Grilling George Foreman
How Henry Holmes helped create one of the most successful product introductions of the era
Published in 2005 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 26, 2005
Updated on March 3, 2017
Last summer in his Malibu home on Point Dume, sports and entertainment lawyer Henry Holmes spotted his 5-year-old son, Benjamin, running around with a boxing glove trying to punch their yellow Lab, Max. Besides being an avid boxing fan, Holmes has represented boxers and promoters, and was, at one time, the boxing consultant for Direct TV, and he has an extensive collection of gloves. So he didn’t think much of it until he saw the signature on the glove: George Foreman. Then his heart dropped.
“No, no, no,” he said, catching up with his son outside the front door and easing the glove off his hand. “No, that’s Daddy’s glove. That’s not your glove.” After returning the Foreman glove to its proper place in a Plexiglas case in the foyer, and after lecturing Benjamin on what not to punch (the dog, the cat, his mother, his father or any of the neighbor kids), Holmes offered Benjamin a not-poor substitute: a pair of boxing gloves signed by Sugar Ray Leonard.
Why sacrifice Leonard rather than Foreman? It’s more than the fact that George Foreman is Holmes’ friend and flagship client. The two met once in the early ’70s when Holmes was a young litigator and Foreman was the silent, glowering heavyweight champion of the world, but they didn’t work together until the early ’90s, by which time Holmes had morphed into a transactional sports and entertainment attorney, and Foreman, after famously losing his title to Muhammad Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, had remade himself into an enthusiastic, gregarious minister-boxer. By 1991 interest in him was fierce and there was talk of a television sitcom. He needed an entertainment lawyer, and Henry Holmes came highly recommended.
The sitcom, George, turned out to be short-lived, but not their friendship. Holmes helped him with other contracts and endorsements deals and won a place in Foreman’s heart when he ensured that Foreman’s kids got paid, and trust funds set up, for appearing in a Doritos commercial. “That built the relationship,” Foreman remembers, “because he started bringing in money for the children.”
Then came the Moorer fight. In 1994 Michael Moorer won the heavyweight championship and agreed to fight Foreman in his first title defense. As part of his training, Foreman rented a house in Malibu and ran several miles every morning down the beach to Holmes’ house and back again. One morning, according to Foreman’s autobiography, By George, his attorney was unusually serious. The World Boxing Association (WBA) was refusing to sanction the fight. “They say you’re too old,” Holmes told Foreman, “and that you’re not a top contender.” Foreman was distraught, and Holmes and his team, after researching the matter, decided to sue.
Asked today what his counterarguments were, Holmes rattles them off as if it were a decade ago and he was still in court. “The counterarguments were that George was not too old to fight for the heavyweight championship, that his comeback had been remarkable, that he was in tip-top shape, that Michael Moorer was ready to fight him, that HBO, the Nevada Boxing Commission, the casino site, everybody agreed that Foreman was the most suitable opponent for Michael Moorer.”
These arguments won the day and on November 5, 1994, Foreman won the heavyweight championship with a short, hard right to Moorer’s chin in the 10th round. Holmes watched it all from ringside and afterwards enthusiastically made his way back to the locker room, where he found Foreman and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, in the middle of a joyful crowd. “I remember George saying, ‘Angie? Cut this off. Henry? You got me here,’ and he handed me the glove. That’s when I started crying. And George goes, ‘Whoa! You ever see a lawyer cry?’ And somebody in the back yells, ‘Yeah, when they don’t get paid!’”
The glove that young Benjamin had been using to punch Max the dog, in other words, was the glove — the hard right — that had won the heavyweight championship of the world.
Foreman’s glove is significant not only for the events leading up to the fight but away from it. After the fight Holmes had to sort through a blitzkrieg of endorsement offers — more than 100 were waiting on his desk when he returned from Las Vegas that weekend. “I think we were getting an e-mail, a letter or a telephone call every nine minutes,” he recalls. “From big to small companies. And with products I’d never heard of. Remember pogs? They were really hot for a while. I had a guy call, he was going on about pogs for like five minutes. I had no idea what he was talking about.”
A friend and lawyer named Sam Perlmutter, to whom Holmes owed a favor, also eyed Holmes’ flagship client. Perlmutter was interested in getting into marketing and product endorsements, and Foreman suggested a hamburger maker — and Perlmutter found a good one in China: something called “The Lean Mean Grilling Machine.” In the past Holmes had witnessed clients getting lesser deals or being dropped completely after helping launch a product, so he wasn’t after a strict endorsement contract but a joint venture. Foreman would become part owner of the product. Ironically the toughest sell on this concept wasn’t Salton, Inc., the parent company, but George Foreman. Foreman remembers it humorously:
Foreman: How much are they going to pay me?
Holmes: Nothing, George.
Foreman: Nothing? All the money I’m making and I’m gonna do something for nothing?
Holmes: Yeah, but there’s a thing now called joint venture.
Foreman: Joint nothing! I want money!
“I had the grill in my house for months,” Foreman says. “The little thing. I looked at it. Finally I said, ‘I’m gonna try this thing.’ My wife told me she’d already tried it. She told me ‘It’s really nice, makes the meat all juicy and everything,’ and so I tried it and lo and behold it really did work. I called Henry and said, ‘How can I get a bunch of these?’”
“The early results were modest,” Holmes remembers, “and George’s participation and his checks were modest” — Foreman recalls getting $3,500 here, $3,500 there, and being happy about it — “and then all of a sudden it just blew up. And it became probably the most successful direct-sale consumer product — ultimately retail consumer product — of all time.”
By 2003 more than 50 million units had been sold, and when Salton, Inc., bought out Foreman’s share in 1999, it paid through the nose: an estimated $137.5 million.
“I should call him Henry ‘Joint Venture’ Holmes,” Foreman says today.
A prototype of the original grill still sits in Holmes’ office on the fourth floor of the Greenberg Traurig building in Santa Monica, but in general Holmes’ office is atypical for a high-powered lawyer. Instead of a big oak desk, Holmes’ desk is small, glass and circular; and instead of greeting visitors imperially over it, he tends to sit on the same side they sit on. There are no imposing law books on the bookshelves because there are no bookshelves. The walls are adorned with minimalist art, a poster from client Robert Evans’ documentary “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and surfing photos of himself, his adopted niece and his son, Benjamin, at the age of 4. Holmes is blocky and barrel-chested, but his chest swells noticeably when talking about his son.
“We had him in the water before he was 2. A good friend of mine took him out on Point Dume. In fact, here’s a picture!” Holmes picks up a marble doorstop onto which a blurred photo has been copied: an 18-month-old boy practically swimming in his lifejacket, standing on a surfboard with an adult behind him, riding the waves. Holmes was the photographer. “I was so excited. That’s why it’s blurred. But is that cute, though?”
Holmes joined fatherhood late and there’s still the feel of a big kid about him. Surfers have a term, “grom,” meaning a young surfer, and there’s more than a bit of the grom in Holmes.
“In surfing there are no age differences,” he says. “I have a great story. All these groms would hang out at the house. So I’m down at Surfrider Beach in Malibu with one of the kids, right? And he goes, ‘By the way, I’m going to introduce you to my dad.’ So he says, ‘Henry, this is my dad, Brian.’ And Brian goes, “You’re Henry Holmes? I didn’t know you were a grown-up. All I knew was that you surfed with the kids … but you were a little different because you had a job and a nice car.” Holmes laughs; then the lawyer in him takes over from the surfer.
“That was Brian Oppenheimer, the screenwriter. I ended up representing him on a deal.”
“There are two Henrys,” admits Steve Rabineau, a senior agent at William Morris, with whom Holmes shares a client, director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). “There’s the sweet, warm and fuzzy Henry who’s always quick with a laugh and a joke” — someone, for example, who let Cuarón sleep on his couch for several months before Cuarón made a name for himself. “And there’s the guy who, if you cross him … you know, you don’t want to go there.”
“He’s a fighter,” says producer Robert Evans, dismissing outright Holmes’ warm and fuzzy side. “He could’ve been a middleweight champ.”
A heavyweight champ agrees. “Henry’s got this easygoing attitude about himself,” says George Foreman, “but once he gets into that courtroom, he turns into this focused, vicious fellow. He’s just as determined as George Foreman in the ring. You try to talk to him and he turns his attention away from you. He’s like, All right, George Foreman, sit here. I’ve never seen a guy attend to his work like Henry.”
Holmes was born in 1943 in Malden, Massachusetts, but because his father was in the Navy the family moved around a lot. In Hawaii he was the only haole, or white kid, in his class, and he collected milk bottle caps with pictures of surfers on them. He began surfing in San Diego, went to San Diego State and then UC Berkeley for law school, where he often acted as legal monitor for the turbulent antiwar protests of the period. Most of Holmes’ humorous anecdotes end with himself as the punch line; this one’s no different. “I remember once getting maced on television,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Excuse me, I’m a legal monitor!’” The laughter rolls out of him. “Yeah, that really worked.”
After graduation he spent a year in India as a scholar in the Constitutional Law Institute and then traveled all over Asia, Africa and the Middle East. A year later he clerked for the chief justice of the High Court of American Samoa. “I actually worked pretty hard there,” he says, “between the surfing and diving.”
When he returned to L.A. his practice soared. A marketing director at Greenberg Traurig trumpets the fact that, as a litigator, Holmes never lost a case, but Holmes blanches at the suggestion. “I never lost a case,” Holmes clarifies. “But litigators who say that also have to admit, sure, I settled some that I didn’t think were going my way.” He represented Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals in a sexual discrimination suit against the USTA, and King in her palimony suit that came later. He represented Harlan Ellison in a successful copyright infringement case against Paramount. Gradually, his practice shifted away from litigation to transactional law. His current client list is so eclectic and testosterone-filled they could star in a remake of The Dirty Dozen. Besides George Foreman and Robert Evans, there are actors Chuck Norris and Michelle Rodriguez, wrestlers Hulk Hogan and Bill Goldberg, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
“There’s a reason athletes and boxers gravitate toward him,” Steve Rabineau says. “I think they sense that there’s a real tough core in there.”
“He’s a straight-up guy,” Hulk Hogan says. In interviews it’s the same. What does he look for in negotiations? “Money,” Holmes says with clarity. Why did he and George Foreman sell part ownership of the grill? “A lotta money.” The phrase “cash flow corridors” comes up a lot in his conversation.
“For example,” he says, vis-à-vis boxing, “you have the fight purse, which people know is guaranteed, but also a share in pay-per-view revenue. That breaks down to a share in cable pay-per-view revenue as distinguished from a share in satellite pay-per-view revenue. You negotiate a share of sponsorship. When you see the sponsors’ names on the ring mats and ring posts and flags flying above the ring? That generates revenue. Sharing in foreign exploitation of the fight. Sharing in some ancillary uses of the fight in terms of DVD and videocassette revenue. Also, if there’s going to be some promotions for the fight — promotions that are really designed to promote a product or a service or a company — that generates revenue for your fighter also.”
“He’s a very tenacious representative,” says Paramount executive Bill Bernstein, who has negotiated against Holmes and considers him fair and articulate. “He certainly represents his clients well and holds out for the maximum advantage.”
This tenacity isn’t always appreciated. Some companies have tried to go around him directly to his clients. Others have threatened to bad-mouth him before other clients. “You know what?” he says matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t work to try to threaten and overpower me. I won’t tell you the name but a big corporation once said, ‘Our company’s this huge multimillion-dollar company and our policy is A, B and C!’” and, in imitation, Holmes pounded the table on each letter. “So I said, ‘I don’t give a damn what company you’re with, our policy is E, F and G!’” and he pounded back.
“You just turn up the volume,” he says with a shrug.
Holmes married his wife, Lori, in November 1996 in Tokyo, Japan. “I believe it was on ESPN,” Holmes says with a laugh. “It made the papers because George [Foreman] was the minister. The lead was that only in boxing would you have a Jewish girl marrying a Catholic boy with a Protestant minister in a primarily Buddhist country.”
Last summer, besides saving a championship boxing glove from a wet snout (and vice versa), Holmes worked with Mark Burnett Productions on NBC’s reality boxing show, The Contender. Plus innumerable contracts for other clients. Plus learning about soccer so he could coach his son’s team.
“If you would’ve told me even eight years ago,” he says with a shake of the head, “that I would be a soccer coach and go to all these Little League games, I would’ve said, ‘Not in this lifetime.’” A minute later, clearly in the same lifetime, Holmes is enthusiastically searching through the May 2004 issue of Surfer magazine for a picture of his son. “He’s so good,” he says proudly. “He turned out to be a good boy, which is more important than being a good surfer. He was going to be a good surfer no matter what I did.”