In 1974, Muhammed Ali and George Foreman squared off in, arguably, one of the greatest sporting events of our time, now dubbed, “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Both were impressive, undefeated heavyweight boxers, one well into his professional career, the other, an up-and-coming newbie. Ali was known for his movements, quick and terrible, his dancing around his opponents. Foreman was known for his power, his strength, and boasted the knockout record. Now, let’s be clear: I am not a boxing fan. My terminology might be off. I acknowledge my understanding is very limited. However, as I watched a documentary of the fight, I couldn’t seem to get it off my mind. Maybe that’s why it’s called "a classic fight."
In round one, the 60,000 people in attendance could tell the opponents were evenly matched. Both did what they could to catch the other off guard. They veered from their usual techniques. They played the game. Both got some good hits. By the end of the first round, Foreman felt he had the upper hand on Ali. He ended the round strong, hungry for more, his eyes on yet another knockout.
But at the start of round two, Ali changed tactics. Instead of “dancing,” using a quick bouncing step to out-maneuver his opponent, he went straight to the ropes. Looking the underdog in every respect, he leaned his back into the ropes, covering his face and head with his gloves. Foreman pummeled him, again and again. Ali took the hits primarily to his arms and sides. He lashed out occasionally with well-timed jabs at Foreman’s face but seemed dominated in every way. In the documentary, people witnessing the rumble could see Ali’s lips moving, taunting Foreman. “Is that all you’ve got? They told me you could throw a punch!” Foreman responded with even more fury as he pelted Ali even more.
Rounds three, four, five, six, seven… more of the same. Ali seemingly completely defensive on the ropes, Foreman shelling out rounds of forceful punches. Ali egged him on behind the cover of his gloves. A never-ending tirade of “You’re nothing! You’ve got nothing!” He kept aiming for Foreman’s face whenever he could sneak in a hit. Soon, Foreman’s face started to swell. Ali sneered at him; he had planned the entire “rope-a-dope” strategy. By round eight, Foreman had expended all his energy, staggering into the ring. All those punches had missed the mark. He had hit Ali, but not where it could really do damage. All he had done, was tired himself out. Ali rose from the ropes, seemingly unaffected by the rounds of attack. Again, aiming for the face and head, he used his reserved speed and power, crumpling “Big George” in a knockout in round eight.
George Foreman’s first loss, after 40 fights, devastated him. He sunk into a deep depression and did not fight again for two years.
Experts determined that the “rope-a-dope” strategy was brilliant—and the only way to take down such a powerful opponent. By leaning on the ropes, Ali let the ropes take the brunt of the force, not his body. By defending his face and head, he protected what was most important. His opponent was powerful, but none of Foreman’s fights had ever gone more than four rounds. To go eight, when he was doing most of the attack, must have been exhausting. When Ali threw a punch, he made sure it was painful. Always to the face or head. His psychological taunting seemed to do the most damage: it began well before the arrival in Zaire and never stopped, not even when he seemed to be losing. As the 60,000 chanted Ali’s name, Foreman realized that he was never in control of the fight. I wonder how much of the depression afterward resulted more from the physical jabs or the verbal beatdown.
Why would I tell you this story? Especially since I’m not invested in boxing culture or the players themselves.
Because I am in the ring, gloves on, without a clue of what I am doing. I hope nobody reads the fear in my eyes, but if I’m honest, it’s there. Bravery means facing fear and going forward anyway. I’m struggling to convince myself that I prepared for this moment. I see you fighting your own fight in the ring next to mine. Underdogs without a crowd to cheer us on. I try to catch your eyes, but you’re focused on your feet in front of you, bouncing your head to the beat your coach drummed into you.
Our opponent feels bigger, stronger, faster, more strategic, more powerful, hungry to take us down. Satan craves my soul to add to his collection. A trophy of his shady conquest. I knew he could deliver a sucker punch, but I never anticipated his quiet whispers, “You’re nothing. You’ve got nothing.” I can believe it. I can internalize it, let it depress me, sink me, knock me out. Or I can stand tall and fling the same thing right back at him, this time yelling loud enough for everyone to hear. “YOU are nothing! YOU’ve got nothing! I am a child of God! HE is on my side!” I look to my corner. My Savior waits for me. He nods at me, His eyes piercing, giving me permission to take down the adversary.
The bell sounds and I rise. I’m on my feet, but I don’t seem to be gaining any ground. Everything I try—blocked, deflected, returned. My opponent’s quick. He’s experienced. He seems to know my weaknesses, my most vulnerable spots. His jabs hurt and I try not to dwell on what I should have done to stop the painful hits. I’m flailing, expending all the energy I have, the best of my talents, and we are deadlocked. I worry at how evenly matched we are. I can’t continue like this. He knows it.
It's time for me to change my strategy. I head to the ropes, praying. Satan still whispers “You’re not enough,” but I don’t listen. I know I’m enough. Look how far I’ve come. A patient calm consumes me, and I lean into my faith, letting it absorb the blows. I lift my gloves and defend the places that Satan can do the most damage. If you looked over from your ring, you might think I’m losing. You might think I’ve given up. It’s not true. I refuse to scramble needlessly, flailing at the air. I’m biding my time. When he’s not paying attention, I slam him as hard as I can, then defend myself again. He’s grinning like he’s winning this one. But everyone can see the damage I’ve caused. He’ll rally his minions, pounding his sweating chest, ranting, and screaming. He taunts me to my face. For a moment, I look to the corner. My Savior never left. He’s been there the whole time. I take another hit but rise again. Nobody sees my fight but Him. Nobody chants my name or claps when I score. Not even you, and we are right next to each other.
It would be so much easier to give up, to give in. I need a break. I watch him stalk me, like a predator. But I can see he’s exhausted too. He’s stumbling and his punches aren’t as hard. It’s my time now. I’m tired of the swagger, the death-trap sneers and whispers. I no longer need to lean on my faith. I know I can take this one. He’s not expecting it. With renewed strength beyond my own, and with a speed that I didn’t know I possessed, my fist explodes against his jawline. The unnatural thud echoes in my ears as he hits the mat. He doesn’t get up. The bell sounds and I return to the corner, safe, and finally able to rest.
It's a classic fight. One that they will talk about for many years to come.
Two opponents. The stakes higher than they have ever been.
An underdog takes down the Devil.
All I needed was to lean on my faith, and to see who’s in my corner.