Two things I can't resist are political philosophy and Muhammad Ali. Today Ezra Klein comes through with two great tastes that go great together!
The post is about the silliness of political conspiracy theories that require extraordinary planning and crisp execution - anyone who works in government knows that these things are basically impossible when the group of "conspirators" grows beyond about four people.
But the part that caught my eye was Klein's highlighting of something George Foreman said about Ali's famous "Rope-a-Dope" strategy in the Rumble in the Jungle. Foreman apparently said "that Muhammad Ali had fired an arrow into a barn and then walked over afterward and painted a bull's-eye around it."
I haven't read that particular Foreman quote, but I know from other sources it's correct. Ali's strategy of sitting on the ropes waiting for Foreman to punch himself out was not something he came into the fight with; it was a strategy that evolved after Ali was unable to evade Foreman in the first two rounds due to Foreman's excellent footwork and the unexpectedly soft ring canvas (which degraged Ali's footspeed.)
Because Ali won the early rounds, and controlled the fight from then on, it's generally assumed that it was all part of some big grand plan. However, in reality Ali realized that despite having won the first few rounds, he was putting himself in harm's way too much and was likely to get knocked out once he became too tired to dance around.
In the third round he noticed that when Foreman had him on the ropes he was throwing wild punches and missing a lot. Ali decided to stay on the ropes and see if Foreman would continue making mistakes and tiring himself out unnecessarily. It worked.
This is a crucial corrolary to Klein's point about how we sometimes assume our opponents are ruthless, unstoppable and efficient. In fact you must always be alert to the potential that your opponent is making a mistake. Most victories are the result of realizing when an opponent's plan is a mistake, and then letting him execute that plan.
Joe Frazier, sitting at ringside, recognized what was going on. At the end of the third round he lamented "George is rushing himself too much... he's not being calm." Five rounds later, Foreman ran out of gas and got knocked out. Not because Ali had a master plan, but because he recognized that Foreman's plan couldn't work, and stood around while George beat himself.