I was born January 10, 1949 in Marshall, Texas, one of J.D and Nancy Foreman’s seven children. My mother wanted so much for her children to have the opportunities she did not. As the daughter of a sharecropper, she had to work in the fields to help feed the family and was constantly pulled out of school to work.
There were no jobs and my parents relocated to Houston soon after I was born. When I was still very young, my father left my mother and she raised us as a single parent. She pushed hard for us to get a good education and to stay out of trouble. Education was very important to her. She had loved school and nowadays, I’m sure she would have been in a gifted and talented class. Her spelling and math skills were unbelievable and she is one of the wisest people I have ever known. Because of her, I have tried to help young people get all the education they can. I’ve told my own children that they need to go to college first. Even though my son “Monk” is now boxing, he had to get his college degree first, and he got it from Rice University.
I never wanted to be a boxer myself. I wanted to play football, but I didn’t stay in school long enough to play. I lived in a tough neighborhood and I often got in trouble. My mother had always told us how proud she was that none of her children ever got in trouble with the police, so I never told her what I was doing. One day, while running from the cops, I thought about how hurt she would be if she knew. Then I saw my football heroes, Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas, on TV promoting the Job Corps. They said that you could get another chance at high school, learn a vocation and even play sports like they did, so I joined.
It was the start of many firsts for me. At 16, I had never read a book, never had three meals in one day, and never had so many good people that cared about me and my future. Instantly, I put on weight and size too.
I grew up troubled and had been a bully. One night, we were all listening to a boxing match on the radio and one of my Job Corps classmates said, “George, you think you’re so tough, why don’t you be a boxer? I took up the challenge but at age 17, it was a late start and I was very awkward. They laughed at me because I swung wildly, fell through the ropes and tried to wrestle, but my coach, Doc Broaddus, encouraged me. I wasn’t much strategy-wise but I had a strong punch and I kept on winning and going on to the next tournament. In one year, I made it to the Olympic team and in my 25th amateur fight, I won a gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Those were crazy, turbulent times in our society, especially for an uneducated, unsophisticated 18-year-old kid. There were widespread protests over the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for re-election. Martin Luther King was assassinated and there were riots in over 100 cities. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Then at the summer Olympics, U.S. medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their clenched fists in a power salute during the national anthem, and the media wondered what other athletes were going to do on the platform.
At the Olympics, there were athletes from all over the world who looked like me and spoke other languages and the only thing that differentiated us were the uniforms we wore. After I won my gold medal, I reached in my robe where I had put a small American flag. I bowed to the judges and then waved my American flag so the world would know where I was from. I didn’t mean it as a protest to what the others had done. I just wanted to let people know how grateful I was for what America had given me.
As a product of the taxpayers and someone who got an education, three meals a day and doors opened to unbelievable opportunities, I was grateful to more people than I could ever thank. Olympic athletes were true amateurs and even my uniform came from volunteers who donated for us. I just wanted to say thank you to everyone, but the media played it around the world and I was thrown into the middle of it. That poem about two roads diverging in the woods says it all. I took the road less travelled by and it made all the difference for me. I’m not proud of everything I did as a young man, but I’m still proud of what I did at age 18 in Mexico City. ...
To be continued next week—
- Although young people may only know him as a businessman and entrepreneur, George Edward Foreman holds many world boxing records that are unlikely to be broken. After the Olympics, Foreman turned professional and within two years, had achieved 37 wins (almost all by knockout) with no losses and was the #1 undisputed challenger. HBO Boxing’s first-ever broadcast was of his match in Kingston, Jamaica against heavily favored “Smokin’Joe” Frazier. After knocking Frazier down five times, Foreman ended the fight in the second round with a punch that lifted Frazier off his feet. Foreman’s fearsome punching ability is ranked by many as the best in the history of boxing. But Foreman’s biggest challenges were soon to come.