This was Bill Gates gazing at his first circuit board, Picasso doodling his first cube. In 1995 George Foreman was a pitchman for several companies when he first heard about a countertop, cast-aluminum cooking aid. "My attorney came to me and said, 'George, you're making other people wealthy, why don't you make yourself wealthy?' " says Foreman. "And he told me about this grill."

Ah yes, the grill: a modest little gadget nobody could sell until the amiable ex-boxer stepped in and made marketing history. In the eight years since he put his name on the Lean Mean Grilling Machine and taped a pioneering infomercial, Foreman, 54, has helped sell around 50 million units and has created a veritable cult of devotees. His association with the fat-reducing grill has been so lucrative that in 1999, Salton Inc., its manufacturer, gave him a lump sum of $137.5 million rather than continue to pay him royalties on ever-increasing sales. Foreman, who this year introduced his own line of grill-ready meat products, earned enough from the deal in 2002 to make him the third-highest-paid sports-celebrity endorser, behind only Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. "He is iconic, like Colonel Sanders," says Michael Schiferl, a media-relations expert. "You feel like he really likes the grill and believes in it. The personality he projects is what's driving this."

What makes his story even more remarkable is that early in his boxing career, Foreman was just about the last person any company would want as a spokesman. When he first won the heavyweight title in 1973, he was seen as a surly and incorrigible thug. "He was a guy who never smiled," says his lawyer and friend Henry Holmes. "He was feared and rejected by the public." After experiencing what he calls an epiphany, Foreman turned himself into a warm and lovable teddy bear—sort of like Mike Tyson suddenly acting like Fred Rogers. "This wasn't a personality change, it was a metamorphosis," says Holmes. "Now, when he walks into a room, he lights it up. He is successful because he transcends age and race."

Foreman's journey from misfit to icon has been filled with twists and surprises. Divorced four times before meeting his current wife, Mary, he has been happily married for nearly 20 years. The father of 10, he named all five of his sons George (they have different nicknames to cut down on the confusion). Retired from boxing for 10 years, he made a comeback and at age 45 claimed the heavyweight title again by knocking out 26-year-old Michael Moorer in 1994. "He won the sport's biggest prize on two occasions separated by more than 20 years," says Jim Lampley, like Foreman a boxing analyst for HBO. "No one has ever done anything like that."

Most amazing of all, perhaps, is his health. Retired for good in 1997 after 81 career matches, he has escaped the ravages of his sport. "The fight game, which is a very damaging thing, has not damaged him at all," says noted writer George Plimpton, who covered Foreman's epic Rumble-in-the-Jungle loss to Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974. "Of the two fighters, George is the one who came out of it okay."

Survival was the name of the game in the blighted inner suburbs of Houston where Foreman, the fifth of seven children, grew up. J.D. Foreman, a railroad worker, was often not around for his kids, and their mother, Nancy, also worked long hours cleaning homes. Young George "was big and mean, and most people were scared of him," says his sister Mary Dumas, 57. "He was a bully, but I think sometimes he was scared too."

As a teenager Foreman flirted with hard drinking and petty crime. "I was out there robbing people," he says, "and to do that I had to get drunk first." After dropping out of school at 16, he signed up with the Job Corps program and learned how to assemble electronics. It was then that he got great career advice from other kids in the program. "They'd say, 'Why don't you be a boxer if you're so tough?' " he recalls. "So I took the challenge."

Short on skills but fearless and powerful, Foreman won a gold medal at the 1968 Olympic Games. He fared well enough as a pro to land a fight against heavyweight champ Joe Frazier in 1973 and knocked him down six times in two rounds to win the title belt. Favored to beat the popular Ali a year later in Zaire, he was shocked when fans there cast him as the villain. Ali won by a knockout, sinking Foreman into a deep depression.

One night in 1977, after a listless loss to another fighter, he had a melt-down. "I had a vision I was dying," he says. His trainer suspected heat prostration, but to Foreman it was an epiphany—his moment of transformation. He promptly quit boxing, became an ordained minister and started his own church in Houston in 1978. He opened a youth center that now serves 400 kids a year and began cleaning up his personal life. "I made a lot of mistakes," says Foreman of his four ex-wives and several bad investments.

In 1987 money woes finally forced him out of his neutral corner. "I had only one option," he says. "I had to go back into boxing." Foreman won 24 fights before facing heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield in 1991. He didn't win, but this time around he was everybody's favorite. Beating Moorer in 1994 made him the oldest man ever to win the heavyweight championship.

The new, improved Foreman signed endorsement deals with Nike, McDonald's and several other companies before getting behind the grill. His success as a pitchman has helped him live out one of his childhood dreams. When he was 6, Foreman sat behind the wheel of a junkyard car and "made believe it was a beautiful sports car," he says. Now he slides into one of the 28 gleaming Bentleys, Ferraris and other flashy vehicles he keeps in an air-conditioned garage on the 40-acre spread just north of Houston where he and Mary are building a new 16,000-sq.-ft. home designed to resemble a Caribbean resort. "Look at me," he says with a booming laugh. "I'm still sitting in abandoned cars."

Foreman also preaches every Sunday, ministers to death-row inmates and uses the fat-draining grill he made famous just about every day. He now tips the scales at 230 lbs.—his fighting weight—despite years of overeating. "Growing up, I always felt deprived of food," he explains. "Now I've learned to enjoy food, but the right food."

It is just another impressive turn-around in a most unpredictable life. "I wasted a lot of time not being nice," he says. "The thing I covet more than anything is to be seen as the nicest guy in the world." You could say George Foreman has found his holy grill.

Alex Tresniowski
Gabrielle Cosgriff and Mel Rodriguez in Houston

  • Contributors:
  • Gabrielle Cosgriff.