Muhammad Ali has always been my personal hero and source of inspiration. I recently discovered that my affinity for him might also reside in his natural born “agility” and ability to innovate.
This is what Ali has thought me about agility and innovation
First lesson: Be ready to react quickly to changing conditions.
Kinshasa, Zaire, October 30, 1974, 4:00 am. The fight that will be remembered as the greatest of all time is about to start.
Ali wants his world champion’s title back. He tried to get it back from Joe Frazier three years earlier but didn’t succeed, he lost. Before he could have a rematch with Joe Frazier, a brand new guy stormed the scene and took the title, this guy is George Foreman, tonight’s opponent. George Foreman is a young giant, with incredibly powerful punches that managed to knock out Frazier 6 times during their title bout.
Nobody believes Ali can beat Foreman apart from Ali himself.
The fight starts. Ali and Foreman go at each other. Ali is being hit hard by Foreman. He is incapable of making his fast hands count against his opponent’s superior power. His dancing feet are not enough to keep Foreman away. This is a disaster. Ali’s best skills, punch speed, and fast dancing legs are not enough against this guy, Ali is going to lose.
But he is Ali, the King Of The World, the greatest of all time, it wasn’t going to be that easy.
It is at this point that Ali decides to change his tactics. This is something that boxers do all the time. They start with a plan; if it doesn’t work, they go to plan B, then plan C and so on until they either find an approach that is effective or they go down.
Ali is different, his plan B is something that nobody had done before and he devises it there and there while the fight is on, while he is being outpowered by his opponent.
The rope-a-dope is born.
Ali decides to let Foreman push him to the ropes of the boxing ring and to focus only on defending. He uses the loose ropes of the ring to go down on his back and duck his opponent blows. He decides that it’s a good choice as he can transfer some of the power of his opponent blows to the elasticity of the ropes and out of his body.
His guard is as high and tight as it had ever been in his career. He throws one or two punches only when he sees a clear opening. These punches are by design not powerful, no intent of knocking his opponent out, they are defensive punches, because “he won’t hit me while I hit him clean”.
For any of the millions of Ali’s fans, the first 7 rounds of the fight are heartbreaking. They can see their hero bullied against the ropes, unable to hurt his opponent. Everybody thinks it is only a matter of time before Foreman unleashes a clean blow and knocks Ali down. Not even his corner trainer, Angelo Dundee, can understand what Ali has in mind, and he keeps on shouting “Get away from the ropes! Ali, get away from the ropes”.
Then the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and the 7th round go by like this. But by throwing so many punches, George Foreman is starting to get tired. His punches are not effective against Ali. Ali uses the ropes to absorb the power and keeps his face out of reach through a tight defensive guard. George Foreman is punching himself out, Ali’s plan is working.
Then the 8th round. Foreman’s tiredness is showing clearly, even the commentators notice he is unsteady on his legs throwing ever slower and tired punches. Ali was waiting for it and sees it too. Foreman is tired, it’s time to strike.
Twenty seconds before the end of the 8th, Ali sees Foreman unsteady on his feet slightly lose his balance, he slips the ropes by turning to his right and hits Foreman with the most beautiful combination of 6 punches you will ever see.
Foreman goes down, he never gets up.
Ali is the King Of The World again.
Second Fundamental: Don’t be afraid to fail if you want to innovate
Ali had to try something new, if he didn’t he would have lost. He could have tried a less risky approach, less risky than one that nobody had ever tried before.
But he was Ali, he was brave, he went for the big bet, and choose the riskiest solution.
His experiment was successful, he created the rope-a-dope, an innovation in the 100-year-old world of boxing.
From Ali, I learned that being able to react to changing conditions and having courage when experimenting can help us innovate.
Thank you, my hero!
That’s what creates innovation in this world. We’ve got to try!