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From Tom Brady To Buster Douglas: 29+ Memorable Underdog Stories in Sports

Manny Ray Sports /
Athlete Underdogs
Getty Images via Jim Rogash

While we all have our favorite teams and athletes to root for, there's always something special about an underdog taking home the victory. From Vince Papale to Holly Holm, check out which sports stars built their careers from the ground up.

Muggsy Bogues

Tyrone Curtis "Muggsy" Bogues was the shortest man to ever play in the NBA, which essentially made him an underdog from the start. Standing at just 5'3", he constantly felt the need to prove himself as most players towered over him.

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Getty Images via Rick Stewart

Many people doubted him, but Muggsy's determination helped him climb to the top. He played at Wake Forest and then made his NBA debut with the Washington Bullets in 1987. "A guy my size wanting to pursue a game that was supposed to be meant for the big guys," said Muggsy. "That was a special, special moment."

Jeremy Lin

Ever since his teenage years, Jeremy Lin has faced quite a few rejections. No highly-ranked college basketball teams wanted to sign him, so Lin attended Harvard University, determined to prove himself. But Harvard didn't have such an incredible team at the time, so he ultimately helped them gain national recognition.

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Getty Images via Jim McIsaac

He was eventually drafted by two different teams, but they both let him go. Lin then signed with the New York Knicks, not expecting to get much playing time, until some star players got injured, and he got his big break. Lin amazed fans as the starting point guard and has been an NBA legend ever since.

Buster Douglas

Until 1990, James "Buster" Douglas wasn't exactly a big name in the UFC world. He began his boxing career in the early 80s and quickly worked his way up the ladder, but still, very few could compare to Mike Tyson, who was the heavyweight champion for many years.

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Getty Images via The Ring Magazine

Buster was set to take on Tyson in 1990, and at the time, Tyson was undefeated, so Buster was certainly the underdog. But Douglas came out strong, ready to put up a good fight. He got knocked down by a few of Tyson's killer hits, but in the end, Douglas came out on top. This was one of the biggest underdog victories of all time.

David Eckstein

Before debuting his MLB career, David Eckstein played at the University of Florida. He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 1997, but they waived him a few years later, as they didn't see much potential in a shortstop with a "weak" arm who was on the shorter side.

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Getty Images via Otto Greule Jr

So, Eckstein earned a spot on the Anaheim Angels, and slowly but surely, he began to prove himself. The Angels finally gave him the chance he deserved, and he went on to win World Series MVP twice. Eckstein also played in two All-Star games, essentially proving everyone who'd doubted him wrong.

Kurt Warner

Kurt Warner attended the University of Iowa to play football, however, he didn't get much playing time until his senior year. But still, he didn't stand out among other players and went undrafted in the 1994 NFL Draft. So, Warner played in the Arena Football League for a few years, followed by a European team.

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Getty Images via Donald Miralle

Finally, he was signed by the St. Louis Rams as their backup quarterback, so he still wouldn't be spending much time on the field. That is, until Trent Green was out for the season in 1999, giving Kurt his time to shine. He played for multiple teams but greatly succeeded on the Arizona Cardinals, leading his team to the playoffs.

Holly Holm

"Going into my fight with Ronda Rousey, I knew I was the heavy underdog," said Holly Holm, as she prepared to take on Ronda Rousey in 2015. Holm put her all into this fight and said she even over-trained some days to make sure she had a fair chance in the ring.

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Getty Images via Josh Hedges

After all, Rousey had been the first female fighter to sign with the UFC, so she was certainly a force to be reckoned with. "However, I've always thought that you have to believe you belong there, or you've already lost," said Holm. And in the end, she came out on top, thanks to her countless hours of training and a positive mindset.

Vince Papale

Vince Papale made history when he secured a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles, considering he never even played college football. He ran track at Saint Joseph's University, as they didn't have a football team. "I wasn't really on anybody's radar in football, so I didn't have an opportunity to go anywhere else to play," he recalled.

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Getty Images via George Gojkovich

But in 1967, the Eagles coach held an open tryout, and Papale decided to give it a shot, and he made the team. "I was out of my mind, I was so excited," said Vince. "I mean, these guys were my idols, and I was going to play with them." Mark Wahlberg even made a movie about this remarkable story, titled Invincible.

Richard Krajicek

In 1996, Richard Krajicek made history as the first-ever Dutch tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament. At Wimbledon that year, he was set to play against Pete Sampras, who had won the tournament multiple years in a row. Many people expected Sampras to dominate the court, but if you ask Krajicek?

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Getty Images via Gary M. Prior

"In 1996, at Wimbledon, nothing fazed me," he recalled. Ultimately, Richard won the tournament and was incredibly proud of himself, as he shared with reporters following his victory. "I played unbelievable," he said. He also revealed that despite the rain delays, he played consistently and finished strong.

Tim Tebow

When Tim Tebow began playing college football at the University of Florida, he spent his freshman year as the backup quarterback. Eventually, he proved himself on the team, which led to his NFL career, as he was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2010. But Tebow was yet again the backup quarterback.

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Getty Images via Doug Pensinger

In 2011, fans were begging the Broncos to give Tebow a chance to start the game. Finally, a few weeks into the season, Tebow replaced Kyle Orton after the first half, and evidently, he did something right, as the coach announced that he'd be starting the following game.

Y.E. Yang

Anyone who follows golf knows that Tiger Woods essentially dominates the sport, but in 2009, another golfer outshined him. At the 2009 PGA Championship, everything changed, as Y.E. Yang certainly made his mark on the course. Tiger had won the last 14 tournaments at the time, and he was expected to do so yet again.

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Getty Images via Andy Lyons

Yang was grouped with Woods at the tournament, making him the underdog on the course. The game was extremely close on the last few holes, and during one of Tiger's shots, "I was praying it wouldn't go in," Yang recalled. And in the end, Yang won the tournament, proving his talent after beating world-renowned Tiger Woods.

Jim Morris

Jim Morris had a rather untraditional story. He was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1982 but declined the offer for personal reasons. He then signed with the Milwaukee Brewers the next year, but unfortunately, he suffered many injuries and retired after a short career; Jim became a teacher and high school baseball coach.

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Getty Images via Doug Pensinger

But Jim's team could see he still wanted to play professionally, so they persuaded him to give the MLB one last shot. He tried out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and they signed him in 1999. "I hope people find hope in my story and know to never give up," said Morris. "People are stronger than they think."

Michael Oher

If you've seen The Blind Side, then you're probably familiar with Michael Oher's story. Michael had a tough childhood, as his parents weren't able to fully care for him, so he frequently moved from one home to the next. But when the Tuohy family took him in and then adopted him, they helped Oher get on the path to success.

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Getty Images via Ned Dishman

Oher improved his academics with the Tuohy family's help and went on to play football at the University of Mississippi, where he truly thrived. He was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2009 and played eight seasons in the NFL total, on a couple of different teams.

Simona Halep

Romanian tennis player Simona Halep made headlines when she was named the Wimbledon champion in 2019. She took on Serena Williams in the finals, which put even more pressure on the match. But Simona certainly brought the heat to the court, as she broke Serena's serve multiple times and kept her energy at an all-time high.

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Getty Images via BEN STANSALL

"I felt my legs that are very soft after I won the last point," Simona recalled, after winning the game. "I'm very sure that was the best match of my life," she continued. "So I'm really proud of my game today and the whole tournament." Halep and Williams even embraced in a hug following the game.

James Braddock

James Braddock debuted his boxing career during the 1920s, but unfortunately, after a few years, he accepted that he wasn't winning enough matches to earn a stable living. During the Great Depression, he decided it was best to move on from the sport and find work elsewhere.

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Getty Images via Sports Studio Photos

"He displayed the struggle of a guy trying to keep his family together," recalled boxing promoter Don King. But years later, Braddock made his grand comeback and was named the heavyweight champion from 1935 to 1937. He was indeed a force to be reckoned with in the ring and proved his determination to succeed.

Warren Moon

It was no secret that Warren Moon was an incredible football player, as he was named that MVP of the Rose Bowl as a senior at the University of Washington. However, when it came to the NFL draft, he didn't get selected; Moon revealed that few African American quarterbacks were chosen to go pro during the 70s.

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Getty Images via George Gojkovich

So, Moon played in the Canadian Football League for five years, where he continued to prove his talent on the field. And eventually, Moon made his NFL debut with the Houston Oilers and soon became the starting quarterback. In 1990, he was named the Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year.

Jim Abbott

Jim Abbott was a force to be reckoned with on the mound. This MLB legend was born without a right hand, so he learned how to play with only his left hand at a young age. But this didn't hold him back; Abbott was the first baseball player to win the Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete in America.

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Getty Images via MARK D. PHILLIPS

He played for multiple teams during his 10-year MLB career and was one of the few New York Yankees players to pitch a no-hitter. Many are inspired by Abbott's journey but in his eyes? "I hear a lot about how inspirational I am. But I don't see myself as inspirational," he revealed.

Tom Brady

Before Tom Brady got the nickname "The GOAT," he was an NFL underdog. He played football at the University of Michigan but didn't get much playing time his first couple of years. During the 2000 NFL Draft, Brady was selected by the New England Patriots in the sixth round, but he still didn't play much at first.

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Getty Images via Jim Rogash

However, when the starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, got injured, Brady was finally given a chance to take the field. And over time, Brady became an asset to the team, from 2001 until 2019, when he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady's won seven Super Bowls in total, including this year, as the quarterback for Tampa Bay.

Abebe Bikila

Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila made history by being the first Black runner to win a Gold Medal at the Olympics. And he did so without wearing any shoes. Yes, you read that right! At the 1960 summer Olympics, Bikila wasn't even meant to run the marathon.

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Getty Images via Keystone-France

However, one of his teammates became injured, so he was called on to fill in. But Abebe wasn't exactly prepared for the race; He'd recently purchased new running sneakers that gave him blisters, and he didn't want to take the risk of hurting his feet from them. So, he decided to run barefoot, and he certainly made his country proud!

Goran Ivanisevic

Goran Ivanisevic, a Croatian tennis player, played in many tournaments during the 90s, but he usually only made it to the quarter-finals. He also suffered a shoulder injury in 2000, which took a hit on his career. But in 2001, Ivanisevic made an unbelievable comeback and truly showed the world what he was capable of.

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Getty Images via Gary M Prior

He was essentially the Wimbledon wildcard that year, but he continued to win one match after another until he made it to the finals. Ultimately, Goran declared victory and pulled through as the underdog. "This was my dream in all my life," he said. "I came here, and nobody thought about me, but here I am holding the trophy."

John Scott

When John Scott was chosen to play in the 2016 NHL All-Star game, expectations for him weren't too high at the time. Fans had insisted that he get a spot on the team, but it was his eighth season in the NHL, and he'd bounced around from team to team without scoring many goals. The league even asked him to give up his spot.

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Getty Images via Frederick Breedon

But, Scott indeed played, and he proved just about everyone who'd had doubted him wrong. He played an incredible game, scoring two goals, and even earned the title of MVP that night. This inspired John to write a book about his experience as the ultimate All-Star game underdog, and he truly inspired his fans.

Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield's football career was off to a rather slow start. He played at Lake Travis High School in Texas but wasn't happy with any of the colleges that wanted to sign him, so he walked onto Texas Tech's team. But when Mayfield got injured, he lost his spot in the starting lineup and transferred to the University of Oklahoma.

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Getty Images via Andy Lyons

"I just loved stirring it up," he recalled. And his risks evidently paid off; Today, Baker's the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. "He's an underdog from the standpoint that he didn't have high-profile college programs giving him offers," said Lake Travis Cavaliers head coach, Hank Carter.

Mike Piazza

When it came time for the 1988 MLB draft, Mike Piazza wasn't necessarily any team's first choice. Lucky for him, though, he was signed by the L.A. Dodgers in the 62nd round as a favor to the team's manager, who was Piazza's Godfather. And eventually, Mike proved that he deserved to be on the team.

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Getty Images via The Sporting News

He became one of the best-hitting catchers in history and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016. Piazza hit a record number of home runs during his career, playing for various MLB teams. He also played in the All-Star game 12 times and was named MVP in 1996.

Nate Diaz

Like the fight between Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas in 1990, UFC 196 in 2016 also had a shocking result. When Nate Diaz agreed to take on Conor McGregor, he only had a few weeks to prepare, while McGregor was on an incredible winning streak. So, many fans thought Diaz wouldn't stand a chance.

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Getty Images via Josh Hedges

However, Diaz proved everyone wrong; Thye both threw some tough punches, but in the end, Nate defeated McGregor. After the bell rang Diaz, helped McGregor off the ground, showing his opponent the utmost respect. "Nate Diaz, you just shook up the world," said commentator Joe Rogan following Nate's victory.

Shaquem Griffin

Shaquem Griffin was born with a condition that prevented the fingers in his left hand from fully developing. He had to have his hand amputated as a child, but this didn't stop him from playing football in high school and college. And then the Seattle Seahawks saw his skill on the field and proudly drafted Griffin in 2018.

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Getty Images via Otto Greule Jr

As the first one-handed man to get drafted into the NFL, Griffin wanted to show the world that he was unstoppable and hopes that fans see his story as inspirational rather than unfortunate. "You can't set limits on what you can do, whether you have two hands or 30 hands," he shared.

Tommy John

Tommy John didn't start off as the underdog. He'd pitched a successful 12 seasons in the MLB for multiple teams but suffered a career-threatening injury in 1974. He wasn't ready to give up, though, and underwent experimental surgery, which turned out to be a massive success; John made a remarkable comeback in 1976.

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Getty Images via David Madison

He was awarded the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award, as many had believed his career was over. The procedure was later named Tommy John surgery and now gives other players a second chance at the game. "I thank God every day for being able to pitch," John told the New York Times after his comeback. 

Anna Kournikova

Since her childhood, Anna Kournikova has been playing tennis, training at one of the most-elite tennis academies in the world from a young age. It was no secret to anyone who watched Anna that she was a force to be reckoned with, but at her Wimbledon debut in 1997, she amazed the audience.

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Getty Images via Steve Mitchell-EMPICS

At 16-years-old, she took the tournament by storm and became the second woman to ever make it to the Wimbledon semifinals in her first time at this competition. "It's unbelievable, I got to the semifinals," Kournikova shared. "I was dreaming about this."

Spud Webb

At just 5'7", Anthony Jerome Webb, better known as Spud, was already at a disadvantage compared to other basketball players, who were towering over him. He played basketball in high school, but he didn't get any offers when it came time for college, so he played at Midland Junior College.

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Spud proved himself on the court and eventually transferred to North Carolina State. From there, he was signed by the Detroit Pistons, but they released him shortly after. Finally, Webb made his NBA debut with the Atlanta Hawks and proved that ultimately, he was destined to play pro ball.

Steven Bradbury

Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury had one of the most unique Olympic victories of all-time. At the 2002 Winter Games, Bradbury was competing in the 1000 meter short-track final, and the odds weren't in his favor at the start of the race. He was trailing behind the other four skaters until suddenly, everything changed.

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Getty Images via Clive Mason

All of the other competitors collided, leaving Bradbury to cross the finish line alone. This win marked the first-ever Gold Medal for Australia in the Winter Olympics. The unexpected victory gave Bradbury the name "the Accidental Hero" and certainly went down as one of Australia's most memorable races.

Joe Namath

Joe Namath began his NFL career with the New York Jets in 1965. He'd previously suffered a knee injury while playing at the University of Alabama, but he was able to push through and lead his team straight to the Orange Bowl. So, he seemed like a valuable asset to the Jets.

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But what truly brought Namath into the spotlight was the 1969 Super Bowl. Many people doubted that the Jets had a chance until Joe declared, "We're going to win the game. I guarantee it." This was quite a statement to make, but in the end, Namath proved to be right, as the Jets proudly defeated the Colts.

Josh Hamilton

Josh Hamilton was expected to thrive early on, being the first overall pick of the 1999 MLB Draft, signed by the Tampa Bay Rays. However, an injury during the 2000 season took him out of the game. Sadly, Hamilton faced more injuries over the next few years and struggled with substance abuse, which got him banned from the league.

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Getty Images via Tom Pennington

But in 2006, Josh was reinstated to play in the MLB and eventually earned a spot on the Cincinnati Reds. He later played for the Texas Rangers and even made the All-Star team five times. While Hamilton had a bit of a rocky start, his determination helped him make it back to the top.