The rope-a-dope is a boxing fighting style commonly associated with Muhammad Ali in his 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ match against George Foreman. In competitive situations other than boxing, rope-a-dope is used to describe strategies in which one party purposely puts itself in what appears to be a losing position, lulling an opponent into a trap.
According to Ali’s trainer for the Angelo Dundee, the idea for the strategy used against Foreman was suggested by boxing photographer George Kalinsky, who told Ali: ‘Why don’t you try something like that? Sort of a dope on the ropes, letting Foreman swing away but, like in the picture, hit nothing but air.’ Publicist John Condon then polished the phrase into ‘rope-a-dope.’
The rope-a-dope is performed by a boxer assuming a protected stance (in Ali’s classic pose, lying against the ropes, which allows much of the punch’s energy to be absorbed by the ropes’ elasticity rather than the boxer’s body) while allowing his opponent to hit him, providing only enough counter-attack to avoid the referee thinking the boxer is no longer able to continue and thus ending the match via technical knockout. The plan is to cause the opponent to ‘punch himself out’ and make mistakes which the boxer can then exploit in a counter-attack.
The maneuver is most commonly associated with the match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, known as The Rumble in the Jungle. Foreman was considered by many observers to be the favored to win the fight due to his superior punching power. During the match Ali purposely angered Foreman, provoking Foreman to attack and force him back on the ropes. At the time some observers thought that Ali was being horribly beaten and worried that they might see him get killed in the ring.
Writer George Plimpton described Ali’s stance as like ‘a man leaning out his window trying to see something on his roof.’ However, far from being brutalized, Ali was relatively protected from Foreman’s blows. Norman Mailer described the advantage of Ali’s rope-a-dope this way: ‘Standing on one’s feet, it is painful to absorb a heavy body punch even when blocked with one’s arm. The torso, the legs and the spine take the shock. Leaning on the ropes, however, Ali can pass it along; the rope will receive the strain.’
Ali’s preparation for the fight, which involved toughening himself up by allowing his sparring partners to pummel him, contributed to observers’ sense that Ali was outmatched. But when Foreman became tired from the beating he was delivering, Ali took advantage and won the match.
Manny Pacquiao used the strategy to gauge the power of welterweight titlist Miguel Cotto in November 2009. Pacquiao followed up the rope-a-dope gambit with a withering knockdown. Argentine boxer Nicolino Locche, nicknamed ‘El Intocable’ (‘The Untouchable’), used this technique extensively throughout his career. He would get against the ropes and dodge nearly every single punch until his opponent would tire, then he would take him down with combinations.
‘Irish’ Micky Ward utilized this strategy during many of the fights in the later part of his career. Ward would wait for his opponent to become fatigued and would hit with either a left hook to the body or any number of other combinations. Floyd Mayweather is also known for utilizing this technique in his bouts.