The combination of writer and subject was a natural. Former world heavyweight champion George Foreman, who makes his home in California, hails from Texas; Associate Editor Bud Shrake, no lightweight himself at 6'6" and 220 pounds, was raised and still resides in the Lone Star State. So when SI agreed to publish Foreman's reminiscences—and his plans for a comeback—which begin on page 80, Senior Editor Robert Ottum asked Shrake to take on the assignment. Shrake and Foreman had met before George's championship bout with Joe Frazier in 1973. At that time Foreman was training at a not very elegant camp in Hayward, Calif. "Mostly I remember that we talked about chicken-fried steaks and chili," says Shrake. "Food was definitely George's favorite subject."
As Shrake packed his suitcase and tape recorder for the trip to the boxer's lavish new digs in Livermore, he realized that some things about Foreman probably had changed since the Hayward days and George's 22-month tenure as world champion. Still, he was unprepared for the ex-champion's new life-style. "I drove up this long, winding driveway, parked the car and got out," says Shrake. "I knew that Foreman had dogs, not to mention a bull, a pet lion and several horses. As I was about to walk to the house, a voice called, "Don't move. Stand right there for a minute!' That was when I looked around and found myself standing next to a tiger." Shrake immediately decided his minute was up and stepped rapidly away. "When it comes to choosing between obeying a heavyweight who's told me to stand still or getting away from the proximity of a tiger—even a small tiger—I'll take moving every time," he says.
Shrake remained with Foreman for five days, preferring, for obvious reasons, to do his interviewing at the fighter's tigerless gym, "a rather weird looking place in Livermore's shopping center." Shrake found Foreman congenial but, as befits a man who has had such dramatic ups and downs in the ring, inclined to be moody. "He would take long walks in the woods with his dogs, and one day, when sparring partner Dwain Bonds hit George over his eye—just as he was before his bout with Ali in Za√Øre—Foreman quit working out and sat in the locker room, sulking," says Shrake. Aside from boxing, what did the two Texans talk about? "Chicken-fried steaks and chili, of course," Shrake says.
About a week after Shrake's Livermore visit ended, Foreman headed for New York's Catskill Mountains to begin his comeback with a charity bout against Jody Ballard. Ottum met him after the match at the Concord Hotel. "Big George didn't bring his tiger or lion East, so he made pets of all the kids, instead," says Ottum. "On one trek through the hotel lobby Foreman was surrounded by little admirers, and for some reason all the kids were carrying toy batons. One of them solemnly presented Foreman with his. 'You can keep it,' he said. 'Really'?' replied Foreman joyfully. 'I mean, you're serious, I can keep it?' So Big George went through the remainder of the evening carrying this tiny baton in his huge paw."
Thus Foreman's story is a double collaboration. The first two-thirds, which cover his past and some of his hopes for the future, were done with Shrake. But Foreman saved the last third of his tale until after his victory over Ballard, and it was then that Ottum stepped in. "That way he could talk about his reaction to the fight while it was still completely fresh in his mind," says Ottum. "What I remember best is sitting far into the night in Foreman's room, with George relaxing in an easy chair, talking hopefully about what lies ahead and spinning his tiny gift baton."