The appeal of the weaker team or fighter overcoming adversity and having their day in the sun is something we can all enjoy. Well, that is true, unless it is your team or fighter that has been beaten. If you had a lot of money backing the loser – even though they were a ‘certainty’ to win – it could make you sick to your stomach.

For the neutrals, however, watching the seemingly impossible come through is something to savor forever. Documentaries, books, and Hollywood movies have been commissioned off the back of some of the biggest upsets in sports history. Then there are the “Rocky” stories that have their origins in the David vs. Goliath-like scenarios that have gone the way of the smaller man or team.

There is no getting away from the fact that, as humans, we are conditioned to root for the underdog. Whether this is due to a sense of wanting to see the big guys toppled or embarrassed, or simply just to taste the sublime, there is something really special in witnessing such events.

While there have been many instances of shocking wins for the underdog over the years, I believe the following five events to be the most extraordinary.

So, strap in and prepare to be taken on a journey through 5 of the most seemingly impossible triumphs for the outsiders.

5. Japan Slays South Africa in the Rugby World Cup

There are fewer rugby powerhouses as proud of their achievements in the game than South Africa. The two-time World Cup winners have a rich tapestry of history in the sport and have often been the only team to challenge the dominance of the mighty All Blacks.

However, on a sunny day in Brighton, on England’s south coast, the powerful Springboks were brought crashing down to earth by a kamikaze performance by Japan.

The minnows, led by current England head coach Eddie Jones, were not given much of a chance of beating South Africa. Jones, who was the assistant coach of the Springboks in their 2007 World Cup win, is also half-Japanese. There was no doubting where his allegiances lay on September 19, 2015.

While the result was incredible, the manner of how the Cherry Blossoms played was arguably more enthralling. Japan started the game with no fear, bringing the action right to the line against the physically larger South Africans. When their captain, Michael Leitch, scored to take Japan to 10-7 up just before the half-hour mark, Japan started to believe.

Although the second half was a case of back and forth in terms of scoring, optimism started to simmer down when South Africa took a 3-point lead with minutes remaining.

Then, as the game moved past regular time, Japan were suddenly in the hunt for a match-winning try. The ball was spin out to Karne Hesketh, who amazingly crossed the line to send the crowd at the Brighton Community Stadium into overdrive.

An incredible end to what was arguably Japan’s greatest sporting achievement on the world stage. No one expected the minnows to win, especially against a team that was touted as being far too big for the Cherry Blossoms to handle.

David vs. Goliath, anyone?

South Africa are Humbled

South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer summed up the feeling in the team’s dressing room after the game:

“I have to apologize to the nation. It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility.

“Every game is going to be tough but there are no excuses. We scored four tries but our discipline was not good enough and we can’t give so many penalties away.”

No excuse could atone for the performance of South Africa, but they did go on to finish third in the tournament (crashing out to New Zealand 20-18 in the semis).

As it stands, some might point to this game not being a shock for the simple fact that Japan has a 100% record in all meetings between the two teams in rugby. In this case, it is important to remember that this historic game was the first and last time they have met to date.

4. Muhammad Ali KO’s George Foreman

You might be thinking, “Muhammad Ali? An underdog? Have you gone insane?”

Just hear me out.

Contrary to your surprise, Ali was, in fact, a considerable underdog heading into the “Rumble in the Jungle.” The bookmaker’s odds may have been 4-1 against Ali, but even these seemed too short.
Muhammad Ali KO’s George Foreman
The fight took place in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) on October 30, 1974. George Foreman, the undefeated wrecking ball, was tipped to make light work of the 32-year-old Ali, who many argued was past his prime.

With an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide, the fight was the most watched event in history. It just so happened that the fight would go down as one of the greatest sporting moments known to man. While the years might have softened the edges of just how important this fight was, those who remember watching the fight will never forget what happened.

Foreman was seen as unbeatable ahead of this fight. Ali had already been beaten, twice, against Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. The two men to beat Ali couldn’t make it past the second round against the monstrous power of Foreman.

Ali’s Plan

Everyone from the average boxing fan to Ali’s friend, broadcasting legend Howard Cosell, saw no way for “The Greatest” to triumph in Zaire.

“He punches like he’s a lumberjack trying to cut down trees,” Ali had said before the fight.

“I’m going to dance,” Ali later predicted. “I’m going to dance for 15 rounds if I have to. After eight rounds it will be obvious that he’s dead tired.”

That prediction was one that would come through.

After 8 rounds of dishing out the most brutal punishment, Foreman was huffing and puffing under the African sky. Although the champion was behind on points and struggling for breath, he still came at the older man.

Then, seeing his opportunity, Ali pounced. Slamming a right hand against Foreman’s huge skull, he cocked his fist as the “unbeatable” destroyer stumbled around the ring before collapsing onto the canvas like a slain giant.

The great man had done the impossible.

“[Ali is] the greatest man I’ve ever known,” Foreman said in 2003. “Not greatest boxer, that’s too small for him. He had a gift. He’s not pretty, he’s beautiful. Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is.”

3. “The Miracle on Ice”

East meets West. The red-hot favorites, USSR vs. the 7th seeders, USA.

If the text above seems to you like it would be more fitting for a 1980s politically-driven action movie, you wouldn’t be alone. The most incredible part of this story is that it is 100% true and went down at the XIII Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, upstate New York, in 1980.

While the US Olympic team would go on to win 12 gold medals that year, the biggest story – and one that was embraced by most across the world – was the US hockey team’s victory over the seemingly unbeatable Soviets.

To those either too young or too disinterested, this was seen as nothing short of a miracle at the time. In fact, the win has been referred to as the “Miracle on Ice” since the unthinkable happened on February 22, 1980.

The Americans battled to a 2-2 tie against Sweden in their first game, but then overpowered a mighty Czechoslovakia outfit 7-3 on their way to the medal round. Having won 4 games and drawn 1, this alone was viewed as a victory for the U.S.

Given that the Americans were made up of college players and amateurs, they were seen as no match for the Soviets. After all, the team from the East had won gold in the past four Olympic games and were almost guaranteed of a fifth, if the media were to be believed. To make matters worse, they had stormed the U.S. 10-3 in an exhibition earlier in the month.

The U.S. Dares to Dream

Following a tight first period, both teams were level at 2-2.

Then, the Soviets struck in the 2nd with the only goal, before Mark Johnson struck for Team USA to bring the home team level. At 3-3, it seemed like the crowd’s encouragement was being absorbed by the Americans.

When Mike Eruzione scored to make it 4-3, the crowd erupted. Not long after, the game was won and a country rejoiced.

Even those outside of the U.S., with no interest whatsoever in hockey, must agree that this was one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports.


2. “Buster Douglas Beats Mike Tyson”

29 years ago, on February 11, 1990, the boxing world was stunned.

Those who had been sleeping through the fight awoke to the news that the “Baddest Man on the Planet,” Mike Tyson, had been beaten.

Tyson, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, had lost to a fighter that had about as much hope of coming out intact as a snowman in a fireplace. Against all odds – 42-1 were the odds doing the rounds at the time – the Colombus, Ohio-native had done what no one else came close to in 37 fights before.

Even if the excuses of Tyson not training right and partying all night are to be believed, the simple fact is that this was the single greatest upset in the history of boxing. Some will say there has never been a greater shock in sports, period. When you consider just how unbreakable Tyson was considered, it is not hard to see why.

Tyson had pulverized almost every one of his opponents before this bout, stopping the vast majority in style. He was touted as possibly being the finest heavyweight boxer of all time, and even Muhammad Ali admitted on the Arsenio Hall show a few years earlier that Tyson would have likely beaten him.

Douglas’ Pain

On the opposite side of the coin was a pugilist that had been given an opportunity of a lifetime, and took it with both hands.

In 1990, Buster Douglas was fighting numerous battles outside of the ring. His marriage to Bertha Paige was close to collapsing and Doris Jefferson, the mother of his son, was in the hospital battling a serious kidney disorder.

To make matters worse, just 23 days before his bout against “Iron Mike,” his mother had passed away.

Douglas had trained like a demon ahead of the fight and stepped into the ring in arguably the best shape of his career. Tyson threw the obligatory hard shots his way, just as he would have done against any of the other fighters that had preceded Douglas, but this fighter was not just unintimidated, but fighting back and landing on the champ.

Come the ninth round, this was looking – not just like a fight that Tyson could lose – but a fight that “Buster” could win. In the tenth round, Douglas landed a four-punch combo and the craziest of sights occurred – Mike Tyson hit the deck.

Tyson scrambled on the floor, tried to find his gumshield while the referee counted “8, 9…” and then, finally, “10.”

James “Buster Douglas,” the 42-1 underdog, had just beaten the greatest boxer on planet Earth.

1. Leicester City win the EPL

5000-1 at the start of the season. Let that sink in for a moment.

From the 1995/96 season, the English Premier League had only been won by four teams – Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United. In 2015/16, the unlikeliest of clubs would have their hands on the EPL trophy. That club was Leicester City.

Despite having a team that had cost just a fraction of those challenging for the title that year, Claudio Ranieri’s men seemed to gel better than any club in the EPL. With players such as Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante, and Kasper Schmeichel mixing it with players considered weaker, by comparison, Leicester just kept winning games.

Although the team had failed to keep a clean sheet until October, there were some signs even before then that the team could do well that year.

OK, absolutely no one would have predicted that the 5000-1 outsiders would have won the league, granted, but there were hopes that the East Midlands club could have comfortably remained in the league until the following season.

So what was behind the drive towards soccer immortality? Smart signings, cohesion in the squad, a great dressing room?

How about pizza.


“Before every game, I said, ‘Come on boys, come on. Clean sheet today.’ No clean sheet,” Ranieri said in an interview following the most unexpected of title wins.

“I tried every motivation. So finally, before the game against Crystal Palace, I said: ‘Come on boys, come on. I offer you a pizza if you get a clean sheet.’

Of course, there was more to the biggest upset in soccer history – and arguably in the history of sports – than free pizza. This was a team that just seemed to believe. Win after win helped to create a huge level of confidence that the team thrived off, and with a little bit of luck – and a few great escapes – “The Foxes” were wily and tactful enough to work their way towards a remarkable title win.

There is no doubt that this fairy tale story will be the talk of bars and living rooms around Leicester for years and years to come.

Perhaps, even, pizzerias, too.

Honorable Mentions

OK, so there have been more than five great upsets in the history of sports.

However, the five above are the ones that I believe to have been the most shocking – both in terms of odds and the impact they had on world sports.

If there were room for another five major upsets on this list – or, in other words, if this had been a top 10 rather than a top 5 – the following events would have likely made the list:

  • Ben Curtis as a 300-1 underdog to win The Open Championship in 2013
  • Goran Ivanisevic winning Wimbledon as a 250-1 outsider (the only player to ever do so as a wildcard)
  • The Greece national football team at 150-1 to win Euro 2004
  • Auburn Tigers at 1000-1 to win the National Championship
  • St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series at 999-1

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