My first exposure to Muhammad Ali was as a metaphor. My dad is the kind of boxing fan who keeps old matches on videotape, ready to display at a moment’s notice for a teaching moment as much as nostalgia. The punching is just for show if there isn’t a lesson to be learned from the damage inflicted.
So it makes sense that a father trying to teach his young son how to be a black man in this country, even without the boy knowing it, would make sure that he saw the Rumble in the Jungle. In October of 1974, Ali stepped into the ring at 4:00am local time with George Foreman, then the heavyweight champion. The ring was in Zaire (what’s now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), inside a stadium that once hosted executions of political dissidents. Some observers wondered seriously whether Ali would survive the fight. The powerful Foreman was an Olympic champion and seven years younger than the 32-year-old Ali, who’d lost nearly four years of his career at the end of the 1960s due to his refusal to serve in Vietnam. The former champ was a 40-to-1 underdog.
Growing up in the heyday of the brutally violent Mike Tyson, I was curious why Ali insisted upon dodging and blocking Foreman’s blows. I didn’t notice it the first time I saw it, but the ropes around the boxing ring happened to be more pliant than they usually are. It helped Ali slip between Foreman’s jabs. The fists landed, but they didn’t break him. I still didn’t understand why Ali wasn’t attacking, though. My elementary instincts told me that Ali was wasting time. I’d learn that he was simply being patient.
That display wasn’t unique to that predawn fight in Africa. Ali was a role model not just for resilience, but a specific type. It was the kind you needed to toss away a title and years of your athletic prime to not only protest reckless military conflict, but to unapologetically couch that resistance in a racial and religious narrative. At a moment when the Viet Cong were our public bogeymen, the recently converted Muslim champion told everyone that “the real enemy of my people is here” in America. His wide-eyed bombast, unbelievable speed, and quick wit made him the last person you’d expect to wait for anything, let alone for the Supreme Court to reverse his conviction for draft evasion. And Ali was not one, certainly, to wait for white approval for his unrestrained blackness. So I should’ve known better. Patience for Muhammad Ali was always a means towards a victorious conclusion.
In the seventh round, it was plain that Foreman was tired. He’d punched himself out, essentially. A wild swing at Ali’s head in the corner of the ring nearly carried the Olympic gold medalist over the ropes. Jim Brown was a commentator for the fight. Brown, who always got up slowly after taking hits during his days with the Cleveland Browns in order to dupe his opponents into thinking they’d injured him, understood what was up. “Ali seems to be waiting,” he said. “He knows he’s in control.”
The strategy bore fruit in the eighth. Foreman’s arms were flailed like wet noodles against Ali. The champ looked like he needed a nap, and Ali, in effect, gave him one. He emerged from his defensive stance to land five devastating punches. Foreman staggered around like a drunk, falling on his back. It was over, and Ali had invented what he later termed the “rope-a-dope.” He’d taken damage, sure. He wasn’t the young man anymore, the one who could dodge every jab and hook. But he’d minimized that damage where he could, and to great effect. In the end, he’d shown that his brain was the most relevant muscle in combat.
Patience alone isn’t a virtue. That was an important thing for me to learn as a young black boy. Do not just endure abuse for the sake of appearing stoic and manly, but endure with a firm purpose in mind. Endure until a pathway to victory opens. Letting your opponent believe that you’ve lost, sometimes, can be to your advantage. Granted, it isn’t the most optimistic or triumphant way to think about winning. It isn’t the classic hero’s narrative. But I learned that vital lesson better from Muhammad Ali in that ring than I did from any civil rights leader or war hero.
His life, which ended on Friday night at the age of 74, was never solely about winning, but about conflict, and finding the best ways to navigate it while never compromising who you are. May we all be so agile on the ropes we find pressing at our backs, until the time is right to strike.