On the ropes
The current figurative meaning of being on the verge of defeat or in dire straits dates from the 1950s. It derives from boxing when a boxer is up against the ropes and therefore on the verge of defeat and is first cited in this literal sense from 1829. Muhammad Ali, however, made nonsense of the idiom when he defeated the then world heavyweight champion George Foreman in 1974. Ali deliberately positioned himself on the ropes to let Foreman tire himself out in a technique that was then dubbed ‘rope-a-dope’.