George Foreman on Character

The tradition continues. Each holiday season for the past few years, this column has been devoted to some thoughts from George Foreman. Earlier this year, I talked with George about the issue of character and self-respect. His words, recorded below, make a pretty good holiday message for the coming year.

Character doesn't just evolve on its own. It has to be acted upon every day of our lives. But now, we've got a whole generation of young people, and another generation that's not so young anymore, who haven't found anything in their lives to promote character. And that's sad. Life is so brief. You have to do more than just try to have a good time. You have to ask yourself, "What am I giving to other people? What will I leave behind?" It's like a baton that we're all passing on to future generations.

Part of the problem is that writers today don't hold people to the same standards they used to. The written word is very powerful. You can go back and look at ancient civilizations. Their cities are gone; their palaces have been destroyed. But some of the things that were written back then have been preserved to this day. So many people, especially young people, think that everything now is about digital and television, but nothing will ever surpass the written word. Character has to be written about. Writers used to give us character. Even cartoons like Mighty Mouse were written to emphasize character. But now, too many writers have abandoned character. Almost anything is acceptable as long as it makes a good story.

But you don't just teach character through words. You teach it by example. For a lot of young people, character comes from who they imitate. I don't like the phrase "role model." It sounds too commercial to me. I'd rather talk about being an example.

When I was young, I saw very few good examples. I saw a lot of sports heroes. When I look back on myself in my teens, I was like an empty bottle. Each day, I saw another person I wanted to be like, walk like, talk like. Sonny Liston, Jim Brown; you know the names. If they're not nice, don't be nice. They buy fleets of cars; so when you make it, you should buy fleets of cars. Some of those guys were good people. But when I grew older and got to know them, a lot of them were downright nasty or stuck-up clowns.

I remember once when I was 19 years old, I was walking with Sonny Liston and some of his people. We passed a woman who was kind of top heavy and very good-looking. She was out with her husband. Sonny stopped and stared, very obvious like. Then he looked at the woman's husband and said, "Yeah! I'm lookin' Yeah! Yeah! What are you gonna do about it!" And when Sonny said that, his people laughed. So there I am, 19 years old, and I thought that's the way a man is supposed to be.

It all changed for me at the end of my first career in boxing. I was heavyweight champion of the world at age 25. Then I lost to Muhammad Ali; came back and won five fights in a row. But I still wasn't happy with who I was. In 1977, I went down to Puerto Rico and lost a fight to Jimmy Young. And in the locker-room afterward, I died. I truly believe that. In the locker-room after the fight, I was dead for a moment and came back to life. And I'll tell you something. In that split second when you're about to die, you don't think about fame; you don't think about money. You think about people. That experience tore up everything I believed in. Before that, I wasn't an atheist, but I didn't really believe in God. God, to me, was something people told you stories about when you did something wrong to scare you and make you act better. But in that moment, I realized that treating people right was more important than anything else in the world.

That's when I left boxing for the first time. For a while, it was hard. When you're a famous athlete, everyone is always giving things to you and doing things for you. I didn't know how to do anything for myself. In those 10 years, I learned how to do things the hard way; things other people think of as simple. How to clean up after myself. How to stand in line and buy something in a store when I didn't have much money and not be embarrassed. I became a preacher. I gained a lot of weight. I'd go around the country preaching, not always dressed the best, and no one knew who I was. I wasn't flying first class anymore. I was in the cheapest economy seat I could buy. One time, I remember, I was on a plane, and the stewardess came over to me and said, "Hey, big guy. That seat is kind of tight. After we take off, I'll bring you up to first class. I can't give you a meal there, but you'll be more comfortable." And that meant a lot to me. I said to myself, "Hey; people are good. People are nice."

And something else very important happened to me when I left boxing the first time. I found out who I am, and I became happy with who I am. That might sound easy, but it's hard for a lot of people. I know, it was very hard for me, but I finally learned that you have to cast off everybody else you're trying to imitate and be yourself. Forget about trying to be like sports heroes. Forget about trying to be like this person or that person. Just be the best person you can be. You need self-respect before you can respect other people properly.

You know, I was at an open house at school for one of my children after I fought Michael Moorer and won back the heavyweight championship. The teachers and parents were all saying, "Look, there's George; there's George." And I said, "No, no no! This is open house. It's about the children. Every one of them is as important as me."

And now that I have the money to do things I might not have been able to do before, I say to myself, "I like my life the way it is. Why change it?" I'm the best dishwasher in the house. I make the best egg-white omelet in the house. I mop the floor better than anyone else in the family. Why should I let someone take that away from me?

I possess my life now. I'm happy. I'm me and only me.
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