The boxing world was knocked senseless when George Foreman became heavyweight champion for the second time in one lifetime--on Nov . 5, 1994.
“I never would have been able to do that without the criticism I’d gotten for coming back at a later age,” says Foreman, 46, who first won the Big Belt in 1973. “Everybody was saying--he’s fat. Yep. He’s old. Yep. He can’t do it. No.”
Foreman, the oldest man to have held the heavyweight title, is the father of nine, and a minister and occasional actor. He works out on his ranch near Marshall, Tex., save for those days when he’s at the pulpit (“Sunday is when I have two church services so I can only put in two workouts”)--or stumping for his autobiography, “By George.”
He talked to The Times for the debut of the Guest Workout column.
Question: When you announced that you were going to be a contender again, folks poked fun at your being overweight.
Answer: I had this big girth so the first thing [opponents] would want to do if they got me back in a ring after so many years off [was] go to my stomach and beat on it. So I would do mountains upon mountains of sit-ups. I would eat up a hundred, so we’re talking about 400 a day. I blocked them out real good and then my back started to hurt. I got ahold of one of those Nautilus machines. It took a lot of the pressure off my back and yet it helped develop the muscles again in my stomach.
Q: Tell us about one memorable exercise when you were making your comeback.
A: My trainer, Charley Shipes, and I welded a piece of metal hung high on the outside of a truck so we could hang the punching bag on it. We would drive for miles with the punching bag hanging to the side. As he drove slowly I would follow him punching the bag and running at the same time.
Q: How much running are you doing these days?
A: When I was a younger heavyweight champ, I would run maybe three miles a day. Now I set my runs traveling 10 miles and beyond. Every day, getting up early in the morning before much traffic, my wife takes me 10 miles from home, drops me off and I have to get back.
Q: Was that ever hard on you during the comeback?
A: There were many times I wanted to hitchhike. I’m not gonna tease you. I wanted to hitchhike. A few times I wanted to cry--not because I didn’t have the physical ability to do this, but the idea at my age, still trying to be an athlete. I’d cry out there on the street.
Q: Let’s talk about what you eat when you’re really being careful about your intake.
A: As you know, nutrition passed me up. Now I try to go low on fat. You don’t want to have things in your stomach that are just extra weight. You want fuel.
In the mornings I like a nice cup of coffee. Real trendy. If I’m gonna get in the ring, breakfast may consist of toast and some jelly and half a dozen or more egg whites. Beat them up real good, and sprinkle a little black pepper to make it look like you really got something. I’ll scramble them--stay away from oil, get the spray--flip them around a few times.
Q: What do you eat during the day?
A: Midday my wife will have an apple or grapefruit or an orange for me. Or someone’ll bring me a tuna sandwich to give you that refreshing thing.
Q: And then after working out, what’s dinner like?
A: Rice and pasta without anything on it. Sometimes olive oil. Periodically if I need a little extra strength--a buildup--I’ll get a lamb chop. Lean. No fat. Broiled. Steamed vegetable. I don’t eat a lot of bread. A little fruit--melon or sliced peaches--to end the meal. Sometimes after a hard workout, my wife will treat me to bell peppers and onions and fix me orange roughy fish. It’s the most meaty fish and I don’t have to fight back the bones.
Q: What gives you quick energy?
A: A piece of raw fish or baked chicken breast and a baked potato. Nothing on it.
Q: You must need a lot of liquid working out the way you do.
A: My favorite drink is water--the bland one: Evian. I stick with that. I celebrate in the evening sometimes with Perrier. That’s why I love coming to California. They’re always talking to you about bottled water.
Q: No sweets?
A: Stay away from that dreaded sugar. I figure if I’m gonna eat something, might as well get me something good.
Q: Like what?
A: Every two weeks, in hard training, I’ll have a nice little cheeseburger. . . . That’s my favorite treat I give myself.
Q: What’s the first workout once you’re inside the gym?
A: An hour and a half of bag punching where I’d go 10 to 12 rounds on the heavy punching bag. My power is in my forearm. So for instance, we may hit the bag with nothing but a left jab for half an hour. . . . Then I’d throw the right hand for a half hour. Then we’d go on to both hands. Boom , boom, boom for another half hour.
Q: Inside the ring?
A: Skip around the ring just like a kid only backward [with the] emphasis on my right foot, skipping around seven rounds, which is about 21 minutes. I got to know this ring. When I step into the ring with someone, this has got to be their vacation spot, but my home turf. So I go the opposite side seven rounds doing the same thing. Skipping, skipping, skipping. Then I go seven rounds going both ways. Skip to the left, skip to the right.
Q: Who’s up to sparring with you?
A: Youngsters and men come and volunteer with me around 5 o’clock. This goes on sometimes 15 rounds for three minutes each.
Q: Supposedly fighters don’t bother with weights. Do you?
A: We’d always said boxers shouldn’t lift weights. Now I realize some champion boxer started that rumor. I noticed if I did weights a couple of times a week, I would be able to hit that jab a lot longer. After sparring, everybody’s gone and I sneak into the weight room. Spend 40 minutes in there lifting weights.
Q: A boxing movie never goes by without push-ups.
A: I got my push-ups to 200. Twenty-five . . . 25 . . . 25 . . . 25 . . . take a break and then go back and do me another 100. Sounds like a lot but it’s not.
Q: And the speed bag? Is that for real?
A: All the movies and everything, you find yourself doing it because of the image. There’s not enough for boxing off of the speed bag. I don’t like it. When you see me doing that, it’s a matter of showing off.
Q: Have you ever done one exercise that really worked your entire body?
A: I would go out and get the biggest tree on the property. Kinda an old tree . . . so big that you look at it and [you’re] almost gonna cry and you start chopping. Take days to get it down. Wood chopping. You’d have to stop and sit down and drink water. Do it some more. After six hours, walk away. Come back the next day.
Q: Besides regaining the title and fitness, what else has age brought?
A: I’ve already had it once before and know what it takes to blow the whole thing. I know every trap, every hole to fall in to make it miserable. I know what not to do and how to make it joyful.
* Guest Workout runs every other week in Life & Style.