Even when I was a little kid, I used to love to watch Mohammed Ali box. I'd sit cross-legged on the living room floor in front of my daddy's chair, and we'd watch him outsmart and outbox every contender, from the time he won the gold at the Olympics as Cassius Clay, to the time they took away all his belts and awards when he refused to fight in another unjust and unnecessary war, to when he came roaring back and won them all over again.
We loved watching him spar with network sportscaster Howard Cossell, and I always got a kick out of his mouthing and trash-talking for the television cameras.
Still, I heard all the snide remarks that were made when he became a Muslim and changed his name.
When he first went into a decline with Parkinson's disease, and sportscasters whispered that he'd taken too many blows to the head, he looked straight at the camera and said, "Too many blows to the head? Do you think I'd let anybody get near enough to mess with this pretty face?"
From the beginning of his meteoric rise in boxing, Ali was a cool cat all his own, and from the beginning, he was misunderstood and underestimated.
They thought he was "cocky" and "arrogant" (code-words for "uppity black man"). Talking in rhyme was funny and made good TV, but they weren't really paying attention to what he was saying. And he'd lost some serious fights before facing the formidable George Foreman in 1974. Foreman was a powerful fighter with forearms like cement blocks. He was favored to win--Foreman thought he was going to win, too. In fact, he thought he'd polish off the older Ali fairly early in the fight.
But Ali had done a great deal more than just build up his physical prowess in the gym. He had done some serious of strategizing with his team. And they'd come up with something Ali, in his typical poetic fashion, liked to call "the Rope-a-Dope."
Here is how the fight is described on the "School for Champions" website:
"Before the fight, Ali had been boasting how he was too fast for Foreman to keep up with him. Typically, Ali had set up his opponents through boasting and taunting before a fight. He would make fun of an opponent or predict which round he would knock out the opponent. The press would eat this up.
"Ali's boasting of his speed and the way he opened the first round of the fight with a flurry of punches probably set up Foreman and his corner that Ali would try to win using his speed.
"Foreman and author Norman Mailer claimed they saw Ali's trainers loosen the ropes before the fight. Foreman was not aware that there was meaning to the madness. It is not certain whether it was Ali's idea or the idea of his trainer Angelo Dundee. Most likely Dundee was instrumental in the whole fight strategy, since he was one of the best fight trainers.
"Adjusting the environment is not uncommon in sporting events. National Basketball Association (NBA) teams would often take air out of the game balls in an effort to slow down Michael Jordan. After learning about this, coach Phil Jackson always checked the air pressure of the balls to make sure they were to specification.
"Foreman came out of his corner in the second round expecting a toe-to-toe battle. Instead, Ali leaned back against the ropes and let Foreman flail away at him. He would taunt Foreman to come and get him and then lean back, only protecting his face. This made Foreman angry and later frustrated, as he gave his best shots to Ali's midsection. But the give in the ropes was sufficient to reduce the damage.
"When Foreman did throw a punch at his face, Ali was able to lean back or move his head just enough that the blow missed or had little impact. This was a special skill Ali had through most of his career. He would often hit an opponent while pulling back to avoid a counterpunch.
"Although he primarily used the rope-a-dope technique, Ali occasionally counter-attacked with fast, crisp blows to Foreman's face. Then he would slip back into the defensive mode. In this way, he was controlling the pace of the fight, according to his liking.
"By the seventh round, Foreman had essentially punched himself out. His arms were tired and sometimes hanging on his side. Ali then used his speed and energy to do damage to Foreman, who was just trying to get in one good punch for a knockout. Ali taunted Foreman by saying, "George, it that all you've got?" Foreman realized that it was all he had."
Foreman, in fact, was so devastated by the outcome of the fight that he retired from boxing at the age of 28. Both men, of course, went on to be successful in their own rights and to make an impact on the world in their own ways. But I have been thinking a lot lately about Ali's boxing career and especially his "rope-a-dope" strategy.
And I think it's come to life again, in the Obama campaign.
Obama has taken many body blows during this lengthy campaign, first from Hillary Clinton and her many surrogates, and now from John McCain and his two surrogates, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. Recently, during the only real vacation he's had in two years, the McCain campaign released a different sneering smear-ad pretty much every day of the week.
And oh! How the pundits pontificated!
And oh! How the Democrats despaired!
And oh! How the polls plunged!
And oh! How the Republicans have gone on being their usual snotty selves.
A grass-roots fire is raging all across the land, that somehow, poor wittle Obama has let himself get beat up by Bad Old McCain. Hillary people are saying, See, we told you so!
It's all over! Forget the convention! Just take the sweaty towel away from the trainer in the corner and toss it into the middle of the ring!
The fight's over!
But, see, all this tongue-wagging really fails to take into account that this political boxer may actually have a strategy of his own. Call it, roping a dope.
All summer, during the early rounds of the fight, most Americans have not been paying that much attention while McCain has landed one body-blow after another. When they do look up, they see a fighter on the ropes, holding up his fists to protect his face, maybe getting in a jab or two in self-defense.
He's weak! they cry. He's getting the crap beat out of him!
But is he? Is he REALLY?
Right now he's got a fortune in the bank, no debt, more money pouring in every month--and while that's going on, he's working hard to unify a party exhausted and irritated at one another after the tiresome primary season. Call it lots and lots of working out at the gym, strengthening those abs so they can withstand the hard punches.
Meanwhile, his trainer stepped in before the match and loosened the ropes--meaning, it may not be readily apparent simply because the campaign hasn't trumpeted it loudly to media far and wide--but hard-hitting Obama attack ads have been quietly playing in swing states all over the country, delivering sharp jabs to McCain. They don't smear McCain's character or make up baseless crap about him or pretend that Britney Spears matters worth a damn to anybody in this country except Britney Spears--but they deliver sharp counterpunches on McCain's weakest policy positions, and they're landing more than a few bruises in the states where the fight hangs in the balance.
Now, after the two conventions--in the last rounds of the fight--McCain's going to have to rely on public financing. Not that he won't be bolstered by the RNC and 527 groups--but he will be facing, during that time, a formidable Obama fund-raising advantage.
And that's not all.
While McCain has been exhausting himself throwing wild punches that attack Obama's patriotism and his celebrity and whatever other body parts he can hit, Obama's organization has swiftly spread out over 50 states, setting up voter-registration drives, satellite campaign offices, signing up more than two million supporters online--and then asking them to do more than just donate.
They're being asked to canvass and make phone calls and blog and text-message and circulate Obama e-mails and give their TIME and their ENERGY and their RESOURCES--not just their money.
By the time we get to the last couple of rounds of this fight, Obama is going to come full-on into his own. He will get his strength and stamina from US--all of us out here who are in the ring with him. We will be energized and, to coin a phrase, "fired up and ready to go."
And when that happens, most of the country WILL be watching. They'll see a tired old man throwing ineffectual, wild punches.
And they'll see a fighter in his prime, dancing away from the ropes, landing the knock-out blows.