George Foreman jogs on to the stage dressed in a burgundy robe. He greets infomercial queen Nancy Nelson, throws a couple of joke punches, and takes off the robe to reveal an apron. The studio audience screams. We’re gonna be cooking some burgers today on the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine. We’re going to be measuring all the grease that isn’t going into our bodies and we’re going to collectively go "ooooooh".
“When you do something and sign your name, that means you really believe in something, so this machine was designed with George Foreman and the American people in mind!” says George Foreman, third-personally. The lights bounce off his perfectly smooth dome. There is no bigger grin in the world than George Foreman’s at this moment, standing in front of an infomercial kitchen in the Year of our Lord 1996.
That same year saw the release of When We Were Kings, the documentary about Muhammad Ali and Foreman’s 1974 fight in Zaire. You see a different Foreman in that old footage: not quite monosyllabic, but not far off it. He appeared aloof, and got his dog to speak for him at the press conference. He was 25 and the heavyweight champion of the world: formidable, awesome. He punched with a murderous strength. After seeing him train, Norman Mailer said the accumulative punches gouged a dent in the heavy bag the size of half a watermelon.
Picture a ribcage.
It was an impact Ali was training to withstand — something sports journalists largely believed was impossible. This was going to be Foreman’s fight: He was younger, stronger. Ali’s dressing room was like a morgue. Ali was, well, Ali: He was going to dance.
After eight rounds, Foreman was on the mat, physically and emotionally broken. Six months later – in a dark depression, having lost all of his friends bar the dog – a desperate Foreman flew to Toronto to fight five nobodies in one hour. His corner was empty. The guys who were usually there refused to come. Ali led the crowd in a chant for Ali, and jeered at Foreman from ringside: "He can whoop these five men, but he won't whoop one me!"
Foreman was a man tortured and it was written all over his sweaty face, in a glare announcer Howard Cosell described as baleful. He stared down his opponents before each fight, standing so close their noses touched. He knocked them down one by one.
Watch the video and the mood of the venue is weird and desperate: a carnival, a freak show. Caligula and his lions.
Foreman had lost the fight with Ali, but they were still at war. He ended up abandoning the sport for a decade. He said losing was like being dead.
Twenty years later, George Foreman grins under studio lights, demonstrating how much fat comes out of a turkey burger. Salmon is his speciality.
Foreman was probably on Twitter when Ali was put on life support, and still on Twitter when Ali died. While the world tweeted photos of The Champ in his prime, while they called him The Greatest, Foreman’s timeline did not change: He’s been doing that for years. Before and after Ali’s death, Big George sat tweeting about the time Ali beat him in Zaire, how they’re best friends now, how he misses the guy.
He wrote in 2012: “Ali and I spent so many years in opposite camps, then, all of a sudden, 32 years ago, we realised there was only ever one camp.”
It could have gone another way entirely. Defeat can kill a man, slow or fast. Almost every boxing story is a story of ruin: The stories pile up like the milk and newspapers outside Sonny Liston’s front door. George Foreman was so broken he had to reconstruct himself from the ground up. He went for affable. He went dark and came back bigger, brighter.
Every tweet is a reminder that he rebuilt, and that a person can. Foreman sits on Twitter, diligently answering questions about who would have won in their prime, him or Mike Tyson; where he places Lennox Lewis in the top 10 heavyweights of all time; whether or not he could destroy a funfair hammer with his famous, devastating strength.
And he answers infinite questions about his grill: “Hi George. Hope you are well. Can I cook a quiche in one of your grills? Regular oven ain't working.” Sure, Foreman says:
Foreman’s Twitter is the most grudge-free place on the internet.
When We Were Kings won an Academy Award in 1997, and as Foreman helped Ali up the stairs at the ceremony, the entire theatre rose to its feet. Director Leon Gast thanked Foreman “for being who he was back then and who he is now”. James Woods looked like he was going to lose it. Big George couldn’t stop grinning under those lights.
We can talk about how you get here from there, and we can try and figure out what goes on in a man’s heart and mind when his world shifts on a mat in front of millions of people. We can try to explain the gulf between the badass in the leather jacket who pounded dents into bags and humans alike and the sweet old guy who posts pictures of his son George (all of his sons are called George) wearing a Muhammad Ali T-shirt and jokes about getting KO'd by him too. Maybe it was God (Foreman found him). Maybe it was the lack of grease.
But in a year when too many heroes are dying, it's genuinely thrilling to see one of them still tweeting about what it meant to be heavyweight champion of the world with the same regularity and awe as he talks about sweet potatoes and salad. It’s daily reminder of small human life in a year of big heroic death. He’s the last of an era, a heavyweight king typing at a computer under an Anglepoise lamp, randomly capitalising words, telling us that if we try hard enough we can cook a quiche on a grill. He’s celebrating his dead friends, he’s calling us champs when he says goodnight.
Obituaries talk about Ali’s effect on the world; George Foreman’s Twitter page talks about Ali’s effect on one guy. The gloves are off now but no one’s fighting. He’s here, he’s here.