What Tech Entrepreneurs Should Learn From Muhammad Ali’s Rope-A-Dope

How did Ali contend with a much more powerful puncher, George Foreman? He went against the ropes and took a beating for 8 rounds. He had a secret plan called rope-a-dope.

Recently, I’ve been attending an increasing number of events created for and by tech entrepreneurs in South Florida.  I’ve been where they are now with my own business ventures, and I’ve worked with scores of early stage companies.  When I step back to observe the scene from a higher altitude, invariably my thoughts turn to Muhammad Ali’s strategy of “rope-a-dope” in his fight against George Foreman.

You don’t normally associate fear with Muhammad Ali, but fear dominated him as he prepared for the fight with George Foreman that was branded “The Rumble In The Jungle.”  And there was good reason for Ali’s concern.  Despite his friendly and gentle personality today, George Foreman was a ferocious boxer.  You couldn’t be rational and not fear him – and Ali, in addition to being bombastic, was also very rational and realistic about what he was to face in the ring.  Similar emotions are felt everyday by tech entrepreneurs: the excitement of the fight married to the fear that there are going to be a lot of punches coming hard at you from unknown directions.  

The build-up before the fight actually took much longer than expected because Foreman suffered an injury during training, and the fight had to be postponed.  The fighters had already been in Zaire for several weeks, training and promoting the fight, and they decided that rather than cancel the fight, or substitute another boxer for Foreman, they would simply push the date out a few weeks.

Ali used the delay before the fight to continue his training and to reach out to the people of Zaire, who already adored him anyway.  He encouraged them to yell “Boomiyay Ali” whenever they saw him, whether taking a training run along the roads or whenever he was visible during the day.  The chant meant “kill him.”  He had a plan: he would use the chanting of the crowd on fight night to cheer him on and, perhaps, to strike a blow to Foreman’s morale.  But he had another plan too – and it was secret: “rope-a-dope.”

In the first round, Ali disoriented Foreman by using right hand leads, which is an aberrant tactic.  It didn’t do much damage to Foreman.  But that wasn’t his “secret plan” anyhow.  That became obvious in the second round when Ali did what nobody, even his corner, expected.  He went against the ropes.  He let Foreman hit him.

Ali continued to let Foreman hit him round after round, staying against the ropes.  He effectively used his arms to defend himself from getting hurt by the punches.  At the same time, he often threw his own body against Foreman’s, making Foreman bear his weight.  On some occasions, he’d throw quick shots straight to Foreman’s face.  He’d taunt Foreman with phrases like: “Is that the best you can give me George?”  – all in the massive heat of the open stadium filled with Ali fans who would begin to chant “Boomiyay Ali” whenever Ali gave them the signal.

After 8 rounds of taking a beating, Ali finally saw his opportunity, took it, and won by KO.

Ali stayed against the ropes until the eighth round.  By that time Foreman, even though he was younger than Ali, had punched himself out.  And his face was puffed-up by the relatively few, but sharp, shots that were the result of Ali’s singular offensive tactic.  And he fell unconscious, amid a stadium filled with Ali fans yelling “Boomiyay Ali” again and again, after Ali landed a left hook that had the effect of lifting Foreman’s head so that it would be in perfect position to be smashed by Ali’s right.  The fight was over.

Sometimes Rope-A-Dope Is The Best Tactic For Entrepreneurs

What fierce opponent are you fighting?  Technological challenges?  Recruitment issues?  The need to raise money (without success)?  A new product launch?  Maybe all of the above — and even more?  It doesn’t matter.  Sometimes life for the entrepreneur means confronting a formidable and seemingly unbeatable challenge.  Then you may have to adopt a rope-a-dope tactic.  Take your beating.  Position yourself for your unique opportunity – work to make that opportunity occur.  Go against the ropes if you have to.  Call on the support of your fans.  Wait your turn.  Then land your punch when the time is right.  The reality is that as an entrepreneur you are going to get hurt — possibly, a lot.  But that doesn’t mean you are going to lose.  Hang in there.  Adapt your strategy.  The first rule of business is to survive — survive until the time is right and then you, too, can become an overnight success.

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