For historical context (and for fans of boxing when boxing mattered), in 1968, 19-year-old George Edward Foreman of Marshall, Texas, represented the United States in the heavyweight division of the Mexico City Olympic Games. He won a gold medal and then turned professional. Meanwhile, in the stateside boxing world, Smokin’ Joe Frazier took the heavyweight title from a previously unstoppable Muhammad Ali. Foreman, the little known but well regarded former Olympic champion, would then knock out undefeated Joe Frazier in the second round of their 1973 bout and become the world’s heavyweight champion for—as it turns out—the first time.
George Foreman would defend the belt twice before his first professional loss to Ali in 1974’s iconic Rumble in the Jungle bout. Foreman would retire after a loss to Jimmy Young in 1977. But all of that is just the beginning of Foreman’s remarkable story. The heart of George Tillman Jr.’s conventional but inspiring Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World is what came next in the life of the man whose love of people—specifically his family and his congregation—eclipsed even his love of fighting.
Big George Foreman stars Khris Davis (Judas And The Black Messiah) as Foreman and Forest Whitaker as his long-time trainer and mentor, the legendary Doc Broadus. It documents the life of a young George growing up on the mean streets of Houston. He was poor to the point of wearing tattered clothes to school (for which he was mocked) and being severely malnourished even as he grew larger than all his classmates. His teachers ignored him, passing him over in class when he raised his hand. This leads to an angry young boy who grows into a huge, even angrier young man. Much of what BGF is about is the transformation of that George Foreman into the fighter and man he would come to be.
Yet another dramatic transformation—a near-death experience crucial to his spiritual awakening—gives Foreman the determination and faith to stage the first of his many comebacks. But this time, George would not fight for fame, glory, or even the love of his country. This fight would be for the glory of God—and money. George, who would eventually be the father of 12 children, was broke, as were his church and community. The fight would get both those things healthy, while also giving him the right to again be called world champion.
There’s nothing fancy about the filmmaking in Big George Foreman; the boxing sequences are solid, but never the point of the movie. BGF has more in common with Rocky than Raging Bull and more still in common with the 1956 boxing classic Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman as world middleweight champion Rocky Graziano and directed by Robert Wise. Tillman Jr’s rousing follow-up to The Hate U Give is a classically constructed sports comeback movie in every way. What it has going for it is its protagonist, George Foreman, who, by most accounts and measures, is every bit the swell guy—who nevertheless hit very hard—presented in this love letter of a movie. Davis, Whitaker, and the other players are all excellent.
BGF takes place during some of the sport’s most culturally relevant and popular years, when Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, and George Foreman were no strangers to the covers of magazines like Sports Illustrated and Time. Of all these boxing champions, it’s Foreman whose career lasted the longest, traversing four decades, from the ’60s to the late ’90s. That encompasses his 1994 comeback fight with 26-year-old Michael Moore, which becomes a crucial turning point in Foreman’s life and in the terrific film that charts its remarkable course. Not the fight itself, which Foreman won via knockout, but rather what his victory meant; Foreman had completed one of the greatest comebacks in sports history which is all the more impressive in boxing, where comeback attempts usually end in failure—if not tragedy. George Foreman had his share of failure, tragedy, and triumph but this movie is more about the man himself and the spiritual journey that made his comeback possible.
In a recent social media post, the now 74-year-old Foreman is seen punching the heavy bag with the caption “... power don’t age.” He rumbles the bag with blow after blow while his five sons—all named George—cheer on their dad. Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World is an excellent movie about a beloved figure who indeed seems ageless and whose story includes the kind of comebacks usually reserved for fiction. The way he was hitting that bag—we should not count out another comeback—or a sequel.
Big George Foreman opens in theaters on April 28, 2023