Greatest Underdogs in Sports History
Sports wouldn’t be as fun without underdogs. The stories and journeys of the overlooked, counted out or disregarded add a compelling layer to the games we love.
Two favorites going head-to-head might seem like a good idea on paper, but those matchups often can become repetitive or downright boring. We marvel at the greats, yet their skills and athleticism aren't always all that relatable.
The guys, girls and teams who aren’t expected to reach the highest of highs make sports more human. They create a connection and inspire us. We sometimes even can see ourselves in these players or teams.
Meet the greatest underdogs in sports history.
25. Muggsy Bogues
Bottom line: In the land of giants known as the NBA, the average player stands 6 feet, 7 inches. But Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues was nearly a foot-and-a-half shorter than the average player at just 5 feet, 3 inches.
When Bogues entered the NBA in 1987, a player shorter than 5-foot-7 had not played in the NBA for nearly 40 years. Bogues, however, didn’t let his stature keep him from excelling.
He averaged 7.7 points and 7.6 assists over a 14-year NBA career, ranks 23rd in NBA history in assists (6,726 total) and remains the shortest player in league history.
24. Baker Mayfield
Bottom line: It may be difficult to fathom a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick being an underdog, but that’s what Baker Mayfield was when he first walked on at Texas Tech in 2013.
Mayfield didn’t have a scholarship with the Red Raiders and had to walk on to the school. After a year there and no guarantee of a scholarship, Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma, where he again had to walk on to the football team.
He won the 2017 Heisman to become the first and only walk-on player to win college football’s most prestigious award.
Now, he is turning doubters into believers in the NFL as the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback.
23. LSU Tigers
Sport: College basketball
Bottom line: A No. 11 seed is the lowest seed to ever make the Final Four, and it’s happened four times.
But the first was LSU in 1986, and the Tigers had the most difficult path of any of the No. 11 seeds to get there.
LSU remains the only 11 seed to defeat the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in a single tournament.
The only team it lost to was the eventual tournament champion, Louisville.
22. Richard Krajicek
Bottom line: From 1993 to 2000, Pete Sampras dominated Wimbledon and won every single tournament. Except one.
In 1996 Richard Krajicek, who had never advanced to the quarterfinals in his five previous Wimbledon appearances, shocked the world by upsetting Sampras in the semifinals.
He didn’t just beat Sampras. He destroyed him in straight sets en route to winning the Wimbledon final over MaliVai Washington. That title ended up being the only major championship Krajicek won in his career.
And the following year at Wimbledon, Krajicek got bounced before the quarterfinals.
21. Warren Moon
Bottom line: Imagine being named the Rose Bowl game MVP, then going undrafted because of stereotypes. That’s what happened to Warren Moon in 1978 as NFL teams didn't believe an African-American could play quarterback at the highest level.
Moon was forced to go to the Canadian Football League (CFL), not for one or two years, but for five years. And he won the Grey Cup in all five of his years up north.
Moon landed in the NFL in 1984 as a 28-year-old rookie, and after a rough beginning to his NFL career, he established himself as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
He was elected to both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame and remains the only person to be inducted into both.
20. Vince Papale
Bottom line: The subject of the Mark Wahlberg film "Invincible," Vince Papale was known as a real-life Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia.
Although he never played college football, Papale tried out for the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League and made the team in 1974. After the WFL folded in 1975, Papale tried out for the neighboring Philadelphia Eagles and made the NFL team as a 30-year-old rookie.
He went on to play three seasons with the Eagles as a wide receiver and special teams player and recorded one reception in his NFL career.
19. Appalachian State Mountaineers
Sport: College football
Bottom line: The season-opening game between Appalachian State and Michigan was the classic matchup of junior varsity (App. State) vs. varsity (Michigan).
The Mountaineers were big fish in a small pond as the No. 1-ranked team in the FCS while the Wolverines were big fish in a big pond as the No. 5 team in the FBS polls.
A lopsided victory for Michigan was so guaranteed that there wasn't even a betting line for the game. But Appalachian State went into The Big House and knocked off Michigan by a score of 34-32.
The upset marked just the second time in college football history that an FCS school defeated a ranked FBS school.
18. Y.E. Yang
Bottom line: Before Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters — his 15th major — he had been stuck on 14 major championships since 2008. Y.E. Yang deserves some credit for that.
Yang did the impossible at the 2009 PGA Championship and became the first person to overtake Woods when he had a major lead after 54 holes.
Woods was a perfect 14-0 when leading in a major after three rounds, but Yang usurped his two-stroke lead to win his only career major tournament.
17. Golden State Warriors
Bottom line: The Dallas Mavericks were the West’s No. 1 seed in the 2007 NBA playoffs, thanks to a 67-15 regular-season record, the sixth-best mark in league history.
But the Golden State Warriors, who made the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, rallied behind their "We Believe" slogan and upset the heavily favored Mavericks.
The Warriors became the first No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in a best-of-seven series, and they didn’t even need seven games to do it, winning the series four games to two.
16. Jim Morris
Bottom line: Drafted by the Yankees in 1982, pitcher Jim Morris spent eight years in the minors but never advanced past Single-A. He retired and served as a high school teacher and baseball coach for a decade.
In 1999, 10 years after his last minors game, Morris promised his high school team that if the players won district, then he would try out one last time for a major league team. They did. And he did.
The 35-year-old Morris attended a tryout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and was clocked at 98 miles an hour. He signed with them and made his MLB debut in 1999.
Morris pitched two seasons for the Devil Rays before retiring for good after fulfilling his promise and dream.
15. Jeremy Lin
Bottom line: Despite going to a high school that is adjacent to Stanford University, Jeremy Lin was overlooked by the Cardinal basketball program. In fact, he didn’t receive any college scholarship offers.
He had a 4.2 GPA and ended up at Harvard, but again was overlooked when the NBA draft came around, in part because of his ethnicity. The NBA is a global league with many international players, but it never had an American of Chinese descent play in the league.
Lin got his chance as an undrafted free agent with the Golden State Warriors, but he established himself during an 11-game stretch with the Knicks in 2012. During the streak, now known as "Linsanity," Lin averaged 23.9 points per game while the Knicks went 9-2.
Lin has not recaptured that magic, but he’s played nine seasons in the NBA and made over $65 million in his career.
14. Kurt Warner
Bottom line: In 1994, Kurt Warner was cut from the Packers during training camp and went back to his native Iowa to stock shelves at a grocery store for $5.50 an hour. He was whatever comes after an afterthought and wasn’t on any NFL team’s radar.
But Warner wanted to play football wherever they would allow him, and first went to the Arena Football League, then NFL Europe, before landing with the Rams.
An untimely injury to Rams starter Trent Green gave Warner an opportunity that he had prepared for all of his life, and he ran with it.
Warner became a two-time MVP in the NFL and was the first person to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Arena Football Hall of Fame.
13. John Scott
Bottom line: What was supposed to be a joke ended up with John Scott winning the NHL All-Star Game MVP.
In 2016, Scott was a journeyman winger who had scored just five goals in his eight-year NHL career. Fans started an online campaign to vote Scott into the All-Star Game even though he was an unheralded enforcer for much of his career.
Scott won the fan vote, and despite the NHL attempting to dissuade him from playing, Scott suited up for the 2016 All-Star Game.
But he did more than just suit up. He was the most impressive player on the ice and won the All-Star Game MVP.
His story is so unique that a movie is being made about his journey to the All-Star Game, and veteran sportswriter Mitch Albom has compared the real-life John Scott to the fictional Rocky Balboa.
12. Jim Abbott
Bottom line: Born without a right hand, Jim Abbott was the embodiment of the quote "the only disability in life is a bad attitude."
Abbott was a standout pitcher and quarterback in high school, then focused on just the diamond. It was a good decision. He became a college Hall of Famer at the University of Michigan before having a 10-year major league career.
Abbott mastered the art of playing with one hand. He was able to pitch with his good hand, slip his glove onto that hand to field and transfer his hand out of the mitt to throw the ball afterward.
He threw a no-hitter with the Yankees and even managed to get two hits during his big league career.
11. Abebe Bikila
Bottom line: In July 1960, Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won his first-ever marathon. Just two months later, Bikila won the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics and set a new world record in the process.
Oh, and he did it barefoot.
Bikila wasn't supposed to compete at the Olympics. He only did so as an injury replacement for a teammate. Thus, Bikila had not been fitted for any shoes or other running gear, and the shoes he was given gave him blisters.
In other words, a runner who wasn’t supposed to be in Rome for the Olympics, and didn’t even have running shoes, crushed the entire field and beat the second-place runner by 25 seconds.
10. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Sport: Women’s college basketball
Bottom line: For nearly three years, and 111 straight games, the Connecticut Huskies women's basketball team went undefeated. Most assumed they would extend that streak to 113 and win the 2017 NCAA championship.
But Mississippi State had other ideas at the Final Four. Thanks to a buzzer-beating shot from Morgan William in overtime, Mississippi State ended the longest winning streak in college basketball history (male or female).
9. Shaquem Griffin
Bottom line: Shaquem Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome on his left hand. His fingers never fully developed, and he had to have the hand amputated.
But Griffin still wanted to keep up with his twin brother, Shaquill, who was an athlete, so Shaquem also participated in sports.
No one thought the one-handed peewee football player could play in high school. Shaquem did and excelled.
No one thought a one-handed high school player could play in college. Shaqeum did and was an All-American at Central Florida.
No one thought a one-armed college player could make it to the NFL. You can figure out the rest.
The Seattle Seahawks drafted Griffin in 2018, and he became the first one-handed player to be drafted in the NFL.
Now, he lines up alongside his brother, who also plays for the Seahawks.
8. Rulon Gardner
Bottom line: What if you were competing at your first Olympics and the person standing across from you already had three gold medals and a 13-year undefeated streak? American wrestler Rulon Gardner faced this scenario at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney in the men’s Greco-Roman 130 kilogram group.
His opponent, Aleksandr Karelin of Russia, had not lost since 1987. Karelin hadn’t even lost a single point in over six years and was the overwhelming favorite to win his fourth straight gold medal.
But Gardner had another plan. When he and Karelin started in the clinch in the second period, Karelin lost his grip and lost his first point in six years.
That would be the difference in the match, as Gardner did the impossible — knocking off Karelin, thus ending the Russian’s stranglehold on Greco-Roman wrestling.
7. Leicester City
Bottom line: Everyone remembers 2016 for the Cubs ending their 108-year drought as World Series champions. But another team, Leicester City, had an even longer drought come to an end, winning the English Premier League for the first time in its 132-year history.
The Foxes finished in 14th place the year before and weren't even promoted to the Premier League until 2014, but they caught lightning in a bottle, and the rest is history.
Sports books lost an estimated $32 million on Leicester winning since the team had 5,000-1 odds.
The next year, Leicester dropped to 12th place, but no one in the United Kingdom will forget that magical 2015-16 season.
6. New York Jets
Bottom line: There have been 52 Super Bowls played, and Super Bowl III remains the biggest upset in the big game’s history.
The AFL's New York Jets were 18-point underdogs against the NFL's Baltimore Colts, yet Joe Namath and company shocked the world and gave the AFL its first Super Bowl win.
This game is best remembered for Namath guaranteeing victory before the game, then going out and backing up his statement.
Namath also was named the game’s MVP, and the Jets’ success helped pave the way for the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Bottom line: Everything was stacked against the Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals.
They were playing the Golden Warriors, who won an NBA-record 73 games in the regular season. They were down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, a deficit no team had ever overcome. And maybe most important, they had the "Cleveland Sports Curse" hanging over their heads.
But led by LeBron James, the Cavs won Games 5 and 6 to even up the series. Then, they won Game 7 on Golden State’s floor to become the first team since 1978 to win an NBA Finals Game 7 on the road.
Despite being underdogs in every game of the series, the Cavaliers ended the curse and won Cleveland its first championship in 52 years.
4. New York Giants
Bottom line: Perfection was on the line for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, and only the New York Giants stood in their way.
The Patriots were 12-point favorites, making the Giants the biggest Super Bowl underdogs since the Patriots were 14-point underdogs against the Rams six years earlier.
But the Giants' ferocious defensive line stifled Tom Brady and New England's offense, holding the highest-scoring team in NFL history to just 14 points, less than half of the Patriots' average of 36.8 points per game.
The Giants won 17-14 and robbed the Patriots of the first 19-0 season in NFL history.
3. Rudy Ruettiger
Sport: College football
Bottom line: Best known as the inspiration for the film "Rudy," Rudy Ruettiger was just 5 feet, 6 inches, 165 pounds and suffered from dyslexia. It took him four tries to get admitted into Notre Dame, but he did so as a 26-year-old in 1974.
Notre Dame’s football coach urged the school’s student body to try out as walk-ons, and Ruettiger earned a spot on the scout team.
After two years of helping the varsity squad prepare for games, Ruettiger got an opportunity to play in Notre Dame’s final game in 1975. He played a total of three plays and on the last play of his college career, Ruettiger lined up at defensive end and sacked Georgia Tech’s quarterback.
He then became the first Fighting Irish player to be carried off the field by his teammates.
2. Buster Douglas
Bottom line: Whenever you get a "30 for 30" named after your underdog odds (42 to 1), you know you’re part of one of the biggest upsets of all time.
Buster Douglas was considered a warm-up fight for Mike Tyson, before "Iron Mike" took on Evander Holyfield, but this fight marked the beginning of Tyson’s downfall. Douglas knocked down Tyson for the first time in his career and knocked out the champ to win the WBA, WBC, and IBF heavyweight titles.
Douglas lost the titles in his next fight to Holyfield and never regained another title.
Tyson regained the WBA title, but in the Douglas fight, he lost the mystique that he once had.
1. U.S. Hockey Team
Bottom line: The 1980 United States men’s hockey team defeated the heavily favored Soviet Union team to win gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics in the "Miracle on Ice."
Most people know about the outcome of the game and Al Michaels’ historic call, but they don’t know about the details of the game.
The U.S. team consisted entirely of amateur players and the average age of 21 years old made them the youngest team in the Olympics.
The Soviet team was comprised only of professional players and had an average age of 26, in addition to being the four-time defending gold medalists.
With just 12 minutes remaining in the third period, Team USA was down 3-2 before rallying to win the game 4-3. That's how you become legends.