The Miracle on Ice turned 40 earlier this year, and while its status as both the greatest, most well-remembered upset in American sports history is secure, there are plenty of other iconic upsets throughout sports history that are worth revisiting in their own right. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the most memorable upsets in sports history.
To this day, it remains the only World Series decided by a walk-off home run in Game 7. The Pirates and Yankees played one of the most curious Fall Classics ever when they met in 1960. New York bulldozed the Pirates in each of its three wins, with a combined score of 38-3 in those contests. The Pirates, by contrast, outscored the Yankees just 24-17 in their four wins. Game 7 was a back-and-forth affair, with the lead changing hands three times in the final two innings. With the score tied 9-9 in the bottom of the ninth, Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski, known mostly for his defense, smashed a 1-0 fastball over the left field wall for an improbable victory. For the series, the Pirates were outscored 55-27; Mickey Mantle later said that the series was the only loss that ever drove him to tears.
Arguably the greatest boxer ever, in 1964 Muhammad Ali had not yet changed his name and was still most known for his gift of gab and his 1960 light heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics. He came in as a 7-to-1 underdog to the fearsome Liston but thoroughly out-boxed him for six rounds, using his superior speed and technique to frustrate and hurt Liston. When Liston failed to meet the bell for the seventh round, Ali was declared the winner by TKO and became at the time the youngest man to ever take the heavyweight title from a reigning champion.
It might not be the greatest pure upset in terms of sheer unlikelihood, but given the NFL’s status as the country’s most popular league, no shocker may have had more significant long-term ramifications than the Jets’ stunning win over the Colts. Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed a win despite New York being an 18-point underdog, and a sturdy defensive effort, plus a 121-yard performance by running back Matt Snell propelled the Jets to a 16-7 triumph. The win legitimated the AFL and set the NFL on the course for long-term sporting primacy.
UCLA’s bona fides were well-established in the early 1970s. John Wooden’s program entered its Jan. 19, 1974, showdown with No. 2 Notre Dame riding an 88-game winning streak. While the Irish were a tremendous club in their own right, UCLA’s dominance in college basketball was such that any loss qualified as a seismic upset. Dwight Clay hit a short jumper from the right corner to provide the winning margin in a 71-70 victory, and the Fighting Irish ended what is still the longest winning streak in NCAA men’s history. Fittingly, the last team to beat UCLA before it went on its nearly three-year unbeaten run? Notre Dame.
In late 1974, no boxer on the planet was more feared than George Foreman. Foreman was unbeaten and had destroyed Joe Frazier. He was seven years younger than Ali, who came into the fight a 4-to-1 underdog. Rather than try to run from the hard-punching Foreman, Ali laid against the ropes and let Foreman tire himself out with punches that hit Ali’s arms and body and mostly had little-to-no effect. By the eighth round, Foreman was completely exhausted and Ali was landing clean shots. A five-punch combination put Foreman down for the count, and when the referee waved off the fight, the 32-year-old Ali had regained the heavyweight title and scored a shocking upset.
The upset by which all other upsets are measured. A team of collegiate United States players shocked the world, and perhaps themselves, by beating the Soviet national team, widely regarded as the most talented group on the planet, at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Though the Soviets dominated play territorially, the U.S. was skilled on the counterattack, and Mike Eruzione’s tie-breaking goal with 10 minutes left in the third period held up despite a ferocious push by the USSR. Team U.S.A. won the game 4-3 despite having lost to the Soviet team, 10-3, in an exhibition game just prior to the Olympics. The win is still widely regarded as the biggest upset in American sports history.
Houston’s high-flying basketball team, nicknamed Phi Slamma Jamma, rolled through the college basketball season, entering the national championship game on a 26-game winning streak. The Cougars featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and were heavy favorites in the game. NC State was able to hang around, as Olajuwon had trouble adjusting to the altitude in Albuquerque, and Drexler was plagued with first-half foul trouble. As time wound down, the game was tied at 52, and Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg was forced to heave up a 30-foot prayer. It was well short, but forward Lorenzo Charles gathered in the miss and dunked it just before time expired, giving NC State a 54-52 win and its second national championship.
Patrick Ewing’s 1984-85 Georgetown team was a force of nature. The Hoyas were the No. 1 team in the country and carried a 30-2 record into the national title game. Villanova played Georgetown tight twice during the season, but the Wildcats were significant underdogs in the game. They played a nearly perfect game to defeat Ewing and the Hoyas, shooting 78.6 percent from the floor and missing just one field goal attempt in the entire second half. Villanova’s final seven points of the contest came via free throw, and with a 66-64 lead and two seconds left, they were able to safely inbound the ball as time expired. The eight-seeded Wildcats remain the lowest seed to win a national title.
I’m biased, but this is my personal pick as the greatest upset in history. Tyson entered the fight as the most feared man on the planet and was a dominating force of nature. Douglas, by contrast, had a reputation for fading late in fights, and many boxing experts questioned his toughness, chin and conditioning. Douglas entered the fight a 42-to-1 underdog, with only the Mirage sports book posting odds for the fight. The bout itself was as stunning as the final outcome; Douglas took it to Tyson from the opening bell, dictating terms and getting the better of almost every exchange. Douglas looked to be in trouble after being knocked down by an uppercut in the eighth round but rallied in the ninth to hammer Tyson with power punches. In the 10th, he dispatched a tiring Tyson with a perfect uppercut and multiple power punches that landed flush. Tyson couldn’t beat the count, and the greatest upset in boxing history was complete.
The 1990-91 UNLV men’s basketball team was coming off a dominant run to a national title the year before. The Runnin’ Rebels were riding a 45-game winning streak heading into their national semifinal matchup with second-ranked Duke. Despite the game matching the top two teams in the country, few expected a close contest, as UNLV had blown out the Blue Devils, 103-73, in the previous year’s national title game. Duke pulled the shocker thanks to a huge game from Christian Laettner, who scored 28 points as well as 15 points off the bench from Brian Davis. Duke held UNLV 20 points below its season average, controlled tempo, and never let Coach Jerry Tarkanian’s team go on one of their patented runs en route to a 79-77 win. The loss snapped what was the longest winning streak since UCLA’s 88-game run 17 years prior.
Dikembe Mutombo’s Denver Nuggets were prohibitive underdogs in their first-round series with the powerhouse Seattle SuperSonics, whose 63-19 record was best in the league, in the 1994 NBA playoffs. For the first two games things went according to script, with Seattle winning by a combined 34 points. However, the Nuggets rallied to win the next two games in Denver and then completed a shocking comeback by downing the SuperSonics, 98-94, in overtime in a decisive Game 5. Robert Pack came off the bench to play hero for the Nuggets, scoring a game-high 23 points. The win also gave sports fans the iconic image of Mutombo, in jubilant disbelief, laying on the court in celebration after the win. The series marked the first time an eight seed had beaten a one seed since the league expanded its playoffs to 16 teams in 1984.
Before UMBC, there was the 1998 Harvard women’s basketball team. The Crimson were probably underseeded, as they entered the game at 22-4 and boasted the nation’s leading scorer, and two Stanford players were lost to injury in the run-up to the game. It was still an astonishing result. Harvard led for most of the game,and rallied late when Stanford managed to take a 65-62 lead. The Crimson finished the game on a 9-2 run to win 71-67 and remain the only 16 seed in women’s tournament history to beat a one seed. Even more impressive? Because of the tournament’s rules, Harvard’s win came on Stanford’s home court.
Russia’s Aleksandr Karelin is the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler in history. He entered the 2000 Summer Olympics having not had a point scored on him in the past six years. Karelin won gold at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympics and sported a career record of 887-1 coming into his gold-medal match with American Rulon Gardner. Gardner frustrated Karelin from start to finish and prevented the Russian from executing his famed “Karelin Lift” maneuver. Gardner clung to a 1-0 lead and was able to run out the clock to take home the gold. As for Karelin? He retired from competition immediately after the match.
Remember 2001? The Patriots were actually underdogs that season and scored multiple upsets on their way to reaching Super Bowl XXXVI. The Pats were 14-point underdogs against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams but managed to jump out to a 17-3 lead late in the third quarter. Kurt Warner rallied St. Louis back with two touchdowns to tie the game, and with the score knotted at 17, a second-year pro named Tom Brady got the ball at his own 17-yard-line with 1:30 left to play. Eight passes and 53 yards later, Adam Vinatieri lined up for a 48-yard field goal. The rest, as they say, is history.
After their three-peat from 2000-2002, the Lakers missed out on the NBA Finals in 2003 but got back again in 2004 with a roster that featured Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Malone and Payton were both chasing a championship, and many figured they’d get it when Los Angeles met Detroit in the NBA Finals. The ensuing upset was as surprising as Detroit’s performance was dominant. The Pistons wiped out L.A., thrashing the Lakers in five games. The series would have been a sweep had Bryant not made a long three-pointer to force overtime in Game 2. All but one of the Pistons' wins came by double digits, and they held the Lakers to under 90 points in four of five games.
Gonzaga might be the original Cinderella, at least of college basketball’s modern era, but no underdog was a more unlikely party-crasher than George Mason in 2006. The 11th-seeded Patriots won their first three tournament games but had the daunting task of facing top-seeded Connecticut in the regional final. Despite facing a 43-34 halftime deficit, George Mason never blinked, rallying to take a slim lead and then holding on in overtime to top the Huskies, adding to a tournament resume that already included wins over North Carolina and Michigan State. The Patriots became just the second double-digit seed to reach the Final Four, after LSU in 1986.
Boise State didn’t belong on the same field as Oklahoma. At least that was the narrative heading into the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Despite Boise’s 12-0 record, the 11-2 Sooners were 7.5-point favorites. Boise led throughout the game, however, and carried a 28-17 advantage into the fourth quarter. Oklahoma rallied with 18 straight points to take a 35-28 lead, but Jared Zabransky and the Broncos weren’t done yet. Facing a do-or-die fourth-and-18, Boise flawlessly executed a hook-and-lateral play to score a tying touchdown, and in overtime, utilized a wide receiver pass to score a touchdown anda then won the game in iconic fashion, running a perfect Statue of Liberty play that culminated in Ian Johnson’s decisive two-point conversion. It is widely regarded as one of the best bowl games of all time.
It was supposed to be a season-opening tune-up for fifth-ranked Michigan. FCS Appalachian State paid a visit to the Big House on Sept. 1, 2007. While App State was the top-ranked team in the FCS, no one expected a close game, and Las Vegas sports books did not post a betting line. Quarterback Armanti Edwards and the Mountaineers flummoxed Michigan’s defense all afternoon and didn’t blink when the Wolverines rallied late to take a 32-31 lead. App State kicked a field goal to go ahead, then blocked Michigan’s attempt at a game-winning kick. The game marked the first time that an FCS school beat a ranked FBS opponent and stands as one of the biggest upsets in college football history.
By point spread, it was at the time the biggest upset in college football history. Stanford came into its 2007 matchup with USC a 41-point underdog. The Cardinal had lost their starting quarterback the week prior, and backup Tavita Pritchard had just three pass attempts to his credit. USC was ranked No. 1 in the country. The Trojans led just 9-0 at halftime but were still holding a 23-17 lead with time running out in the fourth quarter. Pritchard hit Richard Sherman — yes, that Richard Sherman — with a 20-yard pass on fourth-and-20 to keep the decisive drive alive and then found Mark Bradford for the winning touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 10-yard line with 48 seconds to play. The Cardinal held on for the 24-23 victory, and Jim Harbaugh had his signature win in Palo Alto.
The 2007 New England Patriots executed quite the Spygate revenge tour, shredding the NFL on their way to a 16-0 regular season. Though they only narrowly beat the Giants in the regular season, the Pats were installed as a 12.5-point favorite in Super Bowl XLII. New York’s defensive line dominated the game, however, harassing Tom Brady all night and holding New England’s vaunted offense in check. Still, the Giants were in trouble, facing a third-and-long late in the fourth quarter while trailing 14-10. Eli Manning managed to avoid a sack and heave up a prayer that David Tyree caught by pinning the ball to his helmet despite tight coverage. Four plays later, Manning hit Plaxico Burress for the winning touchdown, and the Patriots’ quest for 19-0 was derailed at the last possible moment.
Tiger Woods was golf’s ultimate closer. Heading into the 2009 PGA Championship, Woods had never lost a major when leading after 54 holes. He carried a two-shot lead in the final round, and victory seemed a foregone conclusion, particularly since his closest challenger was Yang, a relative unknown from South Korea. Woods’ putter betrayed him on the final day, and Yang never blinked, chipping in for eagle on the 14th hole to gain a lead he would never relinquish. Clinging to a one-shot lead, he even finished with a flourish, stiffing a 210-yard approach on the final hole to close with a birdie and defeat Woods by three shots.
Serena Williams is the greatest women’s tennis player ever, very possibly the greatest female athlete in history, and overall one of the greatest athletes in history. None of that mattered against Italy’s Roberta Vinci in the 2015 U.S. Open semifinals. Williams was bidding to finish off a calendar Grand Slam, but Vinci stopped her in her tracks, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. Vinci attacked from all angles and kept Williams off balance throughout the match. It was by far the most famous, noteworthy match of Vinci’s career and one that saw her retire three years later. Her win over Williams is still regarded as one of the biggest upsets in tennis history.
Looking for the biggest upset of all time from a betting perspective? Look no further. Leicester City’s Premier League championship in 2016 was the long shot to end all long shots. How much of an afterthought were the Foxes? Before the season started, some British sportsbooks had the club at 5,000-to-1 to win the league, after they narrowly avoided relegation the year prior. Yet win it they did, thanks to steady, consistent defense, and the razor-sharp counterattacking of Jamie Vardy and Co. Leicester City sewed up the title with a few games remaining in the season. It might not resonate as much stateside, but the Foxes’ championship was nothing less than a seismic event in the United Kingdom.
A 16 seed was bound to beat a one seed at some point in the men’s NCAA Tournament. Virginia may have even seemed ripe for the picking, with its plodding, defense-focused style. Still, it was hard to comprehend the degree to which the Cavaliers were outclassed by UMBC in 2018. The Retrievers came into the game with a 24-10 record but were 20.5-point underdogs to Virginia. The game was tied at 21 at halftime, but UMBC exploded in the second half, as guard Jairus Lyles was unstoppable, and diminutive point guard K.J. Maura made big play after big play. Virginia and its pack line defense had no answer for either player, and UMBC scored a jaw-dropping 53 points after the break to run away with the win, 74-54. The victory ended an 0-135 run for 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Washington wasn’t exactly a slouch outfit in 2019, taking the first wild-card spot in the National League with a 93-69 record. Still,it was going up against a 107-55 powerhouse in the form of the Houston Astros. The Nationals were the biggest World Series underdog since the 2007 Colorado Rockies. Washington jumped out to a 2-0 series lead with a pair of wins in Houston, only to drop all three of its home games and face the daunting task of having to win two more games on the road. The Nats did just that, silencing the Astros’ bats in Games 6 and 7 to win their first World Series. It was the first time in baseball history that the road team won every game of a seven-game series.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.