Rope-a-Dope and International Affairs

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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?”

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8 thoughts on “Rope-a-Dope and International Affairs”

  1. I especially dislike the use of sports terms when the listeners are people whose first language is not English. Terms such as “knock it out of the park,” “pinch hit,” and “grand slam” are confusing and meaningless to them.

    I do remember the press making a big deal of Ali’s “rope a dope,” but as a non-fan, I never really knew what it meant. I mentally pictured Ali trapping the opponent against the ropes and pummeling him. Thanks for the correct explanation, Maeve.

  2. I agree with Nancy R. that sports terms should be avoided when other phrases would suffice, but at times they can be clear and useful: Come out fighting; Down for the count; Low blow; A home run. Then again, these are all sports I’m familiar with. If someone said “knock for six” to me I’d wonder what they’re talking about. (It’s a cricket phrase that means “to surprise or shock someone.”) I knew the phrase rope-a-dope because I was around then and at the time Ali was the most internationally known living person on the planet. Ali had a gift for words and he coined the phrase.

  3. I’m not a sports-guy, yet I’m hard pressed to think of any other sports analogies that I might not understand. They’re all fairly common. This one in particular presented a learning opportunity. It’s tough to complain about that.

  4. I am fine with sports, or any other analogies, so long as they are understood by the intended audience and actually have a consistent meaning. This expression passes for me, personally, on the first count (oooo! is that sportsy?) but not on the second. I am familiar with the Ali fight and the reference, but as Maeve points out, the way it is used by various writers and commentators renders it fairly meaningless. Even people who know what it originally meant don’t have any idea what its employers mean when using it 90 percent of the time.

  5. Not into sports at all over here, but am familiar with some sports terms that have become widely used (like slam-dunk). I have like visually seen the phrase rope-a-dope with my eyes, but I can’t remember ever actually reading any article or book that contained it; in other words, I have probably glossed over it somewhere along the line but never stuck around to read anything around it to absorb context. I have never used the phrase myself and don’t listen to any kind of talk-radio program (sports or news) that would use it. If I had to guess what it meant, just from the sound of it I would guess “rinky-dink”; so I would have imagined that a rope-a-dope tactic meant some piddly, lame attempt by someone to do something; piddly/lame either because the attempter couldn’t muster the strength, or really didn’t want to. If I had to guess by looking at the words (rope a dope), I would have thought it was some tactic of pulling wool over someone’s eyes, tricking them, reeling in an unsuspecting victim…whatever. As you said Maeve, there are clearer phrases available for use.

  6. You’re right that sports metaphors strike out (sorry) when some readers don’t share the context.

    Here, a sports term that corresponds better to a simple “delaying tactic” might be “four corners,” a tactic perfected by Dean Smith, coach of the University of North Carolina’s basketball team. His Tarheels would take a small lead early in the game, then stall for the remaining 30 minutes by passing the ball around the four corners of the rectangular court. (This was so boring that they basketball gods eventually established a time period within which a team had to shoot–today’s ubiquitous “shot clock.”)

    “Rope-a-dope” perfectly captures not only the delay but also the Senate’s concern that Iran is wearing down the international community’s resolve. But the expression is a swing and a miss if everyone doesn’t understand it. Give me a yellow card and send me off… I’m done.

  7. I think you may be mistaking a sports metaphor issue for a generational or age issue. Given that the term rope-a-dope came about 40 years ago, those under 40 may not be as familiar with it. I say 40 because the term had wide currency well beyond sports while Ali was still semi-active in boxing; but that has been at least a couple decades ago.On the other hand, anyone who has ever watched any documentary about Muhammad Ali has encountered it.

  8. Should be Red Card…not Yellow (yellow is caution…red is send off).
    And no black card in soccer (blue in indoor…) – re: .

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