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INTERVIEW: GEORGE FOREMAN III

N2U_Foreman(LarissaBurgess)

Much like his father, the original George Foreman, George Foreman III, or Monk, likes to talk, and talk, and talk–about himself, about boxing, about whatever. We had such terrific rapport with Boston’s newest boxing gym owner and sports entrepreneur that we stayed for a while, listened, and recorded every last bit of Foreman wisdom. Here it is in full …

Photo credit: Larissa Burgess

How have you been settling into Boston?
I love it. I’ve been here about a year, but having friends in Boston makes it feel like a second home to me. I’ve had to learn that you’d better take your time getting acclimated to people in South Boston because they want you to know “This is our place.” So it’s been interesting. But everyone’s been so inviting. This place has a lot of character and so much culture.

Your father said earlier this year that you’d kind of cooled off on boxing, and it seems true–you haven’t had a fight all year. What re-sparked your interest?
I never lost interest in boxing; I took up an interest in doing more than just getting up in the morning and being concerned with myself all day. I didn’t like being so focused on myself when I was boxing. When the most important thing to yourself happens to be yourself … all of that will come to a screeching halt for one reason or another. It happens to everyone whether you’re a person on drugs, or drinking, or womanizing, or a banker who works so many hours he looks back and realizes he doesn’t have a marriage anymore. All these things come to an end. I didn’t have any balance, and finally something told me “this is not a sustainable model.”

Was there a specific event that put you over the edge?
No … it was the culmination of everything. Dave Chappelle said his father once told him “Name your price in the beginning. If it ever gets more expensive than the price you name, get out of there.”

I wanted to have more balance in my life, and my new gym has given me that.

But if you’re planning to step back into the ring, won’t that happen again?
Right, so you look for something else in your life–something that is inherently bigger than you. For my father, the first time around he was crashing and burning too, for his own reasons. But the second time around he had his church–he was there four days a week. He’d fight Saturday night then show up for church on Sunday with a swollen eye. He wouldn’t preach those days, he’d just sit and wear sunglasses and no one would know. He also had the youth center. Both of those things never changed whether or not he was boxing. He still is at church four days a week, and his youth center is bigger and better than ever.

So what keeps you grounded now?
I do stuff like create this gym. I’m here to serve my members. This is what it’s all about for me. This is what allows me to have balance in my boxing career. I’m in no rush, I could take two years off of boxing and the heavyweight champs are still older than me, and with a lot more wear and tear on their bodies. I already have 300 people signed up for my gym, and they’re depending on me and my team of trainers to get them fit. I can’t let them down. No matter how narcissistic boxing makes you, I know those people won’t let it become all about me.

What makes The Club different than any other boxing gym in Boston?
We’re unique because of the experience that we’ll provide consistently. The individual pieces of what we do aren’t new–but the experience is different. It’s intimate. You’ve seen the gyms of old with that camaraderie and there’s something special about that. We have that.

This is a place everyone will feel welcome, and we’ll get you the results you’re after.

Some say that all of your luxury amenities might actually take away from the traditional grittiness of the typical boxing gym…
It’s kind of like trying to get your grandmother to stop eating soul food: hog maw, and chitlins, and greens with pig fat and lard. I love the food too; but back then they were eating like that because that’s what they could afford. They’d go to a butcher and pay 50 cents for scraps–the ‘regulars’ they’d call them. They were the little leftover pieces of meat my grandfather would bring home for my dad and the family…and that’s not good.

We fell in love with it and we made the best out of it. We took those regulars and pumped out athletes and great leaders. But that doesn’t mean it was good, or that it’s what we should have had, or that it’s what we deserved. Nobody had money to develop boxers; gym owners were struggling to keep the lights on. The landlords knew these guys didn’t have any money so they’d find them some old gym or basement and the owner would say “You can open between five and eight” and everyone would run and get in their training and hope to get a fight so they could put food on the table. They’d be practicing in old basements for six months just paying what they can when they can. Boxing gyms became that way because they had to. And most of them were located in the same inner-city neighborhoods that the boxers lived in.

What I’m showing people is another way. It’s not good to go to a gym and not be able to get on a punching bag, or not having a trainer when you have a fight coming up in six weeks–that’s dangerous. Not having the scientific knowledge about head trauma, or biometrics and how not to get injured, or hydration–that wasn’t good. It’s the soul food mentality.

Dirty old gyms were what we had but it doesn’t mean it’s what was good for us. We never said we wanted to be in nasty gyms.

Very true.
I have an 80-year-old who signed up for The Club–I have to have a place for people who need comfort and safety. I also have a kid named Lionel coming in, and he’s a real boxer. I’m bringing him the best trainers he can get access to–for cheap too. I have to have a facility for all of that. This is a place for all people and purposes.

Have you given any thought to community outreach?
Absolutely–right now in addition to the first 500 members being given a discount, there’s also a discount for first responders.  I come from the George Foreman Youth and Community Center where we never turned down anybody for financial reasons. And I hope to do something like that here, but that’ll take time. I’ve got to get out of the hole first (laughs).

I’ve read that you often don’t know who you’re fighting until the last minute–that’s not a lot of time to tap into someone’s psyche …
It’s not. Sometimes I won’t know who I’m fighting until I see him at the weigh-in, or I’m just stepping into the ring. But really, all boxers can be grouped into categories or styles. There are five types of fighters: boxer, boxer-puncher, counter-puncher, brawler, and in-fighter. So once I can figure out what his style is, I can start adjusting for height and weight and all of that. The difference though, is that the stakes couldn’t be higher in boxing. In chess if you lose, sure, you might get humiliated. But in boxing you could get killed. So the strategy of boxing gets deeper. It’s more intense because the stakes are so high.

The stakes are so high, in fact, that some find the sport to be barbaric at best–what would you say to those critics?
Everybody fights–on the street or in the ring. Do I think we should be constantly finding ways to make the sport safer? Of course. Mike Tyson said it best when he said boxing is “peddling the flesh.”

It’s a dangerous sport. But it’s really no more dangerous than football.

Then you have boxing fans who want to see even more blood and bruises … they say you only fight scrubs you know you can easily beat.
(laughs) We call them tomato cans. I’ve fought some tomato cans, but I’ve been honing my craft. After a few weeks, a few months in training–I can fight anyone. I want whoever has the title.

Do the constant comparisons to your father bother you? Some say you’ll never measure up to him …
The truth is, just to be put in the same sentence as the Hall of Famer, the gold medalist, is great whether or not he’s my father. And if there are people who say I don’t fight like my father, or I don’t have his natural acumen, then good. I don’t actually want to fight like he did. Of course, anyone would love to have his punch, but, I want to be considered more of a classical boxer than people considered him. Even though, yes, he was a master boxer. And the other thing is that I’m just another kid boxing … so what an honor to even be brought up in anyone’s conversation. It’s cool that my critics even know who I am. From a business standpoint, do you know how much it costs to get someone to bring your name up on the internet or at a conversation at dinner or a bar? Anyway you look at it, even the criticism is positive.

You used to be in your dad’s training camps, and watched all of his fights during his return to boxing in the 90s – watching him get punched and pummeled didn’t dissuade you?
Sometimes people use the word ‘jaded’ but you never get numb to seeing someone you love get hurt. And nature tells you to go help them…but you can’t. It’s the most helpless feeling. Especially if you’re there sitting ringside. You never get used to it. The worst part was when he’d lose–and I’d know he’d be upset. He’d pretend like he’d be okay with talking about it but we knew he wasn’t. Especially with one-on-one sports if you lose once it feels like a million loses. But all we’d care about was that he was home safe, win or lose.

Has your mother been supportive?
My mom’s attitude is “Baby, I don’t care what you do, you just better be the best.” She hates that I fight. Hates it with a passion. She’d much rather I be at Harvard business or law or something. But she said if I’m going to do it just go out there, don’t play around with people, get it over with, and come home safely.

You must really love it if you’ve stepped back from a successful business career for it.
I took a big pay cut to fight. I love training people more than I love fighting … but it’s an itch. Sure, I’ll never be able to compare myself to people who have real fights–people who battle diseases, people who’ve lost everything, or have gone to jail when they weren’t supposed to. I’ll never compare to how those people have bounced back in their lives. But what I can tell you is that there’s something about getting up for a fight. It’s the way you make sure you get your life in order. It’s the way you make sure to get enough sleep, and the way you have to cut things out. You can’t even be around people who don’t have their life together because you’ll get off-base. And it’s not that you don’t like those people; it’s that you just can’t risk it. I love the way getting up to fight gets you to think and gets your brain focused. The oneness of purpose it demands in your life–there’s nothing like that.

Only having a fight can add that element to a person’s life. There’s something invigorating about it.

Why do you think Americans have lost interest in boxing?
The reasons Americans aren’t paying attention is that we don’t have an exciting American  heavyweight champion who activates the imagination of sportsfans and even just everyday people. I don’t know why we don’t have that. We’re definitely losing players to other sports, and we definitely have to blame it on promoters too. But what trumps all of that more than anything else is having an exciting American heavyweight champion. Not because Americans are better than anyone else, but because when there’s an exciting American the whole world watches. That’s what we’re missing … we’ll get it though … Nobody needs to go around biting ears, but at least Tyson gave people something to talk about. He was a character. He was this big huge guy with a tiny voice. My dad used to be known for eating hamburgers before each fight. We’ve moved too far away from P.T Barnum–we need some imagination. We’re missing characters. We’re missing fighters that journalists want to write about.

So what’s your story then? What does your character say?
Nothing’s impossible. That’s it. There’s nothing more than that.

NEWS TO US: THE TAO OF MONK


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