Total Failure: How George Foreman's Losses Showed Him The Light

May 24, 2017
Originally published on June 7, 2017 11:29 am

George Foreman at 25 years old was a fearsome champion: 6 foot 4, biceps thick and gnarled as oak, a permanent scowl on his face and a right hand that flattened every opponent he faced.

So when Muhammad Ali challenged him in 1974 for a championship fight dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), most bets were on Foreman.

Ali was seven years older and past his prime. He'd had his title stripped after refusing the Vietnam draft in 1967 and was struggling to become a contender again.

Foreman was undefeated and planning to stay that way. "I took the fight because I could knock him out in two rounds," he says. "I thought, '$5 million for two rounds? Wow!' "

The highly anticipated fight was financed by Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, and included a multiday music festival that featured James Brown and Miriam Makeba.

Then, on Oct. 30, 1974, the two fighters entered the ring in the nation's capital of Kinshasa. "As we were in the ring," Foreman remembers, "I was staring at him trying to intimidate him and he said, 'George, you were a kid going to high school when I was champion of the world.' "

Everyone expected Ali to dance around Foreman and avoid his powerful punches. Instead, Ali came out swinging with his right hand, which seemed to disorient Foreman.

But Foreman remained confident. "So I figured I'd knock him out in the second round," he says. "You can always tell when you hurt a fighter, he always has something to say. He leaned in and whispered, 'That all you got George?'

"And I knew from that point, this guy could take a punch and endure."

Ali kept enduring. He would lean back on the ropes and let Foreman hit him, over and over. And he was exhausted from throwing punches by the eighth round. "He came off the ropes and I came off the ropes with my hand down to come after him," he says. "And he hit me with fastest right hand I ever remember receiving in the boxing ring. It was fast more than anything. Ka-pow! And I thought, my God I'm going down. And I hit the canvas."

Foreman got up at the count of nine, but the judges stopped the fight anyway.

Foreman had never lost before. And it was devastating. "You never know how important it is that people would have some ... I hate to say fear but respect is kinda like fear," he says. "Now all of a sudden, these people are looking at me with a pitiful eye."

At this point, Foreman didn't really have anything in his life except boxing. He'd grown up poor — literally hungry, without enough food. He was so ashamed he'd bring an empty lunch bag to school. "I'd seen that pity before," he says. "When I was a teenager looking for a job. You fill out your application, and people look at you 'Ah, well, we don't need anyone right now.' And there I was, back in same position — and I didn't like it."

As a teenager, Foreman had channeled that rage and frustration into fighting: first on the streets, then in the ring. And after losing to Ali, he became paranoid. He didn't trust anyone and kept to himself. "You start getting a little hate in you," he says. "I'm going to pay the world back, show them, that kind of thing."

Foreman won his next five matches. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline "I want Ali again."

"I thought I could use that hate to get my title back," he says. "It was no longer the title — it was my title."

But Ali wouldn't accept the challenge.

Foreman finally got his chance for redemption when he took on a talented fighter named Jimmy Young. Everything depended on this fight. If Foreman won, Ali would be forced to accept a rematch. He'd get that chance to win back his title.

The fight took place in Puerto Rico on March 17, 1977. Foreman didn't score a knockout in the early rounds and the two fighters settled into a long, close fight. But by the 12th round, Foreman was clearly exhausted. At one point, he fell to his knees. He made it to the final round, but the judges declared that Young had won.

Foreman headed to his dressing room. The air conditioning wasn't working in the arena and he began to pace up and down to cool off. "You are told never to sit down after a boxing match," he says.

Foreman became convinced he was going to die; he says he could literally smell death in the room. He wasn't a religious man, but he started to pray to God for his life. "I started walking faster and faster, everyone is looking at me," he says. "My legs started to curl and I told everyone in the room, 'I'm fixing to ....' But before I could say another word — around me, under my feet, around me — there was nothing. I was in this deep, dark junkyard of nothing. There wasn't any hope."

Foreman collapsed. His trainers pulled him up and laid him down on the table.

"I said 'I don't care if this is death, I still believe there's a God,' " he says. "When I said that, a gigantic hand reached in and held me. I jumped off the table and started screaming, 'Jesus Christ has come alive in me!' I said, 'I got to save the world!' They said, 'No, you need clothes on!' They held me down until the ambulance took me to intensive care in the hospital. That experience changed me forever."

Foreman gave up boxing that day. He became a minister and opened a youth center. But the biggest change was right there on his face: George Foreman started smiling.

Foreman looks back now and it's like his whole biography has been turned upside down. He now sees those early successes as the real failure, because he didn't appreciate them. "I went over to Africa. I didn't see a wild animal in the natural," he says. "I missed all those things. A whole lifetime missed. I was too focused on the one-two: left-hand, right-hand punch."

Ten years after losing to Jimmy Young, Foreman entered the ring again. He says he did it to raise money for his youth center. But there was something else. He wanted to show he could still win, but this time without hate or anger.

"The second time, I really had a time to journey in life. I learned words like, Konichiwa. I went to South Africa and met the different tribes," he says. "You get a second chance to live and it makes a better person out of you. You realize that wasn't really a loss for me in Africa — it was a gain that I didn't appreciate.

In 1994, George Foreman regained his title at age 45. He was the oldest fighter to ever win the heavyweight championship.

This story is the second in a four-part series on the experience of failure and how people deal with it. It was developed in NPR's Story Lab. Nicholas DePrey created original music for the series.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All this month, in a series called Total Failure, we're learning about how setbacks shape our lives. Today, George Foreman, former heavyweight boxing champion. In 1974, Foreman suffered one of the greatest upsets in sports history, and he was not prepared for the aftermath. NPR's Michael May has the story.

MICHAEL MAY, BYLINE: George Foreman at 25 years old was a fearsome champion - 6-foot-4, biceps thick and gnarled as oak, a permanent scowl on his face and a right hand that flattened every opponent he faced. So when Ali challenged him in 1974 for a championship fight in Zaire dubbed The Rumble in the Jungle.

Most bets were on Foreman. Ali was seven years older, past his prime. He'd had his title stripped after refusing the draft in 1967, and he was struggling to become a contender again. Foreman was undefeated and planning to stay that way.

GEORGE FOREMAN: I could knock him out in one or two rounds. I just knew it. This was going to be an easy fight for me. I figured, boy, $5 million for two rounds? Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Look at this now as they stare. Muhammad Ali beginning to talk to George Foreman.

FOREMAN: Walked up to me, and they were giving an instruction. I was staring him in the face trying to intimidating him. And he said, George, you were a little kid going to high school when I was champion of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Is George Foreman's thundering punches going to be too much for him? Is the left hook that is so devastating, the tremendous left hook...

FOREMAN: The first round, he withstood the power. And I figured I'll knock him out the second round.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: He's ready to go here. He's not staying away.

FOREMAN: I hit him in the side, and he leaned on me. And I thought, well, maybe he's going to fall. And he just whispered, that all you got, George? And I knew from that point on this guy could take a punch and endure.

MAY: And Ali kept enduring. He would lean back on the ropes and just let Foreman hit him over and over. Foreman had never gone more than two rounds in a professional fight, and by the eighth, he was exhausted from throwing punches.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Here we go, the bell sounds. Round number eight and an even fight here live.

FOREMAN: He came off the ropes, and I came off the ropes with my hand down to come after him, and he hit me with the fastest right hand I'd ever remember receiving in the boxing ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: (Unintelligible).

FOREMAN: It was so fast, more than anything - pop-pow (ph). And I thought no way, I'm going down. And I tried to catch my balance, but I hit the canvas - boom.

MAY: Foreman had never lost before, and it was devastating.

FOREMAN: You didn't know how important that people look at you and they had somewhat of a - I hate to say fear, but, well, respect is kind of like fear, you know? Now all of a sudden these people looking at me with a pitiful eye.

MAY: So you have to understand, Foreman didn't really have anything in his life except boxing. He'd grown up poor, literally hungry without enough food. He was so ashamed he'd bring an empty lunch bag to school.

FOREMAN: I've seen that pity before when you go look for a job. Years ago, when I was a teenager, and, you know, you fill out the application. People look at you, oh, we don't have - you know, that's all - we don't need anyone now, that kind of thing. There I was back in that same position, and I didn't like it.

MAY: Back then, he channeled that rage and frustration into fighting - first on the streets, then in the ring. And after losing to Ali, he became paranoid, didn't trust anyone, kept to himself.

FOREMAN: Started trying to get a little hate going on in you, you know? I'm going to pay the world back, I'll show them, that kind of thing.

MAY: He won his next five matches. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline - I want Ali again.

FOREMAN: It was no longer the title. It had become my title.

MAY: But Ali would not accept the challenge. Foreman finally got his chance for redemption in 1977.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: We're back, about ready.

MAY: He took on a talented fighter named Jimmy Young. Everything depended on this fight. If Foreman won, Ali would be forced to accept a rematch. He'd get that chance to win back his title.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Now look at Joe, somber, using the stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Bout's underway.

MAY: It was clear from the first round this wasn't going to come easy. And by the 12th, Foreman was clearly exhausted. At one point, he fell to his knees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Foreman, desperation registered in his face.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Less than a minute, Howard (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Jimmy Young.

(CHEERING)

MAY: The judge's decision - Young won. Foreman headed to his dressing room. The air conditioning wasn't working in the arena, and he began to pace back and forth to cool off.

FOREMAN: And you're told don't sit down after a boxing match.

MAY: Foreman says he became convinced he was going to die, says he could literally smell death in the room. He wasn't a religious man, but he started to pray to God for his life.

FOREMAN: I start walking faster and faster. Everybody's looking at me, and my legs started to curl. And I told everybody in room, I said, y'all, I'm fixing to - before I could say another word, Before I over my head, under my feet, around me, nothing. I was in this deep, dark junkyard of nothing.

MAY: Foreman collapsed. His trainers had to pull him up and lay him down on the table.

FOREMAN: There wasn't any hope. I said, I don't care if this is death, I still believe there's a God. When I said that, a gigantic hand reached in. And I jumped off the table. And I started screaming, Jesus Christ has come alive in me. I got to save the world. They said, no, you need clothes on. But they held me down on the dressing room table until the ambulance came and took me to intensive care there in the hospital. That changed me forever.

MAY: Foreman gave up boxing that day. He became a minister. He opened a youth center, but the biggest change was right there on his face. George Foreman started smiling. Foreman looks back now and it's like his whole biography has been turned upside down. He now sees those early successes as the real failure because he didn't appreciate them.

FOREMAN: I had gone over to Africa. You know I didn't see a wild animal in the natural? Missed all those things, whole lifetime missed. I was too concentrated on the one-two, left hand, right hand punch.

MAY: Ten years after losing to Jimmy Young, Foreman entered the ring again. He says he did it to raise money for his youth center, but there was something else - he wanted to show he could still win, but this time without hate or anger.

FOREMAN: The second time I got a chance to journey in life. I was going to find out words like konichiwa, what they mean. I went back to South Africa. I wanted to meet - see the different tribes. You get a second chance to live and it makes a better person out of you. You realize that wasn't really a loss for me in Africa, it was a game that I didn't appreciate.

MAY: In 1994, George Foreman regained his title at age 45. He was the oldest fighter to ever win the heavyweight championship. Michael May, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: And next week in our Total Failure series, the man who designed what's been called the worst video game ever made.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, we said George Foreman had never gone more than two rounds in a professional fight. In fact, he had not gone more than two rounds as world champion.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.