Playing boxing great George Foreman is more than just a breakthrough role for actor Khris Davis. Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World was also the answer to a question the actor had always asked. “Even before knowing this film was happening,” Davis says, “I wondered, ‘who is George Foreman?’”
For many, the answer had simply been ‘the man behind the George Foreman Grill’ or ‘the boxer Muhammad Ali beat in the epic Rumble in the Jungle fight in Zaire in Africa.’ Some may have heard of his three previous marriages, the ten kids he fathered and the two he adopted. His five sons and two grandsons even bear his full name, George Edward Foreman.
But, as Big George Foreman shows, there is a whole lot more to the story. A native Texan, the 74-year-old Foreman grew up in extreme poverty in Houston, even turning to a life of crime, robbing people as a teenager, before discovering boxing later in his youth. Still, as successful as he became in boxing, he failed in many aspects of his personal life and didn’t find his ‘why’ until he found his faith and became a minister.
Davis plays Foreman throughout his adult life, from young to old, touching on many pivotal moments. Highlights include his 1968 Olympics win, Muhammad Ali defeating him in the Rumble in the Jungle match in Zaire in 1974, his spiritual awakening in the late 1970s, and, of course, his huge boxing comeback in 1994 to become the heavyweight champion once again at age 45.
Familiar faces helping Davis tell the story include Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as Foreman’s life-changing mentor and trainer Charles “Doc” Broadus, The Wire, The Chi, and Will Trent star Sonja Sohn as his mother Nancy, and Harlem’s Sullivan Jones as one-time rival and later great friend Muhammad Ali. The film is co-written and directed by George Tillman Jr., best known for Soul Food and Men of Honor.
Stepping into Foreman’s shoes was physically grueling, Davis admits. “I grew up playing sports, but fight training is very different. You think you’re in shape and then you start doing some boxing training,’” he said. “My coach Darrell Foster didn’t want to treat it like we were training for a movie; he wanted to treat it like he does for all the people he works with, as if it were a fight camp, as if I were training for a heavyweight title fight. So that’s more rigorous.”
“The emotional transformation was a bit easier to map out for me because, really, it’s storytelling,” explains Davis, who recently shared the Broadway stage with Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman.
“Coming from a theatre background, I was able to utilize my understanding of how to map out an emotional journey,” he said. “The emotional journey he went on from decade to decade to decade was really specific to the experiences that he was having at that time. So it was easier to kind of flush those out and map those out in different segments, but also find the throughline from beginning to end to what made this individual complete in all facets of his life.”
Telling his story on the big screen is something George Foreman says he certainly considered before now. “I thought about it a lot after I became heavyweight champ of the world and then when we wrote the first books, By George [released in 1995] and God in My Corner [released in 2007],” he said.
But he admits he had reservations. “You spend your whole life hiding your life. You get a big home and you’ve got big fences and big gates to protect your life. And now it’s time to reveal everything. That’s not easy,” he said.
Because of the memories it brought up, watching his younger self, portrayed by Kei Edwards in childhood and Austin D. Jones in the early teens, was particularly hard for Foreman.
“As a youth, coming into these old houses my mom would rent and people would abandon refrigerators and stove and you hope they’d work,” he said. “But you realize they left them there because they didn’t work. I looked at that part and cried because then you realize what has really become of your life. I had nothing, not even hope, let alone faith; yet somehow, I survived, mainly on my mother’s love.”
Today Foreman is a hall of fame boxer with 76 wins, 68 by knockout, and just five losses, a multimillionaire, a husband of 25 years, a doting father and grandfather, and, most importantly, a man of God.
Foreman has high praise for Davis’s portrayal of him. “I didn’t want anyone trying to imitate me. I’m enough for myself, but Khris brought acting to life. That character had me in the movie pulling for George Foreman, hoping that he would do it all,” says the boxing great. “He brought every piece together, from the young George to the second time around at 45, becoming champ of the world. This man is a great actor.”
Meeting Foreman beforehand was a huge help in nailing who he is, shares Davis. “It was nice to see him not on camera,” he said. “All I had before then were these interviews and his autobiographies. And, as we know, when the camera’s on, that’s one person, and then who you are when you’re talking to your person or talking to your children or your best friend, that’s a completely different person. And that’s the person that I wanted to get to know because that’s the story that we’re telling.”
Davis also gives credit and praise to Whitaker who helped guide him during filming. “I had never done a film of this magnitude and he has, many times. So I was excited he even took the time to help usher me in this way. He’s so big he didn’t have to do that,” Davis shares. “Watching him taught me so much about how to go about the process, how to continue to tell the story, and how to be graceful in the storytelling.”
But Davis also brought an important piece of his own experience from his college years at historically-black Cheyney University to his portrayal.
“The movie is about second chances,” he said. And, for Davis, the role Cheyney played in his life is similar to the one boxing and later God played in Foreman’s. “When I went there, I understood it to be kind of a second chance place,” he says of his alma mater.
Both Davis and Foreman hope the film resonates with audiences. For Davis, the message he hopes they get is “when you find out who you are, hold on to it at all costs.” And, for Foreman, it’s the power of love.
“I had days where hope didn’t exist; faith didn’t exist. I didn’t care about tomorrow, but I had a mother who had given me love,” said the legend. “You can do a lot of things if people love you.