Strategy - The Art Of Fighting Smart

04.06.06 - By W. Gregory Guedel: Many attributes go into the making of a champion boxer. Strength, speed, reflexes – and a high threshold for pain – are essential elements for any world-class fighter. Yet there is another aspect of the fight game that is just as crucial but is often overlooked by the casual spectator – strategy. To properly prepare for a bout, the hours spent training in the gym must be supplemented by a comprehensive study of one’s opponent. Identifying the adversary’s style of fighting, discerning patterns in punching and defensive tactics, and determining points of vulnerability are part of the fundamental research needed to create advantage in the ring. Applying this information in sparring sessions helps prepare a fighter to exploit specific opportunities and develop a roadmap to victory.

Strategies, both good and bad, have been a decisive factor in many championship fights. Some strategies have produced stunning upsets, while others have resulted in defeats that seem glaringly predictable in hindsight. To illustrate the impact of the fight plan on the outcome of title matches, a review of some historic “Best and Worst” fight strategies is enlightening.

Best Strategies

Sugar Ray Leonard v. Roberto Duran II, November 25, 1980.

In their first meeting, Duran overwhelmed the slick-boxing Leonard with punishing body shots and relentless aggression. Afterward, Leonard surmised that the rematch would be won not inside the ropes, but inside Duran’s head. When they met again in the Superdome, Leonard demonstrated his mastery of psychological warfare. He brazenly taunted Duran during the match, making faces and clowning with bolo punches, all the while boxing smartly from the outside to avoid Duran’s inside strength. A bewildered Duran seemed unsure how to react, and his uncertainty provided opportunities for Leonard to score points. Although Duran was far from physically beaten in the fight, Leonard’s antics rendered him unable to focus mentally. In the 8th round, Duran was completely flummoxed and quit the bout with the legendary surrender: “No Mas”.

Muhammad Ali v. George Foreman, October 30, 1974.

Foreman’s violent destruction of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, both of whom had previously beaten Ali, caused many pundits to fear for Ali’s safety prior to “The Rumble in the Jungle”. While Foreman’s power was truly menacing, Ali knew that Big George had rarely been taken into the “deep water” of the later rounds in his prior fights. Ali invented a strategy he dubbed “Rope-a-Dope”, wherein he laid against the ropes and covered up defensively, allowing Foreman to fire away with big punches round after round. While Ali muted the force of the incoming blows by blocking with his arms and gloves, George began to wear down under the heat of Kinshasa and his own exertion. In the 8th round, an exhausted Foreman lost his title when Ali spun off the ropes to land a knockout combination. Despite its effectiveness, Ali would pay a terrible price for employing the “Rope-a-Dope” in this and subsequent bouts, as he absorbed tremendous physical punishment in the process of tiring out his opponents.

James “Buster” Douglas v. Mike Tyson, February 11, 1990.

Reigning champion Tyson was such a prohibitive favorite in this fight that most bookmakers would not even accept bets on the match; those that did listed Douglas as a 40-1 underdog. The only apparent advantage Douglas held was in height and reach, although he had rarely demonstrated proficiency in using these advantages in previous bouts against much lesser competition. This fight would be different. Tyson needed to work in close to Douglas to land power shots, but Douglas used the long jab and his superior reach to keep Tyson out of range. If Tyson launched a bull-rush to force his way inside, Douglas countered with perfectly-timed straight rights that stopped Mike’s forward momentum. When Tyson did manage to get inside, Douglas fired accurate uppercuts or smartly clinched to prevent Mike from inflicting damage. By the 10th round, a battered and exhausted Tyson was sent to the canvas by a Douglas combination and was down for the count. Although Iron Mike was clearly not at his best for this fight, on paper even a half-ready Tyson should have easily handled the underachieving Douglas. The difference on this night was that Buster entered the ring with a logical fight plan that matched his strengths against Tyson’s weaknesses, and then aggressively executed that plan to perfection. The result was the biggest upset in the history of heavyweight boxing.

Worst Strategies

Floyd Patterson v. Sonny Liston II, July 22, 1963.

In their first meeting, Liston brutally knocked Patterson out in the first round and took the Heavyweight crown. Given the severity of the knock out, Patterson’s trainer Cus D’Amato advised him against even accepting a rematch. Considering that Liston’s finishing blow in their first match had rendered Patterson immobile for several minutes, some significant changes in fight plan were obviously necessary. Clearly unable to withstand Liston’s power, Patterson’s only hope would have been to use movement to stay out of range, clinch effectively when Liston closed the distance, and hope the champion would tire in the later rounds. The problem with Patterson’s strategy for their second fight was that it was no different from the first. Patterson stood in front of Liston again in their second encounter, was floored three times, and was again knocked out in the first round.

Michael Grant v. Lennox Lewis, April 29, 2000.

At the time of this match, Lewis was the reigning Heavyweight Champion of the World, but Grant was viewed as heir to the throne. At 6’7” and 250 pounds, Grant was a chiseled specimen who seemed to possess the youth, athleticism, and telegenic personality to be the future of the division. Although Grant had numerous early stoppages in the beginning of his career, his last four fights against higher-level competition prior to Lewis had all gone nine rounds or more, and he won by wearing his opponents down in the latter stages with his size and stamina. However, his strategy against Lewis completely disregarded the lessons of these prior successes. From the opening bell, Grant charged Lewis and fired heavy shots in an apparent attempt to take the champion out early. Lewis used his superior boxing skills (honed with amateur boxing experience that Grant lacked) to dodge Grant’s punches, and proceeded to answer with his own arsenal. Unable to dodge or absorb Lewis’s blows, Grant went down repeatedly in the first round, barely managing to make it to the bell. Neither he nor his trainers made an attempt to adjust his approach for the next round, and Lewis finished matters with an emphatic second-round knockout.

Oscar DeLaHoya v. Felix Trinidad, September 18, 1999.

The irony of this example is that for the first two-thirds of the bout, Oscar DeLaHoya’s strategy was brilliant. He boxed masterfully, using movement and timing to avoid Trinidad’s vaunted power and land blows of his own. This stick-and-move approach was so effective that by the 8th round Trinidad’s white trunks were spattered red with his own blood. About that time, Oscar altered his approach to the fight. His cornermen were absolutely positive that he was so far ahead that only a knockout could beat him. They instructed Oscar to avoid pressing the action, stay away from Trinidad’s heavy right hand, and just dance clear of his opponent’s range. Oscar dutifully complied, and took little punishment in the last quarter of the fight. However, these last rounds are considered “the championship rounds”, and in close matches the fighter who out-works his opponent in these stanzas often wins the judges’ favor. Such was the case here, as the judges rewarded Trinidad for continuing to press the action through the end of the fight despite producing relatively little damage. The old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies to strategic planning just as in other fields, and Oscar gave away a victory that seemed clearly his by abandoning a proven strategy before the final bell.

Strategy alone is of course not sufficient to produce a world title. As Mike Tyson famously observed: “Everybody has a plan – until they get hit in the face.” Nevertheless, developing a sound strategy is a critical component of success in the ring. Between evenly-matched opponents, the boxer with the better fight plan is likely to prevail. Even a physically overmatched fighter can find a way to win with a strategy that effectively accounts for the relative strengths and weaknesses on both sides. Sun Tzu’s philosophy that “Every battle is won before it is ever fought” reflects the importance of insightful strategic planning prior to the opening bell. Boxing may be a physical sport, but the psychological element of strategy is often the measure of difference between an inspired victory and a frustrating defeat.

Article posted on 05.06.2006

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