“I COULD beat that guy.”

It’s a phrase heard around living rooms and on barstools around the world when a big fight is on, but when it comes from the mouth of George Foreman, it tends to carry a lot more weight behind it. So even at 51, and two and half years removed from his last fight against Shannon Briggs, the two-time heavyweight champion saw the then-number one contender for Lennox Lewis’ heavyweight crown, David Tua, in 2000 and figured that he could take him out and make another run at the title.

“I told my wife I could beat that guy, I’m gonna start training, I’m gonna get in shape, and I could still be champion of the world,” recalled Foreman. “I can fight Tua, offer him a five million dollar purse, which he wasn’t getting anyways, beat him myself and then fight for the title.”

Foreman’s wife Mary, who he calls Joan, wasn’t buying it.

“She’s listening to all this and finally she says ‘You’re not fighting anymore.’ I said, ‘You can’t tell me I can’t do it’,” Foreman recalls with a laugh. “ ‘Look at those guys; don’t you know I can still do it?’ And she said something so profound to me; she said ‘Isn’t that the way you want to leave the sport, George, feeling like you could still do it?’ I never said another word about boxing again. That’s the way I wanted to leave, feeling like I could still do it. She was right.”

Now 20 years later, Foreman is 71, and the Briggs fight remained his last. To a new generation, he’s the ‘guy with the grill,’ referring to his long association with the cooking device that bore his name and made him millions, and he’s one of the rare happy endings in a sport filled with fighters devastated by health and money issues, many related to the ring which made them famous. So how did Foreman escape unscathed, not just once, but twice?

“You have to have proper guidance,” he said. “Boxing is an easy sport to get into, probably the easiest of all, but it’s the hardest one to get out of. The person most responsible for overseeing his welfare is the fighter themselves. And it wasn’t easy for me. I had never thought about that in my life, how I really wanted to leave. And most people aren’t given that kind of advice. ‘Come on, you got one more in you. Just one more.’ And we’re failures, all of us, because we can’t see that we want to get out the way we came in, feeling good about ourselves.”

Particularly hard hit has been Foreman’s Golden Era of heavyweights in the 1970s. Joe Frazier, the man Foreman won the heavyweight title from the first time in 1973, passed away in 2011. Previous opponents Ron Lyle and Scott LeDoux also died, with Jimmy Young and Jerry Quarry (who Foreman never faced) also dying before their time. Ken Norton never fully recovered from a 1986 car accident, being hospitalised again in 2012 before passing in 2013, and the ravages of Parkinson’s disease took their toll on perhaps Foreman’s greatest nemesis, Muhammad Ali whose passing sent shockwaves through the world in 2016. It’s a horrific period for those who were once the equivalent of superheroes for children and adults around the world just a few short decades ago, and a stark reminder of what age and a life in the ring can do when the spotlight is dimmed. It’s an inevitability that has hit Foreman harder than anything he took on fight night.

“I never did visualise a world without them and when they started passing, it hurt,” he said. “It’s like a part of me died. And that’s the one thing I do understand; nobody’s got a monopoly on life and death. And it’s not how long you live, it’s the quality of the life you live, and I’m thankful for the quality of life. I get up and I go fish, I walk my dogs in the morning, and I’m already in the happily ever after now. I’m happy now. And I would like to live for a long time, and I’m going to the doctor like everybody else, and whenever they tell me they have a new pill for something, I say ‘Doctor, give me one!’ I really want to live. And I’ve made new friends, and I like Twitter and Facebook because I meet new people every day, become friends and chat with them so I don’t feel like I’ve lost all of my friends.”

Thankfully, Big George is still going strong, healthy and able to represent the last generation of truly great heavyweights. Sure, there have been the Lewises, Tysons, Holyfields, Bowes, and Klitschkos that future generations will look back at and admire as being among the best fighting during their particular time, but for consistency and quality, the 1970s provided boxing with its greatest heavyweight thrills.

And standing centre stage with Ali and Frazier was Foreman, back then a surly and intimidating figure who is barely recognisable when you compare him to the friendly and almost grandfatherly icon that people young and old admired during his second stint in the ring from 1987 to 1997.

“I wasn’t a nice guy at all,” said Foreman of his first ring life. “I’m gonna tell the truth, I concentrated on being mean. I left home to join the Job Corps, and that was around ’65. I won the Olympics in ’68 and I was still away from home, trying to be a boxer. I moved to Hayward, California, and starting life all I had was boxing, nothing else. So there wasn’t any socialisation of me. I didn’t get along with people because I wasn’t exposed to people. I was training, boxing, training, boxing, and then I became champ. It was like ‘Oh, it worked.’”

He also admits to picking up some lessons in intimidation to the originator of the craft, Sonny Liston.

“He’d once been heavyweight champion of the world, and I’d see that title belt sitting there in his luxurious home, and the way he treated people I said I guess that’s the way you ought to be when you’re champion. And I started being the same way. As a matter of fact, I think I became worse! I picked up a lot of bad habits because I didn’t know they were bad habits. I thought they were just traits of being champion of the world.”

Foreman learned more than that from Liston, as he was a sparring partner for the former heavyweight champion before he won a gold medal for the United States in the 1968 Olympics. Hearing about these sessions is fascinating, especially because there are only a handful of people still alive whose paths crossed with Liston, particularly in the ring.

“That was an important point in my life,” recounted Foreman. “I was just an amateur boxer, I had won a little junior Golden Gloves tournament, and then I was given the opportunity to work with Sonny Liston. They said he needed some sparring, and I didn’t know anything about sparring. All I knew was hit, hit, hit. And I really put it on him because I was so quick and his trainer was telling him to take it easy on me. So he was trying to hold off and I was really cleaning him out. But then he hit me with a right hand and knocked me against the ropes and Dick Sadler, who was his trainer then, said ‘Hold it, hold it, that’s enough.’ And I was glad.”

Then Foreman laughs that deep belly laugh that is both unmistakable and infectious. I go on to tell him what former heavyweight prospect Derek Bryant once told me about the jab of Larry Holmes after sparring with him.

“I never saw it coming,” said Bryant of the jab of ‘The Easton Assassin’. “I only saw it going back.”

Big George had the same assessment of Liston’s jackhammer left.

“He had such wonderful timing with his jab,” said Foreman. “If he got you going with it, you couldn’t stop it. That’s the way it was with Liston. I was trying to time it, and I was just getting torn up.”

Read: George Foreman – The Temptation at the Door

Not too many people got in Foreman’s way once he turned pro in 1969, but even though he mowed down opponent after opponent with brute force, the man at the top of the division, Frazier, wasn’t someone he was particularly interested in meeting.

“I didn’t like the idea of fighting Frazier,” said Foreman, who defeated Don Waldheim and Gregorio Peralta at Madison Square Garden on the undercard of Frazier’s wins over Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis. “It wasn’t like he was some imaginary guy somebody wrote about; this guy was tough as nails and there wasn’t any chink in his armour. I didn’t want to fight him. He was one of those guys, you want to be champ of the world and you’re tough, but not him of all people.”

Foreman not only fought Frazier for the title in January of 1973, he destroyed him, knocking “Smokin’ Joe” down six times before the end came at 2-26 of the second round. Foreman was the heavyweight champion of the world, the unofficial baddest man on the planet, and he knew it.

“When I beat Joe Frazier, it was like I crossed the line,” he said. “I thought I can beat anybody, anytime, anywhere.”

Few doubted that opinion, especially after Jose Roman and Ken Norton each got demolished by the clubbing fists of Foreman in his first two title defences. So when Ali was announced as the next challenger for the seemingly invincible champ in 1974 in Zaire, many feared for Ali’s life. And as far as Foreman was concerned, well, he wasn’t concerned at all.

“That’s the sad thing about it,” he said. “I had cleaned Ken Norton out, wiped out George Chuvalo, who had gone 12 rounds with him [Ali], and I knocked them out. Muhammad Ali was no concern. I figured I’d knock him out in maybe two, three rounds at the most. And what made me so good against Joe Frazier was that I was afraid of him. And what made me so terrible was that I had literally no respect for Muhammad Ali. None.”

On October 30, 1974, George Foreman got ready to defend his title against Ali in “The Rumble in The Jungle.” The bout was taking place after a one-month postponement due to a cut suffered by Foreman, but that was apparently just delaying the inevitable for Ali.

“I got in that ring and I didn’t even think about this guy,” said Foreman. “It was the best I ever felt. I remember going to the dressing room thinking ‘Man, I like boxing. If I can feel like this before a match, I’d fight every day.’ No butterflies, no fear at all, and it makes you just go out and forget this and forget that. You don’t even think about moving your head or jumping backwards or anything; you just think about doing it. And I lost that quality, which was my best quality: fear.”

Eight rounds later, Ali was the champion again, Foreman had lost his title and his aura of invincibility, and boxing would never be the same again.

Foreman would be back in the ring a year and a half later, engaging in a five round classic with Lyle, beating Frazier again, and then running off three more wins before a loss to Young in 1977. He would never get another shot at Ali but in a comeback for the ages, Foreman returned to the ring in 1987 at 38, went 24-0 before losing a title fight to Evander Holyfield in 1991, but five fights later he got it right, knocking out Michael Moorer on November 5, 1994 to regain the heavyweight championship of the world.

George Foreman was a superhero again, and at the moment it’s hard to picture any heavyweight capturing the imagination of the general public like he and his peers did. He certainly can’t see it.

“We’re running into a sad era and things are just not good,” said Foreman, who also went on to commentate for HBO’s boxing telecasts for several years.

“I wish I could fix it. I think all the time that it wasn’t that I was a good champion or a heavyweight champion of the world or that Muhammad Ali was that great, but we certainly were heroes for people to talk about, and I wish this generation had just a few. I don’t know the reason and there have been a lot of people trying to take a guess at the reasons, but there aren’t any. We just don’t have ’em.”

Yet as the old boxing adage goes, from the worst economic situations come the best fighters. The way Foreman sees it, that may be the case once again in the coming years.

George Foreman

“We’ve had some hard years over the last four years or so and some people have seen hard times they never thought would exist,” he said. “Maybe that’s the reason for the making of great men.

“Maybe around the corner, those who survived and came out of this unbroken will make great champions in the next few years. That’s only a guess too, but hopefully we’ll get it back. It’s not around now and it’s nowhere to be found.”

He pauses, thinking about the friends he’s lost and those going through those hard times today.

“Jerry Quarry, Thad Spencer, Ernie Terrell,” he said. “Where did they come from? They were bigger than earth, and no one was bigger than the greatest show on earth, Muhammad Ali. Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson, I could go on and on and on. They were like angelic figures that stayed in your mind and you’d never get them out. I wish the young kids could have that again.”

We all do. But at least we’ve still got Big George.