Most of the people I really admire are trying to do something amazing in the face of great adversity. The artists trying to express the heart of something. The start-up teams trying to do the impossible. The critics holding everyone to the highest standards. Anyone fighting the odds to do something great.
The first phase of building Songkick hasn’t been easy, and if we’re going to make a lasting contribution to live music then there are major, daunting obstacles ahead. When dealing with a daunting challenge, I often think of When We Were Kings, the documentary about the Ali / Forman fight in Zaire. I love boxing. It’s a sport where a champion can come from anywhere. It’s all about the quest for greatness, and the value of ‘heart’. It’s an amazing metaphor for the struggle to make something happen against huge odds.
The documentary captures a point in history when some of the smartest voices in culture were following boxing. From Norman Mailer to George Plimpton, the talking heads are brilliant insightful voices. Step by step they follow Ali and Forman through their training, the days leading up to the fight, and the night itself.
Going into the fight Forman is younger, stronger, heavier than Ali - the odds were 7-1 in Forman’s favour. Early in the film they show footage of Forman pounding the heaviest hanging bag leaving dents the size of a watermelon in it. It’s an unbelievably daunting image. As much as you know of Ali’s speed and his skill - the force with which Forman hits the bag is terrifying. The rest of the film explores how Ali goes about winning arguably the hardest fight of his career.
Ali’s first shot against Forman starts well before the fight, when he travels around the towns in Zaire meeting the people, and showing them that his fight is their fight. He teaches them a chant – “Ali, Bomaye” - Ali, Kill him. The night of the fight almost the entire crowd is chanting it, and it messes with Forman in a powerful way. It goes from one man fighting another to a crowd standing for what Ali symbolises. If you want to beat the odds you have to find that crowd of people who want it to happen as much as you. And you have to make their fight your fight.
2. Change the game.
Ali does something super unusual when the fight starts. He hits Forman with a ‘right hand lead’. To understand the significance of this you have to think about the body positions of two right handed boxers facing each other. They stand with their left shoulders closer to their opponent than their right. Their left hand is up ready to jab out, and the right stays back protecting the right side of their head from the powerful right of their opponent. In the case of Forman that right hand was truly brutal and only a crazy man would consider what Ali does next.
Ali leads out at Forman with his right – a right hand lead. Given his body position his right fist has to travel much further to strike than his left would, so it requires incredible speed. During that time, he leaves himself exposed on the right, to that deadly blow from Forman. His hands are so fast though that he takes the risk and Forman, never expecting anyone to try that is hit multiple times square on - 12 right hand leads in total. The kind of punches that you would expect to tip the fight in Ali’s favour. It’s an incredible tactical move. And one that against a less powerful opponent should have set Ali up to win. And he does it out of nowhere. There was no signal in all the training camp sessions that he was preparing this. He changes the game on Forman.
3. Go to the ropes.
But Forman is something else. A force of nature unlike anyone Ali has fought. Despite the crowd and the right hand lead combinations he stays up and Ali has to think of something else. Mailer is sitting ringside, and as the bell for the end of a round goes he describes the moment:
Ali went back to the corner…
Finally the nightmare he’d been awaiting in the ring
had finally come to visit him.
He was in the ring with a man he could not dominate,
who was stronger than him, who was not afraid of him,
who’d try to knock him out, and who punched harder than Ali,
and this man was determined and unstoppable.
Ali had a look on his face that I’ll never forget.
It was the only time I ever saw fear in Ali’s eyes.’
Ali looked as if he looked into himself and said,
“All right, this is the moment.
This is what you’ve been waiting for.
This is…that hour.
Do you have the guts?” And he kind of nodded,
like, “Really got to get it together, boy.
“You are gonna get it together… you WILL get it together.”
You can see this moment at the end of the scene I’ve embedded above. Ali gets up from that round and goes to the ropes. Round after round he takes a fearsome punishment from Forman – blow after blow after blow. Huge, bone shattering blows that he has to resist with every inch of his being. It looks to everyone like it’s over:
‘And a lot of people thought that moment the fight was over.
‘Especially on TV, it looked like Foreman was killing a very weak Ali.’
But he resists, he stays up and then many rounds later, with Forman exhausted from the marathon - he strikes. He strikes fearsomely and knocks Forman down. The image from that moment has looked down from bedroom walls ever since.
It’s fucking incredible. If you’ve not seen this film you have to.
Somehow this fight has become a symbol I take inspiration from when I’m feeling overwhelmed by how hard it can feel. How daunted I am. I remember to find the smartest and best intentioned allies to collaborate with. I try to find the most innovative way to approach the problem and change the game.
But if none of that works? You have to go to the ropes.
When I look for people to work with I think that’s really what I’m looking for. Someone who will be as inspiring as they can. As smart and innovative as they can. Someone who will change the rules of the game so it’s not less about working hard – and more about thinking different. But if they have exhausted all other options – they’ll go to the ropes and find a way through.