The Underdog Story – A Million to One Shot

‘Ah come on, Adrian, it's true. I was nobody. But that don't matter either, you know? 'Cause I was thinkin', it really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighbourhood.’  Rocky (1976).

The role of the underdog is one that is necessary in sport. It gives hope to the Everyman. It gives hope to the regular fan. It gives hope to us. If they can achieve ‘that’ then I can achieve ‘this’.  It’s the universal story of the person who shouldn’t be able to achieve their dreams. It’s also referred to as ‘the Rocky story’ the film with the poster tag-line ‘His whole life was a million to one shot’. That in itself was based on Chuck Wepner’s 1975 fight against Muhammed Ali. No one gave Wepner a chance. He would be knocked out in the first round. He went fifteen and shocked the word. These things shouldn’t happen but it’s about commitment. It’s about ‘fight’. It’s about heart.

Everyone this summer, from writers to fans to wrestlers, is talking about Daniel Bryan and his rise to prominence. This is both a storyline rise from 18 second Wrestlemania knockout to Summerslam 2013 main event, but also the story of the small statured independent wrestler who was ‘fired’ from WWE after the initial Nexus attack and has had to drag himself back up the ladder every since, to this point. Every match for Bryan feels like it might be his last. Every match has the dynamic that when his shoulders hit the mat he might be counted out. Every match has an attempt at the unlikely comeback. All you have to do it watch the most talked about match of last week, Bryan versus Cesaro, to see that. The underdog has a series of obstacles places in their way. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed. It is always, however, part of the journey to the top.

Wrestling needs the underdog gimmick. The WWE writers have even tried to paint Cena in this light during every one of his main bouts this year. Royal Rumble, The Rock, Ryback and Mark Henry. At each point the ‘underdog’ dynamic was utilised but it doesn’t work with a wrester like Cena because he is a powerhouse. He is ‘Super-Cena’. He has defeated, well, everyone. We can’t associate ourselves with him. It’s interesting that the biggest challenge of Cena’s year to date is a 5ft 10in technical wrestler with a half foot of beard hanging from his chin. For the writers of this feud, Bryan is a far bigger threat because it took years before Cena finally prevailed over CM Punk. How can he do the same against someone with the speed, ability and desire at the first time of asking? The underdog is dangerous because they know ‘their whole life is a million to one shot’.

Being the underdog can come at any point in the career of a sportsperson however. The Ric Flair retirement angle of 2007-2008 is a classic case in point. How do you make a 16-time World Champion an underdog? How do you make a man who has beaten them all the ‘little man’? How do you take a career that’s lasted over 40 years and make him the scared human being we perhaps all are inside? Easy. You threaten to take away the career, the job, the life that defines him. Add on the element of age in a young man’s game and you have the November 26th 2007 edition of Raw where Flair declared ‘I will never retire’. From there, as per Vince McMahon’s directive, every singles match Flair participated in might have been his last as it was ‘win or bust’. He beat Randy Orton, Umaga, even Triple H. No-one could put him down. The underdog was taking on the evil corporate boss and sticking it to him. Then came the bout to seal his fate. The Wrestlemania match against his friend, Shawn Michaels. It was the perfect ending to the underdog story for Flair. Michaels didn’t want to do it. He didn’t even want to fire up Sweet Chin Music. Then came the defining moment, the underdog who got back up (‘Down! Stay down!’ as Mickey says in the original ‘Rocky’). Flair dragged himself back up, tears in his eyes and told Michaels to fight him. Michaels, tears in his eyes also said the words ‘I’m sorry. I love you’ and retired one of the greatest of all time. In the same way Rocky films make me cry because of the emotion involved, this moment, along with Edge’s retirement and other such huge moments, always brings a tear to my eye. The underdog never gave up, even when he knew the bell had already rung.

 

Some of the best underdog stories, no matter how short, come when we as fans think ‘that could be me but for the grace ofGod’. On April 16th 2007 in Milan, a bald, angry Vince brought down an equally angry, dreadlocked Umaga and issued an open challenge with the Intercontinental Championship on the line as bait. No-one in the locker room appeared. There was silence on the stage. The challenge was then broadened to anyone. Wrestlers, concession stand workers and fans. When McMahon picked a young Italian in a brown shirt, blue jeans and orange trainers who then hopped over the barriers, the crowd popped like the best of WWE crowds throughout the years. Yes, if you had paid attention to Ohio Valley Wrestling in the years leading up to that hot night in Italy, you might have heard of an Anthony Carelli or a Johnny Geo Basco or even the Russian Boris Alexiev. Most, however, had not. There in the middle of the ring was one of them with a chance at the title. Yes, the odds were not good, one might even say a ‘million to one’ but he had the fighter’s chance. Santino had gone from nobody to a someone within minutes, the crowd chanting the name of their no-hoper hero. He fought well, too well in fact and McMahon changed the bout to a No-Holds-Barred match. Reality had hit and so did Umaga. Again and again. And then Bobby Lashley appeared, destroyed the big man and helped the fan win the title. The underdog had struck again.

The role of the underdog is there to give us all hope. They have a need, a desire to achieve their dreams. We need that in life. We all have hopes for the future, places we want to be in ten years time. We work, we scrimp, we save to try and get to the top of our selected areas. We want to find love, and success and happiness. We hit many obstacles along the way but these things are sent to try us. Wrestling shows these obstacles often in the shape of 6ft 6in muscle bound Goliaths but, as per the ultimate underdog, there is always a David with a stone and a slingshot. The ‘Goliath’, the obstacle, needs to be a monster but also needs to have no doubt in their mind. They have never considered losing and that, in effect, creates the weakness.

Goliath was, according to the Dead Sea Scrolls, 6ft 9in. He was a monster (later accounts have him as 9ft 9in as his stature, literally, grew). You need a monster like this to often create the underdog in a superstar. Andre the Giant, all 7ft 4in of him was just such as man to fight the leading corporate poster boy in 6ft 7in Hulk Hogan. The build came with the help of Bobby Heenan, accusing Hogan of using Andre and also being scared of his new monster signing. When Andre drew blood as he ripped a crucifix from Hogan’s neck, the bout was set. We know how it went down. It is wrestling’s ‘David and Goliath’ story. The beating Hogan took before the ‘bodyslam heard around the world’. It was shocking to see though. The smaller man wasn’t supposed to be able to do that (the move or the win). It fed Hulk Hogan and his ‘maniacs’ for years to come but also created the problem that, when David has beaten Goliath, who does he fight next of that stature? Ironically, Andre had lready fought that other plucky underdog Chuck Wepner in a 1976 charity bout but this time The Giant won by throwing him out of the ring.

 

The variety of underdogs is as important as their overall role. For every Zack Ryder battling to save his WWE career at every point via YouTube, music videos and Internet Titles, there is a CM Punk trying to prove everyone wrong. We as fans can associate with this. We encounter it every day in our working lives. It is when the emotion is heightened, though, that we find ourselves drawn in and rooting for the one who shouldn’t, who couldn’t win.

When Eddie Guerrero (another plucky underdog in both life and wrestling) passed away, the mantle was passed, not to Chavo but to Rey Mysterio. The little man who had entertained in ECW, WCW and now WWE. He was leader of the cruiserweight division, a division well known for containing underdog upon underdog. The men who would be kept down because of their size. At 5ft 6in, he fills the Daniel Bryan model when it comes to size and spirit. After Eddie’s passing on November 13th 2005, Rey was a man on a mission, the fight for the memory of his friend. He entered the 2006 Royal Rumble second and won the match after lasting 62 minutes. Orton goaded and bullied the little man to the point where Rey lost his World Heavyweight opportunity to Randy at No Way Out. At the last minute, Rey was given one final chance at redemption, one final shot to ‘do it for his friend’ and at Wrestlemania 22, Rey pinned Orton in a triple-threat match with Kurt Angle and became, through association alone, the ‘underdog champion’.

 

It is this level of involvement we feel for the underdog. They are us at different points in our lives. We’ve all been a Daniel Bryan, with unfair obstacle and name-calling being thrown at us at every point. We have wanted to achieve things for the memory of those who have left us. We have had to fight the immoveable object. Also, we will all one day be a Ric Flair. A person who the young people laugh off with contempt because we can’t compete in life’s fight anymore. It’s at that point, when you’re lying face down, people jeering and people cheering, that you think, ‘one more round’. You’ll drag yourself back up and look at your opponent, whoever or whatever it may be and you’ll say ‘bring it on’, because that’s what underdogs do.

‘Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you're hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!’ Rocky Blaboa (2006).

 

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Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.