Beware the underdog. How the mighty fell – a taste of some great sports upsets

In sports (and life) everyone loves an underdog victory. Unless of course, you’re cheering the favourite. That basically sucks.

The beauty of watching sport lies in its unpredictability.

Each contest is unscripted. We think we know who’ll win but we can’t guarantee it.

Therein lies the excitement (or dread) if the less favored team or athlete somehow rises to the occasion and steals victory.

The drama!

Often this is partially due to the favorite simply losing their bundle and mentally caving in, unable to meet the pressures of expectation.

At the same time the underdog has no pressure, allowing them to relax and even enjoy the contest.

Fascinating to watch, especially if you’re a neutral observer.

Here are some of the greatest, most incredible upset victories against the odds.

Upset? They’re ecstatic!

 Japan beats South Africa: Rugby World Cup, 2015

South Africa were rugby giants. They’d already won two World Cups and were deadly serious about winning another in 2015. They had one eye on the finals stage and had to get this pesky game against a minnow out of the way. At least it was a chance to practice some set plays.

Japan were to put it politely, making up the numbers. Not even ranked in the world’s top ten in a sport where the difference in talent falls away pretty fast after the top six ranked countries.

Japan just wanted to be competitive.

They were a little more than that.

From the outset Japan caught South Africa off guard. Rather than take on the huge and experienced Springboks in a midfield arm wrestle the Cherry Blossoms played to their strengths.

They threw the ball from side to side, utilizing their speed and ball skills. They made the South Africans run around, playing without structure, which wasn’t fair really as that wasn’t how you were supposed to go about World Cup rugby.

South Africa were taken by surprise and started to leak points.

Both sides were aggressive in defence but whenever South Africa took the lead, Japan hit back.

The Springboks led 32-29 with minutes to go and looked like just hanging on to stave off a shock loss and public stonings.

However the packed stadium in Brighton, England roared Japan on in support.

Buoyed by the crowd, Japan attacked the South African line again and again with official time already finished.

Japan got a penalty (worth 3 points) and had a chance to level the scores to secure a draw but they politely declined.

They wanted to score a try (worth 5 points) and win the match.

Disrespectful upstarts. The crowd went into a frenzy.

The ball went through several pairs of hands before Japan’s Karne Heskath found space and smashed his way over for a try.

Japan victory.

Brighton Stadium erupted into players and fans going nuts, even South African fans were applauding.

The win was the catalyst for the sport in Japan who went on to greater success in the 2019 World Cup.

Not bad for minnows.

Naomi Osaka and then Bianca Andreescu defeat Serena Williams:2018 and 2019 US Open Final

First let’s get this straight: Serena Williams owns the US Open. Well, owned. Along with Chris Evert she holds the record for most wins with 6. Going into the match Serena had a whopping 23 Grand Slam championships, second best of all time.

Which meant going into the 2018 and 2019 finals against relative unknowns put her into firm favoritism.

Osaka was ranked 68th at the start of 2018 with no major titles to her name. Serena was one of her all-time heroes.

Osaka was the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam final. If she won she would be the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam title. Japan as a nation tuned in for the game.

No pressure.

However she had a crucial psychological edge having beaten Williams previously that year in straight sets.

Osaka won the first set comfortably and Williams started to feel the pinch in the second. An ongoing verbal battle with the umpire saw Serena lose focus and Naomi seized the initiative.

Osaka powered home to take the match. Japan had a new hero and tennis had a hot new star.

The following year Williams again fought through to the final to face yet another whippersnapper.

This time it was 19 year old Canadian Bianca Andreescu also in her first major final.

Despite the huge home crowd support for Williams, Andreescu showed incredible composure and her aggressive ground strokes won her the first set.

Williams was struggling with her serve but fought back with the crowd in her ears in the second set to force a tiebreaker.

Andreescu held her nerve and like Osaka the year before, became the first person from her country to become a grand slam champ.

Steve Bradbury wins speed skating gold at 2002 Winter Olympics.

Not just an upset but a highly entertaining one. Unless you were one of the other skaters in the race which would have been highly embarrassing.

The laidback Australian cruised to victory after all the other skaters in the race fell over in front of him, not unlike a funny home video.

Bradbury simply waltzed past them, crossed the finish line and headed for the podium.

In doing so he became the first Olympian from the Southern Hemisphere to win gold and certainly the first Australian.

And yet there was an alleged strategy involved. Leading up to the final Bradbury and his coach had noted that his more heavily favored opponents tended to skate aggressively, often jostling for space.

He decided to simply skate behind the leaders and hope they would fall. Foolproof.

Incredibly they did fall and he did win.

Bradbury’s name entered the vernacular, as when someone wins something by default or a massive fluke – “I can’t believe she married him – he really Bradburied there.”

Argentina men win basketball gold medal at Athens Olympics

Argentina stamped themselves as basketball heavyweights at the 2004 Summer Olympics and had to make history to do it.

Since the inception of the Dream Team in 1992, the USA men’s team was undefeated in Olympic competition.

With an average winning margin of 32 points, their 2004 team was again stacked with NBA superstars. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan to name a few.

However the Argentinians, also dubbed the “Golden Generation”, were a close-knit group who had come through together in the junior ranks. They weren’t overawed by the American reputations as they’d beaten the USA only years earlier in the world championships on American soil.

In their quarter final Argentina beat the host nation Greece in front of 14,000 hollering fans.

Next stop, Dream Team.

Buoyed by the quite reasonable belief that the American players were in fact, human, Argentina started to focus on winning gold.

Thy led throughout the match against the USA in a sublime performance of skill, cohesion and power. The final score was 89-81 and made world headlines. Uncontacted people in Amazon rainforests were raving about it.

They went on to face Italy in the gold medal game and were simply not going to lose. Italy had beaten them in the pool rounds and Argentina knew their time had come.

They ended up winning comfortably 84-69 and became one of the stories of the year.

Holly Holm knocks out Ronda Rousey in UFC

UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) or boxing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but from a purely sporting perspective this was a mighty upset.

It was the UFC 193 in 2015, Melbourne, Australia.

Rousey was a former judo Olympian and went into the fight as the reigning undefeated UFC champion with an intimidating 12-0 record.

She had demolished previous opponents with brutal takedowns, holds and sheer strength.

Holm was an ex professional boxer who’d gained respect as she rose up the UFC rankings but nobody gave her a chance in the 2015 title fight.

Rousey was a big name. She’d recently starred with Sylvestor Stallone in The Expendables 3 and despite being overlooked for an Oscar nomination she was doing her bit for giving women’s sport the spotlight.

The pair exchanged the customary insults and name-calling at the weigh as promoters pretended to be disappointed.

Fight night came and a record 56,000 fans packed into the Melbourne arena.

The fighters met in the middle of the ring.

Instead of traditionally touching gloves to show respect, Rousey turned away and ignored Holm’s outstretched gloves.

Oh dear. Serious fighting faux pas.

“Wow! No touch!” shouted the TV announcer.

Rousey started out aggressively as ever, attempting to take Holm down to the mat.

However there was a problem with the plan.

Holm knocked out Rousey with an almighty left kick to the old cranium.

Game over. Some people really take glove etiquette seriously.


USA Women’s team win Soccer World Cup 1999

America beating China in the final wasn’t exactly an upset as both were highly ranked teams, however the tournament was monumental in providing women’s soccer with a massive global platform.

The tournament enjoyed an unprecedented following around the world on television and the final was attended by a record crowd of 90,000 fans.

The match was decided on penalties and after Brandi Chastain kicked the winning goal she ripped off her shirt and dropped to her knees in celebration. Chastain’s semi-strip paved the way for future athletes and everyday people to celebrate by disrobing.

“They gave me a week off with full pay so I Brandi Chastained!”

“Really? You mean you stripped off your shirt and got down on your knees, screaming?”


The success of the 1999 World Cup not only paved the way for a boom in women’s soccer, but it also helped allow women in other sports to prosper, with greater exposure, participation and endorsements.


  1. Great blog. Brought back some memories of personal jubilation in some of these “upsets”.
    Are Australians more likely to go for the underdog I wonder? Is it our convict origins?

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