The World of the Underdogs

September 7, 2016

This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news, information, and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.

One of sport’s wonderful charms is that occasionally, very occasionally, a rank outsider will defy the odds and beat the hot favourite. Just like Leicester City FC did in last season’s English Premier League. Ben Colley unearths ten more David-style triumphs over Goliaths.


Steven Bradbury’s crafty tactics


Australian Steven Bradbury was the rank outsider coming into the five-man final of the short-track speed skating at Salt Lake City, and he knew it. He simply didn’t have the pace to compete with his peers. But he also knew that the fierce rivalry between the other finalists could drive one of them to attempt a risky maneuver that might cause a big crash. So rather than try to beat the other skaters’ speed, which Bradbury knew was impossible, he hung back in case he could take advantage of a pile-up. Rounding the final bend, China’s Lia Jiajun tried to overtake the American Apolo Ohno, who was leading, but he tripped, taking out Ohno in the process, along with South Korea’s Ahn Hyun-soo and Canadian Mathieu Turcotte. Bradbury, a safe distance behind, was able to avoid the carnage and cross the finish line in first place.


Holm’s jaw-shattering victory


In 2015 Sports Illustrated magazine ranked UFC’s American bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey as the most dominant athlete in the world. When she stepped into the octagon with fellow American Holly Holm on 14th November she was coming off the back of 12 straight mixed martial arts victories. Her previous three fights had lasted a combined total of 64 seconds. Another quick win was expected. As it turned out, Holm was on the front foot from the outset. After a punishing first round, Rousey returned to her corner bloodied and stunned. 59 seconds into the second round it was all over, Holm flooring Rousey with a massive kick to the head that shattered her jaw in three places and put an end to a spectacular undefeated run.



USA ice out the Soviets


When the USA ice hockey team entered the medal round of the 1980 Winter Olympics, they faced a Soviet team of highly skilled professionals and gold medallists from the previous four Olympics. In contrast, the American team was a rag-tag bunch of amateurs and college players who had already suffered a hefty defeat to the Soviets in an exhibition match earlier that year. But this time, somehow, the levels looked more even. The Soviets still went into the final period leading 3-2, but two quick goals from the Americans stole victory in a clash highly symbolic of the Cold War. The team went on to beat Finland in the final match, clinching the gold medal and completing one of the biggest sporting upsets of the 20th Century, now known in sporting folklore as Miracle on Ice.



Go, Goran, go!

2001, LONDON, UK

Goran Ivanisevic was no stranger to Wimbledon. During the 1990s he finished as runner-up there three times but by 2001 inconsistency, caused in part by a persistent shoulder injury, had seen his once world number two ranking slip way down to 125, too low to automatically qualify for Wimbledon. The All England Club decided his previous form in the tournament was enough to warrant him a wildcard entry. Ivanisevic was intent on making that wildcard count, dispatching the likes of Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick and Tim Henman en route to a thrilling five-set victory over Pat Rafter in the final. “I don’t care if I ever win a match in my life again,” he said afterwards. “This is it. This is the end of the world.”


Munster humiliate the mighty All Blacks


During the 1970s New Zealand were possibly even more dominant in international rugby union than they are today. On their 1978 tour of the British Isles they defeated Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland, one after the other. But when they came up against Irish club side Munster in front of a crowd of 12,000 raucous locals, they were systematically taken apart. For months Munster had been specifically training for this moment and they came out on top with a score line of 12-0, causing New Zealand winger Stu Wilson to remark: “We were lucky to get nil!” Munster remains the only Irish side ever to triumph over the All Blacks.



Buster busts Iron Mike


In 1990 ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson seemed unstoppable. It was three years since a challenger had lasted more than five rounds in the ring with him so that his clash with Buster Douglas was seen as little more than a warm-up before he faced the number one contender Evander Holyfield. Most casinos in Las Vegas were so sure of a Tyson victory they refused to take bets on the fight. But Douglas had different ideas. He came out of his corner fearless, using his accurate jab to neutralise Tyson’s attack. So confident were Tyson’s team that they hadn’t even brought ice packs and, when their man’s eye began to swell up, they were forced to improvise with a surgical glove filled with iced water. Finally, in the tenth round, Douglas landed an uppercut that sent Tyson reeling, and followed it with a flurry of punches that put the champion onto the canvas for the first time in his professional career. Douglas was the new undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.



The brains behind Brawn


Since returning to Formula 1 as a team owner in 2005, Honda’s results had been poor. Their decision to quit the sport in December 2008 left their former team staring into the abyss. Unless they could find a new buyer the entire operation would fold, a fact which was particularly frustrating since simulation data suggested they finally had a car with a competitive advantage. Then, just three weeks before the first grand prix of the season, a deal was struck between Honda and team principal Ross Brawn, and Brawn GP was good to go. The simulation data proved accurate: the Brawn car was lightning fast. Jenson Button went on to win six of the first seven races, results which would eventually help secure him the World Drivers’ Championship. His teammate Rubens Barrichello finished third, making Brawn GP the first team to win the Formula 1 World Constructors’ Championship in its debut season. Victory was secured at the Brazilian Grand Prix, the penultimate race of the year.


Bred to win


French horse Arcangues had a decent track record on European grass tracks, but when his handlers decided to take him to California and enter him into the Breeders’ Cup Classic nobody thought he had a chance. He posted odds of 133-1. Jockey Jerry Bailey, who was riding Arcangues for the first time, couldn’t even understand the instructions given to him by the horse’s French trainer. Bertrando, the favourite to win, was leading as he came out of the far turn, and looked to be the winner until Arcangues suddenly found his stride and swept up from the back to win by two lengths. Bailey, who only found out how to pronounce his horse’s name after the race, said, “Ar-kong? Well, it was a pleasant surprise. He ran like King Kong today.” The US$269.20 payoff for a $2 bet remains a Breeders’ Cup record to this day.



Greece triumph in the lion’s den


Portugal were perhaps unexpected champions of Euro 2016, but back in 2004, with a home advantage and the likes of Luis Figo, Deco, and a young Cristiano Ronaldo in the squad, they were clear favourites to lift the trophy. Greece had never even won a match at a major soccer tournament. Nevertheless, en route to meeting Portugal in the final they knocked out holders France, before dispatching Karel Brückner’s Czech Republic side with a goal in extra time. Still, their playing style was built around counter-attacking football, snatching a goal on the break; tactics which weren’t expected to trouble Portugal’s talented crop of players. But in the 57th minute, Angelos Charisteas headed home a Greek corner, scoring the only goal of the match. At the final whistle, as the Greek team celebrated, the Portuguese players



Zatopek wins gold on marathon debut


The Czech runner Emil Zatopek had never even competed in a marathon before. Granted, he had already won gold medals in the Olympic 5000m and 10,000m races, but he only decided to take part in the 26-mile race on a whim a couple of hours before the starting pistol was fired. Halfway through, he drew alongside the leader, British world record-holder Jim Peters and, feeling tired, asked if the pace was too fast. Peters joked that the pace wasn’t “fast enough” but Zatopek misunderstood the British irony, upped his speed, and finished to set a new Olympic record. Afterwards he remarked that “the marathon is a very boring race”. Nobody before or since has matched his achievement of winning gold over those three distances at the same Olympic Games.


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