When I was growing up my dad liked to watch boxing on TV and follow it in the newspapers. I became a big fan of Muhammed Ali after I met him in the lobby of a hotel in Chicago when I was ten years old. My sister and I hid behind a potted tree in the lobby looking at this man sitting alone on a couch in the lobby. I knew it was him and was afraid to talk to him since he beat people up for a living. We finally got up the nerve and went to ask him for his autograph. When we did he said he would give it to us ‘under one condition, that you call me Muhammed Ali’. We had asked Cassius Clay for the autograph but we left having met Muhammed Ali.
From then on I was connected to him and followed him, rooted for him, no matter what. I loved him for many reasons; for his brashness, his fun-loving nature, his fast feet and hands and his poetry (if you ever read a poem of mine you will see that I graduated from the Muhammed Ali school of poetry).
But then something far deeper and more meaningful happened than just admiring a great entertainer and athlete. He was stripped of his title in 1967 for refusing to be drafted by the Army. I didn’t understand it all but I felt it was completely unfair at the time. Three years later he was allowed to box again, but three years is like an eternity for a boxer. They just don’t come back from three years off. But he did. Not only did he come back but he was set to win back the championship by fighting Joe Frazier. He lost. Then the rematch came, only Frazier got beat by someone in the meanwhile and their fight, though monumental, proved nothing.
It wasn’t until seven years after his belt was taken from him, four years after he returned to the ring, when he was over the hill, way past his prime and facing the meanest, most hard hitting boxer that had come down the pike in a LONG time, that he had the chance to win the crown back. But he wasn’t going to win this one, he wasn’t going to beat George Foreman. He was smaller, was older, wasn’t nearly as fast or as agile as he once had been. He didn’t train as hard supposedly, couldn’t hit as hard.
I remember sitting in the pub at Brandeis University where I was a sophomore. The fight was blacked out on TV and radio but they could do radio updates at the end of each round. I was really the only one who cared in the whole place. I waited for the report every three minutes or so for round after round. It didn’t look good because Ali was just laying back on the ropes, not fighting all that much. The announcers said it was likely that one of these rounds Foreman would land a punch that would put him down, it was just a matter of time.
But that didn’t happen. As a matter of fact Foreman got tired. Ali didn’t. Ali took every punch he had to give, just let him wail away at his body until he was worn out. Then the tide turned. When Foreman could no longer get up the strength to hit hard Ali did the hitting. By round eight I was screaming with excitement as I heard that Ali had turned the corner and beat Foreman.
In the end Ali used his ‘Rope a Dope’ strategy to beat someone bigger and stronger. He won because he was smarter and he had a good plan. But don’t be fooled, he won first and foremost because his will was stronger than his skill.
Is your will stronger than your skill? If not, why not?