Winners Rule

In 1974, Muhammad Ali met George Foreman in a fight in which Foreman was heavily favored. Foreman was younger, he was a stronger puncher, and he had previously demolished Joe Frazier (against whom Ali had earlier lost).

The reason that the “Rumble in the Jungle” is one of the most famous fights in boxing history is not simply because Ali wins, it’s because of the way in which he wins. After opening with extremely unconventional right-leads, Ali executes the “rope-a-dope” for nearly the entirety of the fight, exhausting Foreman and allowing Ali to last until the eighth round and knock him out. At one point in the sixth round, the announcer comments, “Ali doing what he’s actually not supposed to do: leaning up against the ropes and taking the punches of the heavy-hitting George Foreman.” It is by not doing what he’s “supposed to” that Ali gets the advantage.

Ali does what all winners must do–and what Malcolm Gladwell claims is the way underdogs win as often as they do: he sets the rules. Ali decides the terms of the encounter. Had he fought Foreman more conventionally–as Frazier had–he would have been annihilated. Instead, Ali creates new terms for the bout, using Foreman’s strengths against him. Rather than hide from Big George’s big punches like he was “supposed to do”, Ali allows Foreman to throw enough punches to become exhausted, making it easy for Ali to finish him.

To be successful in fencing, in boxing, in life, you must be the one setting the rules. The winner of a bout is the person who decides which skills will determine the outcome. If I have excellent technique, I will likely want to make the bout one that is determined by technique. If my technique is weak and I allow my opponent to make technique the defining element of the bout, I will lose. One of the top US women’s sabre fencers has fairly unimpressive technique, but fences very well in long distance. It always amazes me how willing her opponents are–particularly those with stronger technique–to allow the bout to stay in long distance. By doing so, they agree before the bout even starts to give their opponent an advantage. Very often–particularly in epee–younger, faster fencers are beaten by older fencers who keep speed and strength from becoming a determining factor. In sabre, Peter Westbrook was able to stay competitive well past the age that most people do for very much the same reason.

When we consider how to approach a bout, as well as when we are in the midst of the bout and considering how to proceed, it is important that we are focused on controlling the frame. We must be the ones determining what is important in that bout if we wish to succeed. The result may–especially when facing a more favored opponent–be something that is fairly unconventional. If a foilist fences a generally conventional game against a “squirmy counter-attacker” and loses, he may scoff and claim that his opponent wasn’t “really fencing”, but the reality is that he allowed his opponent to set the rules of the encounter and the only mistakes in the bout were his own.

When analyzing opponents, it is important to assess, not just their strengths and weaknesses, but also their expectations. What do they want the bout to look like? What “rules” are they playing under? How do they see the game? If you can take the opponent out of that game–particularly in a way that utilizes your own strengths–then you will be able to win even against a more favored competitor.

And that rules.