Amid the outpouring of remembrances for boxer Muhammad Ali since his death on June 3 at age 74, another boxer has appeared frequently: George Foreman. The two men were rivals who eventually became close friends. And while many people might first associate Foreman with his eponymous grill and other products he’s plugged, he says Ali had the bigger name—it simply took the legend a long time to make money off it.
The two men were never supposed to be friends after Ali knocked Foreman out in Zaire in 1974, the fight known as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” But in 1976, Ali called Foreman on the phone, which had never happened before.
“I don’t know how he got my number,” Foreman tells Yahoo Finance. “He called and complimented me for about 20 minutes, so I knew something was up. And he said, ‘George, could you do me a favor? They want to make me fight Ken Norton to defend my title. Please fight Ken Norton for me. I can’t beat him. He’s afraid of you, but I can’t beat him.’” Foreman had fought Norton once and beaten him. Ali had fought Norton twice, both times in 1973, and lost the first fight, won the second.
Ali did end up fighting Norton for a third time on Sept. 28, 1976, and won by unanimous decision. Foreman did not fight Norton again, but he did return to boxing in 1987, at Ali’s encouragement.
After that phone call, “We cemented our relationship,” Foreman says. “He quoted the Bible to me, we talked monthly, visited one another. On the phone, we’d say, ‘Love you.’ ‘Love you too.’” Later, when Ali became so ill he couldn’t hold the phone, his daughter would call Foreman on FaceTime and hold up the phone so Foreman could greet Ali. “All the times and changes we lived through,” Foreman remarks with amazement. “We learned FaceTime!”
When Foreman returned to boxing in the 1980s, he cozied up to Madison Avenue and became an advertising attraction, hawking brands from Nike to Doritos to McDonald’s. He made himself into a brand and still appears in advertisements today.
“I learned that you gotta brand yourself, because I don’t care if you make a billion dollars in sports, it won’t be enough. You need to keep earning,” he says. “Muhammad didn’t think that way.”
Ali, in contrast to Foreman, branded himself only in a boxing context and only to further his boxing stature, in Foreman’s assessment. “He loved boxing, he wanted to be the greatest, and he dedicated himself to publicity so that people would know that he was the greatest,” he says.
Of course, Ali reached a point where he didn’t need to generate his own publicity. He was the most recognized athlete on the planet.
But even Ali, eventually, hit financial straits.
“He was strapped for money,” Foreman says, “and his friends started to understand that Muhammad was a great brand, not just a great fighter. He was a brand and his intellectual property could be more valuable than George Foreman’s—if they wanted it to be.”
It took all the way until 2006, when Ali was 64, to truly cash in on his recognizability. He sold 80% of his name and likeness rights to CKX for $50 million. (The corporation also owns the rights to Elvis Presley’s name.)
That’s less than half of the $137.5 million Foreman got from a company called Salton in 2000 to put his name on the grill. But it was still a windfall for Ali, who had done nearly no advertising or endorsements prior, and thus, strange as it may be to think, hadn’t proven his marketability in a commercial sense.
“So he caught on to it late,” Foreman says, “but he caught on.”
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.