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Darts: Know Thy Opponent – Lessons from Muhammad Ali
Of course, when it comes to knowing your opponent, one of my all-time favorite examples comes not from the world of darts, but from boxing.
I’ve made a few references to boxing and Muhammad Ali in the past. He’s been one of my heroes since I was little. And while he exuded confidence and was a great boxing talent (with an equally huge mouth), he was also a thinker. God, when it came to understanding his opponents, he was a dangerous thinker.
In October 1974, Ali’s greatest professional achievement may have come when he reclaimed the heavyweight title in Zaire, Africa (the twelve-year-old writer sat riveted, watching as he was replayed on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in January 1975). It’s a battle that’s overplayed, over-discussed and over-analyzed by sports junkies in bars, on TV and in print to this day. It remains one of the greatest and most inspiring underdog stories in all of sport.
Ali, to put it simply, should never have won “The Rumble in The Jungle.” Against the current heavyweight titleholder of the boxing world – the ever-rising and impending juggernaut known as George Foreman – Ali should have withered on the vine, suffered a career-ending loss, may -even die a horrible death at ringside like Jimmy Doyle at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson in 1947. The odds against him were huge. Like Norton and Frazier before him, Ali should have crumbled entirely under George Foreman’s hammer.
Remember, this wasn’t the nice George viewers know today, the grinning grill tycoon, the minister, the jovial company spokesman. It was George without mercy. It was George enraged. It was “I come to your house and I bring death with me” George. He was really great. In recent boxing history, only the ferocity of Mike Tyson’s “pre-Buster Douglas” career can be compared.
For a time before the fight, Foreman and Ali shared a gymnasium in the lavish digs of Zairian President Mobutu. Despite having different schedules, witnesses say the echoes of Foreman crashing into the heavy bag would reverberate throughout the gymnasium, low and thundering.
“Th-oom! Th-oom!! Th-oom! Th-oooom!!! came the sound, like the footsteps of a tyrannosaurus rex chasing the heroes in a Jurassic Park movie.
For weeks before the fight, Ali endeared himself to the people of Zaire by training on the streets and using those forays to repeatedly taunt his future opponent in the press, as only he could. Foreman, humorless as he was in those days, seethed at every word.
Pound for pound, no one in the world — past or present — could crush coastlines like Foreman in the 1970s. His fists felt like wrecking balls hitting the side of a dam in a mad chase for water. In the early rounds, at all times, you expected a single punch to finish Ali, leaving him crumbling on his heels, then collapsing to the mat, his eyes wide and empty, his mouth open. . That’s what bettors predicted. That’s what everyone thought would happen. How could he not? Foreman had sent Norton and Frazier easily where Ali had struggled tremendously against those two fighters.
People were genuinely scared for Ali when the first-round bell rang and watched in horror as the lorry-collision-like blows began to rain – as expected – on his body. Those at ringside swore they could hear Ali’s breath ripping loudly out of his lungs with each landing. The huge coma-potential roundhouse blows to his skull barely missed their mark, only Ali’s speed and skill keeping him ahead of them.
Remember, there was no one stronger than George Foreman in boxing, no one greater. He was so indomitable that no fight had lasted longer than two rounds in the previous three years. Of his 40 professional fights before Ali, Foreman won them all – all but three – by knockout or TKO, and those three he won by unanimous decision.
But, if Ali couldn’t outplay Foreman, maybe there was another way? Defending and laying on the ropes round after round to conserve energy, Ali landed punches that “infuriated the hive”, only to hold and tie up Foreman’s towering frame to tire him further. Foreman’s face had started to swell from Ali’s abuse. And while Ali clung to the big man, he was also asking questions like, “Is that all you got, George?
The strategy drove Foreman mad with frustration. By the fifth round, it was obvious that Ali was directing the flow of this fight, not Foreman.
For all his skill and strength, it was Foreman’s pride and rage that was his weakness. Ali was just smart enough to see this and used it against him. Ali knew his opponent. To fight force and fury, patience and frustration became his weapons. But could Ali absorb such a brutal punishment and survive the big man? That was the question.
As the rounds progressed, Ali’s flourishes began to coincide with each of Foreman’s increasingly sporadic shows of force, as if Ali knew when to bait the big man again and let him wear himself out. with more of those powerful (so exhaustive and inaccurate by then) breaths on Ali’s body. And Foreman – exasperated by this very vocal, smaller, former champion who refused to fall – took the bait every time.
In the end, the tornado, the hurricane known as George Foreman, simply blew himself up and was reduced to losing his title at the feet of boxing’s mastermind. Furious George, for the first time in his professional boxing career, looked up at an opponent from the mat.
To see this beautiful story told, you should watch the Oscar-winning documentary, “When We Were Kings.” As far as knowing your opponent goes, it’s really inspiring. I highly recommend it.
“Ali bomaye!” indeed (see the film for the translation).
Bottom line: As we’ve shown, darts aren’t the only place to use an advantage or reduce weakness. This happens in all areas of sport. Note that not everyone you play against is compromised after a few drinks, or the manager of a bar, or chronically angry, or one of your best friends and competitors. You just have to discover your advantage and use it to your advantage. Be observant and patient, but above all don’t forget to be a good athlete.
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