No one had given Muhammad Ali a chance against George Foreman in the World heavyweight Championship fight of October 30, 1974. Foreman, none of whose opponents had lasted more than three rounds in the ring, was the strongest, hardest hitting boxer of his generation. Ali, though not as powerful as Foreman, had a slightly faster punch and was lighter on his feet. In the weeks leading up to the fight, however, Foreman had practiced against nimble sparring partners. He was ready. But when the bell rang just after 4:00 a.m. in Kinshasa, something completely unexpected happened. In round two, instead of moving into the ring to meet Foreman, Ali appeared to cower against the ropes. Foreman, now confident of victory, pounded him again and again, while Ali whispered hoarse taunts: “George, you’re not hittin’,” “George, you disappoint me.” Foreman lost his temper, and his punches became a furious blur. To spectators, unaware that the elastic ring ropes were absorbing much of the force of Foreman’s blows, it looked as if Ali would surely fall. By the fifth round, however, Foreman was worn out. And in round eight, as stunned commentators and a delirious crowd looked on, Muhammad Ali knocked George Foreman to the canvas, and the fight was over.
This fight illustrates an important yet relatively unexplored feature of interstate conflict: how a weak actor’s strategy can make a strong actor’s power irrelevant. If power implies victory in war, then weak actors should almost never win against stronger opponents, especially when the gap in relative power is very large. Yet history suggests otherwise: Weak actors sometimes do win. The question is how.
Read more: How the Weak Win Wars? A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict