The other day I began listening to an interview between NPR’s Scott Simon and Dennis Ross, a member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. My attention was stopped cold by this sentence in Simon’s opening remarks:
I apologize for using a sports analogy, but what about the chances that this might be the rope-a-dope strategy for Iran?
I don’t know how I’ve managed to go so long without encountering this expression, but I hadn’t a clue as to what Simon meant by “the rope-a-dope strategy.”
The expression originated in 1974 when the boxer Muhammad Ali introduced the tactic in his fight with George Foreman. Besides its use to describe a boxing maneuver, apparently the expression is commonly used in political writing. My only excuse for remaining ignorant of it for so long is that my interest in politics is on a par with my interest in sports.
Neither the OED nor Merriam-Webster Unabridged has an entry for “rope-a-dope,” but I found this definition at the free online Oxford Dictionaries:
rope-a-dope noun: (US informal) A boxing tactic of pretending to be trapped against the ropes, goading an opponent to throw tiring ineffective punches.
The expression has been applied to the delaying tactics favored by Iran at least since 2006:
Many fear that the Iranians are engaged in a game of “rope-a-dope,’” absorbing our best efforts to stop their nuclear program while buying time to get themselves over the nuclear know-how threshold. –US Senate report, 2006
One problem with using sports analogies in general reporting is that not all readers are familiar with them. Another is that the writers who use the expressions may not use them to mean the same thing. And a third is that the more such an expression is used, the more the original meaning is likely to shift.
These seem to be the most common interpretations of “the rope-a-dope strategy”:
-provoking an opponent to energy-wasting rage
-pretending to be weaker than one is
-distracting an opponent from one’s true purpose
-employing delaying tactics
In the case of Iran, “rope-a-dope” equates to “delaying tactics”:
delaying tactics: an action or strategy designed to defer or postpone something in order to gain an advantage for oneself.
For the sake of sports-challenged listeners, Simon could have said, “What about the chances that this might be a delaying tactic on the part of Iran?”