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The Man Behind The Grill

George Foreman
AP (file)
Lunch with George Foreman is more about crab salad than grilled burgers.

He's made millions with one-liners about fat and food, but for the most part of two hours, Foreman just picks at his salad.

"I still have a lot of fun, but you've got to watch what you're eating," Foreman said. "It can be a death sentence if you don't control yourself."

Foreman knows what he's talking about when it comes to dieting and food. He's probably made more money from it than anyone since Jenny Craig.

When he was Big George Foreman, he sold the public on his boxing comeback by joking about his weight and appetite for cheeseburgers. Then he agreed to put his name on a line of kitchen grills and got rich as the jolly chef George Foreman.

On this day in a Portland restaurant, though, Foreman is just as eager to talk about life, second chances, Muhammad Ali and his ministry as he is about the grills that made him far more famous than did his fists.

He's interrupted by young women and children coming to the table with cameras. Ever obliging, he puts his meaty hands around them and smiles, exchanging a few words.

They know he's famous, but they don't know Foreman once thrilled America by waving flags at the 1968 Olympics when some of his fellow black athletes were raising clenched fists.

They don't know he was once the most fearsome heavyweight around, or that he lost to Muhammad Ali in a huge upset in the "Rumble in the Jungle." They don't know he came back to become the oldest heavyweight champion ever at age 45 when he knocked
Michael Moorer silly with a punch in the 10th round.

"These little kids have no idea who I was. The grills took my identity away," said Foreman, who turned 54 this month. "When I'm with a group of kids now, they just yell out, 'That's the cooking man."'

The cooking man on this day is patient, attentive and accommodating.

He wasn't always like that. In his first reign as heavyweight champion in the 1970s, a glowering Foreman would refuse to acknowledge fans with a grunt, much less an autograph.

"In his first career, I never knew what George I was going to deal with day to day," said Bill Caplan, a veteran public relations man Foreman calls his best friend. "I didn't know if it was going to be that sweet kid who won the gold medal and waved the flag, or if it was going to be the other guy with the scowling, intimidating look who was uncooperative. It was like he was two people."

Caplan doesn't have to worry anymore.

"Today, I always know who I'm going to deal with," he said. "One of the most wonderful human beings on the planet."

Foreman regrets the earlier image.

"I wish I would have known then what I know now about people and life," Foreman said. "I'd stare guys down, mistreat people. I thought that's what you had to do to be the heavyweight champ."

Foreman's "real" work now takes place on Sundays, preaching at his Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of his 10 children - five boys named George and five daughters - are usually listening.

On this Sunday, his sermon is about how the world's problems today aren't much different than a half-century ago.

Things may not change. People, though, do. Foreman is one of the most visible examples of that.

"Sometimes," he said, "you get a second chance."

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On the counter of Foreman's home sits - what else - a George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine.

Foreman was reluctant when a friend first saw a grill in an Asian catalog and wanted him to put his name on it. The grill went unused for three months before Foreman's wife finally made him a hamburger.

"I ate it and to my surprise, it was pretty good," Foreman said.

At the time, Foreman was at the peak of his comeback after knocking out Moorer to win the heavyweight championship again. He did an infomercial and the grill started selling.

What happened next amazed Foreman. In the mail one day was a royalty check for $3,500. A few months later, a check came for $65,000.

"I said, 'Wow, this thing might work,"' he said.

When a check came for $1 million, it removed any doubt. Foreman, who got a share of the profit on every grill, reportedly made more than $50 million before Salton Inc., asked him to renegotiate his contract.

Foreman ended up signing a five-year deal worth $137.5 million to keep his name on the grills and his face in front of the public. His average salary of $27.5 million a year dwarfs his boxing income, which peaked with a $12.5 million purse in 1991 for his unsuccessful heavyweight title challenge against Evander Holyfield.

Today, Salton sells 29 George Foreman products, including the Double Knockout, Double Champion grill, which can cook 12 burgers at a time, and the Baby George Roaster.

The grills became a phenomenon largely because Foreman is an unabashed salesman, something he learned well when he had to sell himself as a serious contender in 1986 after a 10-year layoff.

People laughed at the portly former champion whose weight had ballooned to 315 pounds, but he used it to his advantage by poking even more fun at himself.

When the wins began piling up and Foreman's comeback was being taken a bit more seriously, it paid off with commercials for McDonald's, a muffler chain and other products.

The jokes weren't the only thing different about his comeback.

When he destroyed Joe Frazier in 1973 to win the heavyweight championship, Foreman didn't believe in religion. Then, after an out-of-body experience as he lay bleeding and exhausted after losing to Jimmy Young in 1977, he said he found Jesus Christ.

Foreman became an ordained minister the next year, built a church and started preaching to anyone who would listen.

"It just took over my life," he said. "For 10 years, that's all I did. I never intended to give up boxing, but I never went back to the gym."

Foreman hadn't expected his life to take such a turn. A few years earlier he - and most others - thought he would be heavyweight champion for a long time.

Then he met Ali in Zaire, and everything changed.

It was a fight Foreman thought he would easily win. He was beating everybody up, and Ali was a fading former champion.

Joe Frazier had beaten Ali, and Foreman knocked Frazier down six times in two rounds to win the heavyweight title.

"It was impossible for him to win. There was no way he could beat me," Foreman said.

It turned out there was a way. Ali employed one of the greatest strategic moves in history, covering up on the ropes and making Foreman wear himself out before knocking him out in the eighth round.

"He was smart, but he wasn't as smart as he was brave," Foreman said. "He's the bravest man I've ever met."

Foreman wouldn't fight again for 15 months, and when he did return, his heart wasn't really in it.

Foreman and Ali would go on to become good friends, and remain so today. Ali is perhaps the most recognizable human on the planet, but Foreman is catching up.

His grills have been introduced in Europe. He spends much of his time on the road, pitching products or working as a fight commentator for HBO.

His last fight was a disputed loss to Shannon Briggs in November 1997, when he was 48. Elected earlier this month to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Foreman says he won't fight again, although he admits to being tempted.

"You think it's an easy thing to stop boxing? It was very hard," he said. "You always think there's one more match."

Foreman says he weighs about 270 pounds now, about 20 over his most recent fighting weight. When you're the grill man, though, there are no weigh-ins.

People used to ask Foreman what it was like to fight Ali and lose. Now they want to know his favorite recipe.

For the record, it's salmon steak seasoned with lemon pepper and garlic powder. He grills it for 3 1/2 minutes, wipes the grill and then puts a sliced bagel on for a minute and a half. Served with lowfat cream cheese, it's a breakfast sandwich fit for a champion.

"If I could eat anything, that's the one thing I want," Foreman said.

He would like people to remember he was once a great champion and came back to become a champion once again. He would like them to listen to him preach.

But he's the grill man now, and he's rich beyond belief because of it.

He'd rather be preaching, but a man has to make a living.

"It works," Foreman said. "You're not ashamed of it."

By Tim Dahlberg