The Dogs of Conflict: Who’s the Over/Under? or, Giant Killing is Best Done Between Giants

david vs. goliath woodcut

For the purpose of this discussion I posit that the ‘cult of the underdog’ in contemporary culture is best represented by the David vs. Goliath story. In Biblical Israel, their Philistine enemies were trouncing them in battle due to their super soldier, a literal giant named Goliath. The battle ended with David, then a 12-year old shepherd boy, defeating Goliath in single combat mostly by slinging stones onto Goliath’s head. David wins, a very improbable result given the physical difference between the combatants.

David is the ‘underdog’ here. It is an inspiring story, and feeds to this wariness held by people against those who are bigger and more powerful than they are. With regards to the story of David and Goliath, I wager that Goliath has very few authentic fans. Nobody sympathizes with him. Had he crushed David, no one would applaud. He was expected to crush an opponent at such a disadvantage. The win by David is often regarded as ‘miraculous.’

These days, the David vs. Goliath narrative plays out the most in sports. In war there there may be little presentation of this dynamic because in the major conflicts, it is usually the United States, along with NATO who are the Goliaths. Their enemies are at such a disadvantage that they resort to use the slingshots of terrorism to fight the giant. There is no incentive for Western popular culture to play up the David vs. Goliath narrative in international conflicts at all — unless perhaps it’s Tibet trampled by big China, or Chechnya trampled by big Russia. But to do so too often risks further conflict, and why indulge this when it can be had far more often and with far less consequences in sports.

Sports are dramatic because they render well into narratives. Teams and individuals are players both in the actual matches, and in the theater of the viewer’s imaginations. You have a an up and coming boxer facing the champ, has his time come? You have an aging team asking itself if it still has the reserves to stay in contention. You have players emerging from career-threatening injury, you have players on the verge of making history by breaking records. The cyclist Lance Armstrong did both, recovering from testicular cancer only to dominate the most prestigious race of his sport for the next half-decade.

Lance benefited from the public having an easy time to cast him as David due to his illness, and yet he was the Goliath of his sport every year that he played it. He got people to believe that he is always an underdog, while he was actually the biggest monster his sport has ever seen.

Sports in fiction, often rely on this phenomenon. They are successful with it. They disguise wolves as sheep in a hunting competition. The protagonists look like prey, their opponents the predators. The opposite cannot be any truer. Take the ongoing manga and anime named Giant Killing. The hook of the story is how ‘Davids’ hunt ‘Goliaths’ for sport, in the world of football. A story like this creates a setting, a set of circumstances where the protagonist has long odds of winning. However, the protagonist(s), in this case Takeshi Tatsumi, is no David. He is a manager of a football club that has poor funding, a mix of unproven and aging players, and a history of poor results. But Takeshi himself is a brilliant manager, who has had international success both as a player and manager. He is, or at least will be proven to be the best manager in professional Japanese Football.

giant killing tatsumi takeshi

I have little doubt of this because the presentation of his character obviously portrays him as a genius. Unorthodox, flawed, but a genius at football. The narrative would have us believe that he is David. Well, good narratives are excellent at manipulating us.

Take the 90s basketball manga (and anime) Slam Dunk. The Shohoku High School basketball team is presented to be very weak and has a history of failure. However, the chief protagonist is nothing short of a monstrosity of basketball genius (Hanamichi Sakuragi), physically and according to ability or talent. His rival (Kaede Rukawa) exceeds him in every way except perhaps potential. But, his chief rival is on the same team. Ultimately, their team is stacked at every position. In aggregate terms, there is no starting five that has a clear dominant advantage over Shohoku. Hanamichi is no David, and Shohoku High Basketball team is no David. But the narrative does its best to make you believe that they are.

Michael Lewis wrote the story of how the Oakland Athletics at the beginning of the millennium performed at the highest level in baseball, despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league (MLB of the USA). Surely here is an authentic ‘David’ against the league itself, an environment that supposedly rewards the biggest spenders. But no, the narrative is solidly about management, and Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland A’s is a true Goliath in the baseball world. It’s not just because he’s 6’4″ and superbly athletic. Armed with a revolutionary insight and system in valuing players, he ruthlessly robbed other managers blind in trading and negotiation, and they never get it until it’s too late. The players he drafts and trades for are all ‘Davids.’ They’re too unproven, or they’re too old, or they’re too slow, or too fat; almost all of them so far removed from the ideal picture of an athlete.

slam dunk shohoku miyagi rukawa akagi anzai mitsui sakuragi kogure

It just so happens that through Beane’s understanding of statistics and what is really statistically important in generating wins, the players he picked are the most efficient in generating baseball wins. Almost all of them look the part of the underdog. But as a team, they’re a collective monstrosity capable of making historic winning streaks (20 in a row at some point). They’re a Goliath because Billy Beane is a real life Goliath of the management of the game, the sport. In spirit, he is the same of Shohoku Basketball Team’s Coach Anzai, and East Tokyo United’s Takashi; Goliaths all, but so easy for the public to rally around as if they’re underdogs.

Only that in Giant Killing, there are a significant number of people who know Takashi for the giant he really is. There are those who respect him for his menace, and those who pin their hopes on him because of his stature. If these were all playing the role of spectators, I have little doubt they look forward to seeing Takashi crush his opponents. The circumstances make these people, these characters seem like underdogs. At most, they’re merely Goliaths without a spear, but instead armed with David’s sling.

Look at the most popular athletes and sporting clubs in the world. Are they popular because they are underdogs? No. They are popular because they are strong. People find out about them because of their power, and their history of success. There are narratives already written, a tradition even. The New York Yankees of Baseball, Los Angeles Lakers of Basketball, Manchester United, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona of Football; these are global brands that can afford to market world wide because their success begets the capital to propel them to bigger success.

kobe bryant jump shot over lebron james

Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, Manny Pacquiao, George St. Pierre… are these current sportsmen underdogs? Are they Davids? Does an Andy Murray feel like a Goliath should he face Roger Federer at Wimbledon? Seriously? Why do people watch these players fight? I seriously doubt that most viewers watch them to see them fall. In the end, people look for the strong, the powerful, the tall, to dominate the field — to fulfill the promise of their physical gifts and abilities. There is a comfort in knowing such gifts aren’t wasted on them. If they were, it is embittering to think “how come I am not the one to possess what qualities that push the limits of human ability?”

So why this affinity for the David vs. Goliath story? Why do we have a taste for giant killing? I think I’ll leave it up to the psychologists and anthropologists to come to a definitive answer. I simply think that there are two kinds of characters we enjoy watching: those we can relate with — the Davids — because we are small and weak as the 12 year-old David seems to be, and the  Goliaths who we can’t but impossibly, irrationally, and noncommittally aspire to become.

Postscript:

The David vs. Goliath story is not all that it seems. If you think about it, Goliath never stood a chance, because David was never in range of, or was a good enough target for, his spear. David was free to sling shots at Goliath the whole time. It’s quite unfair if you think about it. But we like to think the little guy is actually disadvantaged, as we sometimes (or often) feel disadvantaged against life.

man vs a certain yuri-loving velociraptor

Personally, what I like to watch most, is a fight between Goliaths. Who do you really love to root for?

Further Reading

Post-Postscript: Underdogs inspire moé.

The Los Angeles Lakers just defeated the Boston Celtics in gave seven of a seven game series. This is a perfect example of the superlative quality of competition of two teams, and franchises (as between them they won more than half of all the championships in NBA history) who are the very best among all others.

Among all sports journalists there is a consensus that no other championship match-up that can aspire to how compelling this series was. I know for certain that I will remember it for the rest of my life. The celebration of the Lakers victory happens here.

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26 Comments

  1. Posted June 18, 2010 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I have a soft spot for overdogs who can’t seem to go all the way. A few examples:

    - LeBron
    - Federer in the French Open (until last year)
    - The Sharks and the Capitals in NHL hockey
    - The Chargers in NFL football

    One reason it’s easy to root for underdogs is that you think it’s unlikely they’ll ever get a better chance. Overdogs can always come back next year. It’s a different story if the overdogs keep on losing.

    • Posted June 19, 2010 at 2:02 am | Permalink

      I get what you mean. I really do.

      I used to follow football (ugh, soccer) very closely after World Cup ’98, and I gave most of my devotion to Barcelona FC of the Spanish Primera Liga. They had incredibly talented, proven, and expensive players (Rivaldo, Kluivert, Figo, etc); a big-time coach, lots of money and fans.

      The whole time I followed them (about 3-4 years) they never won anything. It was ridiculous.

      I was so disgusted I stopped following the sport. Have a decade later they had Ronaldinho and started kicking so much ass. I couldn’t bring myself to care anymore, but yes, I loved them when they represented a possibility of dominance and stood on the precipice of what seemed to be destiny.

      • Posted June 19, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        I shall fight the temptation to troll you Ghosty by saying that clearly you were never a true Barca fan. In this case, the popularity of such overdogs is in one large sense due to TV and the globalisation of such brands. For example, on the one hand football fans who live in east London have no business supporting Chelsea or Arsenal let alone Man Utd., or even Barca or any other teams from other countries’ local sides. You’re supposed to actively support your local team, through the bad times as well as the good. On the other hand, you could say who the hell has the right to tell people who to support, and thus by extension what to believe in/ think/ feel/ etc. I understand that what constitutes a ‘true fan’ is all very subjective, but there does seem to be a distinction between some fans and others surrounding the authenticity and validity of one’s agenda versus that of the other.

        • Mel
          Posted June 20, 2010 at 3:45 am | Permalink

          I know a hardcore football fan and his club is part of his life.
          It doesn’t mean, that you need to have a decoraded home (he has) or visits many games- in his case, he even skips university for that purpose.
          He is really hurt, when is club looses and he is extraordinary happy when his club wins. When the club had to go down one level, he stood with them until they made it back 2 years later.
          These people stay loyal because their club is part of their family. You don’t need to like the club, but it will always be “your” club. Human beings are irrational :).

          • Posted June 20, 2010 at 5:33 am | Permalink

            Yes, this. In the Philippines only Metropolitan Manila is the city that can support competitive sports so localization of clubs never caught on. The consequence of this is that we Filipinos choose the teams in our own arbitrary ways.

            We do feel this local fire when it comes to college sports. The De La Salle Green Archers FOREVER! It’s funny because my wife is from our archrival school (Ateneo de Manila and their Blue Eagles).

        • Posted June 20, 2010 at 5:29 am | Permalink

          Rubbish on the first assertion — it’s a logical obligation, but if there’s no love, why lie to yourself or everyone in your vicinity. I have no local football side, and am not obliged to follow anyone except what I find lovely. And Barca’s beautiful Dutch style of play captivated me, as the club was introduced to me by a bunch of rather attractive female die-hards watching from here in the Philippines.

          I actually tried to survey a whole bunch of teams then — Man U was the first for obvious reasons, then Juventus and Inter, then Real Madrid. All were big clubs to be sure, but these were the clubs whose ties were shown here in Southeast Asia.

          I didn’t enjoy the Premiership as much then (not as many Brazilians — remember this was just after France ’98), then the Serie A was rather gross with all the diving and the fascism despite Juve having Del Piero, Zizou and Pippo (and Inter having Ronaldo); so that left me the Primera Liga.

          Former British colonies love the Primiership, I suppose it makes sense for a former Spanish Colony like the Philippines to appreciate the Primera.

          Onto my main passion: the NBA. I don’t live in Los Angeles, but I love the Lakers — having followed Shaquille O’Neal when he transfered from Orlando in ’96. It turns out that Kobe Bryant was traded to them that same year as a rookie, then my love affair with the Lakers blossomed. I have since learned and loved the lore of Los Angeles’ great ball club.

          Remember, Michael Jordan was still winning championships at the time, and I grew up when you were supposed to idolize Jordan (which I did for many years). But when I learned more and more of the game I started really learning all about basketball, so I did make an informed choice on what to appreciate (the “Showtime” Lakers). Love came soon after.

    • Posted June 19, 2010 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      I guess those overdogs who keep losing can be perceived as underdogs in a way, which would legitimize people having a soft spot for them/ not abandoning their support for them rather than being thought of as glory-hunters/ fair-weather fans. Either way, the complicated feelings people develop for their (sporting) heroes are certainly fascinating to consider…

  2. Posted June 18, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Can’t speak for other people, but for me, the appeal of underdogs is watching them rise up and unexpectedly match the strength of the so-called stronger competitor. It’s not so much that I want to see the big dog go down; it’s just that, like you, I value watching two powers go against each other as hard as possible, and there’s a bit of an extra thrill from seeing that where it is unexpected.

    I don’t know if you’re able to watch the NCAA basketball tournament each March, but that is the biggest appeal of it — you never know when some random team is going to catch fire and mow everyone down ala George Mason a few years back.

    • Posted June 19, 2010 at 2:07 am | Permalink

      Yes I know all about March Madness. I can explain the phenomenon this way: the teams are surprising– rather WE are surprised because WE are the ones who are unaware. We don’t invest in finding out about these teams because we are more often than not casual/neutral fans of college ball (unless our alma mater is involved).

      Chances are, if we followed these “Cinderella” teams closely, we shouldn’t be as surprised because we actually know how strong they are, or at least the potential for victory they represent.

      They are underdogs as a function of our lack of information, not as a function of an actual obvious power imbalance (e.g. 2000-2003 Lakers vs. Eastern Conference).

  3. Millia
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Games as well…for example, we believe that Link is no match for the “incredibly powerful” Vaati. Yet, have you ever seen Vaati do a roll and miraculously dodge giant fireballs bigger than him?

    Link has the advantage, not Vaati.

    • Posted June 19, 2010 at 2:12 am | Permalink

      I don’t play Zelda, but I know what you mean. This plays out in a number of video game scenarios.

      If you look at the old fighting games, before they started using final bosses who could duplicate any of the moves of the entire roster, there was really nothing that indicates how M. Bison, Heihachi Mishima, etc as grossly more powerful than your player character.

  4. Kherubim
    Posted June 19, 2010 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Since I’m complete rubbish at ball sports, I follow motor racing instead, even if there is an overwhelming element involving team financials and engineering genius.

    Even if Brawn GP (F1 team) looked like they were underdogs, they were really Goliaths, having the most expensive car ever built in F1 history (funded on 2 years budget from Honda) and a team principal (Ross Brawn) who has won WSC and several F1 World Championships. It basically saved the careers of the two underdog drivers Barrichello and Button. Real Goliaths such as Ferrari and McLaren underperformed, but it was great when Kimi Raikkonen took a POS Ferrari to a fight against a true underdog (Force India, driven by Fisichella) at Spa.

    This year I’m supporting Lotus (underdog) and McLaren (uberhund) in F1 while Raikkonen is considered an underdog in the WRC even though he drives the fastest car in the series…

    • Posted June 19, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Incredible, and you got exactly what I mean here I think.

      I haven’t followed F1 since Schumi won his last title, but I am aware of the dynamics in the sport. Casual fans tend to either follow the strongest and most popular, or just follow the sport in general and cheer whoever is mounting a challenge against the dominant team/driver/athlete.

      I get sick to my stomach when I hear fans like this reason to me that the giants should lose so that another has a “chance to win.” I find this utterly idiotic, as if the sport was some Marxist-Leninist Commune. I believe that the team that committed to most resources efficiently (money, talent, intelligence, tactices, etc.) deserves to win anyway.

      • Kherubim
        Posted June 19, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        A budget of $50mil looks pathetic compared to a budget of $400mil, both are huge amounts of cash, but it’s the difference between a championship leader and a backmarker…

        Well, now that Schumacher is at Mercedes (previously Brawn), he is a relative underdog, basically a fading a “red giant” star on the decline. Watching his performances against callow youth like Rosberg and Alguersuari is rather cringe inducing. I recall a lot of Ferrari-Schumacher fans who did the unthinkable and crossed over to support McLaren and Lewis Hamilton, while I did the opposite when Raikkonen went to Ferrari.

        Lotus is an underdog team with good drivers (especially Kovaleinen, who was simply crushed by Lewis Hamilton when they were at McLaren). While at giant McLaren, my support is more for Jenson Button, because almost everyone expects him to be broken by Hamilton (which hasn’t happened yet) and because Button spent most of his career in crap cars…

        • Posted June 19, 2010 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

          I choose to ignore dodgy comeback attempts (see Magic Johnson in the 90s, Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards), but should I get into F1 again, I would support Schumi for sentimental reasons not that related to his underdog status.

          Those who jumped ship are possibly bandwagon types who most ‘authentic’ fans abhor.

          But what I even hate more, are those who absolutely hated Schumi when he was battling Hakkinen but would cheer him on now just because he’s an underdog. This is another kind of hypocritical schadenfreude that makes me want to puke.

          • Mel
            Posted June 20, 2010 at 3:53 am | Permalink

            :D
            A comment to Schumi: Afaik he has an extraordinary sense for mechanical engineering.
            Somebody said, that he can get out of the car and tell you exactly what is going wrong right now. It seems the old engineering team respected him quite a lot for giving accurate analysis.
            I think he needs one to two years to fix up the cars, they are driving there an then there should be some more results.

            And it’s not about winning, it’s all about the fight :).

          • Posted June 20, 2010 at 5:14 am | Permalink

            In Summer Wars, a fighting game ‘pro’ named “King” Kazma said he didn’t like gaming (i.e. the fight), but he liked the sporting part of it (i.e. the winning part).

            As spectators, especially if neutral, we like the fight, the spectacle, more than the result I think. But if we’re partisan supporters, as I am (or was, of Schumi — I consider myself a ‘retired’ fan of him and F1) it’s all about seeing our champion be the champion.

  5. Posted June 19, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    ‘Sports in fiction, often rely on this phenomenon. They are successful with it. They disguise wolves as sheep in a hunting competition… [what you say about the narrative manipulating us…] Why do people watch these players fight? …to fulfil the promise of their physical gifts and abilities. There is a comfort in knowing such gifts aren’t wasted on them…’

    This post reminded me of what a couple of commenters said on Impz’s editorial on elites in anime, about how these are often rep’d as evil Goliaths. But back to your editorial. In this genre, the idea of disguise and manipulation is, as you say, key, as it is with most storytelling that relies on suspense and playing on the audience’s emotions. But aren’t we complicit in all this? We know that the underdogs/ the good guys/ the people’s faves will triumph in the end, or come in a close second, or were cheated, or played the best but were ‘unlucky’ etc …and that’s the whole fun of it, isn’t it?

    Not that I’m just saying all story types are essentially one of a finite number of recycled plots with different types of conflict and any originality lying in the treatment of all the above by the writer/ director. And not that I don’t believe that, but in this case the underdog Vs the overdog is already such a foregone conclusion that it does seem to me to be just another popular plot to which many people can relate. Though saying all that, I don’t watch/read much sports anime/fiction, so it would be interesting to see if the opposite (underdog always losing, or overdogs never being consistent) has successfully been explored elsewhere. I would also like to see a Goliath Vs Goliath scenario explored, esp as the only example I can think of that from the top of my head is Alien Vs Predator, lol!

    • Posted June 19, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      You are correct!

      It isn’t my intention to criticize the works, but rather the viewers (and by criticize I don’t mean to say we viewers are wrong). I want us to acknowledge our implicit role in wanting these narratives, and/or narrative contrivances.

      We want our heroes oppressed but powerful, we want to believe our enemies overconfident and lazy… more often than we think, and more often than we want to see a fight between two equals in the full sense of the word:

      Equal in power and ability.
      Equal in being sympathetic.
      No moral issue between them: both deserve to be there.
      Both are great, and a victory of one creates a context of best and greatest.

      This kind of match-up forces us to think about why we’d prefer one over the other. The decision isn’t made for us by imbalances from the above list.

  6. Posted June 19, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Like you mention, “underdog” is sometimes more a matter of presentation than actual ability. Consider the classic Terran-Spacenoid opposition in the Gundam franchise; to take the U.C. alone, people can sympathize with both factions as the “underdog”, depending on how you paint the picture. For die-hard Zekes, it’s the underdog tale of an oppressed minority rising up to challenge a far mightier power. For Feddies, it’s the underdog holding the line against a brutal and unwarranted blitzkrieg and to stay in the fight though bloody and bruised. I think you’re very much correct in noting that the status of underdog is more often conferred by perception.

    • Posted June 19, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

      Excellent. Excellent. Excellent example. I wish I had thought of it myself.

  7. mangacomic
    Posted June 22, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Giant Killing reminds me of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, when Cao Cao defeated Yuan Shao army that’s about ten times the size. But then again it’s a novel.
    People watch wrestling even if it’s all scripted anyways. So yeah we’ll never know.

    • Posted June 23, 2010 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      The army is small in number, but the generalship is the important match up in this case wouldn’t you say so? It’s Cao Cao vs. Other guy. Who’s the giant in this case?

  8. Posted June 24, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    I don’t tend to feel allegiance for a team. I tend to root for whatever team I like from a particular match. In the world cup, when Germany played their first match, they played beautifully, so I rooted for them. I wanted to keep rooting for them, but in their second match I was indifferent to who won because Germany’s game was weaker. Similarly, when the US played the UK, it was a really boring match that i didn’t care who won, but the US played so well in their third match and were so much fun to watch that I rooted for them once again. I don’t celebrate teams because of who they are, but because of what they do, and just knowing that they did something amazing in the past isn’t’ good enough if they can’t do something amazing now.

    Maybe it’s just that I’m not into sports enough. But you know, in anime, the reason I always root for the main character is that the opponent is always represented as shit. They’re always flawed in the one way that the main character isn’t. When there is a rival character who is every bit as passionate and deserving as the lead, I root for both sides – who wins in the match doesn’t matter as much, because you know that the rival will win in the future and win at life in general (as always happens in those sports anime.) I like to see people do well, I like to see them kick ass, I like it when I can look at a team and say ‘damn, they’re kicking ass!’ – it doesn’t matter to me what team that is.

    • Posted June 24, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      Well, the way you describe how you root for teams (or not root for them) is how most people start out. Nothing wrong with it, that’s just how casual fans begin — especially those who don’t have deep-seated relationships based on locality.

      Being a fan, as you would know, is much about loyalty. So when you get to become one, the dynamics I discuss here become more important.

6 Trackbacks

  • By Killing Giants | We Remember Love on June 19, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    [...] Killing Giants Posted on June 19, 2010 by ghostlightning It’s best when the act is between giants. Underdogs are overrated, or are just underrated giants (in disguise). My full essay on the idea is published here. [...]

  • [...] Vendredi on the Underdogs of Gundam’s One Year War Original Post: The Dogs of Conflict: Who’s the Over/Under? or, Giant Killing is Best Done Between Giants [...]

  • [...] not a Sera fan. I’m not big on underdogs. You may think Giant Killing is all about underdogs, but it just has you fooled. The biggest dog in the kennel is Tatsumi himself, and he’s just slumming it. Despite myself [...]

  • By Adversity: The Essential Ingredient to Drama on February 12, 2011 at 10:26 am

    [...] meant to post a response to ghostlighting’s underdog post, with the recent win by Cleveland Cavaliers to break their record 26 game losing streak I finally [...]

  • By A Retrospective on Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 on March 15, 2011 at 6:25 am

    [...] these, where those from whom we expect so little of surprise us with their greatness. This is the kind of underdog story that I love, where the hero has long odds not because he is powerless, but because nobody counts on him to do [...]

  • [...] was NOT an underdog in the traditional David vs. Goliath sense of the word. From the first race he was the obvious monster in the pack, and he only lost because the matter [...]

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