Rooting for Underdogs: Why We Wish We Were Rocky Balboa

Eighty percent of people cheer for the underdog. That’s according to studies discussed on an episode of Radiolab I listened to recently, and it sounds like a pretty fair sampling of the percentage of my friends who hate Duke, the Yankees, and the Patriots. This is what makes Rocky Balboa (my late black lab’s namesake) the slow-witted protagonist of a six film series. Whether he’s squaring off against Apollo Creed, Mr. T., or the juiced-up Russian machine, Ivan Drago, we want to see the Italian Stallion raising his golden gloves in victory and shouting Adrian’s name out of the corner of his mouth. We want to see it because the odds are so stacked against him.

Believe it or not, the underdog doesn’t have to be played by Sylvester Stallone to get our vote. When tested, this 80% rule even held when researchers asked people to root for a small circle struggling up a virtual hill or a big circle that breezed up the hill without a problem. 4 out of 5 of us root for the underdog shape. All other things being equal, the vast majority of us root for the underdog in almost every situation.

Why?

I wonder if part of the reason is simply that we identify with the underdog. When we square off against Life, sometimes it seems like Life’s got 1000-1 odds. When we face adversity, we feel more like the small, struggling circle than the large-and-in-charge circle. We feel more like Baylor than Duke. More like Rocky Balboa than Ivan Drago.

We have more on our plates than we can accomplish. We have expectations for ourselves we can rarely meet. We have health conditions that simply won’t go away. We have brokenness in our families that seem doomed to persist.

But we want so badly to overcome! We want so badly to win the unlikely victory. I think that’s at least part of the reason we root for the underdog…because, in our minds, WE ARE the underdog.  If Rocky can beat Apollo, maybe I can live with my chronic back pain. If the United States can actually perform well in a World Cup, maybe we can conquer this issue in our marriage.

To take it in a more personal direction, we want to overcome the mess in ourselves, in our own hearts. We want to defeat our impatience, our lust, our drunkenness, our stinginess, and our deep insecurity. We want the world to be right, and we want to be right.

To echo the words of Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Rom. 7:24)

I WILL!!!

At least that’s what we tell ourselves. You see, I think this rooting for the underdog goes a little bit deeper than simply wanting the seemingly insurmountable adversity to be overcome. We want to be the overcomers (Whatever…it should be a word). We want to be the conquerors. We want to be riding on the shoulders of adoring fans, pumping our fists, acknowledged for our contribution to the world. We not only want to be right, we want to make ourselves right.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t just want to win. Deep down, we want credit for the victory. 

But here’s where the sports analogies finally break down, because the reality is that life is not a sport. “It’s anyone’s game” is a not a motto we can appropriately use of our spiritual lives. Sin, missing the mark of our call to fully-human flourishing, is less of a competition than it is an addiction.

I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the other day as an assignment for a class. The courageous folks I met there know a lot about defeat. The phrase, “It got to the point where…” was a common theme, each person recounting the depths they sank to in their addiction. In their excruciating honesty, each and every person confessed their inability to find victory in life on their own. They needed something else…someone else, to rescue them. To pursue the victory, they finally realized they had to give up the hope of personal glory.

That is, in fact, the hard truth for us underdogs. We are, more often than we would like to admit, participators in the unjust systems and partners in the brokenness of our relationships. We are more like addicts to our impatience, self-centeredness, stinginess, etc. than we are competitors against it. We need victory, but we have to give up the hope of the self-congratulatory press conference at the end. To put it positively, we have to release the burden of thinking it’s all up to us.

That’s why Paul answers his own question (“Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”) without the “I’ll pull-myself-up-by-your-bootstraps” cliché. Instead, his victory shout sounds like this:

“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

4 out of 5 of us root for the underdog. I’m guessing that 5 out of 5 of us, in our most honest moments, know our chances of victory in life on our own are slim to none. That’s why I am so grateful that my hope is in a God who is both loving and powerful–a God who promises deliverance for anyone willing simply to admit that it is ultimately his victory, and he deserves all the credit.

2 Responses to Rooting for Underdogs: Why We Wish We Were Rocky Balboa

  1. Jennifer says:

    Good reminder to keep God in his place in our lives as our only Savior.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Wow … right on! So often we are so focused on self (what we can do and what we cannot) that we forget to focus on our Sovereign Lord who “has us.” Keeping our eyes where they ought to be on Jesus, being fully and actively aware it is not all about us (me), giving only Him the glory, deflecting anything coming my way … not an easy task. Worth getting back up after falling time after time to go for that goal however!

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