Director and co-screenwriter George Tillman Jr. Tillman was inspired to direct Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World because of the theme of spirituality that runs through his work. “Films like Soul Food, Men of Honor, The Hate U Give, all of those films are about doing the right thing, finding the right place, healing and family – that all comes from the spirituality. And this was the first time I tackled that head-on,” says Tillman Jr.
Foreman’s unbelievable and inspiring story – his rise to fame in the ring, his spiritual rebirth, and his improbable and inspiring return that saw him reclaim his title – the boxer’s miraculous comeback was only possible through the greater miracle of his transformation, says Tillman, who directed the film from a story by Dan Gordon and Frank Baldwin & George Tillman Jr, and a screenplay by Baldwin & Tillman.
“This the story of how someone can completely change their life from being one way to being another,” says Tillman. “Not only did he change his personality and how he saw life, he changed the way he thought as a boxer, he changed from being selfish to being selfless… it became in every aspect of his life. And I thought, wow, you really can change! You really can see a difference in this man.”
Fueled by an impoverished childhood, Foreman channeled his anger into becoming an Olympic Gold medalist and World Heavyweight Champion, followed by a near-death experience that took him from the boxing ring to the pulpit. But when he sees his community struggling spiritually and financially, Foreman returns to the ring and makes history by reclaiming his title, becoming the oldest and most improbable World Heavyweight Boxing Champion ever.
A Faith-Based and Miraculous Sports Film
The film is shepherded to theaters through AFFIRM Films. Rich Peluso, executive vice president and head of the label, notes, “What attracted me to George Foreman’s story is the alignment with many of our previous films. Each of our movies served as an incredible resource and tool to encourage, uplift, and inspire people. We always want to develop, produce, and distribute movies that matter.”
Peluso adds that the sports films from AFFIRM Films have had a little something extra. “My favorite films that I worked on tend to be our sports dramas,” he notes. “Soul Surfer, When the Game Stands Tall, Overcomer, Facing the Giants –it’s been an incredible adventure to see these movies tell stories that change hearts and lives. In this new George Foreman film, his incredible story true story really resounds with audiences. It is the story of an underdog. It is the story of someone who rises up over incredible human conditions. It’s aspirational. There are parts of George’s life that anyone can borrow from as a model for how to deal with difficulty and challenges in their own life. And when audiences encounter these stories, especially when God intersects with the lives of people, they need to know that the story is true. And that’s what’s so exciting about the George Foreman story: it is incredible, impossible, but also true.”
Thrilled to have his story told on the big screen, Foreman says, “The arts speak greater for you than you can speak for yourself, because one day, I’ll no longer be on the scene – but the story will be told, and there’s nothing like being told in the movie.”
Zelon agrees. “George’s story has been well-documented both in documentaries and books and interviews, but there’s nothing that can reach people like a movie,” he says. “I’m a pretty avid sports fan, so I knew about George coming back and winning the title. I knew about the grill. But I didn’t know what drove him. I didn’t know anything about his conversation with God. All of that was new to me.”
“Working with the real George Foreman was so amazing,” says Tillman, the director of the film. “When I met him for the first time, I was blown away. Here’s a man that I’ve been watching for a very long time – my favorite fight of all time was his fight against Ron Lyle. After watching him and Ali, and Joe Frazier in 1973, and the Olympics, seeing the guy in person was amazing.”
“We all have things that we believe in other than ourselves. How does that change you and your perspective?” Tillman continues. “For George, it was spirituality. It changed the sense that the self-worth that he was looking for; he found it by being selfless. At one point, he was told, ‘No one in this family never amounted to anything,’ and George really took that to heart. At the beginning, it was all about using anger – using his fists, becoming heavyweight champion – to get the respect that he wanted. It turns out that he earned that respect when he turned his perspective around, when he was boxing to help others.”
Foreman grew up on the meanest streets in Houston, Texas. Underprivileged, malnourished – and a poor student, because he was a big kid who wasn’t getting enough calories – Foreman was dismissed. For Tillman, it’s a feeling he understood. “As a Black man, as an African-American director, I understand that feeling of being overlooked,” he says. “We have a scene in the film inspired by something George said – being in school, raising his hand, being passed over – he said that was the most hurtful thing. How can anybody write me off, just because of the way I dress? George said they didn’t have any money or food. He was always hungry. So when the teachers saw that he was poor and didn’t have the clothes to reflect that they had money, the teachers assumed that George wouldn’t prevail later in life. Those are the kind of things that stuck with him. It’s universal, but also something I was able to identify with as a young African-American man growing up: you always try to find something to stand out. How do you be seen? How do you get noticed?”
Foreman’s way of standing out would make itself clear. “Boxing was an afterthought. I wanted to be a better streetfighter,” Foreman explains. “I took up boxing so I could go back to Houston, Texas and just scare everyone so much that they wouldn’t want to fight me. And next thing you know, I’m the golden glove champion, an Olympic champion, and then heavyweight champion of the world. Boxing took over my life, just one thing after another.”
Of all of his many victories in the ring, Foreman ranks his Olympic gold medal bout above all the rest. Forget it being a dream-come-true – Foreman says the young man who won gold didn’t even dare to dream. “I’ve had a lot of boxing matches, a lot of victories, but nothing has come close to that,” he says. “I was a 19-year-old boy who never had a dream to come true.”
Turning professional, Foreman earned a reputation for being an extremely hard puncher, a dangerous opponent – and an aloof, sneering champion outside of the ring. He became the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, defeating Joe Frazier and successfully defending his title against José Roman and Ken Norton before facing Muhammad Ali in the legendary fight known as the Rumble in the Jungle.
Foreman had been favored in the fight, having defeated all of the boxers who had defeated Ali. But Ali offered an unusual strategy: he took to the ropes and defended, taking unimaginable punishment from Foreman’s devastating punches – refusing to go down, taunting Foreman the whole time. “After about five rounds. I hit him hard, and he fell on me. I thought, ‘He’s gonna ask for mercy,’ but he said, ‘That all you got, George?’” Foreman recalls. “Things changed instantly. By the sixth round, I really realized I was in a boxing match.” A tired Foreman began to weaken, and in the eighth round, a fresh Ali won by knockout. It was not only Foreman’s first loss as a professional, following forty consecutive victories – it was the first time he had been on the canvas in his career.
He was determined to regain his title as quickly as possible – but life had other plans. “I embraced anger, and then revenge,” Foreman recalls. “‘I’ll get it back, kill everybody in my way.’ And I got to be the number one contender in the world again – back in the position I wanted to be. I was promised a title shot if I won one more fight – and I lost that fight on a decision.”
Following that fight with Jimmy Young, Foreman underwent a profound emotional and spiritual rebirth that changed everything. “I went back in the dressing room, and I had an experience with death – in a split second, I was dead and alive again. I saw blood on my face and my hand, and I screamed, ‘Jesus Christ is coming alive in me.’ And now, 45 years later, I’m still screaming. That changed everything.”
“George said to me, ‘I really want to do the movie because of what happened in the dressing room in Puerto Rico, after fighting Jimmy Young,’” says Tillman. “I think a lot of people didn’t believe that what he saw changed his life. For me, being a man who grew up in church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, seeing the spirituality, seeing people catching the Holy Ghost, catching the spirit, seeing how people change, I believed what he felt there. He was so convicted coming out of that. There was something that happened that changed him. There was a higher being. I thought that was something that had to be embraced that I don’t see very often in movies today.”
For ten years, Foreman didn’t make a fist, much less pick up the gloves. “I stopped boxing because I was trying to come to grips with something that was real to me. I became an evangelist, of which I am now at The Church of The Lord Jesus Christ, and I just spent my whole time preaching – street corners, television shows, my own ministry in Houston, Texas. That’s all I did, and raised kids. That’s what I spent 10 years doing, never thinking that I’d ever put on boxing trunks again. I thought it was all over.”
Then, in 1987 – 8 days shy of ten years since what he thought was his last fight – Foreman returned to the ring as a professional. He was pushing 40 and was out of shape, weighing 267 pounds (and that was down from the 315 that marked his heaviest). He would attempt a comeback. The odds didn’t just seem long – the idea seemed impossible. Foreman minces no words about why he came back. “I was broke. I came back for the money,” he explains. With a family, a ministry, and a youth center to support, Foreman knew what he had a responsibility to do. But in the ten years away from the sport, Foreman had become a different man, which made him a different fighter. “The first time around, I thought I was the toughest; I knew I was the hardest puncher around. The second time around, I was a grandfather. I knew I had to behave, to do all the stuff I’d been telling my kids to do. When I came back, boxing was a profession. It wasn’t about winning and losing; it was about earning. You’ve got to feed your family and they do not eat excuses. I’d have preferred to have been a golfer and come back to golfing, but I was a boxer. You need a profession, and boxing was mine.”
As Foreman fought, he proved he was no sideshow act. He slimmed down, got in shape – and proved that he could still pack one of the hardest punches in boxing history. Seven years after his return, with dozens of victories against highly rated opponents, he earned the respect of the boxing community, and eventually, a title shot – which he won by knockout. He was 45 years, 299 days old – the oldest champion of all time. The greatest comeback in history was complete.
For Tillman, it was more than just a boxing match, even more than a championship bout. “It’s almost like a spiritual awakening,” he says. “This was what was divined to happen. I watched that fight live, and I thought Moorer was winning the whole time. I thought it was over. Foreman was getting hit, getting hit – and all of a sudden, he comes out of nowhere. It’s just like life; it was what was meant to happen.”
Three years later, Foreman would lose the title in a controversial decision. Now a gracious man, Foreman accepted the defeat and retired from professional boxing for the final time at age 48.
“The story of George Foreman – and the story of America – is the story of second and third chances,” says Big George Foreman – father, grandfather, great-grandfather, minister to Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, entrepreneur, and two-time heavyweight champion of the world. “You’re always gonna come back. There’s never a reason to say I quit, I give up, that’s the end. You can always keep going and keep trying. You never have to give up on yourself.”
“A lot of people might feel like their current circumstances are the only circumstances they’re ever gonna have. They don’t believe that they can be freed from the framework of that. But it’s not true,” adds Khris Davis, who plays the legend. “Mr. Foreman experienced so many different types of limiting circumstances and broken free of those. He left the Fifth Ward in Houston – that alone, many people think is impossible. He made it to the Olympics in one year after he started boxing. It’s impossible. He won gold. It’s impossible. He became the oldest heavyweight champion in the world. It’s impossible. All along the way, people told him he couldn’t do it. He broke free.”
GEORGE TILLMAN JR. (Director) is a critically acclaimed screenwriter, director, and film producer who has been involved in powerhouse projects like Barbershop, Soul Food, Men of Honor, The Hate U Give, and Notorious. In addition to directing features, Tillman has directed numerous television projects including Starz’s “Power,” Netflix/Marvel’s “Luke Cage,” and NBC’s dramedy “This Is Us.” Previously, Tillman had co-produced MGM’s beloved Barbershop franchise films, which grossed over $200 million worldwide, Roll Bounce with Bob Teitel, and acted as Executive Producer on 2017’s Mudbound, which went on to receive four Academy Award nominations. Tillman’s early credits include his first feature film, Soul Food, a film loosely based on his own life. Modestly budgeted at $7 million, Soul Food opened to both critical and financial success, grossing over $43 million domestically. He also directed Men of Honor, and the edgy telling of slain rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s life in the biopic Notorious. He has since directed the thriller Faster and the critically acclaimed film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete in addition to the adaptation of the New York Times young adult bestseller The Hate U Give. Tillman’s TV credits include directing the pilot for the highly successful TV show “For Life” on ABC. He also directed the pilot for “Crossover,” the first greenlight for a Disney+ project from 20th TV. Since, Tillman has teamed up with NBA great LeBron James of The Spring Hill Company, who has joined as executive producer for the Disney Branded Television series produced by 20th Television.
FRANK BALDWIN (Screen Story / Screenplay) is a screenwriter and novelist. Baldwin grew up in New York City and in Tokyo, Japan. He attended Hamilton College. His screen credits include Cold Pursuit. His television credits include the Showtime series Your Honor, and 61st Street. His first novel, Balling the Jack, was published by Simon and Schuster, and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. His second novel, Jake & Mimi, was published by Little, Brown.