Muhammed Ali’s Rope-A-Dope Turns 40 Today

40 years after Ali and George Foreman had their “Rumble in the Jungle”, the rope-a-dope is still swinging.

Just before dawn on Oct. 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali shocked the world by knocking out the fearsome George Foreman to recapture the heavyweight crown in Kinshasa, Zaire. Beating down the heavily-favored Foreman—then an undefeated wrecking machine who had destroyed both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, two fighters who took Ali to the brink—was not only Ali’s greatest victory. It also spawned the “rope-a-dope”, a risky, but often bizarrely effective technique that elite boxers employ to this day.

The idea is fairly simple, if you have the skills (and the stones) to pull it off. Cover up in a protective stance and lean back against the ropes, allowing your opponent to fire away in hopes he’ll “punch himself out.” The rope-a-doper wants the elasticity of the ropes to absorb much of the energy of the punches, and then counter-attacks when his increasingly tired opponent makes a mistake. Some ringside observers feared Ali’s head-scratching strategy would end up getting him killed before he stopped a gassed Foreman near the end of the eighth round. (Writer George Plimpton famously described Ali’s stance as “a man leaning out his window trying to see something on his roof.”)

World-class fighters with the confidence to match their skills have continued to channel Ali’s groundbreaking gambit. Pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather pulled off variations of the rope-a-dope during his recent back-to-back wins over Marcos Maidana. Manny Pacquiao memorably employed it during his 2009 fight against Miguel Cotto before stopping him in the 12th. Even a straight-ahead brawler like “Irish” Mickey Ward was known to utilize the rope-a-dope during the epic, blood-and-guts battles that inspired Mark Wahlberg to play him in “The Fighter.” While scores of lesser boxers have tried to ape Ali and gotten knocked out, gladiators of a certain caliber prove it can still be an effective weapon. Somewhere between confidence and craziness, the rope-a-dope remains. 

Photos by Associated Press