December 23, 2023 | Janet Mowat

Inspiring Facts About Sports Underdogs and Comebacks

“It aint’ over till it’s over” —Yogi Berra

Sports are exciting because they are unpredictable: Underdogs can claim an unexpected victory, the team that’s all but lost at the end of the first half makes a heroic comeback, and the champion doesn’t always win. For as long as sports have been played, there have been thrilling wins and heartbreaking losses that have since become legend. Below are 43 inspiring facts about sports underdogs, comebacks, and upsets.

43. 5,000-1 Odds

Nobody expected Leicester City to win the Premier Soccer League title in 2015. The club had 5,000-1 odds to win, and were possibly the biggest longshot championship in sports history. They won by taking advantage of some down years for the big teams like Mancester United and Chelsea, and took home their first championship in team history. They also won a very few gamblers a lot of money.

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42. The Greatest Show on Turf

Once upon a time, the New England Patriots were actually an underdog team. Back in 2001, Tom Brady was a backup quarterback for Drew Bledsoe, and only got into a game when Bledsoe was injured. Brady led the team through the playoffs and into the Superbowl, where they faced the St. Louis Rams—one of the best offensive teams ever. The Pats pulled out a stunning victory, and Tom Brady became an instant legend.

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41. A Future Wimbledon Champion

When 17-year-old Boris Becker won the warm-up event at Wimbledon, broadcasters declared him a “future Wimbledon champion". Little did they know that they'd be proven right only three weeks later. Becker went into the tournament an unseeded novice, and it took him five sets to defeat more experienced players to improbably make it to the final. Playing with a confidence and swagger beyond his years, he defeated opponent Kevin Curren for an unlikely victory.

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40. Back from the End

In 1976, Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda was in a horrific accident at Nürburgring, when he became trapped in the wreckage of his car and suffered terrible burns to his head. His injuries were so bad that he was read his Last Rites. Incredibly, just six weeks later, Lauda was back on the track. He went on to win the 1977 and 1984 F1 titles.

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39. Golf’s Rocky Moment

John Daly was never supposed to play in the 1991 USPGA Championship, but when Nick Price withdrew and 8 other alternates on the list couldn’t get to Indianapolis, Daly got his chance. He became an instant crowd favorite, and defied 1,000-1 odds to win the major.

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38. Buzzer Beater

In 1983, N.C. State defeated Houston for the NCAA championship. In the final quarter, the game was tied 52 all with seconds left on the clock when Derek Whittenburg passed the ball to Lorenzo Charles, who dunked it just as time expired. The clip of the head coach rushing around the court looking for someone to celebrate with is an iconic moment in sports history.

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37. Seemed Like a Lock

With future NBA star Patrick Ewing on their roster and a previous championship under their belts, Georgetown seemed like a lock to win the 1985 NCAA tournament final. The eighth seeded Villanova, however, turned in one of the best aiming performances in college basketball history and pulled off an upset over Georgetown with a 66-64 victory.

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36. David and Goliath

The 2004 NBA final was considered a David and Goliath match. The Detroit Pistons were facing off against the powerhouse LA Lakers, who had Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Pistons didn’t have a single superstar, but they knew how to play well together. After splitting the first two games, they took the next three games to defeat the Lakers and claim their first championship since 1990.

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35. Almost A Miracle

In 2010, Butler wasn’t even expected to make it past the first round of the NCAA finals, but the team did the impossible and made it to the final to face off against Duke. The game came down to the one shot, with Butler losing to Duke in the final seconds. Had they won, it would have been a story for the ages, but regardless of the outcome, it’s an inspiring underdog story.

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34. The Crazy Gang

The Wimbledon FC team were viewed as a joke in the soccer world. Known as the "Crazy Gang" for their insane antics, they seemed more interested in entertaining than winning. In 1988, they outplayed everybody in the premier league and crushed the favorite Liverpool to take home the FA Cup.

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33. Miracle on the Mat

At the 2000 Olympics, Russian wrestler Aleksandr Karelin had been undefeated in international competition for 15 years. He’d won three consecutive gold medals, seven consecutive world titles, and he hadn’t given up a point for a decade. Then along came the 29-year-old Rulon Gardner, a farm boy from Wyoming, who shocked and thrilled the world by defeating Karelin in the final.

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32. The First “Super” Bowl

Super Bowl III was the first football championship to be called a “Super Bowl,”and the then Baltimore Colts were the favorites to win. In a stunning upset, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath led the Jets to a 16-7 Victory, and put the NFL on the map.

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31. The Man Who Inspired a Team

Tim Tebow didn’t start the 2011 football season under center for the Broncos, but fans who knew of his success with the Florida Gators urged the team to give him a shot. Tebow started in week seven of the season, and once he came in, the Broncos didn’t lose a single game. While they lost to the Patriots in the post season, Tebow will always be remembered as the man who inspired a team.

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30. Epic Underdogs

The 2006 Edmonton Oilers were the worst seed in the Western Conference in the NHL, which meant that they’d not only have to play most of their playoff games on the road, but also defeat the best teams. Amazingly, the Oilers played better on the road than at home, and they beat the #1 seeded Red Wings in the 1st round, subsequently taking down the Ducks and the Sharks to make it to the Stanley Cup. Though they ultimately lost to the Hurricanes, they did win manage to win 3 games. Quite a feat for a team who was never supposed to make it out of the first round.

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29. The Little Team that Could

The Denver Nuggets' 1994 playoff run is one of the best underdog stories in NBA history. The team entered the playoffs as the eighth seed, and were forced to face the #1 seeded Supersonics. Nobody expected the Nuggets to win, but they did, knocking out the SuperSonics in the first round. In round two, they were down 0-3 with seemingly no chance of a comeback, but they pulled out another miracle, won three consecutive games, and forced a Game 7. They were the first team since 1951 to force a Game 7 after being down 0-3; despite losing the final game, their improbable run was a memorable one.

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28. Greek Myth

There was little hope or expectation that the Greek Soccer Team could beat the French in the 2004 Euro Cup, but in the 65th minute the Greek striker Angelos Charisteas stunned the French team by scoring the goal that led Greece to a 1-0 victory in the quarter final. From there, they upset the Czech team in the semis, and went on to beat host team Portugal in the finals. It was one of the most stunning victories in the history of European soccer.

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27. 41 Point Underdog

Stanford’s 2007 victory over USC is remembered as one of the biggest upsets in college football. At the time, Stanford was a 41-point underdog, playing with a backup Quarterback who had only thrown 3 passes in his career. All the odds were against them, but they managed to beat USC, winning 24-23.

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26. Defying The Odds

Although he's now a star, Jeremy Lin’s road to pro-basketball was full of disappointments and setbacks. He was offered zero athletic scholarships out of high school, and remained undrafted after college. He was eventually picked up by the Golden State Warriors, but spent most of the season on the bench and was ultimately dropped. He was then picked up by the Houston Rockets, but was cut again. He finally found his way to the New York Nicks, and got a shot to play when two of their biggest players were injured. Lin led the team to a winning streak and a phenomenon in the city that became known as "Linsanity," and his career finally took off.

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25. Cinderella Story

Prior to 2006, few basketball fans had ever heard of the George Mason Patriots. They were the 11th seed in the NCAA tournament, and were absolute underdogs. After defeating Michigan in the first round, they went on to defeat North Carolina and Wichita. After beating Connecticut, they faced off in the Final Four against the Florida Gators. The Patriots were ultimately unable to defeat the Gators, but they were the first out-of-CAA team to reach the Final Four, and only the second double-digit seed to make it that far.

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24. The Greatest Game

The New York Yankees entered the 1960 World Series having won 10 out of 12 of the last pennants, and they were strong favorites to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite being out-scored by the Yanks 55-27, the Pirates shocked everybody when Bill Mazeroski hit the game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth, Game 7, to take home the victory.

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23. Always A Bridesmaid…

Goran Ivanisevic entered the 2001 Wimbledon Tennis tournament having never won a Grand Slam title, despite ranking high on the ATP list. Forced to miss the 2000 season due to a shoulder injury, he fell down the list to 125. In 2001, he was given a wild card berth into the tournament, and surprised everyone by defeating Patrick Rafter in the finals in five sets. It was his first and only Grand Slam title, as he retired soon after.

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22. Defying the Odds

In 2011, something magical happened to the St. Louis Cardinals. With only a month left to play, the Cardinals were nine games out to a playoff spot—but then they went on a huge winning streak, and made the post season in the very last game. They further defied the odds by beating the league’s reigning champs, the Philadelphia Phillies, in the first round. The Cardinals made it to the World Series and defeated the Texas Rangers in six games to win the championship.

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21. Changing His Image

Josh Hamilton was a first pick draft in 1999, wowing baseball scouts with his talent. However, drug and booze use took its toll, and Hamilton was bounced from team to team before getting picked up by the Texas Rangers. With the Rangers, he decided to get clean and change his image, and he went on to become one of the best players in the game for several years.

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20. Don't Call It A Comeback

When Michael Jordan decided to leave basketball for a 17-month stint in baseball, the NBA was left searching for a new face of the game, but none of the current megastars managed to win a title. When Jordan returned to basketball better than ever in 1995, he reinvigorated the league and reminded everyone of his greatest-of-all-time status.

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19. Scrappy Squad

The 1995 New Jersey Devils entered the NHL playoffs a fifth seed team—not bad, but with little expectation of winning anything against other dominant teams in the league. Amazingly, they beat some tough Eastern Conference teams to make it to the Stanley Cup Final—but even then nobody seriously thought that they’d beat the Detroit Red Wings. In a huge upset, the Devils swept the Red Wings 4-0 in the series and took home their first championship in team history.

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18. Defeating The Undefeated

The New York Giants entered Super Bowl XLII as 12 point underdogs against the undefeated Patriots. Further lowering the Giants' odds of winning? No wild card team in history had ever won the Super Bowl. By the 4th quarter, the two teams had only scored a combined 10 points, but that’s when the game got exciting. With 2:39 left on the clock, the Giants went on a drive that included one of the most memorable plays in NFL history: Eli Manning wove past three Patriots to make a pass, setting up the Giants to score the Super Bowl-winning touchdown.

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17. No Chance At All

Typically when your team is behind 17-1 in the 5th inning of a baseball game, the likelihood of winning is pretty small. Amazingly, a win is exactly what happened to the minor league team the Clinton LumberKings. The Burlington Bees managed to melt a 16 run lead, losing to the LumberKings in extra innings.

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16. Ending a 100-Year Drought

In 2004, the Boston Red Sox had gone almost 100 years—a century—without winning a title, and it seemed likely to continue that year. The Red Sox were down 3-0 in the American League Championship against the Yankees, but they came back to win the series—and heck, the World Series as well.

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15. Craziest Game Ever Played

A meeting between two Texas High School football teams in 1994 became one of the craziest games ever played when Plano East pulled off a stunning upset victory over the John Tyler Lions. Trailing 41-17 with just over three minutes left to play, Plano East pulled within three points of the Lions. With 11 seconds left, Plano’s kick returner ran 97 yards to score the game-winning touchdown, closing out the game in dramatic fashion.

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14. Historic Comeback Win

The New England Patriots are no strangers to the Super Bowl, but their 4th quarter comeback in the 2017 Super Bowl was a historic win. Trailing 28-3 with just over a quarter left to play, it seemed like the Atlanta Falcons were on their way to their first Super Bowl victory. No team had ever won when trailing by more than 10 points, but a touchdown and a field goal brought the score to 28-12 with 9:44 left. Minutes later, thanks to a two-point conversion and a penalty for Atlanta, the impossible became possible: the Patriots tied the game. The game went into the first overtime in Super Bowl history, and the Patriots sealed their comeback, winning the game 34-28.

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13. Trailing By 10

In the biggest comeback in PGA history, Paul Lawrie was down 10 strokes on the final hole ofthe British Open, but Jean van de Velde triple-bogeyed the hole, allowing Lawrie to win the tournament. Less of a comeback for Lawrie, more of a loss for van de Velde.

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12. All In 11 Seconds

In 1995, in Game 1 of the Pacers-Nicks series in the NBA finals, Pacers star Reggie Miller managed to score 8 points in 11 seconds for an astoundingly quick comeback victory.

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11. Scratching Their Way Back

In 2010, The Philadelphia Flyers were down 3 games to none against the Boston Bruins in the NHL Eastern Conference Semi-Final. They managed to come back to force a Game 7, but after giving up three goals in the first period, it seemed like the game was lost. Nobody told the Flyers though, and they clawed their way back to score the next four goals and win the game and the series 4-3. Their victory was just the third time in NHL history that a team overcame a 3-0 deficit.

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10. The Miracle Of Bern

Scoring goals in soccer is no easy feat, and eight minutes into the 1954 World Cup Final, the German National Soccer team found itself in a two-goal deficit. By halftime, the Germans had managed to even the score, and in the 84th minute, they got another goal, pushing them to their first World Cup victory. The dramatic game became known as the Miracle of Bern.

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9. Underdog Mountaineers

The Michigan Wolverines were one of the top ranked programs in all of college football, and were expected to soundly beat the Appalachian Mountaineers in the opening game of the 2003 season. Led by quarterback Armanti Edwards, Appalachian State beat the favorites 34-32. It was one of the most shocking upsets in sports history, largely because they were the first lower-league team to beat a team from the championship division.

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8. Improbable Comeback

The 2001 Seattle Mariners were having one of the best seasons of any team in history, and were facing the Cleveland Indians for a four game series in August. By the seventh inning, the Indians were down 14-2, and it looked like they were sunk. Then the impossible happened quite gradually. In the seventh inning, the Indians scored three runs, making the score 14-5. In the bottom of the eighth, the Indians scored four more runs, making it a much closer 14-9. They went into the ninth still down by five runs, but scored two more runs, making it 14-11. With two down, and trailing by three, Omar Visquel hit a bases-clearing triple, tying the game. The Indians went on to win 15-14 in the 11th inning.

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7. Rumble In The Jungle

Returning to the ring in 1974 after a three year exile for refusing to fight in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali was hardly the invincible force he had previously been. Nobody thought that he’d be able to beat the fearsome George Foreman, but Ali's rope-a-dope tactics in the ring saw him knock Foreman out in the eighth round, securing the 32-year-old the heavyweight title.

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6. Classic Rivalry

College basketball teams the Duke Blue Devils and the Maryland Terrapins were Atlantic Coast Conference rivals, and their fourth meeting in 2001 became a classic one. The Terrapins jumped all over the Blue Devils to take a 39-17 lead, and thought they had the game won—until the Blue Devils staged their comeback. With 7 minutes left in the game, the Devils took a 1 point lead over the Terrapins, and ended up closing out their opponent and making it to the national championship game. They went on to upset the Arizona Wildcats in the final, giving their coach his third title at the school.

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5. No One Thought He Could Win

Mike Tyson was the 42-1 favorite to win his February 1990 fight with Buster Douglas. The fight, labeled “Tyson is Back,” was expected to be an easy victory for Tyson, but Douglas knocked him out in the 10th round to become heavyweight champion. It was one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, and the fight made Douglas a household name.

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4. The Kick Felt Around The World

Ronda "Rowdy" Rousey seemed like a lock to defend her UFC bantamweight title in 2015, and had dominated in her last 3 fights. To everybody’s surprise, including Rousey’s, underdog Holly Holm knocked out the champion with a brutal second round kick.

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3. Miracle Mets

In 1967, the New York Mets finished the season with 101 losses, but in 1969, they surprised everyone by reversing that record and winning 100 games to earn the newly created National League East title. The Orioles were heavily favored to win the World Series, but the Mets pulled out a stunning victory and beat the Orioles 4 games to 1.

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2. Breaking the Curse

In 2016, it had been 108 years since the Chicago Cubs had won a World Series victory, thanks in part to the famous Curse of the Billy Goat. Down 3-1 heading into game 5 of the World Series, they managed to hold off the Indians, forcing the series to game 6. After beating in the Indians 9-3 in that game, it all came down to game 7. The Cubs managed to overcome two big rallies from the Indians, winning the game in dramatic fashion in 10 innings. The curse was broken, and it will be remembered as one of the best games in the history of the Fall Classic.

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1. Miracle on Ice

As the US Men’s Hockey Team got set to face the Russians in the 1980 Olympic gold medal game, it seemed like the US would need a miracle to win. The American team had played well, but was filled with amateurs and college players, whereas the Russians had some of the best hockey talent in the world. The team pulled off an amazing upset, and defeated the Russians 4-3.

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Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


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