He is America's preeminent pitchman (second, possibly, to Bob Dole). George Foreman, twice the heavyweight box-ing champ, has lent his name or smiling mug to mufflers, grills, household cleansers, exercise equipment, and more. Most recently, Foreman (jacket size 52) signed on to promote a line of "big guy" clothing for Casual Male. Over lunch, he spoke about fear, fighting, fat, and how a near-death experience changed his life.
Fast Company: You've endorsed everything from mufflers to sausage. What's the deal?
Foreman: It started with Meineke in 1993. They took a chance on me. Most athletes, you sign us up, and then we go get in trouble. I wanted to tell boxers: Stay clean, stay cool. Business is big, and it's always going to be there. Shooting a basketball, hitting a baseball is a temporary thing—unless you're like me, where you go on forever.
FC: Speaking of which, you want to get back into the ring. You're 55 now. Aren't you afraid?
Foreman: Sure, I'm afraid! Everyone should be afraid. There's nothing wrong with fear. Once the fear's gone, you sit there and say, "I don't care if the Dow goes up or down, I've got my money." That's not living. I need a challenge. This is a big message to people out there who think their lives are over: Be happy that you're scared. Let's go!
FC: What are you doing to get ready to fight again?
Foreman: I need to get down to 225 pounds. Forty pounds. That's a real challenge.
FC: With all these commitments, and now training, you must never sleep. What's driving you?
Foreman: You just don't want to waste your time. In 1977, I got hit and was dead for a split second—and I saw everything crumble like a piece of paper. After that, the smell of death never leaves you. You don't want to live six hours a day—you start squeezing in 26. I talk to people who say they're tired of life, and I say, "Give me those years! I'll take them!" Now, sometimes I get four hours sleep, or I fall asleep writing at night. My wife says, "You've got to come to bed!"
FC: What's your most important achievement?
Foreman: The George Foreman Youth & Community Center, in Houston. Somewhere there will be a kid whom I helped, and he will be my work. That's my inspiration. To keep giving because I've received so much. Then next time, when I'm fighting for my life, I'm going to say, "God, is there a pillow in heaven? I need a rest. A nice pillow, a nice comforter, a remote control. Rest in peace."
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.