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The rope-a-dope is performed by a boxer assuming a protected stance, in Ali’s classic pose, lying against the ropes, and allowing his opponent to hit him, in the hope that the opponent will become tired and make mistakes which the boxer can exploit in a counterattack.
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, attempting thereby to become the eventual victor.
Muhammad Ali used the rope-a-dope style of boxing by leaning on the ropes in a handful of his fights, most famously in his first fight with Joe Frazier where Frazier landed heavy blows to Ali.
This did not discourage Ali from using this strategy again against George Foreman on October 30, 1974. Foreman was a harder puncher than Frazier, and many felt Ali would have to stay away from Foreman in order to beat him. Ali instead started to lie on the ropes towards the end of the 1st round, and used the ropes throughout the rest of the fight, guarding his head with his gloves. Foreman’s strategy for the fight was to cut off the ring and get Ali to the ropes so that he could hit Ali and try to knock him out. Foreman landed constant blows to the body, but had trouble landing punches to the head. Foreman began to tire from all the punches he threw at Ali to no apparent effect, and with the punches he was taking from Ali, Foreman was visibly exhausted and starting to stagger by the 5th round. Ali eventually knocked him out in the 8th round. Ali had regained the World Heavyweight Championship with this strategy of lying on the ropes, and allowed one of the hardest punchers of all time to swing away at him. During training prior to the fight, Ali had done thousands of sit-ups to tighten and tone his midsection, better allowing him to take punches to the torso.
George Foreman went on Jimmy Kimmel Live and said that the term rope-a-dope was actually created by the Ali camp in response to Foreman complaining about being drugged. George Foreman maintains, to this day, that was why it was created, to defuse Foreman’s complaints.
Ali further used this strategy as a resting method against Chuck Wepner in his next title defense, but finally, before his second title defense against Ron Lyle, Ali named this style. While being interviewed by Howard Cosell, Ali declared that the new name for this method of lying on the ropes was to be called “the rope-a-dope.” Ali used this style against many fighters, including Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila.”
Fighters are still to this day generally hurt badly when they lie on the ropes. James Toney, like Ali, is an exception to this rule and is effective at fighting while lying on the ropes. Roy Jones Jr., too, has been inclined to use this technique in recent years, inviting opponents in while maintaining a high guard and countering between onslaughts. Ali, Toney, and Jones were able to use this method largely because of their defense and most importantly because of their ability to take a punch. Average boxers do not have the ability or the strength to be able to withstand the degree of punishment caused by going into the rope-a-dope, and most fighters who lie on the ropes are knocked out or hurt badly.
A version of this is the style used in Jack London’s A Piece of Steak, as Tom King lets the other fighter burn off steam and get sloppy.
A far more exaggerated version would be used in The Simpsons eighth season episode “The Homer They Fall,” where Homer Simpson didn’t even go to the ropes, but simply stood there and took the punches until his opponents collapsed from exhaustion.