“What’s the best personal comeback story in all of sports?” I asked my husband, fairly certain his answer would be Monica Seles or Michael Jordan.
He thought about it for a while. “Maybe George Foreman.”
I squinted at him. “The grill guy that named all of his sons George?”
David smiled. “You’re the librarian. Go do some research and then see if you agree with me.”
So I did. The first thing my Google search retrieved was the cover of the June 18, 1973 Sports Illustrated featuring Foreman. The scowling, handsome man in the photo has piercing eyes and biceps as thick as an oak trunk; this man barely resembles the softer, smiling Foreman I associate with late night television infomercials.
Born in 1949 in Texas’s impoverished 5th Ward, Foreman had a troubled childhood that led him to petty crime and street fighting. In an effort to improve his fighting skills, he started training in the boxing ring. With natural ability, hard work, and a healthy dose of mad-at-the-world syndrome, this thug-turned-champion won a 1968 gold medal and then the world heavyweight title in 1973. Though perhaps best known for his loss to Muhammad Ali during 1974’s so-called Rumble in the Jungle, Foreman still had an impressive resume of wins in his early career.
In 1977, a physically and spiritually exhausted Foreman flew to Puerto Rico to fight Jimmy Young. Foreman suffered a knockdown from Young in round 12 and fell to his knees. As the ref gave the win to Young, something incredible happened. Foreman started to hallucinate, speaking incoherently. Worried that their star was suffering from heatstroke – the air conditioning in the building was broken that night – and dehydration, Foreman’s coach and trainer carried him backstage, where Foreman saw his life flash before his eyes. He witnessed all of the painful experiences of his troubled youth, recalling them “like a video tape running fast-forward, as though I knew somehow that it was about to end.” Then things got darker. “I knew I was dead, and this wasn’t heaven … I had no hope for tomorrow – or of ever getting out.”
Foreman maintains that, in that moment, his heart stopped beating. But in the next instant, Foreman felt like “a spigot of God’s love had been turned on inside me, filling me up, and overflowing out of me.” He sat up, drawing in a huge gasp of a breath, startling everyone in the room. Jumping off the table, he started hugging everyone near him, professing his deep-seated love for all of mankind.
He quit the sport in that moment, realizing that all of his wins had been born of anger. He would go on to become an ordained minister and open an outreach center for disadvantaged youths. Foreman credits that historic loss as the greatest win of his life. “I came alive again. Everybody said I was dehydrated, suffering from delusions. I don’t know. I left knowing I had to quit and become a minister. And I did for 10 years. That’s when I discovered that prancing around a ring with short pants on, that’s easy. Telling some old woman who has just lost her husband of 40 years that her life is still worth living, dealing with a little boy who is looking into the coffin at his dead daddy, those are the things that are hard. Boxing is easy.”
It would take Foreman a decade to return to the ring. And when he did, it was with a renewed sense of purpose. His early successes had actually been failures, because his heart was filled only with anger and a lust for revenge against what he considered an unjust world. He wanted to return to the ring with a newfound sense of love for the sport and gratitude for the experiences boxing could provide – the opportunity for him to travel and meet new people, as well as a chance to win prize money to support his outreach center.
In 1994, George Foreman challenged Michael Moorer, 19 years his junior. While Moorer outboxed Foreman for the majority of the fight, Foreman came back in the tenth round and with several well-placed punches took Moorer down. As the ref counted Moorer out, Foreman regained the title he had lost to Ali two decades prior. And at age 45, he became the oldest fighter to ever win the heavyweight championship, as well as the fighter with the longest interval between his first and second world championships.
Foreman, after his second retirement, made over $200 million from the George Foreman Grill. Combined with prize money from his many wins, his net worth is estimated at over $300 million. Much of that money is still used to run his youth center.
David was right. It is indeed a great sports story, but the more enduring lesson is the lesson in purpose and love. Boxing taught Foreman that true winning is living a life in service of others, living a life that exemplifies love.
Quite a comeback indeed.