The Fighter’s Best Weapon

 muhammad ali george foreman By Bassenco: Muhammad Ali was famous for his “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” slogan. But in early 1973, Joe Frazier took away the heavyweight title from Ali. Frazier could move in, rattle a fighter’s head with swift combination punches, and move out again. After their first historic fight, Frazier became the new darling of boxing. Frazier won his fights by artfully landing more punches per round than the other guy. He was, truly, a classical boxer, and not a brawler. He was often called “Gentleman Joe Frazier.”

So when George Foreman came on the scene, a gold medalist in the Olympics, but large, rude, and angry, he came across as unsophisticated and somewhat brutal. He was known as “the angry young man.” He took on Frazier later in 1973 and knocked him to the canvas six times before knocking him out in the second round. In an instant, Foreman’s reputation was made as a hard handed, merciless fighter.

The following year, Foreman took on the larger and seemingly stronger Ken Norton. Norton had broken Ali’s jaw in a previous fight and had stood up to Ali’s barrage of head punches. He was favored to win against this unsophisticated newcomer. George Foreman swiftly knocked Norton out in the second round.

Foreman at that time (contrary to his much more mellow and kindly persona now) was seen as unbeatable, savage, and gargantuan. In his 71 wins in the ring, 68 were by knockout. (To this day, some boxing experts say that George Foreman hit harder than any other boxer in the 20th century.) When he and Ali signed the contract to fight in October 1974 in Zaire, Foreman was the favorite to win. Foreman was stronger, had longer reach, and was heavier. He had knocked out the two fighters who had already defeated Ali. He openly derided Ali’s ability to “dance” and said Ali would not be able to dance his way through an entire fight against the stone fisted punches that had destroyed Frazier and Norton.

Ali knew this was true. Nobody could withstand punches like that. Not only did Foreman usually win by knockout, his wins usually occurred early in the fights, an indication that one clean punch to the head was all he needed to land. And so Ali devised his “rope-a-dope” strategy. Most fighters avoid getting caught on the ropes. It is almost universally a sign of being half beaten. Once you’re on the ropes, the other person can step into you so that you’re pushed back into the ropes and can no longer slip out to the side. Essentially, a fighter on the ropes is trapped there, taking punches, unless he can recover his poise and punch his way out.

But Ali let Foreman drive him right onto the ropes, and then Ali hunkered down, completely covered himself with his gloves and his forearms, and started bouncing back and forth against the ropes as Foreman hammered punches into him. The ropes protected Ali’s kidneys, and his arms and gloves protected his face, ribs, and liver. But Foreman, accustomed to typical perceptions in the ring, was convinced that he was defeating Ali. For four rounds, Ali played rope-a-dope with Foreman, letting the ropes act as shock absorbers. He bounced back on them with Foreman’s blows, kept himself covered, and only every now and then “popped” Foreman with a jab to the face to keep him angry.

Inevitably, punching non-stop round after round took its toll on Foreman’s arms. He was punching mostly solid bone and thick muscle on Ali, and those ropes were absorbing the shocks as Ali let the punches bounce him back. (Most fighters fight on the balls of their feet to keep their weight going forward. Wisely, Ali stayed flatfooted so that he swayed back with the shocks.)

Ali started taunting Foreman and daring him to hit harder. This angered Foreman, and the young man drove in, harder and harder, exhausting himself. Finally, he was worn out. And then Ali came off the ropes and began to fight in earnest. He knocked out an exhausted Foreman in the eighth round.

This was Ali’s way of using the terrain of the ring in a way that favored him, and he took advantage of the forces of Foreman’s anger. He got Foreman to expend his savage strength so that Ali could take advantage of him with skill.

Mike Tyson’s incredible ability to knock out his opponents came from an inborn gift of timing that his trainer honed to perfection in him. Tyson could drop way down into a squatter’s crouch, right into his opponent’s stance, and then rocket straight up with his right hand, coming up from his crouch like a rocket launching. This put all the strength of those enormous legs behind his uppercut. He perfected the skill of twitching down fast, right between his opponent’s feet, then launching up in less than a second. Most fighters never saw that uppercut coming. Tyson needed only half a pace of distance to “drop” in and launch that uppercut.

When Evander Holyfield, far less powerful than Tyson, took him on in their famous fight in 1997, Holyfield also had to customize the fight so that skill could overcome sheer strength. He had beaten Tyson once with a controversial TKO, which many insisted was won by illegal head butts. Holyfield knew there would be no controversy allowed in the rematch.

The odds against Evander Holyfield for that fight were enormous. Book makers and fight experts could not see how he could avoid that devastating uppercut through an entire fight, and certainly, once it landed, Holyfield would not survive it.

So as soon as the fight started, Holyfield just set his head right down, almost on Tyson’s chest. And he wouldn’t budge off of it. He punched close and hard with short punches and did not clinch Tyson, but he kept his head down, right under Tyson’s chin, giving him no room at all to drop down. A couple times, as Tyson tried to drive him off, Holyfield slugged it out with Tyson with rapid, quick-fire combinations. This tactic also confounded Tyson, who was so far away from the gifted training of the late Cus D’Amato, that he used combinations less and less frequently. Holyfield kept recapturing that close-up position. He would not back up. He couldn’t. If he did, Tyson would have knocked him out. This is what got Tyson so frustrated. He had everything hanging on that uppercut, and Holyfield would not give him the few inches he needed to throw it.

Tyson could not use his arms well, his punches being hampered by the close distance. Holyfield, meanwhile, could keep his head tight to Tyson’s sternum and hammer away at his ribs and stomach. He rapidly gained on points, and he began to wear Tyson out.

Towards the end of the fight, with Holyfield ahead on points, Tyson was desperately trying to get Holyfield off of him, and Holyfield still stuck like glue. Tyson bit his ear once, and was reprimanded by the startled referee, and Holyfield still stuck to him, in spite of any fear that Tyson would bite again. Tyson did, this time biting off a piece of the ear, and he was disqualified from the fight and forfeited his purse.

Ali and Holyfield both faced the same issue of dealing with a stronger and more savage opponent, and they both had to do some analysis to figure out how to minimize the other person’s ability to do injury. Their solutions were nearly opposite: Ali stayed against the ropes and made Foreman come to him. Holyfield stuck to Tyson and would not back away. But both used correct analysis and the opportunities that their terrain afforded them to win. And even though their actual strategies differed, both strategies were built on the same principle: outlasting an undisciplined but stronger and more savage fighter, minimizing the efficiency of his strength, and maximizing their own abilities to withstand hits. Both Ali and Holyfield were willing to be unconventional and innovative as they strategized their ways to victory. And both let the other person wear himself out. There is no doubt that bad temper, frustration, and—behind it all—self doubt, were the forces that undid both George Foreman and Mike Tyson in those historic losses.

As we await the forthcoming Mayweather Alvarez fight, I think that this lesson from the history of boxing is an excellent guide. Fans argue the youth of Canelo, the experience of Mayweather, the respective strength of each fighter. But what an excellent fight comes down to, when you’ve got two great fighters, is the intellgience and perception of each fighter. In the end, a good brain is still a fighter’s best weapon.


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