The Rev. George Foreman flipped his Bible open to the Book of Genesis, let fly with a left hook for Jesus and sent Satan sprawling into the ropes.
“You’ve got to learn how to fight!” he exhorted. “If you believe in God, you’ve got to fight for him.”
The Sunday morning faithful, warmed by a hand-clapping round of gospel singing, rocked on their hard wooden pews with the verbal punch.
At 66, Foreman – two-time world heavyweight champion and veteran of more than 80 scarring professional boxing bouts – might be graying, his card-topping pugilistic battles long over. But in his bout against sin as pastor of north Houston’s Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, he’s still a powerhouse slugger.
In a 60-minute exposition on God’s creation of the world, the boxer-turned-preacher touched on false philosophers, biology, Pluto, marijuana, boxing punches, getting lost in traffic, the morals of dogs, the morals of women who buy booze by the gallon, people who wallow, crops and weeds and, of course, Adam, Eve, the Garden of Eden, a treacherous serpent and an angry God.
When it comes to good and evil, there’s no question where Foreman stands. He’s seen his share of both.
Born in poverty, his boxing prowess and a lucrative career as pitchman for backyard grills, automobile mufflers and sports clothing have made Foreman a millionaire a hundred times over. He lives on a 45-acre Lake Houston estate, collects luxurious cars and thoroughbred horses and, between pulpit duties and appearances at his George Foreman Youth and Community Center, knocks down sizable honoraria for speaking engagements across the nation.
Earlier this year, the retired champ again gained the nation’s media spotlight as he launched a new business enterprise, George Foreman’s Butcher Shop, an on-line purveyor of grass-finished beef and free-range chickens.
An odd conversion
Though Foreman has lived a life filled with fame and fortune, he confessed, much of it was spent without God. No one was more surprised by the boxer’s embrace of religion than Foreman himself.
Foreman’s mother, working three jobs to single-handedly support seven children, had no time for church, he said. And although the adolescent Foreman sometimes went to church at his sisters’ urging, it was only to take advantage of a free lunch.
The pugilist’s ultimate reckoning with religion came in 1977, minutes after he was pummeled into defeat by heavyweight Jimmy Young, and it came in the most frightening way.
“In the dressing room I was walking back and forth to cool off,” he said. “Then in a split second, I was fighting for my life.”
Foreman’s mind filled with battling thoughts: preening pride vs. death, panic.
“I kept thinking, ‘You believe in God, why are you afraid to die?’ ” Foreman said. “But I really didn’t believe.”
Foreman bargained, offering to devote his boxing prize money to charity.
“I don’t want your money,” Foreman heard a voice say, “I want you.”
Instantly the boxer found himself cast into the bleakest darkness he had experienced.
“It was the saddest, most horrible place I had ever seen,” he said.
Then a “giant hand” plucked him into consciousness. Foreman found himself on a locker room table, surrounded by friends and staff. He felt as if he were physically filled with the presence of a dying Christ. He felt his forehead bleed, punctured by a crown of thorns; his wrists, he believed, had been pierced by nails of the cross.
“I knew that Jesus Christ was coming alive in me,” Foreman said. “I ran into the shower and turned on the water and – hallelujah! – I was born again. I kissed everybody in the dressing room and told them I loved them. That happened in March 1977, and I never have been the same again.”
The change immediately was noticed by the boxing world.
“There was a transformation from a young, hard character who felt a heavyweight champion should carry himself with menace … (to) a very affectionate personality,” said HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant. “I would say this was a sincere evolution of a human being maturing and it suggests real effort.”
Foreman’s roots were in Houston’s toughest neighborhoods.
Big, muscular, truculent, the future champ began his fighting career as a schoolyard bully.
“There were a lot of fights,” he said. “My mother had a lot of trouble out of me.”
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