Top 10 Greatest Upsets in Sports History

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Who doesn’t root for the underdog, unless of course, the underdog is playing your favorite team. America loves an upset and that is why many upsets of become legendary with books being written and films being made to document the amazing feat that is an upset. And while upsets usually involve a team, we have listed some individual upsets that rocked the sporting world as well. Take a moment and relive some of these magical moments, unless you were rooting for the favorite.

10. Jack Fleck Beats Ben Hogan in 1955 U.S. Open

Jack Fleck and Ben Hogan
Jack Fleck and Ben Hogan

From humble beginnings came the man who would pull of the greatest upset in golf history. Jack Fleck was born in Iowa, the son of destitute farmers who would eventually lose their land. He was a caddy, a dentist and an assistant golf pro before joining the Navy and serving in World War II. Shortly after the war, Fleck made the decision to join the PGA Tour on a full-time basis. His first win would come in 1955, as he knocked off the legendary Ben Hogan in a three-hole playoff to win the U.S. Open. It would wind up being just one of three PGA Tour events Fleck would win during his golfing career.

9. Nuggets stun Sonics (1994 NBA Playoffs)

When the Denver Nuggets lost the first two games of their 1994 first-round NBA Playoffs series to the Seattle Supersonics, it looked as though they would be easily tossed aside, like so many #8 seeds before them. After all, they had lost the first two games by an average of 17 points. Yet Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Dikembe Mutombo and company refused to give up. They won Game 3 by the score of 110-93, Game 4 by a 94-85 margin and Game 5, 98-94, to become the first #8 seed in NBA history to defeat a #1 seed in a playoff series. Some would argue that the Golden State Warriors seven-game upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in 2007 was the bigger upset, but as the Warriors made their impact immediately and didn’t require a comeback, in this case we think you have to go with the trailblazers.

8. Rulon Gardner beats Alexander Karelin (2000 Olympics)

Entering the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Russian Alexander Karelin was a lock to win the gold medal in men’s super heavyweight wrestling. After all, he had won gold in 1988, 1992 and 1996. He had never lost in international competition, and in fact had not even surrendered a point in the last half-decade or so. Then along came American Rulon Gardner, a Wyoming native whose biggest claims to fame coming in had been a junior college national title and a 4th place finish in the NCAA Championship. The two met in the finals, and the impossible happened. Gardner stunned the world, earning a 1-0 victory over the man most experts proclaim the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all-time. As big of a surprise as Larry Owings upset of Dan Gable during the 1970 NCAA tournament was, Garner’s victory over Karelin was unquestionably bigger, considering not just the scale of the feat but also the stage on which it was accomplished.

7. Super Bowl III

The third AFL-NFL Championship Game (and the first to officially use the Super Bowl moniker) is undoubtedly best known as the game in which Joe Namath guaranteed victory for his New York Jets. Some may argue that the game and the guarantee may receive too much hype, but it is important to remember that the first two interleague championship contests had been blowouts in favor of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. The upstart AFL was in trouble, as was the game itself. The Jets entered the game as 18-point underdogs to the Baltimore Colts, so when they made good on Namath’s promise and won the game 16-7, it was not only a tremendous upset but also a very important win for the AFL, helping to secure the eventual merger of the two leagues. Oh, and for the record, despite all the hoopla surrounding the Giants victory over the then-unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, they were actually only 12-point underdogs entering the game.

6. N.C. State wins 1983 NCAA Championship

College basketball is a difficult sport to select just one historic upset from. Do you go with Villanova beating Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA finals? Or Duke downing UNLV in 1991? Or even Division II Chaminade’s stunning regular season upset over Ralph Sampson and the Virginia Cavaliers in 1982? While all of those games are worthy candidates, in the end we have to go with North Carolina State’s surprising victory in the 1983 NCAA Championship. The Wolfpack’s victory over the Houston Cougars (and future NBA stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler) may not have been the biggest mathematical upset of all time, but it has left fans with many indelible images, including Coach Jim Valvano frantically running around the court after the final buzzer, desperately seeking someone to hug and share the emotional moment with.

5. Appalachian State Defeats Michigan!

Like college hoops, NCAA football has given us many, many upsets throughout the years, from Centre College’s win over Harvard in 1921 to Notre Dame knocking off Oklahoma and ending the Sooners’ 47-game winning streak in 1957 and beyond. Yet, as impressive as many of these upsets are, the simple fact is that there is one that outshines them all, and that is Appalachian State’s 34-32 upset of the #5 Michigan Wolverines in 2007. By blocking Michigan’s last second field goal attempt, the Mountaineers became the first Division I-AA (FCS) team to ever beat a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. Adding to the magnitude of the feat is the fact that the win came at the Big House in Ann Arbor, in front of over 100,000 U of M fans, and that the victims of this historic upset just happened to be the winningest program in college football history. The only reason this amazing accomplishment doesn’t rank even higher on our list is because the Mountaineers, despite being an FCS team, were pretty damn good in their own right. They came into the Michigan game having won 1-AA titles in 2005 and 2006, and they would go on to win a third consecutive FCS national championship in 2007.

4. Buster Douglas K.O.’s Mike Tyson

Forget Cinderella Man. As impressive as James J. Braddock’s win over Max Baer in 1935 was, Braddock was merely a 10-to-1 underdog in that fight, which is nothing compared to the 42-to-1 odds that faced James “Buster” Douglas in his heavyweight title fight against Mike Tyson in 1990. Tyson had been the heavyweight champion of the world for more than two years, and appeared unstoppable. The Douglas fight was supposed to be a tune-up, merely warming “Iron Mike” up for an eventual showdown with Evander Holyfield. Douglas had other plans, however, taking the fight to Tyson early and unlike any opponent the champ had ever faced, dominating the early rounds. Tyson would fire back, knocking Douglas down (but not out) in the eighth. The two continued to battle into the tenth round, when Douglas clocked Tyson and put him down for the count, becoming the undisputed champion of the world in the process.

3.  1969 Miracle Mets

1969 Miracle Mets

1969 Miracle Mets

Since entering the National League in 1962, the New York Mets had never finished above .500 during a season. They had lost 100 games in five of their first seven seasons, and in 1969, they entered the season as 100-to-1 longshots to win the World Series. True to form, they started off 18-23. Then something amazing happened. The Mets won 11 straight games, and finished the season with a 100-62 record. They won the NL East, then swept the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS before stunning the Baltimore Orioles, four games to one, to win the 1969 World Series. It was one of the most dramatic turnarounds in sports history, and the miraculous nature of the upset not only led to the team’s popular moniker, but also prompted New York pitcher Tom Seaver to quip, “God is living in New York City, and He’s a Mets fan.” Yet as impressive as the 1969 Mets were, they aren’t the highest rated “miracle” on our list.

2.  Upset’s upset.

Upset beats Man-O-War

Upset beats Man-O-War

Throughout this list, there have been many titans of sport who have fallen victim to the underdog. But unlike all of those, only one upset is believed to have actually given us the term “upset” to describe the case of a team or athlete overcoming incredible odds to claim victory over a seemingly more gifted opponent. That upset, of course, was Man o’ War’s loss in the 1919 Sanford Memorial to a horse named, what else, Upset. It would be the only loss of Man o’ War’s career, as he would go on to win Horse of the Year honors in 1920 and would later be named the Best Racehorse of the 20th Century by Blood-Horse magazine. But on that day, it was Upset who, as a 100-to-1 underdog, won the day.

1.  The Miracle on Ice

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Topping our list of the Top 10 Upsets in Sports History is, what else, the Miracle on Ice – the United States hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics. The odds were against the Americans in so many ways. They were a group of untested college and amateur players in a culture that was hardly hockey-centric, and they entered the 1980 Games as the seventh seed amongst 12 teams. The Soviets, meanwhile, were essentially full-time hockey players who had played together for years, and they were representing a country which had produced eight of the last nine gold medalists in the sport. The two countries were rivals in every sense of the word, with the political differences between them serving to further the meeting between the two teams on the ice. And to top it all off, the USSR and USA had already played each other in 1980, with the Americans suffering a 10-3 thrashing in a February exhibition match. If they played 100 times, the Soviet Union probably would have won 99 times. But they only played once, and on that day, the United States was the better team, winning 4-3 in what Sports Illustrated has called the greatest sporting moment of the 20th century. Do you believe in miracles?


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47 Comments

  1. How about the recently boxing game between Oscar dela Hoya and Manny Pacquiao? It was said that the Golden Boy had the 'upper hand' against the underdog Pacman…

  2. Lance Daugherty on

    Billy Mills winning the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Olympic games should be in the top ten. He ran the race 50 seconds faster than he had ever run the 10K.

  3. You are forgetting the "Maracanazo". In the 1950 Soccer World Cup Final in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil just needed to tie with Uruguay, and in fact they were winning 1-0. 11 minutes before the end of the game, Uruguay scored the 2-1 upsetting a whole country. They were even suicides reported after the game, and the Uruguayan champions received the cup on the run because of the upset fans.

  4. Bears defeat Yankees. When Coach Buttermaker turns his team of ragtag retards, delinquents and illegal immigrants into winners, is there any doubt that – yes – there is a God?

    Balboa defeats Drago. Sure, he'd already beaten Creed, Lang, and Thunderlips, but could he defeat the Commie machine who had literally killed Creed? Not only did Balboa win the bout, he also stole Drago's wife for a while afterward. Considering her sting on Flava Flav's show, she may not have been such a great catch!

  5. what about the new york giants defeating the previously undefeated new england patriots in superbowl XLII???

  6. your forgetting that there is a world outside the united states

    quite frankly you're the only country that gives a toss about nhl nfl or nba so hardly doubt they should be on a list which, by default, includes the entire planet.

    • Phil – Most of the site authors are from the US and write what they know, which is usually based on U.S. knowledge, especially in sports. I'm sure sites in the UK, like this site are ,UK biased and so on. I welcome lists from non-US residents, so please submit one if you like. You will find many lists that to span the world here, but it is hard to go outside the US on all of our top 10 lists.

  7. What about the Pistons upsetting the Lakers in 2004? The Lakers had four future hall of famers – Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton, and Phil Jackson, who was on the verge of surpassing Red Auerbach (which he did recently) for most championships won, yet they still lost in a relatively few number of games.

  8. Good list, though I think the Sonics-Nuggets series should be higher on the list, it really was a defining moment in the NBA's history, and one I got to watch every minute of. Great job.

  9. Good List but I also agree that the list is somewhat NFL, NBA heavy. Two outstanding upsets which should be in any top 10 list are the 1950 World cup match defeat of the US vs. England 1-0. So unexpected was this defeat of the Brits that the papers believed the score was a misprint and reported the score as 10-0 UK! The other upset that comes to mind is where 20-year-old Francis Ouimet defeated his idol, 1900 US Open champion, Englishman, Harry Vardon in the 1913 US Open. A very moving movie was made of this event in 2005.

  10. For tennis, there's Andre Agassi's defeat by Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan at the 2002 Wimbledon tournament. Agassi was 3rd seed while Paradorn was unseeded and almost completely unknown at the time. The match was expected to be so off-balanced that bookies had the odds at 800-1 against Paradorn.

  11. I'm surprised the the 1950 FIFA World Cup final is not on this list. After all the game was being played between Brazil and Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil was the heavy favourite. However with 11 minutes left in the game, Uruguay scored the game winning goal and won the world cup. You should really do more research before coming up with these lists.

  12. Wow! What about 2004 MLB Playoffs? Yankess vs Red Sox, Yankees were up 3 games to 0. Boston comes back and wins in 7 games! Thats has upset all over it. Not to mention, thats the biggest rivalry in All Of Sports!

    • Excellent team from SA, to be fair though it was not an entirely healthy team that played from Nz. 27 members of the 35 man squad came down with food poisoning in the lead up to the game. Have to give the Boks credit where credit is due though.

  13. How does James J Braddock not make this list? His was the FIRST upset in boxing history, the first REAL "Rocky" story!! Gotta give Cinderella Man his due!!

  14. And what about that champions leage final AC Milan beating Liverpool 3 -0 by the end of the first half, and yes the unexpected, Liverpool equalizes 3-3 and in penalties snatches the champioship in the blink of an eye from AC Milan. Not a fan of either teams, but that’s history in the making.

  15. The first three kinda lost me. I don’t consider golf a sport so that one is out. The Nuggets-Sonics series wasn’t a championship final so that one puzzles me. I don’t know anything about Olympic wrestling. After that, not a bad list.

  16. This should really be called, “Top 10 Greatest Upsets in AMERICAN Sports History.” I could go on, but what’s the point.

  17. what about the champions league final in 1999? manchester united was losing 1-0 but then they comeback with two goals in 3 minutes extra time to win the cup 2-1

  18. I still believe that the Texas Western Victory over Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA tournement to be one of the greatest upsets in History…

  19. Once again naive Americans refer to just themselves when talking about “the world”….most amusing. The biggest upset ever is Greece beating Portugal with the last kick off the ball to win the Euro 2004 championship. Truly epic.

  20. Are you kidding ??!!!! Chaminade Basketball defeating Virginia in 1982 . They also beat SMU twice and Louisville; bothnationally ranked teams. That definitley beats Appalachian State and half of the others listed. This list needs to be redone. What a shame.

  21. How about the famous “lateral” ending to the college football game between Stanford And Cal. State. Cal down by a touchdown hikes the ball with no time left and begins to lateral the football into the end zone, plowing into the opposing college band members. Ask John Elway about it. He played in that game.

  22. Last years NHL eastern confrence final. Flyers are up 3-0 in the seiries and winning 3-0 in game 4 go on to lose the game and eventually the serires

  23. Leicester football– may well eclipse all– they are on the verge of claiming the premiership for the top football league in the world (in money terms) . a couple years ago they were mocked and laughed at in the third division (about 85th) . I put 15 pence on them to win last season and at odds of 1/5000 which win nearly a $1,000 IF they manage not to stuff up the last few games

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