Triumph of the Underdog (Part 1)

May 21, 2019 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Top 10 Sports Upsets.

Give the people what they want. Surprise! That’s what people want. Whether it’s a movie, a sporting event, or even an election, an encounter with the unexpected gets people fired up. Nothing grabs our attention like a good old shock to the system and, where surprise is concerned, the bigger the better. For better or for worse, it’s when things don’t go as planned that life is most interesting. This month, we’ll share our top ten favorite big surprises from the world of sports as we celebrate the triumph of the underdog and the thrill of stunning upset victories.

Let’s get ready to rumble.

Because they are rooted in head-to-head competition, our most notable underdog stories come from the world of sports. The word itself originated in the 19th century to describe the losing animal in a dog fight because he was literally “under” the winning dog.

Since then, in literally every athletic contest, there has been a favorite and an underdog because of their records, their history, their talent, or simply because the betting line predicts which team or athlete will win and by how much. And while there is always some expectation as to who will win — in professional sports at least — the vast majority of these contests play out without any real drama or surprise.

In the NFL®, NBA®, NHL®, MLB®, MLS® – are we really shocked when any one team beats another? Take Major League Baseball. Since the League moved to the 162-game season in 1961, only two teams – the 1998 New York Yankees and the 2001 Seattle Mariners — have finished the season with a winning percentage over .700. That means over 57 seasons and more than 138,000 baseball games, even the best teams got beat three times out of 10.In an era of salary caps, free agency, and superior training, most sporting events turn out as expected.

But every now and then, a story bubbles up that is so unexpected, so inspiring, so spectacular in its drama that it becomes part of the enduring underdog mythology.

And then it becomes a story that is somehow bigger than itself, one where we find ourselves cheering for a team or an individual we didn’t even know, in a moment that literally echoes forever.

Here are our favorites.

#10 — “Eddie the Eagle”

At the 1988 Calgary Olympics, while the Jamaicans were feeling the love at the bobsled run, an unexpected eagle over at the ski jump was soaring. Sort of. That year, among the high fliers from Finland, Norway, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, there was an Englishman in Coke-bottle glasses named Eddie Edwards who became the first man in 60 years to represent Great Britain in the ski jump. Partly in jest, but partly out of love, people started calling Edwards “Eddie the Eagle.” And while he finished next to last in the standings, his heart-warming story and determination made him one of Calgary’s biggest stars.

#9 — “The Guarantee”

Three days before Super Bowl III, underdog Jets quarterback Joe Namath surprised everyone when he guaranteed a win against the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. During the season, Baltimore had posted a 13-1 record and had blown out the Browns 34-0 in the NFL Championship game, while the Jets squeaked by the Oakland Raiders 27-23 in the AFL Championship. The Colts defense led the league in fewest points allowed and their offense ranked second in the league for points scored. Few thought the Jets had a chance, but on Super Bowl Sunday, Namath delivered a 16-7 victory that’s still considered one of the greatest upsets of all time.

#8 — “Hot As A Pistol”

February 15, 2006 was like most game days at Greece Athena High School in Rochester, New York. The basketball team was playing hard and student manager Jason McElwain was sitting on the bench cheering them on. Jason has a high-functioning form of Autism and while he’d never played in a game, he worked every bit as hard as the kids on the floor. That night, to reward Jason for his hard work as manager, the coach let Jason wear an actual jersey and sit on the bench next to the team.

But then with 4:19 left in the second half, the coach decided to let Jason play. The stands erupted and the student cheering section went crazy. He immediately threw up two bricks that weren’t even close. But then, according to Jason, he “got hot as a pistol.” He launched a three-pointer from the corner that hit nothing but net. Then another one. And another one. And another three after that. In all, Jason scored 20 points hitting a long three at the buzzer before being swarmed by his fans and carried off the court on the shoulders on his teammates. The videos of his performance have been viewed millions of times and his performance earned Jason the ESPY Award for the “Best Moment” in 2006.

#7 — “The Landing”

In 1976, the Japanese Men’s Gymnastics team came to the Montreal Olympics looking to win their fifth Team Gold Medal in a row. But standing in their way was an extremely talented team from the Soviet Union equally determined to end the Japanese dynasty. In the finals of the team competition, one of Japan’s best gymnasts, Shun Fujimoto, severely injured his knee on his first rotation, the Floor Exercise. But he told no one.</P

On his next rotation — the Pommel Horse — Shun fought through the pain and put up a solid score. But then came his third rotation, the Rings. It was Shun’s best event and despite his injured knee, he performed a nearly flawless routine. All he had left was his dismount. Flying through the air in excruciating pain, Shun stuck his landing from 10 feet up, dislocating his knee and tearing his ligaments. Unable to continue, Shun was forced to withdraw from the final three rotations but his 9.7 on rings ultimately helped secure the Team Gold for Japan.

#6 — “Dethroning the Bear”

Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Aleksandr Karelin is arguably the most dominant athlete there has ever been, posting an obscene lifetime record of 887 wins and just two losses. Nicknamed “The Russian Bear,” “Alexander the Great,” and “The Experiment,” three-time Gold Medalist Karelin was riding a 13-year winning streak coming into the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and had not surrendered a point in competition in more than six years. By comparison, his finals opponent, American wrestler Rulon Gardner, had exceeded all expectations by making it to the Gold Medal match. But that wasn’t enough for him. Using a strong defense that kept Karelin off balance, Gardner pushed the match to overtime and pulled off one of the greatest Olympic miracles ever, beating Karelin 1-0 to take the Gold Medal.

Gardner pushed the match to overtime and pulled off one of the greatest Olympic miracles ever.

That’s just five of our faves, for starters.

And while you may contest the order, there’s no disagreement about who the winners are when underdogs over-perform. It’s impossible to miss them for their enthusiasm. In fact, everyone wins when the challenger pulls off the upset. Sure, the opponents miss the “W”, but even those who fall in stunned defeat are treated to a first-class lesson in the power of inspiration.

We’ll be back next week to finish the LOOMIS list of top 10 challenger upsets.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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