There are few things more thrilling in sports than a major upset, unless of course your team is on the wrong end of one. But some of the most memorable and iconic moments in all of sports are remembered most because they were so unexpected. The underdog caught fire or found the right moment to rise to the occasion and execute a David and Goliath-like moment.
So we’ve taken the time to identify some of the most extraordinarily surprising results in the history of sports, listed in order from least to most shocking.
This is a game that also frequently appears on lists ranking the greatest college football games ever played. It was that exciting on its own even without the added significance of a school from a non-power conference beating a traditional power like Oklahoma, which was seen as one of the nation’s best teams that season. Boise State jumped to a 28-10 lead in the third quarter, only to watch the Sooners rattle off 25 unanswered points to take a seven-point lead. The Broncos used a wild hook and lateral play to score the tying touchdown in the final seconds of regulation and an even more bold ‘Statue of Liberty’ run play for the game-winning two-point conversion in overtime. Boise State (13-0) was the one and only undefeated team in Division I football that year.
At that point, Ali (then fighting as Cassius Clay) was 22 years old, relatively new on the professional boxing scene and had never even fought in a pro title bout. Liston, on the other hand, was an imposing figure and an accomplished champion fighter who came into the fight with a 35-1 record and a reputation for brutal knockouts. Liston gave up after the sixth round and thus the legend of Muhammad Ali was just beginning.
Daly is known for his everyman personality and non-traditional attire on the golf course, but he first burst onto the scene with his shocking 1991 victory at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Indiana. Daly was a PGA Tour rookie and essentially a no-name at the time. The fact that he even played in the tournament was a miracle considering he was the ninth alternate and only made the field because of several last-minute dropouts. Daly was the very last man included in the field, but he wound up first place when all was said and done on Sunday. It’s one of just two majors Daly has won in his career.
The context of this one is self-explanatory. Harvard’s NCAA tournament win over Stanford in 1998 remains the only instance in a men’s or women’s NCAA tournament where a 16 seed beat a 1 seed. It’s fair to mention that Stanford suffered season-ending injuries to two key players, Vanessa Nygaard and Kristin Folkl, in the days leading up to the game. And Harvard was a veteran team with previous NCAA tourney experience. Still, on paper this was a massive surprise.
It’s easy to take Duke for granted as a powerhouse these days, but this program wasn’t nearly at that level in the early 1990s, when the Runnin’ Rebels were the class of college basketball. Coming into that year’s national semifinal, UNLV was the defending national champion and had a perfect 34-0 record on the season. The Rebels also crushed the same Duke team 103-73 in the previous year’s national title game. But the Blue Devils turned the tables and pulled a major upset, ending UNLV’s attempt at a perfect on the way to winning Duke’s first national championship in program history.
The 8th-seeded, Baron David-led Warriors’ series win over the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round in 2007 is rated as the biggest upset in playoff history, according to Basketball-Reference’s team strength metrics. Adding to the shock value of the upset, the Mavs won 67 games that year and were seemingly rolling with MVP Dirk Nowitzki leading the charge.
The way this series played out defies logic, not only because Detroit won, but did so in dominant fashion. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neil had already won three titles with the Lakers and appeared well on their way to a fourth against the Pistons, who were the 3 seed in the East that year and weren’t exactly known as a powerhouse. This Lakers team even featured Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone (albeit at 40 years old). But Chauncey Billups put together a Finals MVP performance for the ages and the physical, relentless Detroit team dispatched the Lakers in just five games to steal the championship.
This was an upset not only because of the matchup itself on paper, but because of the reputation of the historic context. You have Appalachian State, a smaller school playing in a lower division (FCS) against a team that was ranked No. 5 in both major national polls. Not only that but it’s Michigan, a true brand name in college football and a program with 11 national championships under its belt. This was supposed to be a walkover for the home fans at the Big House to enjoy. Instead, it was a complete embarrassment.
The UConn women have become such a dominant powerhouse for so long it feels like a huge upset any time they lose. That’s especially the case when they had won their previous 111 straight games, good for an all-time NCAA record. That streak was stunningly snapped in the national semifinal game against Mississippi State, which won on a thrilling Morgan Williams buzzer beater in overtime. It ended what looked like another sure championship run for the Huskies.
We’ve all probably seen the clip of NC State’s championship winning shot and ensuing celebration a thousand times by now. It’s an iconic moment because of the legendary coach Jim Valvano and because of how shocking the win was. This victory denied the Phi Slama Jama Houston team a championship they seemed destined to win behind two future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. But the No. 1 ranked Cougars fell victim to that year’s true Team of Destiny, which finished the regular season 17-10 and entered the NCAA tournament as a 6 seed.
Rousey was at the peak of her power and well established as the most dominant women’s fighter in UFC history. Holm hadn’t been involved in any major MMA fights to that point and was seen as untested in the UFC world. That perception changed when she knocked out previously undefeated Rousey in the second round after landing a devastating head kick. A little more than a year later, Rousey lost again and subsequently announced her retirement from the UFC.
These days, it’s very rare to even see an NAIA-affiliated basketball team face a major NCAA Division I school like Virginia because it would simply be such a mismatch. But that wasn’t the case on Dec. 23, 1982 in Lahaina, Hawaii. Chaminade University (which has since moved up to Division II) somehow employed a perfect strategy to shut down the top-ranked team in the nation led by future NBA great Ralph Sampson. The game was
and was not televised. It was maybe the greatest upset in sports history that hardly anyone saw. reportedly played in front of a small crowd of less than 4,000 people
Everything was stacked against the Giants in this game. The Patriots were 18-0 coming in, easily cruising through two playoff victories on the back of one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. Tom Brady and Randy Moss had record-setting years. And the Giants were merely a wild-card team that finished the regular season 10-6 and didn’t even win their division. But a legendary performance by New York’s defensive line held New England in check, and a potential perfect season ended in stunning fashion.
Tyson was not only undefeated at 37-0, but he was dominant with 35 knockouts, many of them in the first couple minutes of the first round. Tyson looked absolutely unbeatable while Douglas was seven years older and had a fairly unremarkable career to that point. According to various reports at the time, only one casino in Las Vegas offered gambling odds on the fight and it had Tyson as a 42 to 1 favorite. All that set the stage for Douglas’ shocking knockout of “Iron” Mike in the 10
The 1985 Villanova team remains the worst seed (8) to ever with an NCAA title and it’s also the biggest championship game upset, according to Vegas point spreads. Georgetown was a nine-point favorite and came into this game as defending national champs with a guy named Patrick Ewing as a senior. Villanova finished fourth place and five full games behind Georgetown in the same Big East conference as Georgetown that year. But thanks to an unbelievable 78.6 percent (!) shooting clip, the Wildcats pulled off the miracle win.
Beyond Joe Namath’s famous pregame guarantee, this game should be recognized most for the role it played in shaping the National Football League as we know it today. At the time of this game in 1969, the Colts were part of the American Football League, which had not yet fully merged with the NFL. Up until this game, sports pundits speculated that AFL teams weren’t high enough caliber to compete with in the NFL, calling the merger into question. That was put to rest when the heavily favored Colts (who were 15-1 entering the game) fell short to the Jets, not only validating Namath’s bold prediction but paving the way for the completion of the NFL-AFL merger a year later.
Coming into the 1980 Olympics, political tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union were reaching a boiling point. On the sports side, the Soviets had ruled the hockey world for the previous 20 years, winning 13 world championship titles between 1960-80 while winning four Olympic gold medals in the span. But the U.S. team, made up of a rag-tag group of college kids and a coach from Minnesota, slayed the giant and completed the ‘Miracle on Ice’ in stunning fashion in Lake Placid, New York, scoring a pair of third-period goals to end the Soviets’ Olympic win streak. That was the last time the U.S. men’s hockey team won Olympic gold.