George Foreman: “Mike Tyson’s Got a Future in Boxing”
Interview by Sean Newman (July 5, 2005)
His is perhaps the most recognizable name and face the sport of boxing provides to the mainstream these days, with millions of people singing the praises of the grill that bears his name. While Muhammad Ali has faded from the spotlight and Mike Tyson no longer has a sliver of his once invincible aura, mention George Foreman’s name and instantly people know exactly who you’re talking about, even if they’ve never watched a boxing match in their life.
He’s the once-surly, brooding bully turned everyone’s favorite lovable pitchman. There is little that Foreman has not experienced in his life, from growing up poor and joining the Job Corps, to winning the Olympics in 1968 and then the heavyweight title in 1973, to retirement and spreading the word of God before returning to the ring and regaining his championship in 1994. He’s a millionaire hundreds of times over, and at age 56 is still going strong, experiencing more and more new things each and every day. Mostly though, Foreman is happy today being a family man.
Despite not having entered the ring in almost eight years, and having put down his HBO microphone, Foreman is never far from the headlines of boxing news. Recently he made waves by commenting that Mike Tyson is capable of rising to the top of the heavyweight division in spite two losses to less than stellar opposition in his last two fights. Doghouse Boxing recently got a hold of Foreman as he sat in an airport lounge to flesh out more of his thoughts on the subject of Tyson and other areas of interest. Here is what Foreman had to say:
SN: George, there was a recent report published quoting you as saying that Mike Tyson is not finished. Do you really feel that way, and if so, would you really be interested in training him?
GF: Yes, I really feel that way. The sad thing about it is that Mike Tyson has never gotten started since losing that title fight to Lennox Lewis. He hasn’t even had a chance to get started yet. He’s just been the most mismanaged commodity I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. The most mismanaged athlete and commodity, period. He doesn’t really need a lot of training, all he needs now is some confidence building. He has his trainers already, he just needs to get his confidence back, and I know how to get confidence back after a defeat.
SN: How can Mike Tyson reinvent himself the way that you did so successfully?
GF: First and foremost you have to understand that boxing is a sport, but it’s a lot of entertainment. Some of the greatest champions we’ve had in the past, they specialized in ballyhoo. Jack Dempsey. Joe Louis. It’s no fable that he fought Bums of the Month. Jack Dempsey would go all over to different places and even change names and fight. These guys were great American heroes and they understood the nature of boxing. Tyson got involved with some people after Jimmy Jacobs died, who didn’t even know anything about boxing, they just thought they’d wind him up and put him out there. Now, if he’s able to get out there and do this thing right, the whole world will give him respect again for getting off the canvas and coming back. Because you don’t want to leave saying “I’m tired. I quit.” You want to come back. Even if you lose a boxing match, you want to lose it where the last man is standing, if you know what I mean. Then he could go on with his life. Because quitting follows you around. He didn’t really quit, but his legs weren’t even ready for that last fight he was in. That big guy just leaned on him and his legs just gave out.
I can show him how to come back. People reinvent themselves by gathering respect from their fellow man, and that’s what he needs. He can easily do that just by applying his craft. I don’t want to get into his personal life, that’s none of my business. But as a professional boxer, he’s got a great chance, a great opportunity. All he needs is someone with him who knows boxing.
SN: It was also reported recently that Mike Tyson might be considering a four round tourney with Holyfield and Bowe. Is this an ill-advised move, a sideshow, or do you think it is a good starting point for a Tyson comeback?
GF: No, he shouldn’t even be involved with those guys. Let those guys go on. They’ve made their name, and whatever is going to become of them, has already been done. He’s the only one who’s got a future. Mike Tyson’s got a future in boxing. I wouldn’t have said this about any other boxer, but I saw him in that last boxing match, and when he went down just from being pushed and leaned on, all of his problems just came down on him at one time. The other guys, they’ve had their chances. They’ve literally gotten beat up. Tyson is unique. He stands different, a class higher than those guys.
SN: Switching gears, a few months ago you announced that you would be coming back to the ring for perhaps one more fight. Since then you have stated that your wife talked you out of it. Was this just a ploy, as some skeptics have stated, to promote your big and tall menswear line, or were you seriously considering coming back?
GF: I was seriously considering coming back. I was in training, sparring, the whole deal. Had my weight down, and was boasting to my wife asking what did she think. And that’s when she said, you’re not gonna do it. I told her, look, I’ve told people I’m coming back, I’m in good shape, I can do it. I said “I can still do it,” and I started pointing out all these different guys who are champions. I said, “you know I can do it. Don’t you?” She said, “Isn’t that the way you want to leave the game, George?” And I had no answer for her. She said, “You want to leave it when you still feel like you can do it.” That meant a lot to me. She wouldn’t have it. She said if I go back into boxing I would have to find me another place to stay. And I’m afraid to go to bed at night without my wife. (laughs)
SN: She put her foot down, huh?
GF: She put her foot down for sure. I couldn’t resist it, but I sincerely wanted to get back. I didn’t need publicity for the grill or clothing, they’re doing well on their own.
SN: How’s the clothing line doing, by the way?
GF: The clothing line is doing great. They can be found in Comfort Zone, Casual Male Big & Tall, they’ve expanded now. Some of those will be seen in Rochester stores now. In the future you’ll see them in regular sizes in major stores, too.
SN: Okay, so you haven’t fought in almost eight years now. Your last fight was a highly controversial loss to Shannon Briggs. Was retirement something you had premeditated before that fight, win or lose, or did you still have a desire to fight again after the fight that just faded with time, without a formal retirement announcement?
GF: I never did intend to retire, I just had so much business to put down to go and train for six weeks. I had television shows, I had commercials to make. I figured after the last boxing match I would just take off for a month, two or three months, and take care of my business, and that extended itself to a year. I said, “well next year I’ll go back.” Two or three years went by, I just couldn’t find time to box anymore. Too much business to take care of, and the business world is as demanding or even more so than boxing.
SN: You seemed very calm in the immediate aftermath of the reading of the scores in that fight. Many, including myself, felt you won comfortably, yet you seemed at peace in the postfight interview. Why weren’t you more upset?
GF: If you’re going to be upset, do it in the ring. After the final bell, and you’re still standing, why be upset? When I got into the ring, never did I try to win a match on a decision. Never. If a fight goes 12 rounds, to me, it’s like he escaped me. It wasn’t like I won the boxing match, I’m only trying to knock guys out. It wasn’t like I was happy with the result, but only because I didn’t get a knockout. So he escaped me knocking him out, that gives him a feather in his cap. I’m not happy when I win a decision, I’ve never been happy about it. I go for knockouts, and when a guy escapes me and the judges say he has it, I have no quarrels with it. That’s not what I was trying to do, win on points, I was trying to make a point.
SN: You’ve often been called an exception to the rule regarding older fighters attempting a comeback. Do you have any explanation as to why your comeback was so successful as opposed to others who seem to never regain their former glory?
GF: I was successful because I knew what I was doing. Archie Moore learned from Doc Kearns and Dick Sadler learned from him too. I learned from those guys and I knew boxing. I stood around and watched those guys and learned where to hang posters and when to give interviews. For years I didn’t need it because Dick Sadler did everything for me, but on the way back, I put together all of that strategy that I learned from those guys in the past. No one else has done that. Everybody thinks that if you’re on television you’re successful. Sometimes you don’t need television, you have to create a fire and let television find you. I knew boxing, I read every article, extending back to Joe Louis making a comeback, Rocky Marciano talking about why he decided to leave the ring and how he felt about beating Joe Louis. I read and I knew what steps to take and what steps not to take. I learned how to be a good manager. In 1994 I was honored as not only the boxer of the year, but as the manager of the year.
SN: How does it make you feel to know that you have inspired so many fighters to come back to the ring in the hopes that they can reach the top once again, as you did? Is this a good or bad thing?
GF: It’s a two-edged sword. It’s good that a lot of boxers know that they can come back and get a payday, but it’s bad that a lot of guys come back just for the payday. I told my family I was coming back to become heavyweight champion of the world to make money. I didn’t say I was coming back just to get money. You got to understand, it’s a dangerous sport if you’re out there just boxing for money. But if you are out there to become champion of the world, it’s the ideal sport.
SN: Let’s move back to your “second” career. With the exception of the fight with Evander Holyfield, you never seemed seriously hurt against any fighter and you were never knocked down. How were you able to always stay on your feet during your second career?
GF: I knew then if I ever got knocked down they would stop the boxing match. (laughs)
SN: Your daughter briefly experimented with boxing. What are your thoughts about women’s boxing, and have any of your sons ever given consideration to picking up the sport?
GF: No. My sons, when they were little they all liked to box. They’d go to the gym, but when I tried to give them some instructions they would avoid it. (laughs) But my daughters were always tough, stronger, a lot stronger than the boys. Freeda George really went off on her own. I didn’t like it, unless I saw her boxing, the heart she had. I realized there’s no difference. It’s called boxing. Woman or man, it’s pure boxing. She has heart, soul, determination, and I had a lot of respect for her. I just didn’t understand that women could put the same emphasis on conditioning that men did. So I learned to respect women’s boxing, and her. She’s no longer boxing, but I learned respect for her and women’s boxing.
SN: Could you have ever imagined yourself 18 years ago or more coming back to the sport of boxing and becoming rich beyond your wildest dreams, both as a boxer and outside the ring as well with your endorsements?
GF: It would have been a complete shock. When I tell you I could have expected the success I’ve gained in business, I’d be lying. I became a hit on Madison Avenue, doing commercials, even had my own television show. If you had told me that back in 1968 or 1969, I would have laughed in your face.
SN: Can you tell us exactly what led to your decision to stop calling fights with HBO?
GF: It’s just that I signed a contract, and I didn’t have any publicity after the Holyfield fight, and I really wanted to stay in the title picture. I said, you know what, if I do this, and Ross Greenburg had invited me to come aboard, everybody won’t forget me. I’d be there, and get another title shot. Then three years go by, they wanted to sign me up for another three years. I said, well I haven’t gotten a title shot, I’ll just sign up again. Six years go by, another contract, nine years. I looked up and it was thirteen years, and my kids have grown up, playing football, I missing their games, I’m never in the stands. I realized that, they’re not going to understand that, look, I put the food on the table, I bought you this. One day you gotta look back, and say, I’ve had maybe too many jobs. I really liked working for the guys at HBO, and I hated to, but I had to put down the job. Because on Fridays and Saturdays, you’re pretty much penciled in, you never know when there’s going to be a boxing match coming up and you couldn’t make plans. That’s why. Not because I didn’t want to do it anymore.
SN: Do you ever miss it?
GF: I do miss it. Oh, I like sitting there arguing with Larry Merchant. I’ll be watching the shows sometimes, and Larry will say something, and I’ll say “Uh! UH!” (laughs) I loved that. You talk about two guys who could get it on. Sometimes when I’m arguing with my wife, she’ll say “you better go back to Larry Merchant, because I don’t have any time to argue with you!” (laughs) But I loved every moment of it.
SN: You and Larry Merchant had your on-air disagreements. First of all, how did you guys get along off camera, and secondly, do you and perhaps other boxers have a sense of disdain for commentators who have never laced up a glove yet criticize fighters?
GF: Yeah, Larry and I got along well. He’s a well respected writer, he’s been there. The things he says, he knows, because he’s been there. He’s met and written articles about Archie Moore, he’s been there at ringside for Ali’s fights, things like that. So many things that Larry Merchant has been a part of.
I think it works on both sides, the commentators probably think “these guys don’t know anything about broadcasting, what are they doing here?” So there’s going to be some conflict there.
SN: Finally George, any plans for a comeback?
GF: NO. I have to either get that out of my mind or lose my wife, and I want my wife. That’s it, it’s all over.
Writer’s Note: I would like to thank Mr. Foreman for being so gracious with the time he spent talking with me while he awaited his plane. Foreman, as you can tell, spoke openly and at length to all questions asked, and there are few classy athletes who would have taken the time to so in such a scenario. So for that, thanks big guy.
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