Sunday, May 31, 2015

Stories of the underdogs

Disclaimer: What I am writing, I learned a lot from the books "David & Goliath" - Malcolm Gladwell and "I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic".


The fight of the century

Mayweather vs Pacquiao is the ultimate fight of 2015. The winner unified the belts. People expected a classic fight on a classic night, one of the greatest fights of all times. What happened in the ring shocked the whole world, in the way no one could have expected. The century fight was described as one way, boring, and too practical, and the one who was pushed hard during the rounds, Mayweather, ended up winning the fight. The tweet "Mayweather run like a chicken, hug like a bear" got 5k retweets and 8k favorites. And I don't know if that was the original tweet, or one of the first. You get the idea.

src bloodyelbow
There was a fundamental difference between the two players way before the match began. Pacquiao (Pacman) was looking for the next challenge in his life. He was a random kid in The Philippines working his way to the top through faith, hard work and failures. Pac wanted a war. Mayweather was looking for a sport event, media coverage and arguably a jackpot. He was trained for a game.

And the difference between a game and a war is that a game has its set of rules, spoken and unspoken, while a war, due to its vital nature, puts as little constraint on it as possible. If you were an gazelle running away from a cheetah, it would make little sense to choose the path with most obstacles (a hurdler) or limit the distance to 100 or 200m (Olympic standard sprint distances). Though in fact the big cat would very likely to gave up after a certain distance (100-150m) after which the reward isn't worth the effort and risks.

The first word most people associate with boxing is knockout. Rocky and Muhammad Ali are probably right up next. When a knockout happens, even a three-year-old can tell who won. The one standing. Around 64.2% of boxing matches end in knockouts. But that includes both amateur and professional. Among pro boxers at their prime, knockouts are very very rare, thank to their agility and resilience. Hence boxing matches are scored.

How a professional boxing match is scored is surprisingly absurd. The judges rely on their judgement and are technically never wrong, even when they clearly are. The logic is regarded as a matter of deep philosophical reasoning. However, anyone knows the rule of basketball would see that American like to quantify thing (which I assume the main reason behind big mac with diet coke). So in recent years, the judges are leaning to the one who lands the greater number of punches.

Mayweather vs Pacquiao scorecard, most important metrics top. 
Boxing, from "the art of hand combat" is turning itself into "the art of hitting and not being hit".

Mayweather got criticized the most for "hug like a bear, run like a chicken" but both are completely allowed in pro boxing though. Running (technically footwork) and hugging (clinching) are fundamental of virtually all martial arts and widely accepted in professional competition. Clinching is typically used when a fighter is hurt or extremely tired and wants to survive the round. It is no surprise many fighters include clinching in their strategy.

src: bbc
So why the world was left in awe? Pacman was shorter and had far worse reach than Mayweather (169 vs 173cm, and 170 vs 183cm). That was like playing basketball with a guy 13cm taller. Pacman had 5 losses (6 now) and 2 draws in his career. Mayweather won all the fights he has been in. And most obvious, Pacman only got 40/60 split of the purse. In short, Pacman was perceived as the underdog, and Mayweather an alpha. But it was Mayweather who used an underdog strategy in the game. Avoiding being hit and clinching to slow down opponent momentum are the strategies of those who run out of option and want to survive another round. That wasn't what an alpha dog supposed to do. And people sensed that it wasn't "fair", they found themselves speechless.

Rules of the underdogs

Rules in modern sport are the result of a mixture of both spoken and unspoken ones. It is in the mix of unspoken rules people define the so-called sportsmanship. Footballers usually kick the ball out of the field when someone is injured even before the referee stops the match, that is sportsmanship. A traditional game of frisbee is run entirely on sportsmanship (there is a set of rules, but there is no referee). And what Tyson did to Holifield was anti-sportsmanship. An underdog is expected to lose, he has everything against him. Throughout history whenever an underdog engaged in a toe-to-toe game with an alpha, he usually ended up losing. An underdog best hope is to look for an unconventional strategy, one that copes with the spoken rules and exploits the unspoken rules to make up for his disadvantages.

Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC's manager, called himself The Special One. As a footballer, he was ordinary, lacked the requisite pace and power to become a professional. As a manager, he made his name as a trophy-winner. He has repeatedly successfully brought professional teams at different countries to top of their leagues and won most titles a manager could get in his career.

src: skysports
Mourinho's tactics are often criticized as ruthlessly practical. His players can be negatively defensive, throw out fouls to block opponent momentum, and notoriously "park the bus" in front of the goal post to secure wins. But that works. He led Portugal Porto to UEFA Cup 2003 and Champions League 2004. Then Brit Chelsea to Premier League 2005 and 2006. And Italian Inter Milan Champions League 2010.

But why aren't the rest of the world doing that, because screw beauty of the sport, it is titles and trophies that people remember? Because it is hard. The underdog strategy is not a silver bullet. It is not a simple one-line wisdom that let you win the game other have been playing for years. Most of the sports (and everything else that human do) are acts of skills and finely calibrated execution. What an underdog strategy does is to use effort over ability. And that is shit lot of effort.

Footwork and clinching aren't used as a primary defensive strategy of most fighters because it drains energy faster than any other strategy. It is more effective to turn to some other proactive defensive moves. And getting out of a clinch is a high risk move, your arms are entangled and that leaves you defenseless. That is hard work, and if the professionals just good enough, they won't be convinced to practice and play that hard. Underdogs have to be so desperate, so bad that they have no other choice for this to work out.

Before Mourinho came, the name of Porto never made it out of their country. Chelsea never escaped the shadow of its neighbor opponent, Arsenal. And Inter Milan had not seen the glory in Ronaldo era for long time. What Mourinho did was to put the clubs' superstars to the ground, constantly reminded them that despite of their paycheck, the only first-class citizens among footballers is the trophy winner and they were not. He spent 20m to celebrate Chelsea championship and then whole team back to the drill. And his favorite drill was to replay the video when his players were bad and said "So miserable! Hopeless! Those guys can't be you. They must be your brothers, your inferior selves", and they would nodded. They, the multimillionaire celeb playboys, were ashamed. And they would go to war for Mourinho. (That wasn't from me, that was from the very Zlatan Ibrahimovic).

There was one time, Mourinho strategy didn't work out. That was his 03 years at Real Madrid. Because Mourinho style wasn't on the same league with Real Madrid. The club was building it Galaxy 2.0 with all the biggest names money could buy. 03 out of 05 most expensive transfers were made by this club. C. Ronaldo was there. G. Bale was there. Heck, 03 forwards of Real Madrid could buy another team in La Liga. They just couldn't be put into the mindset of the underdogs. They had never been in their lives and they had no intention to be, even if that was the Special One. Out of 22 possible trophies, Mourinho won 3, not bad, but that wasn't Real Madrid expectation. They wanted domination. For they were the alpha.

Next time, when you are confronting giants, remember the advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantages of advantages).

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