Elements of an Underdog Victory
Updated: Jun 13
By Michael Whaby
“Going in one more round when you don’t think you can. That’s what makes all the difference in your life.” – Rocky Balboa
Underdogs—the ones who rose from the bottom. When people think of underdogs, they probably think of a time when the underdogs won a surprising upset. Think David vs. Goliath; think Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed in the movie Rocky; think Average Joes vs. Globo Gym in the movie Dodgeball; think Philadelphia Eagles vs. New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Here’s what all of these stories have in common: It’s the little guys vs. the big guys. (Sorry, Philadelphia Eagles.) And we love stories like these.
But here is the bitter truth: Underdogs usually don’t win. Our attention is always drawn to monumental wins of underdogs (like with the examples I provided above), which might trick our brains into associating underdogs with struggle and prevail. But they don’t always prevail. When they do win, however, it is seen as astounding and inspiring event.
Here, I want to pick apart some of these iconic examples of underdogs. In particular, I want to talk about how the underdogs that win, do so. We’ll see how the underdog, David, used just about every one of Goliath’s strengths against him, and how similar the plots of the movies Dodgeball and Rocky are. Something that many underdogs have in common: they don’t play the game how everyone else does.
In his book, David And Goliath, Malcom Gladwell opens up with talking about the famous story of, none other than, David and Goliath. Most people tell this story as if the odds were against David; Gladwell instead analyzes it from the standpoint that, the odds were actually against Goliath. He argued his claim by stating that all of the attributes that made Goliath unbeatable, in fact, led to his fall against David.
How could that be? Most of our initial thought probably go right to the size and strength of Goliath, and maybe even how much experience he has battling, making the fact that he is undefeated even more impressive. Goliath has proven so strong and powerful that he can destroy any person [in battle] that is within arm’s reach. …within arm’s reach. And right there, in that last description, lies the first advantage for David that most people might recognize and know.
There were, however, more advantages for David that are overlooked, Gladwell explains: The first was already mentioned; the second is the heavy armor that Goliath wore—it slowed him down; the third is that Goliath’s behemoth size and his physical description imply that he might have suffered from a disorder called acromegaly, a condition where the pituitary gland in the brain produces too much growth hormone. If true, Goliath may owe his downfall to acromegaly. And not because of his size, but because of another complication associated with acromegaly: blurred vision.
As implied earlier, David fought from a distance. Goliath was used to challenging his competitors in battle in close combat; close enough where vision isn’t a problem for him. So David, knowing if he faced Goliath face-to-face, he’d be stepped on like an insect, fought with a weapon known as a staff sling—and happened to be a very skilled staff slinger, especially with slinging stones. Fun fact: A skilled staff slinger can accurately launch a stone from over 1,000 feet. So, indeed, from a distance, where vision was potentially a problem for Goliath, David landed a deadly stone-headshot that would claim his victory, and the death of Goliath.
Goliath never saw it coming.
Underdog Strategies are difficult
If you’ve ever seen the movie Dodgeball, do you remember the Five D’s of Dodgeball? Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and….dodge. This is what the crazy, former professional dodgeball player taught Average Joes, the underdog team. Average Joes had to beat Globo Gym-a gym that was threatening to forcefully buy out Average Joes-to win enough money to keep their gym. A distinction between the two teams is their motives: Average Joes has something the lose while Globo Gym doesn’t.
Let’s talk about the training regimen of Average Joes, and their crazy coach, Patches O’Houlihan. One of the most famous lines in the whole movie comes from Patches: If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. After saying this, he lunged a wrench right at a player’s head. It hit him and he fell to the ground holding his face. (I’m laughing just thinking about the scene.) Patches had trained them in such an unorthodox manner, but this ultimately gave them the edge that they needed to win.
One more, even more iconic, movie example: Rocky. Rocky, a small-time boxer in Philly, gets a shot at the world champion, Apollo Creed. Honestly, Rocky is the underdog in all of the Rocky movies, and he trained like one, too. The one movie that he didn’t train like an underdog, he lost. But then later in that movie, only after training like an underdog after losing, he won the rematch.
Rocky wasn’t dodging wrenches to prepare for dodging punches, but he was doing things like chasing chickens and blasting slabs of meat in a meat warehouse like they were punching bags. And he too had a crazy, but effective trainer: Mick. Mick was to Rocky as Patches was to Average Joe’s. This unorthodox training, along with Rocky’s sheer determination to go the distance, translated into his remarkable ability to get blasted in the face round after round, but never fall for a 10-count. Rocky, basically pulled from the streets of Philly, became the first to go the distance against Apollo Creed.
Underdogs win in unusual ways—ways that their opponents don’t expect. On top of the adversity endured amid rising from the bottom, underdogs often employ strategies that are unorthodox and difficult because beating champions at their game doesn’t happen by playing the game the same way as them. It happens by catching them off guard. Goliath never expected David to be a whiz with a staff sling and to fight from a distance just like Apollo Creed never expected Rocky to make it out of Round 1.
What all of these stories have in common is an underdog who relates to the majority of the audience. Most of us aren’t protégés or undefeated champions, so it’s sometimes harder to relate with the opposition of the underdog. Underdogs teach us that the road to success doesn’t have to be how everyone else got there; however, that realization can be compromised by comparing yourself to others. If you’re always watching what other people do, then you’ll always be a step behind, following in their shadows. Authenticity, however, can set you apart from the crowd.
Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Back Bay Books-Little, Brown and Company, 2015.