Friday, May 5, 2023

Big George Foreman Delivers a Knock-Out Punch 

At its heart, Big George Foreman is a hard-hitting film about miracles and the proper response to them. That God worked directly in the life of heavyweight champion George Foreman, his family, his career, and his subsequent ministry in response, is the theme that becomes central in this account. Why did God do this so dramatically? The film suggests that God honored the prayers that flowed from the steadfast faithfulness of George Foreman’s sacrificing, hard-working, completely devout Christian mother. That fervent prayers of thoroughly faithful parents are honored by God is a constant biblical theme. Consider the faithfulness of Hannah and its result. Hannah, a barren woman, struggling with her opponent, a second wife, promised God that, if God would give her a child, she would dedicate this child to God’s service. When God granted her request, she fulfilled her promise. God was so pleased with this faithful parent that she was then granted three more sons and two daughters and the son she gave back to God became the great Judge Samuel (1 Sam. 2:21), who is honored for his faithfulness to God in the book of Hebrews 11:32-33.

Similarly, George Foreman’s mother dedicated her firstborn son to God. Rebellious George fought her constant reminders he was dedicated to God until he was unable to deny that God was alive and at work in his family because of his mother’s steadfast faith. This is the pulsing heart of the movie.

The story of his life unfolds in the boxing ring. George Foreman accomplished a feat that no one else before him ever succeeded in doing. His response to God’s undeniable miracle in his family led him to leave boxing and become a pastor. When the money he earned disappears through the misdealing of a trusted friend and he and his ministry are left facing bankruptcy, he feels forced to turn back to the career he promised all he had left behind. Way bigger now than he should be and in his late 30s – which sounds suicidal for a boxer to stage a comeback – he feels compelled to return to the ring to reopen his youth center and preserve his church. In short, his is a remarkable tale based on a true story of a warrior who would not give up.

A Sony film from its subsidiary the Culver, California-based Affirm Films, thanks to whom we have been blessed with such wonderful movies as Paul: Apostle of Christ, Risen, Mom’s Night Out and so many others, Big George Foreman is again an excellent production. Astute direction by George Tillman Jr., who co-wrote the screenplay with Frank Baldwin in an adaptation of George Foreman’s remarkable life done with Dan Gordon, deft production by David Zelon, with executive production by George Foreman himself in collaboration with Peter Guber, Wendy Williams, Henry Holmes, and superb acting by Khris Davis, in the lead role, Sonja Sohn, as his faithful mother, veteran Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as his mentor, and a team of actors, everyone of whom delivers a stellar performance, makes this a finely crafted film that is not to be missed.

On opening night at our AMC, all but a handful of wise viewers were missing this movie,[1] although, I am told, the church groups did pack the theaters on Saturday night in some towns. Some may have hesitated because this is, after all, a film about boxing and, yes, it contains “some sports violence” as its PG13 rating tag admits. Consciousness-raised Christians do deplore the gratuitous depiction of cinematic violence (we ourselves have come to avoid R-rated movies), and I honor this reservation. As a rule, I tend to honor positions held by people I know who have integrity and, as Aída and I have been long-term friends of Ron and Arbutus Sider, I honor pacifism. But I myself have always preferred a Just War position in this fallen world. I see the pacifism of Jesus and, of course, I think that Christians should emulate that when we are challenged on our faith. But I also see that Cornelius was never chastised for being a soldier (Acts 10), nor was the officer whose servant was healed by Jesus (Matt. 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-19). And Israel went regularly to war in the Old Testament, with some of these wars being honored and aided by God. The clearest evidence of that truth, of course, can be seen during the time when Israel was a theocracy. Few Christians, if any, live in one today that is ruled directly by the God of the Bible. Further, nowhere in the Bible are we ordered not to enlist in the military in order to defend our nation and our homes. Jesus appears to tell his disciples to buy swords in Luke 22:36, but later stops Peter from using his sword to defend him (John 18:10-11; see also Matt. 26:50-54; Mark 14:46-49; Luke 22:49-53).

My experience as a small child no doubt affected my persuasion of position. Born in the wake of WWII and reared during the Korean War, I was taught that struggle and conflict are to be assumed in a fallen world. These were introduced to me, among other ways, by sporting events. I watched baseball with my mom, wrestling with my grandmom, and boxing with my dad. My family, still reeling from my sister’s untimely death, followed closely by my dad’s serious accident, interlaced with a series of miscarriages and, I believe, a stillborn (whom my mom once referred to as “Bob”), kept its lone surviving child, me, close at hand. My mom would iron on her days off from work (clothes, sheets, socks, everything) and in baseball season she’d look over the ironing board and comment on the games. My grandmom kept a score sheet of every bout, especially the matches between Killer Kowalski, the quintessential villain, and Bruno Sammartino, everybody’s favorite hero (she often muttering, “Ol’ Bruno’s gonna fix ‘im!”). My dad was the strong, silent type and I’d sit on his lap and watch these athletes skillfully pound away at each other. I had understood from my father that this was an ancient sport, but I had no idea just how far back in time it went.

The Encyclopedia Britannica notes boxing became an Olympic sport in 688BC, with its depictions appearing in Sumerian artifacts from 3000BC, Minoan Crete (c. 1500BC), Thebes in Egypt (c.1350BC), and elsewhere, revealing “contestants represented all social classes.” Boxing was also given rules by the ancient Greeks (like no clinching, or hitting opponents after they held up a finger that they’d had enough). [2] Even the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27 compares himself to a boxer (puktuō) not just beating (derō) air (our word is a cognate, adapted from the Greek aēr), so he’s picturing a pugilist hitting something or someone, in his case his own body to toughen it up for the sport, which he uses as his analogy for spiritual training and discipline.[3]

As for our contemporary sports’ heroes, they don’t always last long, often being shooting stars, flashing across the diamond or the ring, or finally fading in their forties if they made it that long. For someone to go out of the ring in their mid-twenties and then ten years later stage a successful comeback to become, at this writing, the oldest heavyweight boxer to win the title at age 45 and hold it until age 48 is a remarkable accomplishment.[4]

As Aida and I reflected on all of this, I realized once again that motion pictures are driven by conflict. A film where everyone gets along and there is no conflict from the weather, the boss, the family, a disease or accident, a treacherous mountain, an invading force, a strong opponent, discrimination and prejudice, or whatever disturbs one’s progress forward, is usually ruled out as a boring movie.

This film is not boring. The story moves along a trajectory that allows viewers to inhabit sets of scenes that depict each phase of the protagonist’s life in which he grows until seething anger is replaced by heartfelt mission and forgiveness replaces vengeance as his modus operandi.

We are often told that sports are character-building. Winning is a reward for industry and does not need to be achieved at the expense of fair play or a reliance on cruelty. This film convincingly portrays that ideal as workable.

The explanation that George Foreman gives to all about the changes he experiences is that Jesus has come and has entered him. Jesus does that by responding to an invitation first given by his mother and then by himself to take up residence in his life. Affirm Films has invited Jesus to take up residence in this film and, rather than muting this great sports story, Jesus’s presence hyper-spaces it.

My simple definition for art that I have shared with students when I’ve taught the course “Theology and the Arts” here at Gordon-Conwell is that art is fine craft that points to something significant beyond itself. This film, in my definition, is art.



[1] Ted Bahr has told me the difference between a film and a movie is that a movie is made primarily to make money. This film is so much more than that, but I hope this one makes much money for Sony and Affirm so that they will make more Christian films of its caliber.


[3] The NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 1873, note to 9:24-27explains that Paul is alluding to the Isthmian games, in which boxing was included, and wherein “the prizes in these games were perishable wreaths.”

[4] For an impressive list of the “Oldest Professional Boxers in the World,” see at