George Foreman was born Jan. 10, 1949 in Marshall, Texas. He was the heavyweight boxing gold medallist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics–the Olympics made famous by Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute on the medal stand. A former world heavyweight champion, Foreman lost his title to Muhammad Ali (KO-8th) in ’74 and recaptured it twenty years later at age 45 with a 10-round KO of WBA/IBF champ Michael Moorer, becoming the oldest man to win heavyweight crown. In part II of our series on Sports and Struggle in the 1960s, we talk to George Foreman about his impressions of those turbulent times of change.
Dave Zirin: You once wrote in your autobiography about growing up in Houston, “On some nights, I stood in the dark on neighbors’ porches, looking into their kitchens, amazed that families had leftovers at each meal… I always hoped they would find me and ask me in.” How did your upbringing shape your view of the world?
George Foreman: To say it honestly I was hungry most of the time. The only question I would ask myself about the world was “How do I get something to eat?” I was trying to supply for my needs. Growing up poor, I didn’t even have a lunch to take to school. Lunch was 26 cents and we didn’t even know what 26 cents looked like. I didn’t love school because I wanted to disguise that I was poorer than everybody else. So when I was a teen I reached out in a wrong way. I started to be a mugger, to rob people in the streets, just to supply for my needs.
DZ: You were born in 1949 in the South. What were your thoughts on the civil rights movement growing up?
GF:I didn’t know anything about anything except being hungry until I went in the Job Corps in 1965. Once I went in the JobCorps, I was awakened to what was gong on with the civil right’s struggles. I was awakened by a young Anglo-Saxon boy from Takoma, Washington named Richard Kibble. He was a young man like myself but he was 20 going on 21 and I was 16. He would have these old records, these old Bob Dylan records. And he would always play me Bob Dylan. I would hear those lyrics, “Well, they’ll stone ya when you’re walkin’ ‘long the street. They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to keep your seat. They’ll stone ya when you’re walkin’ on the floor. They’ll stone ya when you’re walkin’ to the door.” I hope I didn’t get that wrong. He had a lot of knowledge. He explained to me about things I had never thought about before, about civil rights. I had a thing about those Bob Dylan songs, boy. “How must many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?” He was always talking about that stuff.
DZ: In 1965 one of the most prominent and controversial leaders was Malcolm X. What did you know about him at the time?
GF: In 1965 I didn’t know Malcolm X. I didn’t even know there was another world. I was so ignorant I thought Lyndon Johnson was President of Texas because every time I saw him he was wearing a cowboy hat! I think it was end of 1966 or the beginning 1967 where I first learned about Malcolm X. I knew nothing about his life until I was given his book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was the most amazing thing to me. I was excited about his first life. He was trying to be a pimp and a hustler and he found peace. I was trying to lift myself at the time out of a life of mugging and robbing, and I loved that he could turn around his life. It was the first time I ever read a book about a person from the front to the back. It was amazing.
DZ: What about another political lightning rod of that time, Muhammad Ali? What did you think about him as a young man in 1966?
GF: I knew about Ali way before 1966. I knew him earlier than most. It was 1962 on the radio before his first fight with Sonny Liston. My brother and his friend and I would run all around looking for a radio to hear him speak, just to hear him talk. Every one was talking about this boy from the Olympics [Ali won the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics-dz] and here’s Ali shocking the world every time he opened his mouth.
DZ: What about when he changed his name soon after the Liston fight from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. What were your thoughts?
GF: When I first heard about it, all I ever heard anyone saying in the fifth ward was, “How could that boy change his name? What is that boy doing?” Then we heard he was a Black Muslim. My community was afraid of that word.
DZ: The word Muslim?
GF: No the word black! The word frightened everybody. No one had heard the word black in Texas to describe a so-called “Negro” at that time. Everyone was saying he was crazy. Then there were some people who said, ‘I would like to meet him, to talk to him, to hear what he had to say.’ I just had admiration for him at the time. You would hear about him being on the radio and you would just tear home no matter what was going on. We all liked him because he said he was pretty. None of us thought we were pretty. Then here is this man saying, “I’m pretty! I’m pretty!” And we thought we’re good looking too.
DZ: What about seeing Ali as someone who was standing up to racism?
GF:I didn’t think about it like politics. Standup to something? We didn’t even know there was something to stand up to. Politics didn’t even exist. I lived in a world where I was striving to get a scrap of food, striving to get a job. And the newspapers didn’t report on Ali as much as you would think. Even the black newspaper wouldn’t talk about him. So we didn’t know everything that was going on around him.
DZ: In 1968, you won the gold medal at the Mexico Olympics, and then famously waved a small American flag and bowed a few short days after Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their black power salute on the medal stand. Tell us about the 1968 Olympics.
GF: I’m living in the Olympic Village at the time with all the other athletes. And I was loving it. And Smith and Carlos and [Bob] Beamon loved it too. The track and field guys back then were the celebrities, the rock and roll stars, the beautiful guys at the village. Everywhere they walked people said, there’s Smith and Carlos! They loved it too. We were like a family. And we were all focused on trying to win our own gold medals so we didn’t feel the outrage, the controversy after they raised their fists. So when they were immediately send home and sent packing we were all like, “How can they do that?” And they were just dismissed. I thought about going home myself. We all did. I’ll never forget seeing John Carlos walk past the dormitory when he was sent packing with all these cameras following him around and I saw the most sad look on his face. This was a proud man who always walked with his head high, and he looked shook. That hurt me and it made us all mad. Forget about the flag. This was our teammate…. We loved each other and it made us mad. It made us shook.
DZ: When you waved the flag and bowed it was seen as a reaction, a rebuke of Smith and Carlos. Were you asked to do that?
GF: No way. It was spontaneous and had nothing to do with them. I always carried a small American flag red white and blue with me so people would know I was from America. Also it was tradition to bow to each judge after a fight so the next time you get points. And I wanted the world to know where I was from. I wanted to say to the world, “We gotcha.” America gotcha.
DZ: What was the reaction back home?
GF: Most people thought it was great, but then something happened that caused me more pain than I ever felt as an individual. I was a happy 19 year-old boy, and some people came up to me in the 5th ward and said, “How can you do that when the brothers [Smith and Carlos] are trying to do their thing?” They thought I betrayed them. That people would think that caused great pain.
DZ: If you had to do it all over would you still wave the flag?
GF: If I had to do it all over I’d wave three flags! I feel that I had been rescued from the gutter by America. One day I was under the gutter, chased by police, thinking dogs were going to get me. I laid there listening to the dogs and the gutter. The next day there I am standing on the Olympic platform and you hear the anthem. I was proud. Thanks to the Job Corps, I had a chance. I had three meals a day and a chance. LBJ started this war on poverty from 1964 and that’s why I would wave three flags. I know there are a lot of guys who had to do their thing to make a political stand. But some of us [on the 1968 US Olympic team] felt very separated from that. In 1968 there were people organizing to get us to boycott the Olympics. Did you know [the boycott organizers] only approached the college guys? The guys who competed in college? Not one of us high school dropouts were ever asked to be part of what they were doing. They never asked the poor people to join. And I didn’t like being called or set apart as a “Black athlete.” I was an American athlete…. I got a chance from this country and when I go to Africa or Germany, or anywhere else in the world, people don’t see me as black, but as an American. (laughs) Not that that is always a good thing.
DZ: You have spoken about your positive experiences in the Job Corps. Right now many of these kinds of government programs are being cut from state budgets. What do you think about that?
GF: That Job Corps, what a great thing. I think it was great because so many of us were victims of the times. No one was teaching us in schools. I remember in school once the teacher gave us speech about anyone can make it if they try and then she looked at me and said. “I don’t know what you are going to do, Georgie.” When you were in Junior High school. You heard that. Today is different. You have Head Start, tutoring programs, you don’t need a job corps because there is opportunity.
DZ: But that is what is being cut right now.
GF: There shouldn’t be budget problems. There is so much money that goes untapped. If every athlete gave 5% of what they earned, there wouldn’t be any budget problems.
DZ: What do you think about athletes using their position to talk about politics like a Felix Trinidad speaking on Vieques?
GF: I think once you are established, then you should talk. I try to sell George Foreman, and we all try to sell ourselves. Our time as athletes is so short–like an NFL player or a boxer, you only have so much time. You need to make all you can and then you can speak all you want. Our problem as a people is that we celebrate before we emancipate.
DZ: Before we stop, I have to ask you about the Rumble in the Jungle. Why do you think the people there responded to Ali so strongly?
GF: He wanted them to love him. When you go somewhere and want people to love you, they will love you. Ali made them love him. That’s why I couldn’t beat him. He heard them chanting his name and said, “I’m not going to lose.” That’s where the stamina and taking my punches came from: they loved him, and I love him too. He’s the greatest man I’ve ever known. Not greatest boxer that’s too small for him. He had a gift. He’s not ‘pretty’ he’s beautiful. Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is.
DZ: Does boxing need a union?
GF: I think we need unity but I don’t think we need a union. The unions saved this country back when but we’ve already been saved. Yes, boxers should unite, but I don’t know about unions. We should understand that we make sure our money goes into a trust, that we watch out for our health. It’s crazy that we have a cup downstairs but not on our heads to protect our brains! don’t head gear; Let’s put the cup from down below to up top. Do we need a union to get this? I don’t know. Do we say union or do we just need to unite?
DZ: Do you think there needs to be a new civil rights movement in this country?
GF: I think there needs to be a new awareness of what rights we have. We have so many freedoms and people have no idea. These are rights that people died for and somehow we need to make the new generations aware. More rights? Let’s use the rights we have. Defend, appreciate and use them.
Dave Zirin is the News Editor of the Prince George’s Post, Prince George’s County’s only black-owned paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He also is launching www.edgeofsports.com
For more information on George Foreman visit his web-site at http://www.biggeorge.com.