There are a few cases in sports history where teams or individuals have walked into high pressure games as heavy underdogs, but they manage to walk out as champions. Here are ten underdogs who beat the odds and became legends.
- Holly Holm defeats Ronda Rousey (2015)
Undefeated UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey walked into UFC 193 a heavy favorite. In the preceding three years, Rousey easily made her way through the women’s division. Very few UFC experts or pundits gave her opponent Holly Holm a fighting chance.
Holm said she knew that Rousey was going to start the fight with a lot of aggression. In a post-game press conference she said, “I expected her to be aggressive and impose her will on me.” For Holm, the key to winning the fight was avoiding Rousey’s devastating armbar.
Early in the second round, Holm was able to land a well-placed kick to Rousey’s head. As Rousey fell to the mat, Holm began to circle the octagon with an expression of pure joy on her face. She knew she had just proven the experts wrong.
- Alexander Rossi wins the 100th Indianapolis 500 (2016)
In what was already a high-pressure day for IndyCar drivers, the 100th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” only added to their stress. In a field crowded with legendary Indianapolis 500 drivers, such as Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Tony Kanaan, Alexander Rossi was not high on the list of potential winners. When betting opened for the race, he was given 100–1 odds to win.
Thanks to a smart decision to not come in for more fuel with ten laps to go, Rossi managed to outlast his competition in a race that saw almost a quarter of the field unable to finish. The Indianapolis 500 is often a race of attrition. It’s not always the fastest car or the best driver who wins. On this day, Rossi and his team had a lot of luck on their side.
With his win, Rossi became the first rookie in 15 years to win the Indianapolis 500.
- Houston Rockets win the NBA Championship (1995)
Even though they won the NBA championship in 1994, no one expected the Houston Rockets to repeat the next year. Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls were the dominant force in the NBA, winning three out of the last four NBA Championships. Now that Jordan was retired (temporarily), other teams in the league saw a major opportunity to win the NBA Finals.
The biggest challenge facing the Rockets was the makeup of their roster. Aside from future basketball Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets were comprised mostly of average level talent.
The Rockets entered the 1995 NBA playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. They went on to beat the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals, and then they swept the No. 1 seed Orlando Magic in the NBA finals.
- New York Jets Win Super Bowl III (1969)
In the first professional football championship game that was officially called the “Super Bowl,” the New York Jets entered the game as an 18-point underdog. With a betting line that had them losing by more than two touchdowns, few were expecting the Joe Namath-led Jets to put up much of a fight against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts.
Namath entered the game having thrown more season interceptions (17) than touchdowns (15). It also did not help that Namath had a well-known “playboy” reputation. His late night parties with celebrities were often the talk of the town.
Despite a Jets roster that was seen as mostly inferior to the Baltimore Colts, Namath decided to walk into the Miami Touchdown Club and make a bold prediction: “We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.” This declaration just days before the big game may have been the spark that led the Jets to beat the Colts 16-7.
- New York Mets Win World Series (1969)
At the start of the 1969 season, the New York Mets were given 100-1 odds to win the National League pennant. The previous year, the Mets finished in ninth place. Many fans still could not fathom the thought of the Mets putting up any kind of a fight in the National League. Little did those fans realize, the Mets had an influx of young talent and future Hall of Famers.
The 1969 Mets had one of the best pitching lineups of the season, including Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver. Buoyed by solid hitting from Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones, the Mets would go on to win the NL East with an eight-game margin. But as they entered the World Series, the odds were still stacked against them.
The Mets would have to travel to Baltimore to face the odds-on-favorite Orioles in the World Series. To the shock of many, the Mets went on to win the World Series in only five games. The improbable season led to the team earning the nickname “The Amazing Mets.”
- New York Giants Win Super Bowl XLII (2008)
How do you defeat an undefeated team? This was the question the New York Giants had to answer when facing the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. For many football fans, it seemed the destiny of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and their New England Patriots to finish the 2008 season with a perfect record.
While the Patriots were trying to become the first undefeated team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the New York Giants had a very different route to the championship game. With a 12-4 regular season record, and having not won a playoff game in seven years, the Giants entered the Super Bowl as 12-point underdogs.
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw for two key touchdowns in the fourth quarter and finished the game with 255 passing yards. The real highlight of the game came with just over one minute left in the fourth quarter. The Giants needed to score a touchdown to take the lead. Manning dropped back for a pass as New England Patriots defenders pulled at his jersey, trying to wrestle him to the ground. Manning managed to escape and lobbed a 32-yard pass to receiver David Tyree, who caught the ball by wedging it between his right hand and his helmet. The “Helmet Catch” is considered one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. It only added to the legend of a game that saw the New York Giants go on to defeat the “undefeated” New England Patriots 17-14.
- Villanova Wins the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship (1984)
The 1984 Georgetown Hoyas men’s basketball team included legendary coach John Thompson Jr., future basketball Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, and a strong supporting cast of players. On the other side of the court stood the polar opposite of the Georgetown Hoyas.
Heading into the 1984 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Villanova Wildcats had a mediocre 25-10 record. The team finished the regular season unranked and was fourth in Big East standings. Few expected the Wildcats to make it all the way to the NCAA championship game.
If Villanova wanted to beat Georgetown for the championship, they had to play a perfect game; and that is exactly what they did. That night, Villanova shot an incredible 79 percent from the floor, a percentage that has yet to be matched in a championship game.
- Chicago White Sox Win the World Series (1906)
The Chicago Cubs spent the 1906 MLB season racking up the most regular-season wins in baseball history (116), coasting to the National League pennant. Their cross-town rivals, the Chicago White Sox, spent most of that season earning the nickname “The Hitless Wonders.” The White Sox amassed the worst batting average in the American League (.230), and 23 fewer wins than the Chicago Cubs.
As both teams began the 1906 World Series, it was all but settled that the Cubs would easily rout the White Sox and win the World Series. The White Sox had different plans and managed to beat the Cubs in six games. It was a historic World Series upset. The victory was even more surprising because the “Hitless Wonders” managed to have an even worse batting average in the World Series (.198).
- Donerail Wins Kentucky Derby (1913)
The Kentucky Derby is known as the “fastest two minutes in sports.” Each year, thousands of people wager on the fastest horses in America. One of the most exciting things about the Kentucky Derby is the ability to win big on a long-shot bet.
In 1913, some very lucky people won big by betting on the 91-1 underdog horse, Donerail. Leading up to the race, Donerail was an unknown commodity who had no high profile victories on his record. After leading Donerail to victory, the jockey, Roscoe Goose, earned the nickname “Golden Goose.”
Just a $2 bet on the underdog horse would have netted you $184.90. To this day, the victory stands as the biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history.
- Buster Douglas Beats Mike Tyson (1990)
Many sports fans remember where they were in 1990 when underdog Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. It was a moment in sports that is frozen in time, and it is remembered by many as the most stunning upset in sports history.
The historic fight took place in the Tokyo Dome in Japan. Mike Tyson entered the fight undefeated (39-0) and was the WBC undisputed heavyweight champion. His opponent, James “Buster” Douglas, was considered just another contender that Tyson would easily vanquish. Douglas entered the fight with four losses and one draw.
In the ninth round, both Douglas and Tyson were tired and growing weaker by the second. Douglas suddenly landed a powerful right uppercut and a series of jabs to the head of Tyson. It was over. Tyson tried in vain to answer the official’s ten count, but Douglas’ final barrage was too much. Buster Douglas walked into the Tokyo Dome a 42-1 underdog, and he walked out a champion.