George Foreman: Rumble in the kitchen

He was the boxer who fought Muhammad Ali in the jungle. Now he's best known for his fat-reducing grills. Just how did George Foreman reinvent himself so successfully? And why are his five sons all called George? Deborah Ross meets a man who's neither lean nor mean
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The Independent Online

I meet George Foreman at the fancy Lanesborough hotel in Knightsbridge, London. He is over here not only to promote the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine - "Ah'm so proud of it, ah put mah nayme on it!" - but also his new lines: the George Foreman Lean Mean Boiling Machine (a kettle, basically) and the George Foreman Lean Mean Toasting Machine (a toaster, basically). Still, snigger at your peril. About 50 million George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machines have been sold in the United States, and five million or so here. This, I think, works out at something like one in every four UK households.

Bloody hell. I had no idea. Perhaps the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine is the gadget equivalent of the Barbara Cartland novel - loads of people are said to have them, but you never know anyone who does. Actually, that's not quite true. The manufacturers kindly sent me one, so I guess I own one, at least. And, while I've yet fully to appreciate its patented, slanted, fat-draining nature (these things take time, I believe), I am rather taken with the instructions, which, I suspect, were not written with America's intellectual elite in mind: "Position GRILLING MACHINE close to a power socket. Plug GRILLING MACHINE into power socket. Switch the socket on, if necessary." Also: "Put oven glove, spatula and plastic tongs where you can reach them." What, not at the bottom of the garden?

Anyway, up to George's suite, where I discover not George, but a trio of PRs, keen to talk me through the Grilling Machine's latest brushed aluminium look, so in keeping with "today's kitchens". I make all the right noises, I think. Smashing, I say. Super. Truly modern. Any chance, by the way, of a Lean Mean Unstack That Pesky Dishwasher Machine? They think not, alas. Lean Mean Send Those Annoying Children To Bed Machine? With optional brushed aluminium finish? Alas, no.

Ah... here comes George. Like you could miss him? George is awesomely huge - "Ah'm never less than 250 pounds" - as well as spectacularly soft and round. Overall, he looks less former world heavyweight boxing champion (the leanest, meanest, most ferocious puncher and knockout artist of his day) and more freakish giant baby with the most choochy cheeks. How I'd love to pinch those choochy cheeks. Do I dare? Maybe later.

He arrives with one of his sons. This son is 21 and called George. If George had arrived with any other of his sons, that son would have been called George, too. George has five sons and they are all called George. Ah'm so proud of them, ah put mah nayme on them? Kind of, maybe. He used to say he named all his boys George because, when he succumbs to amnesia, as all ex-boxers inevitably do, he'll have a chance of remembering their names. Now, though, he says that was just a joke. "Ah wanted them to have something that was their own." So you gave them all the same name? "If one does well the other is gonna cheer, but if one does bad, they all gonna suffer. So you give them one name they all gotta answer to."

I don't know about the amnesia business, but I will say that sometimes George makes no sense at all. How confusing! What happens when the phone goes and the caller asks for George? "Ah'm known as Mark," says George Jnr. And that makes it less confusing? George, I should say, also has five daughters. They are not called George. George wanted them to be called George, but his wives (he's on his fifth) would not have it. Still, he did manage a Georgetta and Freeda Georgia. He truly loves putting his name on things, does George.

We settle on the sofa, with George, of course, taking up nine-tenths of it. Tea is served in dainty china cups. Now, George looks like a giant, choochy-cheeked freakish baby playing with a dolls'-house tea set. We do the small-talk thing, but he speaks Texan, which can prove troublesome. You like London, George? "Ah love the service in the hotels. And ah love the shops. Ah love the antique shops. Ah collect antique pens." Oh, how interesting. Do you actually use them to write with? "Mah pens?" Yes. Your pens. "They're stick pens." Stick pens? Pens shaped like sticks? He mimes sticking something through his lapel. Stick pins! Stick pins! You mean stick pins! "Ye-as," he says. "Stick pens. Ah love stick pens. I wear them all the time. I have one that's a bomber, all diamonds and rubies. I love shopping for mah wife, too. I'll go broke shopping for my wife. Yesterday, I saw a mink coat and I got it for her."

Lucky wife, I say, but if you wear fur in London you get punched in the gob. George says he doesn't think anyone would punch his wife in the gob, "if you get what I'm talking abaht!" I don't think I do dare pinch those choochy cheeks. George's wife is called Mary, but he calls her Joan. I haven't a clue why. Perhaps Joan is as near to George as she'd allow him to get.

Certainly, George Foreman's reinvention has been quite something. Remember, this choochy-cheeked, ever-beaming grill salesman (snigger at your peril, he had earnt $150m (£84m) at the last count) and star of the Argos catalogue is the guy who, as a kid, brutally robbed and mugged and was, everyone thought, destined for the electric chair. This is the guy who, as a fighter, was admired but never liked. This is the guy who, when asked for an autograph in a restaurant, would say: "What do you think, that I'm going to stop eating and sign my name?" George was sullen and taciturn, and even when he won a fight, as he so often did, audiences would boo him. Now, though, at 54, he's so seemingly jolly and amiable. Mind you, with £150m, who wouldn't be?

How has he done it? How has he turned a strange looking indoor grill into one of the best-selling household items of all time? Possibly, it's because he does appear to be genuinely rapturous about the product. "It's great and it works!" When his attorney first approached him, in the mid-Nineties, about endorsing it, he wasn't so sure. "My attorney said, 'We've got this little grill. Why don't you try it? If you like it, there's no money up front, but it'll be a joint venture, and you can become part of it.'"

The attorney got the grill in front of George, but months later George hadn't so much as turned it on. "He kept saying to me, 'Did you look at the grill, George? Did you look at the grill?' Ah told my wife that this guy keeps bugging me about this little grill. She said she'd tried it, and 'it's real nice, George. I put a burger in there and it came out real fresh and juicy'. So she fixed me a burger and it was delicious. Ah now use my grill every day. Ah even do my onions on the grill now. Ah put them on the grill and just close the lid. That's one of my favourite dishes. Grilled onions." The George known as Mark echoes: "Grilled onions. One of his favourite dishes." Sales went from $5m in 1996 to $400m in 2002. Ah wish ah'd put my name on it.

I think even George would agree that he could not and would not have become who he is today if it hadn't been for that Rumble in the Jungle against Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974, when Ali took George's heavyweight title in one of sport's biggest upsets. No one expected George to lose, least of all George himself. "When ah lost that boxing match, ah could not believe it. Ah could not believe anyone could beat me."

Afterwards, he sank into a deep depression, perhaps even went quite bonkers. He agonised endlessly over the defeat. Ali's people poisoned him, he said. Ali's people loosened the ropes, he said. He hated Ali. "What really made me hate him is that ah gave him the chance to fight me when ah heard he was broke and needed the fight. We signed for $5m each. Ah was doing him a favour."

When, a couple of years later, George returned to boxing, he was far from whole, and still so afraid of being poisoned that he insisted that three of his aides go to a restaurant and order three different meals, and he'd eat from each plate. But then, after a listless loss to Jimmy Young (the boxer, not the ancient DJ) in 1977, he saw God in his dressing room. "Ah knew that it was God. Ah knew there was a God, after that. Ah died in that dressing room and came back to life." He returned to Houston as a soul catcher for God, became ordained as a minister, opened a youth centre.

He can now embrace that defeat against Ali. "It was probably the greatest victory of my life. Ah could have won that boxing match, and that would have been a tragedy for me. I would have gone on being the same George Foreman, ending up like most other boxers. My life got bigger, but if I'd won, it would have got smaller." Who, now, does he think was the better boxer? "Not me, for certain. I had a few tricks up my sleeve. I could hit hard. But I was a slugger." Astonishingly, George returned to the ring in 1987 and, after 24 comeback bouts, won a heavyweight world title again in 1994.

George has certainly done good. The fifth of seven children brought up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, with a father who was rarely around and a mother who worked as a cleaner, the Foremans were well poor. What George remembers most was being hungry all the time. "Ah was never able to satisfy my hunger. Ah used to dream that one day ah'd get locked in the grocery store and could have a slice of this, a slice of that, bread, mayonnaise."

He tells a quite moving story about not wanting the other kids at school to know just how poor they were. "Ah had a pair of white jeans and a white shirt. Someone had given them to my mother and they were so nice. Ah wanted everyone to think ah was wealthy, so every night ah'd go home and wash that white shirt and those white pants and hang them on the water heater, and then ah'd get an iron off the stove and put a crease in them, so no one would know ah was wearing the same pants every day. Ah pulled it off for a long time until the pants just tore up. Too much washing."

George dropped out of school and turned bad as soon as he had the opportunity. Presented with a bankrupt future, he went wild in the streets, became a holy terror, fought with anyone who got in his way and would, probably, have ended up in the electric chair if he hadn't discovered boxing. "What am ah most ashamed about? That ah was a robber. That ah used to rob people." What's it like to have so much money now? "Ah never think about that. You can only buy things with money. There is nothing much interesting about things."

George now lives on a 40-acre estate just north of Houston, where he has built a home designed to resemble a Caribbean resort, and keeps umpteen thoroughbred horses as well as 28 Bentleys in an air-conditioned garage. Not bad for someone not interested in "things". Hey, George, you could give me the stick "pen" and mink! "Ah don't think so," he says.

Anyway, time to go. The Georges and PRs have to catch a flight to Dublin. "Ah'm going over to talk about the grill. We're on a mission." I say, what a brilliant name for a gadget - the Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine. No, he says - the genius was in calling it "the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine". He laughs, but he is quite serious, I think.

I never did get to pinch those choochy cheeks. Shame. Meanwhile, I'm off to give my grill another go. I will certainly switch the socket on, if necessary.