His ignorance astonishes him still. "I thought a hero was a guy with a big. long scar down his face, a guy who'd come back from prison, a guy maybe killed a man once. Can you imagine, my goal was to have a scar on my cheek? I tell you, I wore a Band-Aid across my cheek until the day I could get a real one."
By most accounts Foreman wouldn't have had to wait long for a scar of his own. His father was living apart from the family, and there was just so much a mother could enforce on this growing boy. School wasn't much of an influence; he hardly went. Sports meant nothing to him. And he was even outstripping his gang's small-change ambitions.
Yet he didn't feel resigned to this life. He was surprised to realize that, after a cousin caught him sneaking back into his bedroom after lunch on a school day. She told him. Go ahead, go on back to sleep. And he said. No, you got it wrong, I was on my way to school, really. She said. Don't lie, don't bother. Nobody in this family, nobody from around here is gonna become anything anyway, so go on back to sleep. Don't fight it. You know you're not gonna be nothing.
Foreman became furious. "I got my clothes back on and left. I'd show her. I didn't go to school, of course, but I wasn't going to sit there and let her tell me I wasn't going to be anything. I just didn't know anything to be."
Shortly thereafter, Foreman saw Jim Brown in a commercial on TV. Brown was a hero to Foreman. Saw him back over a goal line once, three defenders hanging on to him. Foreman walked like Brown, talked like him. Listened to him. There was Jim Brown on TV saying, Hey, why not be somebody, join the Job Corps. On the strength of that, Foreman packed himself off to Oregon. He didn't know exactly what he could be, but he could at least be it somewhere else.
What he was in the Job Corps was principally a thug in a new outfit. But Foreman was coming into contact with potential influences—like the Mr. America who showed up and delivered a corn ball speech about being an American. Ninety-nine kids in a hundred would have hooted the guy right out of town. The guy did a few push-ups with the biggest kid in camp on his shoulders, things like that. He closed with this spiel about being an American. Don't worry what other kids call you, he said. You're an American. Nobody can take that from you. Cornball. But Foreman felt so disfranchised that the news he was an American—the idea that he belonged to anything—struck him with bulletin force and made him weep. "To you it doesn't mean anything," he says. "You got to understand, a person whose only heroes are bandits, guys with scars across their faces, and here's a person telling you you're an American." It had never even occurred to him. Up to that point, Foreman didn't have any use for the national anthem. "It meant the end of the broadcast day."
What was it with Jim Brown, with this Mr. America, interfering in the life of George Foreman? They couldn't sleep nights?
All of George Foreman's famous fights were staged in exotic locales. He won the Olympic gold medal in Mexico City—no small feat in that he had had less than two years of training in the sport. But it became even bigger when Foreman walked around the ring waving an American flag. This was the season of black-gloved fists, remember.
When he beat Frazier for the title in '73, it was a tremendous upset. The match had been intended to kill time until Frazier and Muhammad Ali could fight again. Foreman was high-quality stuff, but unpracticed and generally considered to have been set up with soft touches. This was to be a $375,000 payday for the young patriot, and then he would be sent on his way. But Foreman demolished Frazier, whose reputation for violence was then worldwide. The Fifth Ward survivors must have shrugged over that one: What did we tell you?
For a guy who waved the flag, Foreman hardly ever fought under it. He defended his title in Tokyo, in Caracas and then in Zaïre. Ah. Zaïre. The big brute completely neutralized by the cunning of Ali. What could the Fifth Ward survivors have made of that?