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Ideas | Michael J. Socolow

What Elizabeth Warren can learn from George Foreman

George Foreman speaking in Las Vegas in 2016.
George Foreman speaking in Las Vegas in 2016.(Gage Skidmore/Wikicommons)

They laughed at him — repeatedly. They taunted him when he found Jesus as his lord and savior following a brutal boxing match. They laughed at him again when he named all his sons George — the name he’s carried all his life. They thought it funny when, as a tubby old guy in his 40s, he tried to fight his way back to the heavyweight championship. And the cheesy enthusiasm he showed for a simple grill on late-night infomercials seemed to cap off his clownish career.

But before they laughed at George Foreman, they scorned him. And yet, as Foreman has shown, none of it matters.

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Perhaps more than any other American, George Foreman provides an instructive lesson about facing scorn and doubt while wading through the thicket of personal identity in public. It’s a model Elizabeth Warren would be wise to learn.

Fifty years ago this week, on October 26, 1968, George Foreman won an Olympic gold medal. He was only 19 years old, and to capture the medal he had to defeat Jonas Čepulis, the 29-year-old Soviet boxer who’d been competing internationally since George was just 11. Foreman stepped into that ring having fought less than 20 bouts in his career. He’d only taken up the sport seriously the year before. On paper, it looked like a mismatch.

But George Foreman ignored the experts. In two bruising rounds, he pounded his Soviet opponent’s face into a bloody mess, forcing the referee to stop the contest. But what’s remembered most about that moment isn’t the fight — it’s what George did immediately after. Foreman found a small American flag and waved it triumphantly as he bowed to the judges and walked around the ring.

That decision to wave the flag — made out of sheer joy — haunted George Foreman for years. In any other era, it would likely have been celebrated and memorialized, like the famous photo of hockey goalie Jim Craig draped in the flag after vanquishing the Russians in Lake Placid. But Foreman had the bad luck of winning his gold medal in 1968, which was the year the world came unglued. Those were the Games when John Carlos and Tommie Smith leveraged the world’s first live global television broadcast to offer black power salutes that still resonate fifty years later.

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Foreman’s flag-waving thus transformed his personal expression of joy into a political statement. He was labelled an “Uncle Tom” by some in the black community, and that insult confused and hurt him for years. John Carlos later called this treatment “totally wrong.” But the damage had been done.

In public, George Foreman evolved from ebullient teenager to a surly menace. He tore through the professional heavyweight division and pounded down Joe Frazier to take the championship in 1973. Foreman rode that persona until Muhammad Ali outsmarted him in Africa the following year. That loss left Foreman bewildered and untethered, and after a bizarre series of events, he lost to the shrewd and shifty Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico in 1976. He found Jesus in the locker room following that fight.

Foreman left boxing for a decade, and became a preacher in his hometown of Houston. To spread the gospel, he’d bellow his love for Jesus through a small microphone set-up. Those who knew him couldn’t believe his new incarnation. And when he re-entered the boxing ring a decade later — as a portly 40-year-old — his next reinvention seemed even more risible.

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But George didn’t listen. He just hit people — very hard. And often they fell down. In 1991, he fought Evander Holyfield for the championship, but lost. Holyfield later remembered he couldn’t believe Foreman’s power. “I was throwing rocks,” Holyfield recalled laughing, “and he was throwing boulders.” Finally, in 1994 — in one of the 20th century’s greatest athletic feats — Foreman regained the heavyweight crown he lost two decades earlier.

The rest is history. He embraced every endorsement opportunity offered, and transformed his skill at praising Jesus into a remarkable talent for sales. He ultimately earned more than $130 million for selling a simple grill through late-night infomercials.

But there’s a part of George Foreman’s biography few know. And it largely explains both his personal reinventions and ultimate success. Foreman grew up being raised by his mother’s husband — a man named J.D. Foreman. But his siblings would tease him, calling him “Mo-head” throughout his childhood. He didn’t understand the insult until years later. That’s when it was explained that during a break in his parent’s marriage, his mother took up with a man named Leroy Moorehead. Unlike his siblings, George was the son of a stranger he never met.

That family narrative never left him. It haunted him for the rest of his life, and cast a shadow over his most basic self-understanding of identity. It was a secret burden he carried, and only later in life would he reveal it in interviews. “All my sons are named George Foreman. They all know where they came from,” he told Esquire after retelling the Moorehead story.

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George Foreman has lived the American dream. His constant reinvention is both unique for an American celebrity and yet still somehow perfectly American. Surely, his messy family history fueled and drove him throughout his multiple quests. And the secret to his astounding success was that he didn’t let the laughter or scorn deter him. In fact, it was the insults and jokes that often motivated him. His resilience and determination were rooted in becoming the person he alone envisioned — not the person others wanted him to be.

And therein lies the lesson for the Harvard law professor-turned-senator. Elizabeth Warren has learned, the hard way, that some people are determined to laugh and scorn her because of who she believes she is. But her family story — with its messy narrative that deeply and personally informed her understanding of who she is — aligns with George Foreman’s.

Sometimes our parents don’t tell us the truth about where we came from. That’s a hard lesson to learn, and it’s even more difficult to learn it in public. When critics with zero connection to that lived experience enjoy scorning and insulting others for something so deeply personal, they’re revealing their insensitivity and cruelty. George Foreman didn’t exchange insults, run and hide, or waste his time on proving things to critics who’d never respect him. Rather, he remained steadfast in his commitment to himself — as he defined that person. He kept fighting, and moving forward.

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That’s the lesson Big George can teach Professor Warren. We’ll soon learn if she’ll fight it out.


Michael J. Socolow is an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.