I'm Deborah, survivor of everything from multiple cancer battles to major business setbacks. Join my search for ways to move the mountains, big & small, that block your path to success.

Roll with the punches like Ali

Muhammad Ali: Gloves

The third time I was diagnosed with cancer, it had spread beyond its initial boundaries and the early prognosis looked grim. The only thing I could manage to say was “I cannot do this again. I cannot do this again.” “Yes, you can,” answered all the encouraging, well-meaning people around me. “You just have to roll with it.”


They were right, of course. But when you take a hit like that, somewhere in the back of your brain, you can’t help thinking, “Yeah? How ’bout I whack you over the head and see how you roll with it?”

Well, I did find a way to roll with that punch—without whacking anyone over the head. But I’ve learned it’s easier to manage a fight if you develop a plan before you climb into the ring, as boxing champ Muhammad Ali did for his 1974 title bout dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle.”

When he was a kid, my brother read about the fight that was staged in what was then Zaire and couldn’t stop talking about the infamous “rope-a-dope” strategy Ali used to defeat his heavily favored opponent—the younger, stronger George Foreman. So eventually I picked up the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings to check it out for myself. If you’re struggling to get through tough times, try these strategies Ali used to dominate his opponent:

• Have faith in yourself. Foreman was 25, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, and had what many boxing experts believed was the most punishing punch the sport had ever seen. He’d never lost a fight and had won 37 of his 40 bouts by knockout. His previous eight fights had lasted less than six minutes.

Ali was 32, and after being out of the sport for nearly four years had a comeback record of 12–2. His two losses were to Ken Norton and Joe Frazier, fighters Foreman had demolished. But Foreman didn’t go looking for Ali. The former champ had pressed for the match despite the odds against him because he believed he could do the impossible and reclaim his glory days.

• Build a strong support system. Well known for his self-promotional flare, Ali arrived in Zaire ahead of Foreman and spent the weeks before the scheduled fight roaming among the locals, chanting “Ali bomaye” or “Ali kill him.” While Ali became a favorite of the people, Foreman remained secluded in his hotel room. When they stepped into the ring, thousands of fans began chanting “Ali bomaye”—just as Ali had coached them.

No one else could take Foreman’s punches for Ali, just as no one else could go into surgery for me when it came time to try and remove my cancer. But having a strong support system can help energize you for the struggles ahead.

• Learn to ration your strength. I have a bad habit of sweating the small stuff, of approaching every little problem like it’s a Big Battle. That means I run headfirst into the center of the ring, taking a lot more punches than necessary and leaving myself battered and bruised. Ali found a better way.

After pouncing on Foreman with a few hard opening punches, Ali backed into the ropes—and stayed there. It was hot and humid in Zaire, and the ropes quickly went slack, allowing Ali to lean back and absorb Foreman’s blows with his arms and gloves. He continually taunted Foreman to hit harder, making his opponent do the work in the stifling heat while Ali rested on the ropes, only occasionally striking out at Foreman’s face. Because of Ali’s position, he expended less energy, and fewer of Foreman’s punches landed where they could do him serious harm.

Ali kept up the rope-a-dope strategy into the eighth round. Then when Foreman began to stagger from exhaustion, Ali sprang forward, landing the punches that sent the big man to the canvas.

• Trust your own judgment. Ali was known as a speed fighter, someone who danced about in the ring, and many thought his only hope was to out-maneuver the larger Foreman. The rope-a-dope strategy was a huge gamble, a dramatic departure from Ali’s usual style, and not even his longtime trainer, Angelo Dundee, knew in advance what he had planned. When you’re contemplating difficult choices, it’s important to carefully weigh the options. But just as no one else can take your punches for you, no one else can make your hard decisions. Like the champ, you have to trust yourself.

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