Myth now dominates our misunderstanding of Muhammad Ali, who was once the most accessible celebrity in the world. The truth of the man is nearly irretrievable. With Ali having receded into an exile of his own choosing, the jokes and half-truths and outright lies he once told to entertain us have hardened into historical fact. The myth of the rope-a-dope, which turns 40 today, is perhaps the best example of a widely believed Ali story that misses the mark and obscures most of what's genuinely interesting about him as a fighter and cultural figure.
Ask people about Muhammad Ali's 1974 fight with George Foreman and you very well may hear that Ali scored a dramatic victory by backing against the ropes, weathering a brutal battering, and then delivering a sudden knockout. They'd be wrong, though, because what really happened was that Ali whipped Foreman comprehensively from start to finish. Throughout the whole fight, even in the rounds where he barely moved his feet, Ali landed more meaningful punches than he took. Whenever Foreman mounted an offensive, Ali jack-knifed him by grabbing then yanking the back of Foreman's head and neck, an illegal tactic that went unpunished and gave Foreman almost no chance to win the bout at any time. It was a blowout.
The match nonetheless remains etched in the cultural memory as a stunning trial-by-fire comeback that not only embodied Ali's best as a fighter but recapitulated the basic arc of his career. Here was a fighter who had absorbed an early clobbering against the ropes from a more powerful foe but who, in a morality play of determination and resolve, pressed on anyway and became an icon in the process. This was symbolically rich terrain, and as with so much about Ali hyperbole ruled the day. Witness David Frost's plotzing himself at the finish, a precursor to the tendency toward overstatement that now characterizes our best impressions of the bout.
Only after the Foreman bout did a large chunk of the so-called American silent majority—perhaps represented by Gerald Ford, who invited the new champion to the White House, as every president has since and none had prior—afford him the respect that we now take for granted. While other boxing matches better evidence Ali's true supremacy as history's greatest heavyweight, the rope-a-dope endures as the pop-culture repository where his ring brilliance and cultural significance most plainly intersect, overlapping in ways that obscure both.
Coming back from three and a half years out of the ring, Ali retreated to the ropes in all of his toughest post-exile fights. Skill, courage, and strategy—the heroic things people associate with the rope-a-dope—did not factor significantly into Ali's decision to employ it against Foreman. Ali went to the ropes simply because he had no choice. Foreman could either cut off the ring or use his prodigious arm strength to push Ali into corners. Ali was too old to dance for more than a round or two, and it was too hot and humid for that in Zaire, anyway. Rather than a master stroke, the rope-a-dope was the product of a straightforward calculation against a fighter who couldn't be bothered to respond in kind, whose skill set went to pot when tested by ring-savvy opponents such as Gregorio Peralta and Jimmy Young.
An Ali standard in those years, the rope-a-dope usually didn't work because it needed a sucker, an actual dope, to be effective. Joe Frazier, no dope, hurt Ali when he used the tactic. Ron Lyle, no dope, sometimes waited at ring center, and even waved Ali forward when he retreated. Only Foreman fought dopily enough for it to work, inflicting blunt-force trauma to Ali's arms, upper torso, and kidneys. This tactic has proven effective for certain fighters at certain times, battering opponents' defenses to open up clean head shots, but anyone who thinks that's what could have happened in Zaire doesn't understand the difference between Muhammad Ali and Roland La Starza.
The wide power punches that pummeled Joe Frazier and Ken Norton did not work in the Rumble in the Jungle. Even though Frazier and Norton gave Ali fits in all six of their combined bouts against him, while Foreman crushed them both, Ali still had no problem with Foreman. It was scissors vs. paper. Ali was a bad stylistic match for Foreman, as Foreman was for Norton and Frazier, as Norton and Frazier were for Ali. Norton lost to Foreman quickly and decisively, just as he'd fared against the other devastating sluggers he'd faced, Earnie Shavers and Gerry Cooney. Foreman's weak results against the slick-as-owl-shit Young matched those versus the crafty Peralta and the incomparable Ali. Even in his incredible third act, which culminated in his becoming the oldest heavyweight champion, Foreman ate jab after jab, stifled by the likes of Tommy Morrison, Axel Schulz, and even Michael Moorer before landing the historic victory punch. Neither man defied expectation in Zaire, even if it seemed that both had.
Explanations exist for the misinterpretation of the rope-a-dope, even though debunking the role it played in Ali-Foreman is now as simple as watching the bout in its entirety on YouTube. Although we may take for granted the fight's availability for viewing, for a long time few people had seen it more than once, if at all. A big closed-circuit television event, Ali-Foreman showed in a very healthy 450 U.S. locations, and then months later ABC rebroadcast it, years before many households had videocassette recorders. After that it went away and became something that people either read about or saw excerpted on the occasional TV special. It is not far-fetched to say that more people have heard about the rope-a-dope version of the fight, backed by select clips indicating that Ali took a beating and then rallied, than have seen the whole bout. Some of those who actually witnessed the emotionally charged match in real time no doubt perceived Ali to be in much deeper trouble than he really was. This group includes many of the sportswriters who would accept uncritically Ali's version of what had happened and even his name for it, the "rope-a-dope."
Some people saw the fight for what it was. The New York Times's report from Kinshasa noted that Ali was never in trouble. A Playboy interview with Ali from 1975 questioned whether the rope-a-dope had been premeditated, and Ali himself acknowledged that he'd gone to the ropes out of simple necessity. He wouldn't always be so straightforward, much to George Foreman's annoyance. He wrote in his autobiography:
Muhammad began bragging about his great strategy—letting me punch myself out before delivering the crowning blows. But I know, and he knows, he had no such strategy before the fight. To say he did is to shoot an arrow into a barn and then paint a bull's-eye around it. Muhammad's only strategy had been survival. When I cut off the ring from him, he had nowhere to go but the ropes, and nothing to do but cover up. What's more true than his concoction of some brilliant strategy is that I fought a foolish fight by not letting him come to me more.
The scorecards from the fight—on which the three judges scored the rounds 4-2-1, 3-0-4, and 4-1-2 for Ali—wouldn't become widely available until the 2000s, however, and so when ABC rebroadcast the Rumble in the Jungle on Jan. 5, 1975, there was still something of a vacuum. Ali had won a fight that more than a few people worried he wouldn't survive. How was that possible? Into that void stepped Ali. If you're wondering where the myth began to take hold, look no further than the ABC re-broadcast, which featured Howard Cosell in the studio along with Ali, talking about the rope-a-dope. "With so much money riding on the fight, so much at stake, the world is watching, your whole life is involved, every extra little thing takes extra worry and energy," he said at one point, ascribing a certain willfulness to what was more a survival instinct. "All the punches he's throwing, I'm just letting him throw them." This was the first and perhaps only time many Americans saw the fight, and they saw it through the eyes of Muhammad Ali himself.
When We Were Kings, the 1996 film that won the Academy Award for best documentary despite its fundamentally dishonest approach to the rope-a-dope, picks up where Ali himself left off. The documentary now informs the public's sense of Ali-Foreman more than any other source. It suggests that Ali rather than Foreman began the fight in deep water, and that the winner's extraordinary character rather than Foreman's poor performance kept him afloat.
Check out Norman Mailer's melodramatic narration of the fight, for instance:
The implication here is that feather-fisted Ali tagged Foreman, who shook it off and then began pounding the shit out of Ali for the next few rounds, the beating coming to an end only after Ali had reached within himself and found some fresh reserve of courage.
When We Were Kings premiered to critical acclaim, with the rope-a-dope at the center, as Roger Ebert's review makes clear: "History records Ali's famous strategy, the 'Rope-a-Dope' defense, in which he simply outwaited Foreman, absorbing incalculable punishment…. When We Were Kings gives the impression that Ali got nowhere in the first round and adopted the Rope-a-Dope almost by default." The rope-a-dope, however, was neither ingenious premeditated strategy nor brilliant athletic improvisation. It was not a default, either, but something Ali actively developed in training. He knew he would have to go to the ropes, as he'd done in every hard fight following his exile, so he sparred accordingly, because he would have to be good at it to survive. Ali had no second option beyond the rope-a-dope given the circumstances, which luckily for him wound up posing fewer obstacles than anticipated to his formidable, if faded, brilliance.
When We Were Kings, after lying cold on the cutting room floor for two decades, got made at a time when Ali had rebounded into the major media spotlight through books, television, and Hollywood after a post-retirement dry spell. The Ali renaissance started in 1991 with Thomas Hauser's heavily publicized authorized biography, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, whose myriad interviews obscure but cannot hide its lack of insight into his character. Other books followed, including a 1998 bestseller by The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick. Ali provided the shining moment—the made-for-television lighting of the Olympic torch in 1996. The Hollywood biopic Ali, starring Will Smith, came in 2001. None of these works captures Ali's character in original and exciting ways like those written many years ago by Claude Lewis, Jack Olsen, and Wilfrid Sheed, the ones where the authors extensively interviewed and spent time with Ali, his family, his friends, his business partners, and his accomplices, when Ali was the world's most accessible celebrity. For at least 40 years now, Muhammad Ali has eluded the grasp of biographers. When We Were Kings fits the time period well; when it comes to Ali, it is quintessentially '90s, almost all hero worship and no critical substance.
All sorts of stories about the fight now exist to explain the result, from Angelo Dundee's loosening the ropes (or preventing them from being tightened, or even tightening them, depending on which version of the story you read) to Foreman's bizarre supposition that someone had slipped him a mickey.
Many such mythical moments sprinkle Muhammad Ali's boxing career, invented post-facto explanations justify (often ridiculously) unforeseen ring turns. More people accept the silly story that Ali felled Sonny Liston in their rematch using Jack Johnson's "anchor punch" taught to him by Stepin Fetchit than the more likely one that the iron-chinned Liston, whose death six years later still lingers mysteriously, took a dive in fear of some perceived external threat. There was no long break between rounds after Henry Cooper dropped Cassius Clay in their first bout. What happened was that Clay recovered in the standard amount of time and then returned to thumping Cooper.
There's also the one about the missing gold medal from the 1960 Olympics. If you believe the tale as told in Ali's 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story—a book spurred by his dramatic win in Zaire—then you, too, might have fallen for the rope-a-dope. The book claims that racist bikers pursued Ali and a friend on a no-way-out, high-speed, movie-grade motorcycle chase through the streets of Louisville and then to a bridge spanning the Ohio River. Expert riding and self-defensive martial artistry by Ali and friend forced the rednecks to crash and retreat. That night Ali chucked the medal off the bridge in protest—the whole episode started because he, an Olympic hero in his hometown, merely asked to be served in a local restaurant.
Even as a black power allegory, the tale represented Ali out of character; he never rode motorcycles proficiently or got into street fights. Come 1996, when Ali received an honorary replacement medal, NBC commentators informed audiences that the bridge story was not true and that he had simply lost the original; a more appropriate narrative for the Olympic moment, anyhow. The backing of The Greatest by a major publishing firm, Random House, with future Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison as the book's in-house editor, and longtime journalist and Muhammad Speaks editor Richard Durham as its writer, complicates Ali's deniability as the main source of error in the on-the-record version of his life story.
Blaming Jabir Herbert Muhammad and the Nation of Islam for the autobiography's many inadequacies, as writers have, does not take into account Ali's long-term tendency to lie so often that he believes myths of his own creation. Ali only talks about the bridge incident when people inquire if it is true, according to his wife Lonnie, but when they do he either says yes or doesn't answer. "He never says no," she reports, "I've never heard him say no." Everyone else knows, however, that Ali lost the medal, which is what Ali himself said, embarrassingly, during a press conference hyping his very own autobiography. Even the museum dedicated to chronicling him seems comfortable with this degree of interpretive flexibility. In calling the gold medal story "a legend," the Muhammad Ali Center's vice president for communications, Jeanie Kahnke, also notes that no one can say for certain whether it's true or untrue, which is how Ali likes it.
So now here is Ali at 72, somehow more unknowable than ever before; myth has become the legitimate substitute for the facts of his life. He has said almost nothing on his own behalf for 30 years. He talked on camera after the events of 9/11, but that was the lone circumstance cataclysmic enough to bring him out of his shell. Ali's silence does not change the fact that he could communicate with the world, and not just through the occasional tweet written by someone being paid to do so. Being older and sicker does not consign public figures to silence, and some, like Ebert, even grew in stature after losing their speaking voices. With modern technology, and Ali's access to the best care, his long insulation has been more self-imposed than the sad and inevitable result of the Parkinson's disease with which he was diagnosed in 1984.
From Ali's perspective, this makes a kind of sense. Shutting up has been good business for Ali, and his recasting from tragic to triumphant figure occurred while he said virtually nothing on his own behalf. Prior to his renaissance, upon Ali's 1981 retirement and throughout the decade, Ali's life served as a cautionary tale of how not to do it, of a boxer who had everything—riches, good health, family—and lost his grasp on nearly all of it. Ali left boxing a broken man and tragic figure, a punch-drunk and pathetic laughingstock parodied mercilessly on TV shows like Saturday Night Live and In Living Color as an over-the-hill halfwit. He had little money and was in rapidly declining health, less relevant to the zeitgeist than ever before, reduced to appearing at boxing matches in exchange for walking-around money.
The rope-a-dope myth has played an important role in Ali's apotheosis, filling in holes in his resume as a boxer and cultural figure. His career in general is now seen through the prism of his victory over Foreman. Among other things the knockout ratified and deodorized the victories over Liston, though the stink on those fights had always been richly deserved. But the myth itself accomplished the unlikelier feat of reframing Ali's past, which to that point had been unpalatably controversial for many Americans. Skeptics now had to reckon with the saga of a man who'd courageously absorbed the unstinting assault of boxing's most fearsome puncher and come back for a dramatic win. These were the people who'd seen Ali's draft resistance as an act of cowardice instead of a principled stand, who'd looked at Ali—with his hairless body, his self-professed prettiness, his flamboyant personality, his high voice, his lack of interest in anything besides boxing, his less-than-rugged boxing style—and whispered about his sexual orientation, who'd believed that Ali hadn't served his duty to his country or to the ring, having failed to engage in bloody, to-the-death combat on either front. The Foreman fight satisfied those requirements for many, and thus opened the floodgates for the mainstream political acceptance and corporate sponsorship that has for at least 25 years defined Ali's legacy—first President Ford, then the Olympic torch, then the Ali Center, which was made possible by a government land grant. If rope-a-dope was a lie, it at least disabused many Americans of far bigger illusions.
In his exile, Ali has achieved the universal adoration and financial stability that boxing never could provide, and without incurring any more of the ring's costs. In simply laying back while sucker after sucker, the author included, throws flurries of words that never even come close to nailing his meaning on the chin, Ali reminds us that for all that has been written about him we still know precious little about what really makes the man tick. It's the rope-a-dope, writ large.
Michael Ezra is the author of Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon (Temple University Press, 2009) and is working on a new biography of Ali. He is a professor of American Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State University and is the editor of the Journal of Civil and Human Rights.