The Psychological Obstacles of Picking Underdogs

MMA Betting: The Psychological Obstacles of Picking Underdogs

By Loot, MMA Handicapper,

When we wager on MMA, we will often times come across a fight where there is one established star fighting a lesser-known opponent. A lot of times, we want to pick the underdog, until our thoughts get in the way. It is quite normal for fans and bettors to side more with the established guy. Sometimes, it’s for good reason–as the star fighter is in that position because he’s a superior fighter. Other times, however, we get too hung up on a fighter’s status, when we need to be looking more at styles and skills.

A fighter never wins because he is more known. Sure, famous fighters might get the benefit of the doubt on the scorecards from time to time. More often than not, the fight comes down to the skills and styles of the two fighters and how those things mesh in the fight. Many times, we will see a fight where we feel the underdog has a great chance to win, but the familiarity of the favorite makes it difficult to pull the trigger on a bet.

By the time a fighter is on a long run of success or a champion, we internalize it on an almost chemical level. That fighter’s excellence and star-status is in our DNA. For years, we hear how great he is. We read about it. We see him smash his opponents time and again. Add all that up and it can be really hard to pick against that fighter, even if our handicapping is suggesting that it is a distinct possibility.


The bookie banks on this psychology of picking favorites. The odds for a favorite will always seem to be a little bigger than they really should be. By offering poor betting value, combined with the public tendency to inordinately pick favorites, the bookie always ends up ahead at the end of the day.

We also need to remember that with a few exceptions, the shelf-lives of top MMA fighters is relatively short. By the time we have internalized a fighter’s greatness, his number might be up. There have been a ton of good MMA fighters. Other than GSP and Anderson Silva, whose stay at the top was really that long? By the time a fighter’s greatness resonates within us on a DNA level, it might be time to start betting on his opponent.

The bottom line is that we need to examine our reluctance to bet against favorites with each fight we see. Then we need to answer the question of why are we hesitant to bet the underdog? Is it because his chances to win aren’t very good? Then by all means bet the favorite if the number is right. But if we arrive at that conclusion simply by virtue of one fighter being more-proven and having a better track record–that could be a mistake.

We can’t hold it against the underdog fighter that he hasn’t competed at the same level as his opponent. If his skills and style seem to match up well with the favorite, that is what should speak loudest. Fighters don’t win fights because you have a greater familiarity with them. They win because of things that happen inside the octagon. And when we condemn a fighter in a wager because he hasn’t done what the favorite has done, that could be a faulty premise. That’s like giving a college kid flack for not having a Master’s degree while he’s still pursuing his Bachelor’s. Just because he hasn’t done something yet doesn’t mean he can’t do it. It’s not right to knock a fighter for not doing something he hasn’t even had a chance to do yet.

It can be difficult to not give extra handicapping points to the favorite even when our spidey-senses tell us the underdog has a great chance, or at least better than the odds would indicate. We run the risk of leaving a lot of money on the table when we go against our best judgment–when our brain overrides our better senses. If we like an underdog to win the fight, we need to be able to pull the trigger. If we allow ourselves to be swayed by the public consensus, we fall right into the hands of the bookie and that’s never a good thing.

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