he got very marketable.
I used to pull Mayweather off to the side and say the same thing. I’d say, "Come on now. Just try to smile." As long as I was around HBO, when I was doing ringside, I kept that on them. But then I left, and when I left, after 13 years, those guys kind of went wild again.
They’ll all tell you that’s true, that I told them to just enjoy themselves. Because the ride will be over. You think it’s a grind and a serious job, and you have to act like you have a grudge, but it’s a great chance to smile and be famous and sign autographs. And it’s short. Someone will replace you soon enough.
What are your thoughts on Mayweather?
You know, there’s always a star. And I’ve seen so many of them come and go. Some last a long time, but they all go. And when they’re on top, they all have this attitude, and their attitude showcases their generation. But when they trip and go, well, that’s the end of that generation. And them. If you know what I mean.
Things haven’t changed, the world always just looks for a temporary standard bearer of who we are. He’ll pass. They all come and go.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Mayweather could have a transfusion of…Gary Player, or Larry Bird, wouldn’t that be something? Boy, wouldn’t that be nice.
What do you expect from the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight?
I’m happy to see it happen. See, what I’m interested in is that on pay-per-view, that fight with Mayweather and Pacquiao will make people sit in their house, push the button and order the fight. And once you open that door, it’s going to keep going to some other guy. I hope.
I remember the pay-per-view money getting to be great, and then Tyson bites the guy’s ear, and people decided, "I’m not going to order this for a long time." That was very bad.
What about heavyweight fighters these days. How come it seems like the U.S. doesn’t produce heavyweight champs any longer?
It has disappeared.[Wladimir] Klitschko, he’s just destroying boxing. He hits you and holds, hits you and holds. He can do that forever. But there’s an American fighter, [current WBC heavyweight champion] Deontay Wilder—he’s a big, tall, homegrown boy. I think things are going to change because he’s one of those fellows people look at and say, "I could beat him." And then they can’t.
You managed your own son, George III, in his boxing career.
“Monk.” I managed him all the way. But that was tough. I couldn’t differentiate which of us was getting in the ring. I was always so anxious. I could not separate us. He also had a curse: he had graduated Rice University. He was too smart—analyzed everything going on.
What do boxers today in general do wrong, or what has changed?
Well, the real weapon of mass destruction now is your voice. The microphone. You can destroy everything with the wrong words. Good people never have to worry about that. But a lot of these guys today, I don’t know what they’re doing, they go on Twitter or Facebook and they just say the wrong things.
You use social media, though. Do you like it? Is that really you tweeting?
It’s me. I like social media, sure. I try everything. Because you must be current. The only thing about the past is that it’s gone. I live in the future. Old people are people who don’t live in the future. You have to keep making progress.
Do you watch other sports? Football?
All of them. I love watching the Super Bowl. You know what I loved? I loved that David Tyree catch in the  Super Bowl. Man, that was a great day. I felt so good for him.
I’m just happy that sports can still supply moments like that. Boxing used to be the only supplier of those moments. Joe Lewis and Max Schmeling. Mohamed Ali and Joe Frazier. The Rumble in the Jungle. Boxing has gone down because the writers were the ones who gave us names. Floyd Patterson “The Rabbit.” “Big George” Foreman. “The Real Deal” Holyfield. They named us. But nobody writes about boxing anymore.
Well, they do, but it became niche, in a way.
Yes. Remember Hemingway, he liked to write about boxing. Even Norman Mailer. A writer has to write it, put us into a dream and then people visualize it. And television, too, you can see the moment they ruined it—when people stopped doing real shows, with writers, and started doing the reality television. And that’s trash.
How about Canelo Alvarez? He has potential, outside of the ring.
Oh, yes, he’s marketable. But again, somebody’s gotta write about him.
You know, there was a Deadspin.com story recently about when you came back from Zaire and fought five guys in one night.
Yes. What kind of foolishness was that? A, B, C, D, E.
They wrote that you had lost to Ali and wanted to prove yourself…
That’s what I was trying to do, yes. That’s a death trap, though. I wouldn’t do that again. One of them hit me on my left side, cracked my rib and I had to continue on with that. Because I picked five fighters who could really fight. I cracked my rib. I was in so much pain for a long time. You do foolish things. But I was the only one guiding myself at that time. I had let my trainer go. It was six months after Zaire.After that Zaire fight, you must have hated Ali.
Oh yeah, I hated him for a lot of years. It wasn’t until I found my religion that I realized. I realized I got beat. He was a fine fighter and he beat me. And I got peace. It took until 1980. And I realized I should have bridged that gap earlier. And now we’ve been best friends. It took him a long time until he realized I was sincere. He thought I was up to something.
What do you think your own boxing legacy is?
I’m just so happy I had boxing, that boxing existed.
To see clips on YouTube or whatever of me fighting these guys, I’m like, "Wow, that’s me. That really happened." That’s the only way I look at it. I don’t look at it like, "Great fighter. Great puncher. Champion." I don’t think about it that way.
Some people today may not even think of you as a boxer, they know you as the Foreman Grill guy.
And that’s fine. It’s a fine thing to be known for.
It’s strange…when people around me are talking about boxing, I almost get embarrassed, like it’s a third person… I think, “that’s something that George would be interested in, not me.” George Foreman the boxer? That’s some other guy.
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