History’s Greatest Underdog Moments By Mathew Jussim
Everyone loves the underdog. Unless your beloved team is the favorite, few sports stories capture an audience’s attention like the plucky underdog who somehow, someway, reaches the pinnacle of their sport. Whether it’s an upstart team knocking off an established champion, or an unheralded athlete pulling off a massive upset over what looks like an unbeatable opponent, underdog stories can resonate for months, years, and decades—and inspire others to attempt the same astonishing feats.
Sometimes the best moments happen when no is expecting them to—and that’s what makes upsets and underdogs stories so magical.
Here are 15 of the greatest underdog stories in the history of sports:
New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII
UPDATE: With Eli Manning retiring from the Giants after 16 seasons with the team, here’s a look back at one of his greatest moments, and one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history.
The New York Giants came into the Super Bowl as 12-point underdogs against the undefeated Patriots, who cruised to a 16-0 record during the 2007 regular season and set numerous offensive scoring records. The Giants, on the other hand, had limped into the playoffs as a wild card team with a 10-6 record. The Giants had overcome long odds to even make it to the Super Bowl—at the time, no wild card team had ever won the championship.
The two teams only scored a combined 10 points when the game entered the fourth quarter, but that helped set the stage for one of the most exciting games in sports history. The Giants took a 10-7 lead after Eli Manning hit David Tyree (don’t forget that name!) for a touchdown, but the Patriots countered with a Randy Moss touchdown reception from Tom Brady to reclaim the lead. That set the stage for one of the best finishes—and one of the biggest upsets—in sports.
The Giants got the ball back down 14-10 with 2:39 left on the clock and went on a drive that included one of the most memorable plays in NFL history. On third-and-5 from the Giants’ own 44-yard line, Manning escaped the grasp of three different Patriots players before launching a 32-yard pass to Tyree—who leapt up and caught the ball with one hand, securing it by pressing it against his helmet. The unbelievable play kept the drive alive, and it culminated in Plaxico Burress catching the winning touchdown to give the Giants a 17-14 victory. The Giants won the Super Bowl and kept the Patriots from having a true undefeated season.
Leicester City wins 2015-16 Premier League title
Leicester’s run during the 2015-16 Premier League season may go down as the biggest longshot championship in sports history. The club defied the odds—literally, they had 5,000-to-1 odds of winning the title this season—and clinched their first trophy in team history.
How’d they pull it off? The small-market club took advantage of down years for the “big” teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal to become the most unlikely champions in English football. Even more amazing? The Foxes were nearly relegated to the Football League Championship—English football’s equivalent of Triple-A ball—in 2015 before earning enough points to stay in the Premier League.
N.C. State defeats Houston for 1983 NCAA Championship
The Wolfpack pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history after taking down Houston—a team that had future NBA legends Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler—to win the 1983 championship. With the game tied 52–52 and less than five seconds left on the clock, State’s Dereck Whittenburg put up an air-ball shot—or a pass, depending on who you ask—that Lorenzo Charles nabbed and dunked as time expired.
This clip of head coach Jim Valvano rushing around the court, looking for someone to celebrate with, has become one of the most iconic moments in sports history.
Rulon Gardner defeats Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Olympics
Rulon Gardner was a big man, but the humble 29-year-old Wyoming farm boy seemed like a tiny underdog against Aleksandr Karelin in the Greco-Roman superheavyweight wrestling finals of the Athlens Olypics. The mighty Russian was a fearsome force of nature: undefeated in international competition for 15 years, winner of three consecutive gold medals and seven consecutive world titles. Karelin hadn’t conceded a single point in international for a decade; Gardner hadn’t even won an NCAA championship in his college career.
Then they stepped on the mat. https://youtube.com/watch?v=F9yiCuX1hV8
Greece wins the 2004 European Championship
The Greek team came into the 2004 Euro Cup without much hope but with plenty of enthusiasm—the nation was back in the tournament for the first time in 24 years. That long layoff had tempered expectations, and nobody expected much from them against the powerhouse French squad they faced in the quarterfinals. But Greek striker Angelos Charisteas nailed a shocking goal in the 65th minute, and the Greeks stunned Les Bleus, 1–0.
From there, the Greeks rode the wave of that upset past the Czech Republic in the semis, and then again versus host-team Portugal in the final, sealing one of the most remarkable victories in the history of European soccer.
Pittsburgh Pirates defeat New York Yankees, 1960 World Series
The New York Yankees had won 10 out of the last 12 pennants coming into the 1960 World Series, and they were strong favorites to win over the Pirates. The stats all were in favor of the Yankees by the end of the series—New York outscored Pittsburgh 55-27—but the results were not. The Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history with his bottom of the ninth, game-winning homer in Game 7 to take the championship, inspiring countless baseball dreams across America (except maybe in the Bronx).
New Jersey Devils win the 1995 Stanley Cup
The Devils came into the ’95 NHL playoffs as the fifth seed after struggling during the early parts of the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. They’d made it through some tough teams in the Eastern Conference to get to the Stanley Cup finals, but few hockey observers thought the scrappy Jersey squad could seriously challenge the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings once they got there.
Those observers were wrong: The Devils swept the Red Wings, 4-0, and took home the first championship in team history.
Holly Holm defeats Ronda Rousey in UFC 193 (2015)
Coming into her match against Holly Holm, “Rowdy” Rousey was as good of a lock to defend her UFC bantamweight title as anyone in sports history. Rousey had dominated her last three fights, winning them in 34, 16, and 14 seconds, and positioning her as heavy favorite against Holm.
But Holm dismissed all that talk, as the boxing specialist neutralized Rousey’s peerless grappling skill and knocked out the favorite with a brutal second-round kick felt ’round the world.
Appalachian State beats Michigan (2003)
The vaunted Michigan Wolverines seemed like one of the undisputed top programs in all of college football at the start of the 2003 season. With a preseason No. 5 ranking and national title hopes, the maize and blue looked to start the season on a light note by opening against little Division I-AA Appalachian State.
But that all changed when the underdog Mountaineers stepped into the Big House. Led by super-athletic quarterback Armanti Edwards, Appalachian State stunned the favorites, 34-32. It was one of the most shocking upsets in American sporting history, not least because App State was the first Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) to win against a Division I-A team.
New England Patriots win Super Bowl XXXVI
With all the success the Patriots have had with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at the helm, it’s hard to remember that the team was once a major underdog. But back in 2001, Brady was just a lowly backup for Drew Bledsoe, and he was only forced into the game after Jets linebacker Mo Lewis knocked Bledsoe out with a vicious hit.
The injury set the stage for Brady—the 199th player selected in the 2000 NFL draft—to take over as the starter. He’d only thrown three passes the previous season, but he played well enough for Belichick to leave Bledsoe on the bench even after the presumptive starter was healthy enough to return.
Brady led the team through the playoffs and into the Super Bowl, where the Pats were set to go up against one of the best offensive teams ever in the St. Louis Rams—aka “The Greatest Show on Turf.” The Patriots pulled out the stunning victory with Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard, game-winning field goal, and the legend of Brady was born.
Buster Douglas defeats Mike Tyson (1990)
Mike Tyson came into his February 1990 fight with Buster Douglas as a 42-1 favorite, making the outcome one of the biggest upsets of all time. Douglas became a household name after his knockout of Tyson, who lost the WBA/WBC/IBF/lineal heavyweight championship titles with the result.
Villanova defeats Georgetown for 1985 NCAA Championship
When Georgetown entered the 1985 final, they looked like one of the biggest locks to win in NCAA Tournament history. The Hoyas had won the championship the previous season and had future NBA legend Patrick Ewing on the roster. Villanova, on the other hand, was trying to become the first No. 8 seed to win the tournament.
But as the game wore on, the Wildcats turned in one of the best shooting performances in college basketball history—making 78.6 percent of their shots—to pull off one of the greatest upsets ever with a 66-64 victory.
New York Jets defeat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III
In the first football championship to be billed as a “Super Bowl,” the Colts (then of Baltimore) entered as 18-point favorites to win, which fit with the prevailing narrative that AFL teams (like the Jets) were considered inferior their NFL counterparts.
That didn’t stop Jets quarterback Joe Namath, though who famously “guaranteed” that New York would prevail in the game. Despite all prevailing wisdom to the contrary, “Broadway Joe” and the Jets put the NFL on the map with a 16-7 victory to take the championship.
New York Mets win the 1969 World Series
The so-called “Miracle Mets” were one of the most unlikely champions in sports history. In 1967, the Metropolitans finished with 101 losses. But by 1969, however, the team surprised everyone with a 100-62 record to win the newly-created National League East title. The Orioles—who had three future Hall of Fame players in Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, and Brooks Robinson—were heavily favored in the World Series, but the Amazins’ earned their nickname with a 4-1 World Series win.
The Miracle on Ice (1980)
Do you believe in miracles?
Because that’s what the United States men’s Olympic hockey team looked like they needed to defeat the mighty Soviet hockey machine at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Team USA had been playing well during the Olympic tournament, but the roster was filled with amateurs and college players. In contrast, the battle-tested Soviet Union squad boasted of some of the best hockey talent in the world. The Soviet team had dominated for years, and even the most hopeful fans wondered if the United States could even score in the game, let alone win.
Instead, Team USA pulled off an amazing upset, winning the game 4-3 and earning themselves a place in history. The game inspired what is now one of the most recognizable broadcast calls in history, as Al Michaels screamed that he did, in fact, believe in miracles.