Conversations in Management: George Foreman

That’s my gift. I let the negativity run off me like water off a duck’s back.

George Foreman

ForemanForeman was down. He could see the blood that oozed from his hand and his forehead. Jimmy Young had just won their 1977 match by a knockout, but Foreman wasn’t in the ring. He was on the floor of the locker room and coming back from a very dark place. He later described it as, “just complete emptiness and darkness. If you multiply every sad thought you’ve ever had in your life, you wouldn’t come close to this dump yard. That’s where I was—just dead.  And nothingness where I was, just nothing.” He began thrashing on the floor screaming, “Jesus Christ is coming alive in me!” His entourage looked on with nervous skepticism. George Foreman was a lot of things, but a Holy Roller wasn’t one of them.

Gripped by this experience, Foreman wasn’t immediately aware of the skepticism and sneers. He’d been dealing with critics all his life. There had never been a shortage of people letting him know how he didn’t measure up. That’s why by 15 he was a barely literate street thug trolling the streets for easy marks. He was a violent and angry young man headed nowhere. Then he caught a lucky break. He joined the Job Corps and met Doc Broaddus, a counselor and boxing coach. Broaddus could spot talent and he coached Foreman to a Gold Medal in the 1968 Olympics. It was quite a reversal of fortune but Foreman remained an angry man. He turned professional and launched a remarkable career, but the anger generated torrents of criticism. In response, he grew even angrier and found legions of people he wanted to eliminate. When it was later suggested that he’d considered using a hit man, he explained that there were too many enemies for one man to “hit.”

Despite the doubters, Foreman’s near-death experience marked a turning point in his life. He left boxing and took up preaching. Initially he wasn’t very good at it, but he persevered. As his preaching improved, so did the depth of his new faith. He contacted his former enemies and, “let them know there was nothing they had done to me that meant anything.” He slowly felt his anger melting away. He founded a church and then a nondenominational youth center. At the center, he saw young lives change. The only rules were fair play, sportsmanship and self-respect; however that was enough for kids to quit fighting and abandon destructive habits. In order to keep the center going, Foreman headed back to the ring after a ten year break. The chorus of critics was louder than ever, but it was a new George Foreman in the ring. He went on to win 24 consecutive bouts and at 45 became the oldest fighter to ever win the heavyweight crown.  All this before he became a much beloved pitchman for a host of products. For a new generation he’s known more for his grill than for his prowess in the ring. Most importantly, the once angry man now has peace of mind.

Negativity can put the toughest of us on the mat. It saps confidence, self-esteem and motivation. It squeezes the joy out of family, work and life in general. And it provides no tangible benefit. It’s bad enough when you’re on the receiving end, but immeasurably worse if you’re the one dishing it out. It’s so easy to make the snide remark, utter the unkind word or offer the passive aggressive smile. But is it ever really worth it? The smug sense of “gotcha” will inevitably come back to get you. When confronting negativity, act like Foreman and let it roll off your back. Remember, criticism is always more about the person lashing out than about you. If your buttons are pushed, step back. For your own sake, pull the punch. Give yourself peace of mind.          —Ebert

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