HOUSTON (AP) _ The Rev. George Foreman flipped his Bible open to the Book of Genesis, let fly with a left hook for Jesus and sent Satan sprawling into the ropes.
“You’ve got to learn how to fight!” he exhorted. “If you believe in God, you’ve got to fight for him.”
The Sunday morning faithful, warmed by a hand-clapping round of gospel singing, rocked on their hard wooden pews with the verbal punch.
At 66, Foreman _ two-time world heavyweight champion and veteran of more than 80 scarring professional boxing bouts _ might be graying, his card-topping pugilistic battles long over. But in his bout against sin as pastor of north Houston’s Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, he’s still a powerhouse slugger.
In a 60-minute exposition on God’s creation of the world, the boxer-turned-preacher touched on false philosophers, biology, Pluto, marijuana, boxing punches, getting lost in traffic, the morals of dogs, the morals of women who buy booze by the gallon, people who wallow, crops and weeds and, of course, Adam, Eve, the Garden of Eden, a treacherous serpent and an angry God.
When it comes to good and evil, there’s no question where Foreman stands. He’s seen his share of both.
Born in poverty, his boxing prowess and a lucrative career as pitchman for backyard grills, automobile mufflers and sports clothing have made Foreman a millionaire a hundred times over. He lives on a 45-acre Lake Houston estate, collects luxurious cars and thoroughbred horses and, between pulpit duties and appearances at his George Foreman Youth and Community Center, knocks down sizable honoraria for speaking engagements across the nation.
Earlier this year, the retired champ again gained the nation’s media spotlight as he launched a new business enterprise, George Foreman’s Butcher Shop, an on-line purveyor of grass-finished beef and free-range chickens.
Though Foreman has lived a life filled with fame and fortune, he confessed, much of it was spent without God. No one was more surprised by the boxer’s embrace of religion than Foreman himself.
Foreman’s mother, working three jobs to single-handedly support seven children, had no time for church, he said. And although the adolescent Foreman sometimes went to church at his sisters’ urging, it was only to take advantage of a free lunch.
The pugilist’s ultimate reckoning with religion came in 1977, minutes after he was pummeled into defeat by heavyweight Jimmy Young, and it came in the most frightening way.
“In the dressing room I was walking back and forth to cool off,” he told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1ORR7zX). “Then in a split second, I was fighting for my life.”
Foreman’s mind filled with battling thoughts: preening pride vs. death, panic.
“I kept thinking, `You believe in God, why are you afraid to die?”’ Foreman said. “But I really didn’t believe.”
Foreman bargained, offering to devote his boxing prize money to charity.
“I don’t want your money,” Foreman heard a voice say, “I want you.”
Instantly the boxer found himself cast into the bleakest darkness he had experienced.
“It was the saddest, most horrible place I had ever seen,” he said.
Then a “giant hand” plucked him into consciousness. Foreman found himself on a locker room table, surrounded by friends and staff. He felt as if he were physically filled with the presence of a dying Christ. He felt his forehead bleed, punctured by a crown of thorns; his wrists, he believed, had been pierced by nails of the cross.
“I knew that Jesus Christ was coming alive in me,” Foreman said. “I ran into the shower and turned on the water and _ hallelujah! _ I was born again. I kissed everybody in the dressing room and told them I loved them. That happened in March 1977, and I never have been the same again.”
The change immediately was noticed by the boxing world.
“There was a transformation from a young, hard character who felt a heavyweight champion should carry himself with menace . (to) a very affectionate personality,” said HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant. “I would say this was a sincere evolution of a human being maturing and it suggests real effort.”
Foreman’s roots were in Houston’s toughest neighborhoods.
Big, muscular, truculent, the future champ began his fighting career as a schoolyard bully.
“There were a lot of fights,” he said. “My mother had a lot of trouble out of me.”
At 16, Foreman was a school dropout on his way to a West Coast Job Corps camp, where he would be trained in carpentry and other manual skills. He took his bad attitude with him, and fistfights weren’t uncommon. But _ in what might have been the luckiest break of his life _ Foreman’s rowdiness caught the eye of camp boxing coach Charles “Doc” Broadus, who challenged the teen to take his fighting to the ring.
The gambit paid off with Foreman claiming a gold medal in heavyweight boxing in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The win propelled Foreman to a pro career and heavyweight championship victories over Joe Frazier in 1973 and Michael Moorer in 1994.
By the end of his professional career, Foreman had scored 68 knockouts and 76 wins.
“He is an iconic figure in boxing history,” said Edward Brophy, executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Eventually, the boxer’s quest brought him to the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ on Lone Oak Road. Foreman felt welcomed. At the urging of church members, he joined a corps of curbside proselytizers, honing his pulpit skills with sidewalk harangues from Houston to Shreveport, La.
When the Pentecostal congregation dissolved, Foreman was there to reassemble the pieces. The church reopened in 1980, with the brash heavyweight champ in the pulpit.
Always philanthropic, Foreman pushed his ministry into social realm three years later with the opening of the George Foreman Youth and Community Center, a cluster of gymnasiums just blocks from his church.
Dr. Adan Rios, an oncology professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center’s Houston medical school, began working out at Foreman’s gym shortly after it opened.
“When I went to the gym and found out he was a minister, I decided to hear one of his sermons,” Rios said. “I remember very vividly. I was sitting close to the door. I thought this was just a courtesy visit, but he stopped preaching and walked over to me to whisper in my ear, `Be very careful. This is the real gymnasium, and here’s where things really happen.’ I was enthralled by his sermon and started coming back. Now, I’m just another member of his church.”
Rios recalled Foreman’s 1987 decision to return to the ring, a move motivated by the need for money to keep the youth center open. Saturday nights of trading punches with often younger heavyweight foes invariably were followed by rushed flights to Houston so Foreman could praise God on Sundays.
Rios was with the middle-age pugilist when he faced Moorer in the 1994 Las Vegas heavyweight title bout.
For most of the fight, Moorer _ 19 years Foreman’s junior _ seemed destined to win. Then, rebounding in the 10th round, Foreman connected a short right-hand punch to Moorer’s chin, and he slapped to the canvas.
“I saw it all at close range,” Rios said, “and I can tell you with certainty that the man I saw in the ring is the same man you see in church on Sundays.”
Foreman hung up his boxing gloves for keeps five years later, and though he launched a career as a television boxing analyst, his heart had its home in the church.
“I’m always studying the Bible,” Foreman said. “It’s all about studying and learning, and here’s the scary thing: The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.”
Preaching three weekly sermons, keeping an eye on the operations of the youth center and managing his meat business make for a demanding routine.
“On Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, I try to reveal something about the Bible that they didn’t know,” Foreman said of his pastoral strategy. “On Sunday evenings, I understand that people need something to help them all through the week. I have the New Testament to draw on. It’s 2,000 years old. I can’t run out of ideas.”
Often, he said, he recycles themes, seeking new depths in Scripture he has explored.
He preaches a creation sermon at least twice a year.
“Let’s think a little bit,” he told his Sunday morning congregation. “We come to church to learn how to think about God. Ignorance can get everyone in trouble. Ignorance is thrown into a lake of fire _ hell itself. The best way to learn the truth is to start at the beginning. `In the beginning . ` read with me now.
“Maybe we’ll leave out of church thinking about how we can save our souls.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com