Monday, 26 July 2010

The Underdog

This article was featured in the July 2010 issue of Combat Magazine.

It’s hard to define why the role of the underdog has such an important place in mixed martial arts. In a sport where anything can change in a split second and where an infinite number of variables govern the difference between having your hand raised and being woken up it is inevitable that upsets will happen. With the rate that the sport continues to evolve there is incredible talent all over the world away from the bright lights of the bigger shows. There are a number of reasons why fans get behind the underdogs and why some fighters shine in this position.

Randy Couture, perhaps the greatest achieving underdog in the UFC, often talks about his love for fighting the odds and looking at his record of title reigns in different weight classes it would be hard to argue with him.

Randy Couture’s victory against Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 back in March 2007 ranks as one of the great examples of an underdog victory. Couture was coming out of retirement after a year away from the sport, following his second loss to Chuck Liddell. He was given commentating duties by the UFC and it was after watching Tim Sylvia’s lacklustre performances against Andrei Arlovski and Jeff Monson that he was spurred into action. Couture signed a new deal with the UFC and was given a title shot against the much favoured Sylvia. All the press before the fight had referenced the factors that stood in the way of Couture’s unlikely victory which included his age, weight, reach, stand up and power. A Captain America victory seemed a long shot at best.

The fight was merely 8 seconds old when a punch connected that bought the entire arena to their feet. Couture threw a leg kick and followed it up with a swooping overhand right which caught Sylvia cleanly on the chin, sending him flailing to the canvas. Couture quickly swarmed on his downed foe and took his back, which he would keep for the entire of the first round. This incident dictated the whole of the fight as Couture defied the odds once again by out-wrestling, out-striking and out-working the heavily favoured champion. It was a performance that embodied the spirit of the underdog perfectly to the fight community; the fight community that remembered Buster Douglas, that cheered for Daniel Larusso and would have bought the pay per view for David vs. Goliath if it was available.

Randy Couture is a perfect example of a fighter who takes the role of the underdog and creates a positive outcome from it. He realised that the pressure in this situation wasn’t on him. However if he won then he would be the era defining champion, who overcame the insurmountable odds. In this situation it is easy to see why the more favoured fighter feels pressure in this situation as they don’t have a great deal to gain from victory but stand to lose a lot from defeat.  Couture also talked about the motivational aspect that this role can give by encouraging fighters to train hard to prove  a point to the people who doubted their abilities.

The fight world was still reeling after Couture’s epic encounter with Sylvia when TUF4 champion Matt Serra took on George “Rush” St Pierre at UFC 69. The bookmakers had St Pierre as a heavy favourite at -1300, 1/13 in fractional odds. GSP was on a trail of destruction in the UFC and had recently stopped legendary champion Matt Hughes in two blistering rounds. He was the archetypal dominant athlete at 170lbs and one that seemed to represent the future of the division.

Throughout the taping of TUF4, Serra’s never say die attitude had become a big part of his appeal to the fans. He worked hard for both himself and his team and his prize for winning the show was a shot at the French Canadian. As he made his way into the arena it was clear he was determined to make this opportunity count. Serra came in at +850, nearly 9/1, against St Pierre which still remains some of the longest odds ever given to a UFC fighter.

As the fight began it was a much nervier opening than a lot of people had predicted. Serra and GSP both stayed on the outside and threw speculative shots. It was clear that Serra was not overwhelmed by St Pierre and as each second ticked on he seemed to find more and more confidence as he threw effective leg kicks and body shots. The round continued on and just when it seemed that George was about to find his “rhythm” he was clipped by an overhand right that seemed to completely shatter his equilibrium.  Serra seemed almost in disbelief for a second but soon looked to maintain the pressure as St Pierre backed up and looked for some respite.

Serra sensed his foe was hurt and quickly landed more and more punches until a thunderous right hand took the young champion clean off his feet. It was all the arena could do not to explode as Matt Serra, the 19/2 underdog, took the mount position and unleashed a barrage of punches which forced the champion to tap out.
It was a moment that will surely live forever in the history of the sport.

The fans celebrated their new champion who, with a mixture of indomitable spirit and likeable demeanour, had won both the hearts of the mma community and the UFC welterweight title. Even Serra himself looked somewhat surprised when Dana White wrapped the belt around his waist and Bruce Buffer announced him as the champion.

Why do the fight public love an underdog? In many ways because it is a position that anyone can relate to. Most people have, at one time, been put in a position where the odds were stacked against them and can empathise with a fighter who seems to be overmatched. Upset victories are the cornerstone of millions of books, films and screenplays the world over simply because they represent a triumph of the human spirit.

Mixed martial arts will always have shocks as long as the margin between success and failure is defined by the thickness of a 4oz glove. I’ll finish with a question. How many Rocky films have you seen? If it’s a number between one and six then I’m sure you’ll understand why the underdog will always be the most intriguing and entertaining concept in the fight game today and why the fight community will always embrace a fighter who battles the odds as well as his opponent.

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