One man comes to mind when George Foreman thinks of Detroit.
"Joe Louis," says Foreman, of the legendary Detroit boxer who reigned as the sport's champ for 12 years, from 1937 to 1949. "I think he was the greatest fighter, as far as I'm concerned, that ever lived."
Foreman, 74, is no slouch himself, as a two-time former heavyweight champ and Olympic gold medalist. But he says he would have been no match for Louis, whom he calls "a real puncher."
"I just thank God I was not around in his prime," says the 74-year-old Foreman, who met Louis in 1968, when Louis helped advise him on a business matter. "That guy would have put a shellacking on me."
Foreman put a shellacking on plenty of opponents in his career, and his life — both inside and outside the ring — which is recounted in "Big George Foreman," his big screen biopic that hits theaters Friday.
For Foreman, having his life story told — from his upbringing in Houston's Fifth Ward to his introduction to the boxing world to, yes, becoming a pitchman for the wildly successful portable electronic grill that bears his name — was an adjustment that took some getting used to.
"You go through life hiding your life," says Foreman, chatting over Zoom from the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta earlier this month. "You wear dark glasses and hats so no one pays attention to who you are, you buy a house and you put a big brick wall around it so no one sees in, and you ride in limousines with dark windows. You hide your life. Now all of a sudden you reveal everything that's going on in your life. It's not easy."
After the publication of "By George: The Autobiography of George Foreman" in 2000 and 2007's "God In My Corner: A Spiritual Memoir," Foreman says he was repeatedly approached about doing a movie of his life, but he wasn't interested.
That changed when he was presented with a script for "Big George Foreman," which was originally titled "Heart of a Lion." Foreman read the script and had ideas to help make it better, "and that's when I decided a movie was necessary," says the father of 12 (including five sons, all named George).
That was 2019, and writer-director George Tillman Jr. ("The Hate U Give," the Notorious B.I.G. biopic "Notorious") flew to Houston to meet with Foreman, who drove him around the area where he grew up. The two ate barbecue and quickly hit it off, and Tillman says he felt he gained Foreman's trust.
"I talked about my goals as a filmmaker, which is to entertain, to have a good time to have humor, but be able to walk away with something to say," says Tillman, 54. "And I think that's what George wanted from the story, is be able to have something that people could walk away from the movie with."
Filming was set to begin in 2020 in New Orleans but faced several delays, first from the COVID-19 pandemic and later when a hurricane blew the roof off the film's production office. And then actor Michael K. Williams, who was cast as Foreman's trainer and mentor, Doc Broadus, died in September 2021. (He was replaced by Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker.)
The series of hardships tested Tillman's resolve but ultimately, he felt, paralleled some of the challenges Foreman faced in his life and career, which included a comeback at age 38 that culminated with him winning a world championship at age 45, 20 years after losing the belt for the first time.
"We needed that," says the Milwaukee-bred Tillman. "I had to remind myself, with all the obstacles that we were facing, just stay the course and things would work out."
Foreman, who is played in the film by Khris Davis ("Judas and the Black Messiah"), only visited the film's set once during filming, but he was available to Tillman if the director had any questions or clarifications, as long as he could figure out which of Foreman's two phones he was using at any given time.
Foreman says he's proud of the film and its message, but there were still a few tweaks he wanted to make. "The first one was the story of the Rumble in the Jungle and the rope-a-dope," Foreman says of his historic 1974 bout with Muhammad Ali in Zaire. "I thought, 'look, it's my movie. Why not let me win this time?'"
Foreman, whose famous weight gains and losses are detailed in the film, says he's eating well these days; prior to the interview, he had just finished up a salad. "If you want to stay on the planet, you better eat healthy," Foreman says, but he does add, unprompted, "but there's nothing like a delicious cheeseburger."
Tillman says the lesson of "Big George Foreman" is the importance of not judging a book by its cover, and how Foreman is much more than the angry young man he was initially painted — and dismissed — as.
Foreman says what he takes away from the movie, and his life, is his own triumph over adversity.
"I started from nothing, nowhere, didn't even have hope. Certainly didn't have any faith. But I made it to the top," he says. "I got a chance to lose it all and then have a second chance, and that's something anyone and everyone can do," he says.
Foreman says he wants his story to be an inspiration to others. "What you can do with my life, not what I've done with it," he says. "That's a legacy."
'BIG GEORGE FOREMAN'
Rated: PG-13 (for some sports violence)
Running time: 2:08
How to watch: In theaters Friday
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