One fated evening in 1979, my father was driving down the street in Houston, Texas, with my mother (Veronica Porche) and his photographer friend Howard Bingham, when he suddenly spotted George Foreman, standing on a cardboard box in the middle of a vacant dirt lot and preaching the word of Christ.
It had been five years earlier that my father “shook up the world” by regaining his heavyweight championship at the age of 32 in an eight-round battle against a much younger, stronger George Foreman. The legendary fight, dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle,” which took place on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, had already reached mythic status and to this day is considered one of the greatest moments in boxing if not all of sports history.
However, a fact few know is that following this devastating defeat, George Foreman fell into a deep depression and eventually retired from boxing altogether. Emerging with a newfound purpose, Foreman became a changed man. He sold off all of his personal possessions, houses, cars, etc., and embarked on a new journey—one that he felt was in fact the true meaning of his life.
My father, who had always been guided by his beliefs, faith and principles, became intrigued by the sight of this. Wanting to better understand, he parked the car on the side of the road and walked across the street toward Foreman.
The following transcript is taken from a conversation my father recorded not long after between the two of them. Once adversaries in the ring, they came together in the spirit of peace and brotherhood as they discussed a range of topics but most notably faith, commemorating the beginning of what became a very meaningful and beautiful friendship.
December 3, 1979
MUHAMMAD ALI: George Foreman!
GEORGE FOREMAN: Praise God, man!
MA: Hey, how are you doing?
GF: Miracle! Doing just fine, man. I’m just thinking about you every day.
MA: Good. What are you doing now?
GF: Man, I’m just sitting down here, working for the Lord every day.
MA: Hey, George, have you ever thought about getting some type of building or some old place where you can get a lot of people in one space and not on the street, where they can hear you good?
GF: Well, see, this Gospel here is “Preach to the poor people,” and the way you find them is where you and me used to be when we were little kids, just hanging around the streets. Jesus said, “Go to the highways and to the hedges,” but right now I’ve been in a place. It’s just a small, common place which can hold a thousand people.
MA: Man, that’s a lot of people. A thousand people, that’s a big place … I always wonder why the preachers talk about Jesus so much, like, why can’t you just pray to God and serve God and follow just God … I’m not trying to say that you’re wrong. I’m trying to learn … what do they mean when they say, “God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.”
GF: What happened was, there was a Scripture when Jesus spoke to his disciples. He said, “You go, ye, and teach all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” … like the name of your child and of you and of your wife is one. It’s one name for all three of you. But that doesn’t mean you are the mother or that you are the daughter. You are just the father, but you’ve all got the same name …
MA: That makes sense. I’m glad you straightened out something.
GF: See, the Holy Ghost itself is like the spirit of the living God. The Son, he is subject to God himself, and there’s one power of them all. That’s God …
MA: What about this, George. There are one billion Muslims on Earth, which is a thousand million, enough to fill America 10 times. Saudi Arabia is Muslim; Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and all of the Muslim countries. Prophet Muhammad was sent to Arabia 1,400 years ago to the Arabs who had gone astray. And they say Buddha was sent to the Chinese and Krishna sent to the Indians and Jesus sent to the Jews and Gentiles. All the Muslims pray to Allah, A-L-L-A-H. The supreme being, they say his name is Allah. Jesus prayed to Allah. He didn’t speak English 2,000 years ago. Jesus said “Allah.” … Do you ever run into the Muslim brothers in Texas?
GF: Oh, yeah, man.
MA: You’re friendly?
GF: They know what I’ve got. … They don’t bother me …
MA: [laughs] Yeah.
GF: I start talking and they get violent-acting … I said, “Wait a minute now. My God has given me the power to love” …
MA: Muslims are peaceful people. Violent people are not Muslims. They’re misrepresenting us—we’re not violent. … Where are you living now, George?
GF: I live here in Houston now, man. I gave up my range, because I had to come down here and preach to these people—we’re preaching at a little common church now …
MA: You gave up all of your earthly stuff, like land and houses and cars and all of that?
GF: I sold all of that stuff, man, because it just spread me out thin, you know? I can’t be taking care of all of that stuff. I sold it.
MA: You’re right. All of the stuff I’ve got. I feel it too.
GF: Yeah, it just spreads you out too thin. You know, I had close to 20 cars. How can I drive all of that jive?
MA: What do you do for income?
GF: I’ve been living off the stuff I sold so far.
MA: How old are you now, George? I’m 37.
GF: I’m 30.
MA: Damn, man, you’re young!
GF: Yeah, but you are, too, man. You know, you did some great things in the past, but the greatest thing you’re going to ever do is save your own soul …
MA: I’m going to tell you something.
GF: All right.
MA: I think that God has control over all people, all minds. I think he knows what’s in your heart. Man judges a man’s actions, but God judges a man’s heart. And I think if your heart is right and you really mean right … and you help people, you give to charity, you hold no hate in your heart, I think you go to heaven, whatever you call your religion. … See, man named it Catholic. God didn’t name them Baptist or Jehovah’s Witness or Muslim. God never gave them that title. Man gives the title. It ain’t but one religion, and that’s the religion of the heart. And if you’ve got the right heart and you mean right … George Foreman don’t know what’s in my heart.
GF: I know what’s in your heart, man.
MA: No, you ain’t God, George.
GF: No, see, you love me the same way you love yourself. You have the spirit of God.
MA: So what I’m saying is I think that whatever you call yourself, if you have the right heart, you’ll go to heaven. … Christianity and Islam is almost alike, the closest two religions in the world. … I heard you preaching, and I liked what you were saying. You said, “I was the champion of the world. I had this, and I had that.” Man, that’s powerful, because people knew it was true—if you want to, you can still have women, and big houses … you’re still young—you can fight if you want to, so they know that you’re really giving all of that up. That makes people believe you …
GF: Man, can you please call me a little bit more?
GF: You and me are closer than you think. We’re going to be old men and old friends together. You should call me up, at least once every month—could you?
Hana Ali is currently working on a book: At Home with Muhammad Ali, Penguin, Random House, with a scheduled publication of late 2017. The transcript featured in this article is a small portion of the hour-long tape recording between her father, Muhammad Ali, and George Foreman. It has been edited for length and readability.