50 years ago we didn’t know much about George Foreman. But the story of his first professional boxing match told us everything about the boxer and the businessman.
In 1968, George Foreman was a largely unknown amateur boxer with only two years and 20 bouts of experience. His victory in the gold medal match of the summer Olympics, and a brief wave of a tiny American flag, were shocking. Celebrities like Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi and actor Gene Barry lauded his performance. President Johnson invited him to the White House and both the Republican and Democratic nominees to be the next president praised Foreman as well.
But back home in Houston, he didn’t get the same treatment. Friends and neighbors had posters of Tommie Smith and John Carlos instead. Some resented him for wearing that gold medal all around town. When Foreman stopped into a jeweler to have his medal cleaned up, he discovered that it wasn’t dirt; the gold plating of his gilded medal was quickly rubbing off. He had little interest in fighting again.
There was, however, plenty of interest from others in Foreman’s future. Ring Magazine predicted his success in the professional ranks. Sharks started circling. His amateur coaches claimed their time spent training him or old agreements entitled them to guide him into a lucrative professional career. Established pilots, like Angelo Dundee and Cus D’Amato, made overtures. Even a couple of whales—or at least their kids—made a splash. Jimmy Iselin, the son of New York Jets president Philip Iselin, tried to secure Foreman’s rights. So, too, did Fred Hofheinz, whose father was largely responsible for the Houston Astros and their Astrodome. But it all smelled fishy to Foreman. He did not want to sign an exclusive contract with people he didn’t even know and he refused to be indebted to, let alone owned by, anyone.
Instead, Foreman returned to the Pleasanton Job Corps facility intending to keep his job in the recreation center. When news broke that Pleasanton was one of many Job Corps centers around the country slated to close under the incoming Nixon administration, he had to get moving. Although boxing still looked like the shortest route to some much needed cash, Foreman was not ready to commit. Fortunately, at the Oakland airport he bumped into the one manager, Dick Sadler, who was as patient as Foreman was cautious.
A protégé of Jack “Doc” Kearns, the manager who made Jack Dempsey a heavyweight champion and national celebrity, Sadler had decades of experience in the fight game. By the late 1960s he managed a welterweight contender as well as the comeback efforts of former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Before the 1968 Olympics, Sadler helped Foreman get some experience, too, by sparring with Liston and placing him in an “exhibition” bout on a pro card between amateur tournaments. When Foreman saw Sadler at the airport, he asked about getting some more of those exhibitions while he decided what to do. Sadler agreed to take him on with no strings attached—no contracts, loans, or cash advances. Just sparring and exhibitions until Foreman was ready.
$5000. It was a great offer for any aspiring prize fighting in the summer of 1969, let alone an amateur who had not yet turned professional, but it was the name behind the offer that made it impossible to turn down. Madison Square Garden wanted Foreman on the undercard of an upcoming heavyweight title bout between Joe Frazier and Jerry Quarry. Sadler didn’t pressure him, but he didn’t have to. Foreman knew that if he was going to try his hand in the prize ring, this was the time. The only thing holding him back was New York’s requirement that pro boxers have contracted management. He and Sadler signed off on a standard agreement, guaranteeing Sadler one third of Foreman’s winnings which, the 20-year old immediately noticed, was different from the 50/50 split he read in Liston’s contract with Sadler. The last step was to send it down to Houston for the final signature, from Nancy Foreman, because the fighter in this case was so young he still needed a parent’s permission before he could fight for money.
The Garden’s matchmaker, Teddy Brenner, selected a former Golden Gloves light-heavyweight named Don Waldhelm for Foreman’s first target. This was clearly a coming-out party for a heavyweight hopeful, so a competitive opponent would have been too risky. Public Relations guru John F.X. Condon asked Foreman if he would help with the promotion. Foreman, developing his penchant for sales, agreed and leveraged his Olympic image by handing out American flags outside of MSG 10 days before his debut.
Of course most of the 16,000 people who bought tickets or the thousands more watching on closed-circuit television in over 100 other locations paid to see the main event between Frazier and Quarry. But Foreman played his part. He beat up an opponent for a few rounds forcing referee Zach Clayton to stop the fight. The crowd booed the lopsided mismatch, which turned out to be the end of Waldhelm’s career and the beginning of Foreman’s role as an antihero to both Frazier and Ali. As long as he kept winning in the ring and remained interesting outside of it he could draw a crowd and, eventually, become a contender.
The inauspicious prize fighting debut for George Foreman on Monday June 23, 1969, revealed a lot about the man who would become a two-time heavyweight champion and hundred-million-dollar pitchman before the turn of the millennium. After his contract with Sadler expired Foreman managed his own boxing affairs for the next three decades because he was never comfortable being managed by someone else. He was, however, remarkably comfortable selling himself by fashioning a public image and using it to promote upcoming fights. Almost half a century later, Foreman told a crowd of aspiring entrepreneurs in Atlanta: “If you learn to sell, you will never starve.” 50 years ago he started selling like a pro before he fought professionally. He was well suited for a long career in the business of boxing.
Andrew Smith is an assistant professor of sport management and history at Nichols College. He is the author of No Way But to Fight: George Foreman and the Business of Boxing. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org is always welcome as are visits to andrewrmsmith.com; tweeters can follow @andrewrmsmith.