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Thu 18 Jan 2007 12:00 AM

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From thriller to griller

In a rare interview, boxing legend George Foreman chews the fat with Anil Bhoyrul about his new status as "World Marketing Champion".

There is a story George Foreman likes to tell. It is about his five sons. “I named them all George. That way, I wouldn’t get confused. The problem is, they all get confused about who I am.”

It’s an easy mistake to make. Depending on your age, you either know George Foreman as one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time — you remember, Olympic gold medallist, beating “Smokin” Joe Frazier, whipping Ken Norton and losing the Rumble in the Jungle to Muhammad Ali — not to mention a comeback at the age of 45.

Or you know George Foreman as the man who sells grills. And 90 million of them around the world, making him a multi-millionare businessman and the most successful celebrity endorser of all time. When it comes to sales, Foreman’s fists have delivered the Midas touch. Friends jokingly refer to him as the “World Marketing Champion,” but this is a serious business. Not just grills, but clothes, drinks, cleaning products. You name it, George Foreman is probably selling it. And now, the George Foreman show has arrived in the Middle East. Foreman, 58 years old last week, has lost none of his ability to hype any occasion or situation beyond belief.

Looking remarkably fit, he shows off his muscles to anyone who will look, suggesting he could still “whip” anyone else in the room.

“You have a business card buddy?” he asks. When I give him one, he returns the gesture by pulling out one of his ‘George Foreman Lean Machine’ grills.

“You can keep this one,” he says, before explaining: “This is my first time in the Middle East, and I have seen some amazing things and some sad things. I have seen the greatest construction projects anywhere on earth. I have seen the greatest cultural diversity. I have seen the greatest buzz. But sadly, I haven’t seen any George Foreman grills.”

The former champ then goes on to explain why buying one of his grills can change your health, your life and your entire future. It is a great sales pitch, one that has worked wonders and netted him a mega-fortune since retiring from boxing. He first teamed up with American grill manufacturer Salton in 1995, although this happened by accident. Salton executives were trying to get wrestling champion Hulk Hogan to endorse their product, but with no luck. Foreman was called in, and the grill left sitting in a box for three months until he tried it — and liked what he saw. 12 years later, sales are approaching 100 million units worldwide, making it one of the best selling household appliances in history.

Foreman’s direct earnings from grill sales were estimated at US$240m in 2002. At least US$180m has come in since. Add to that the one-off payment in 1999 by Salton for a staggering US$127.5m in cash and US$10m in Salton shares, purely to use his name for marketing purposes, and it is clear that Foreman has made heaps off cash since stepping out of the ring. The figures make him the undisputed celebrity endorsement champion of the world, far outweighing anything ever achieved by footballer David Beckham or even Tiger Woods today.

So does he now consider himself the world’s greatest salesman? “You know I’m having a lot of fun selling.

The hardest thing was having to sell myself as the next heavyweight champion of the world. A lot of people thought I was just playing." Then at the age of 45 (when he came out of retirement to defeat Michael Moorer for the world heavyweight crown) he became the oldest man ever to do so.

“Now people take note that ‘maybe he knows what he’s talking about’.”

Foreman’s talent for sales first came to light 18 years ago when he was preparing for his first comeback fight at the age of 40. A local Florida TV station persuaded him to record a short promotion for the fight, in which Foreman — without rehearsals or any script — announced: “I’m going to show the whole world that the age of 40 is not a death sentence. Watch me!” The audience loved it, and the Foreman sales bandwagon was on the road — leading to the grill deal in 1995. “Boxing teaches you how to sell. But if something doesn’t work there’s no need going out and trying to peddle it. This grill works. It sells itself,” he says.

Foreman is being modest, with most of the world’s advertising bosses united in the belief that the ex-world champ is a unique proposition when it comes to building a brand.

Ralph Roden, creative director of Face to Face, says: “He is the sort of person who makes a dream client because you don’t need fancy gimmicks, fancy lights, clever words or pictures. You just need George Foreman. He has this incredible charisma, and so if he says something is worth buying, most people will probably buy it. There are only a handful of people like that in the world.”

One man who has recently taken note of his sales skills is Jashanmal Group chief executive Gangu Batra.

Although the grills have been on sale in some parts of the Gulf since 2004, Batra has begun a regionwide blitz of stores stocking the new G5 grill and its patented fat draining system. Batra says: “We are here to sell grills and we think we can sell literally millions. When you read everything about obesity in the Middle East, and then you get a product like this, and then you get someone like George Foreman to sell it, you know you have hit the jackpot.” Foreman certainly has. Although Batra won’t reveal what Foreman’s cut of the deal is, six years ago Salton boss Leonhard Dreimann admitted the ex-boxer was effectively on a salary of US$4.5m a year. Sources suggest his current cut on sales is a huge 40% of the sale price of each grill, which vary in price from US$40 to US$300.

When you add his earnings from the ring, which included a single purse of US$12.5m for his comeback fight at the age of 45, it is not hard to see a billion dollar empire.

Foreman himself is coy on the size of his cash stash. “I’m making a lot, but money is probably the last thing on the list. When you go out and try to make a lot of money the marketing would be no good. People can see right through it. But when you have a good product and you really believe in it, and you know people can be helped — well, it sells you too,” he says.

Foreman now receives over 20 different endorsement offers a week, some reputed to be worth several million dollars. One of his five sons, George Foreman III, acts as president of his holding company George Foreman Enterprises, and along with George Senior chooses which, if any, deals to go for. He rejects the idea that he may be spreading his wings too far, devaluing the Foreman brand, saying: "Not at all because if you show people that what you are doing is good they will buy it. So I seek out things that are very important, that are very good for people, and they can’t resist them."

And Foreman is adamant that other former sports stars should follow his example and cash in on their names, suggesting most don’t see the opportunities available to them.

He explains: “They get to be known worldwide for a long time and then you fade off the scene. You’ve got to latch on to something that people will fall in love with. You sell them soccer, you sell them basketball, and then you sell them a part of life. I think that all athletes should be out there a little bit more. And I’ve set the stage for them now.”

Foreman himself has had his fair share of being on stage, and most experts agree that his clash with Muhammad Ali in the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ was the greatest sporting event in history. The two met in Zaire with Foreman coming to the ring as world champion and seemingly unbeatable. It is something he has not forgotten. “I was in mean shape then, and I was convinced I could beat anybody. I could whip anybody. Nobody in the world could stand up to me. And when I fought Ali that night in Zaire, I was right to begin with. For the first six rounds, I just beat him up and beat him up. I gave him everything. And then suddenly Ali whispered to me: ‘George, is that all you got?’ And you know what, he was right. That was all I had.”

Two rounds later Ali knocked out Foreman to take the title, and sending Foreman into oblivion for nearly twenty years before his comeback.

So what exactly went wrong that night? Ever the salesman, Foreman says: “The reason I lost to Ali is very simple. It’s because I had a cheeseburger before the fight but unfortunately I didn’t use one of these George Foreman Grills that drains all that fat. Had these grills existed in 1974, there is no way Ali would have beaten me.” As the interview ends, Foreman’s son George III shows me to the door. I ask him if his father was being serious about the reason he lost to Ali.

“No,” he says. “The only thing George Foreman has been serious about since 1995, is selling grills.”

Foreman: the facts

• Born on January 10, 1949 to J.D. and Nancy Foreman in Marshall, Texas.

• He is married to Mary and has five boys - George Jr, George III, George IV, George V, George VI and five girls - Michi, Freeda, Georgetta, Natalie and Leola.

• He is a devoted family man and spends quality time with his wife and children. He also devotes time to his youth centre which he supports and raises funds for. He lives and raises his family in Texas.

• In 2004 Foreman began marketing the George Foreman brand of "Big and Tall" clothes through the retailer 'Casual Male'.

• George Foreman or "Big George" has a colossal public profile. In 1990, he was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame, and inductions into the World Boxing Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame followed suit in 2002 and 2003. Even so, lately Foreman says he is recognised by the younger generation because of his famous grills: "They don't even know me as the champ anymore."

• Today, he is long past the days of being a boxing champ. He now reigns supreme in the world of celebrity endorsements. He has been so successful in marketing the George Foreman grills, that the brand actually surpasses the celebrity.

• The George Foreman grill has sold more than 90 million units worldwide to become one of the best selling household appliances of all time.

• His highest purse while boxing was US$12.5m, but his endorsement of the George Foreman grills earned him much more. It stands as one of the biggest endorsement deals for any athlete.

• When he was sent the first grill for his consideration, it was three months before his wife made him a burger on it, which he loved, and started using the grill himself. The rest, as they say, is history.

"When it comes to sales, Foreman’s fists have delivered the Midas touch"
"The reason I lost to [muhammad] Ali is very simple. It’s because I had a cheeseburger before the fight"

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