[Note: The story that follows is, in part, about a boxing match. Now I don’t know how you feel about boxing. You may love it, or you may feel that it is the height of senseless brutality. I can see both viewpoints. But this article is not *only* about boxing so, however you feel, read until the end and I promise you a payoff, ok? Good.]
Will I tell you about the greatest boxing match in the history of all the world?
On the 30th of October, 1974 in Kinshasha, Zaire, Mohammad Ali faced off against the most terrifying force boxing had ever seen. George Foreman was a destroyer of men. A taker of souls. Powerful, ferocious, and skilled in equal measure. To be hit by George Foreman was to be run over by a tank.
Fighters did not get back up.
No one thought Ali could win. No one. But, when those who needed a byline for a story, or those who needed an interview, or those who were simply curious asked him what he was going to do in the fight he would say: I’m gonna dance. I’m too fast. That big ol’ bear won’t be able to touch me. He’s too slow. Slow like The Mummy. Too slow! I’m going to dance and jab and dance and jab and dance and dance and dance.
He was lying.
No-one knows if Ali knew he was lying, or whether he just changed his plans on the fly but, on the night of the fight, after a spectacular first round (in which he hit Foreman with a series of punches designed to damage, insult, and infuriate in equal measure) when Foreman’s blood was boiling, and he was truly insensed – crazed beyond limit and intent on annihilation, Ali did the exact opposite of what he’d spent months telling anyone who’d listen he would do. He didn’t dance. He didn’t jab. He didn’t run. Instead, he lay back on the ropes, put up his guard, and let Foreman wail on him.
The crowd were amazed. The commentators, incredulous. His corner, furious. Get off the ropes they screamed as Foreman threw blow after thunderous blow. Move goddammit! You have to move!
But he didn’t move.
Instead, round after round he lay on the ropes, as calm as a man at his desk. Leaning back to avoid the punches he could avoid, rolling with the ones he could not, and taking square those which he had no choice but to take. And he was talking to Foreman. You don’t punch that hard, George. They told me you punched hard. You couldn’t pop popcorn, George. You look like your getting tired. Better look out, George. You look like you’re getting real tired.
For 8 rounds this was the pattern: Ali leaning back on the ropes, Foreman wailing on him, and the whole audience watching for the moment in which Ali would inevitably fall. He has to go down, they said. He can’t take much more. No-one can take this kind of beating.
But then something unexpected happened.
Near the end of the eighth, in the midst of yet another barrage of punches, Ali peeked around his gloves and saw something. He extended his arms, pushing Foreman away and creating a little space then, with an almost balletic grace he danced off the ropes, his footwork as smooth and sure as oil on a river. He cut the angle just right and, at the perfect moment, threw a single punch.
As Foreman fell time seemed to slow. Ali pivoted with him, his arm poised, but not throwing. Not doing anything that would interrupt the line of Foreman’s journey towards the canvas. Ali watched until he hit the ground and then walked calmly to his corner as the referee counted Foreman out.
Ali was the Heavyweight Champion of the world.
As one the crowd in the stadium went crazy, screaming joyeously at Ali (for he had been their favorite all along). Ali in turn climbed on the corner of the ringpost and pumped his fist back at them adding his voice to theirs as the heavens opened and the African rains, which had been threatening all week, began to crash down.
It was an epic moment. Beautiful, and wildly cinematic, but many moments are thus. So what was it that made this the greatest fight in boxing history? Was it because of who Ali was? Was it because of the skill of the two men? Was it because of where the fight had taken place?
The fight was great was because it spoke to something much larger than itself. The Rumble in The Jungle was an 8 round microcosm of life; an imperfect mirror held up by bloody, gloved hands to the one journey we all share, yet each of us must walk alone.
In the West we tend to glorify youth and perfection; the new, the shiny. We like things just out of the box, high-end and without flaw. There are good things that spring from this aesthetic (iPhone anyone?) but it’s shadow side is often a negativity around things like age, sickness, damage, or perceived disability.
If perfection is king, any kind of damage must make you ‘lesser-than’, right?
In Japan there is an art called Kintsugi. This is something that I’ve written about before. When a bowl (or other object) breaks it is not repaired to conceal the damage, but instead craftsmen use real gold to mend the cracks and (this is the key) the object is considered more beautiful for having been broken.
Hidden within this aesthetic (also called ‘Wabi Sabi’) is the seed of a much healthier approach to the ever-changing, ever-messy, ever-beautiful process of life.
Because the good life is not a perfect and flawless life, but instead a life of meaning. A life where the things we do are meaningful to us. It is this meaning that enables us to endure, even the toughest of times for, as Nietzsche said:
‘He who has a strong enough Why can bear any How.’
Which is good news because (spoiler alert) there are going to be hard times.
You may not like it but for as long as you live you will take damage. This quiet fact is as inevitable as it is non-negotiable. You have little to no control over what happens to you and little to no control over the damage you take, but you are absolutely sovereign in both your attitude and your reactions. Which means you get to choose your own ‘why’. And when you find a reason worth fighting for, damage and hardship become, not a burden, but a ‘choice. And in that moment your scars are revealed for what they truly are, not markers of shame, but badges of honor; each hard-won and proudly displayed in a beautiful map of your time here on earth.
Maybe your problems will be huge. Maybe, at some point you’ll even be faced with your very own George Foreman…
This is not a bad thing.
Why? Well, let me ask you a question: what makes a story great? Is it the strength of hero? No. It is the size of the opponent. Think about it. The bigger and scarier the bad guy the better the story (because stories, like fights, can also be reflections of life.) Hard times are just bigger challenges if you view them from the right mountaintop, and there is power and magic in simply choosing to endure. The Rumble in The Jungle wasn’t great because of Ali, it was great because of Foreman. It was great because Foreman was unbeatable, and yet Ali refused to be beat.
Hard moments may seem unfair, but they contain a gift, for it is only in the very hardest of moments that you get to choose who you really are.
So decide now. What is truly meaningful for you? And how will you view the inevitable damage life will throw your way? Will you decide ahead of time to stand tall and accept the slings and arrows? To keep moving forward at all costs and wear the scars of each and every day with the fierce pride that they deserve?
Because if you can do that (and I believe you can) and if you can carry on doing it for long enough, then maybe, just maybe you’ll see something.
And maybe in one shining moment life will rise up through you in a glorious wave and you’ll start to dance, and time will slow as you flow forward with a grace you didn’t think possible, careful as a leopard and smooth as oil on a river. Maybe you’ll see an opening in the midst of the raging hurricane, and maybe you’ll throw one perfect shot.
And the crowd will roar, and the heavens will open, and the rain will come falling down, and all the world will wonder how they didn’t see.
Because in that moment, my beautiful friend,
You’ll be king of the world.
Love – J x
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