A Brief History
On June 18, 1815, the combined forces of the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blucher defeated the French army at the battle of Waterloo. The battle is remembered by history not as a victory of the British and Prussians, but as a defeat for Napoleon Bonaparte, his final major defeat. Certain battles are known more for their vanquished than their victor, and in the past we published the article “10 Famous Defeats,” while today we examine “10 More Famous Defeats” but this time dealing with sporting events. What notable defeats would you add to the list?
1. Warriors blow 3-1 lead in NBA Finals, 2016.
The Golden State Warriors had defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals, ruining the return of LeBron James to Cleveland. In a rematch in 2016, the Warriors were expected to win again, and gave every indication they would do just that by taking a 3-1 lead in the series. Golden State had run up a fantastic season of 73 wins against only 9 losses, and held the home court advantage. If the Cavaliers would win, it would have to be on the Warriors’ home court. A lesson was to be learned in 2016, and that lesson is never count out a team that has LeBron James. James made NBA history in 2016 by leading all players in points scored, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals during the Finals. LeBron became only the 3rd player in NBA history to score a triple double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals as Cleveland won Game 7, 83-89 giving the Cavaliers their first NBA Championship and Cleveland its first major league sports championship since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964. The shell shocked Warriors had pulled off the ignominious feat of blowing a 3-1 lead in a 7 game series, a sports rarity. The Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry in the NBA Finals would continue through 2018, the 2 teams meeting in the Finals a record 4 times in a row, with 2016 the only time the Warriors lost.
2. Indians blow 3-1 lead in World Series, 2016.
The Chicago Cubs became only the 6th major league team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the World Series, or for the purposes of this article, the Cleveland Indians threw away their big chance to win their first World Series since 1948. The 2016 World Series matched up 2 franchises that had gone the longest without a World Series victory, so one city was going to be overjoyed and the other fated to misery once again. The Cubs had last won a World Series waaayyyy back in 1908, and had last appeared in a World Series in 1945. Unlike the Cavaliers, who finally brought Cleveland their first professional big league championship since 1964, the Indians managed to blow the Series, with one factor being the bizarre injury to pitcher Trevor Bauer who had cut his finger while using his drone. After the Tribe had won the first game 10-7 behind ace pitcher Corey Kluber, the injured Bauer started and lost the second game, 5-1, although perhaps it was not his pitching that lost the Indians the game. Being held to 4 hits and 1 run, while committing 2 errors did not help the Indians. Cleveland won the third game in a squeaker, 1-0, and then the Tribe took Game 4 by a more comfortable 7-2 margin. With a 3-1 lead, a Cleveland World Series Championship seemed inevitable. Not so fast! Chicago came back to win Game 5 in yet another low scoring squeaker, 3-2. Clevelanders were not worried, knowing the odds of the Cubs winning the next 2 games were slim. Game 6 went to the Cubs 9-3, and people in Chicagoland were ecstatic, almost tasting their first nip of a Cubs Championship since 1908. Tribe fans began to worry, the Cleveland Curse hanging over the city like smog. Game 7 was held in Cleveland, giving the Indians the advantage of home field and a sold out crowd of fans desperate for a World Series win. In yet another close game, the Cubs pulled off the historic win 8-7, a Game 7 considered by many as the greatest World Series Game 7 in history. (Note: Clevelanders do not think this game was “great” in any particular way…) Not only had the Cubs pulled off the highly unlikely feat of coming back to win a 7 game series after being down 3-1, the final run totals for both teams were an exact tie, only the second time that statistic had ever been achieved. (The other World Series that had an overall tie score was 1948, also featuring the Indians.) The following year, 2017, the Indians rebounded from their catastrophic loss in the World Series by winning an American League best 102 games, 8 games more than they had won in 2016. The top ranked Indians lost to the New York Yankees in the League Championship Series and failed to get a chance to avenge their historic loss. The Cubs also failed to make it to the 2017 World Series.
3. Falcons blow 25 point lead in Super Bowl LI, 2017.
After building a 21-3 lead by halftime, the Atlanta Falcons, the NFC Champions, went on to build an even bigger lead in the 3rd quarter of Super Bowl LI on February 5, 2017 against the monotonously excellent AFC Champion New England Patriots. The Patriots had won Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, and are tied with 2 other teams for 2nd place with 5 Super Bowl victories (against 5 defeats, for 10 appearances in the big game) to the Pittsburgh Steelers 6 wins. With quarterback extraordinaire, Tom Brady, the Pats built an NFL best record of 14-2 during the regular season of 2016 while the Falcons managed a credible 11-5 regular season record. Most people expected the Patriots to win, and when the Falcons steamrolled to a seemingly insurmountable 25 point lead in the 3rd quarter, (28-3) the outcome of the game seemed set. Incredibly, Brady brought the Patriots back from the dead, tying the game at 28-28 with less than a minute to go in regulation time. The inability of the Falcons to score even 1 point in the 4th quarter was ominous, going a whopping 23 minutes and 31 seconds since their 4th and final touchdown in the middle of the 3rd quarter. The first ever overtime period during a Super Bowl game ensued, and the Patriots scored the winning touchdown on their first possession of overtime. The collapse and defeat of the Atlanta Falcons was complete, stunning the football world. Brady had completed a record 43 passes in a record 62 pass attempts for a record 466 yards, all accomplished by the oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history. The Falcons quarterback, Matt Ryan, had a good game, completing 17 of 23 pass attempts for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns with no interceptions, but failed when it counted most.
4. Larry Holmes blows chance at boxing history, 1985.
Larry Holmes had built an incredible record of 48 wins against no losses and no draws in his professional heavyweight boxing career, needing only one more win to tie Rocky Marciano as having the most wins in an undefeated heavyweight boxing career. To accomplish that feat would arguably have made Holmes the greatest heavyweight boxer in history, let alone given him the chance to expand on that record if he chose to continue fighting. His opponent on September 21, 1985, was Michael Spinks, the reigning light heavyweight champion. Spinks was hoping to become the first fighter since Bob Fitsimmons (1863-1917) to hold both the heavyweight and light heavyweight boxing titles at the same time. Most experts predicted an easy win for Holmes. It was not to be the easy win expected, as Holmes reportedly had injured a thumb during training for the fight but did not want to withdraw. Holmes was riding a 20 fight title defense win streak, the 3rd longest (behind Joe Louis 25 and Wladimir Klitschko 22) title defense run. Spinks won the unlikely upset by unanimous decision, a great victory indeed, but seen by boxing fans more as a defeat for Larry Holmes. Michael Spinks was an Olympic Gold Medalist in boxing at the 1976 Olympics in the Middleweight Division, and is the brother of boxer Leon Spinks, whom Holmes defeated in a championship fight in 1981. Michael Spinks won the rematch against Holmes in 1986, this time by a thin margin in a split decision. After losing the title and possible boxing history to Spinks, Holmes bitterly said that Rocky Marciano “could not carry my jockstrap.” Yeah, Larry, we think he could. (Note: The only loss suffered by Michael Spinks in his professional boxing career came when Mike Tyson knocked him out in his final career fight in 91 seconds in 1988.)
5. Muhammad Ali’s open mouth blows fight against Ken Norton, 1973.
The Louisville Lip (Muhammad Ali) had recovered from his loss to Joe Frazier in his return to the ring after a layoff due to legal problems relating to refusal to be inducted into the US Armed Forces, and seemed to have regained his form, winning 6 fights in 1972. Ali then faced the up and coming Ken Norton, former US Marine, in California. Norton fought an unconventional fight, crossing his arms in defense, flustering Ali. In the final round Ali had his mouth open verbally taunting Norton when the younger fighter (30 years old) broke the jaw of Ali (age 31), winning for Norton a split decision upset, and for Ali earning only the second loss of his career, a totally unexpected defeat. Given the closeness of the contest, the broken jaw probably cost Ali the fight. Me and my big mouth! Of course, Ali’s loss to Joe Frazier in their first fight was a major defeat, as was Ali’s loss to Leon Spinks. In fact, any fight lost by Ali can be considered an epic defeat, except possibly his loss to Larry Holmes when Holmes appeared favored to win.
6. Buster Douglas dethrones Iron Mike Tyson, 1990.
We hate to denigrate the efforts of any underdog in pulling off an upset, but seriously, Iron Mike Tyson losing his heavyweight boxing championship to Buster Douglas has to be considered more of a defeat of Tyson than a win by Douglas. Fought in the unlikely venue of Tokyo, Japan, Tyson was a highly feared juggernaut in the ring whose career had been characterized by crushing first round knockouts. Tyson had become the youngest ever heavyweight champ when 20 years old and seemed in the prime of his fighting career in 1990 at the age of 23, boasting a 37-0 record. Douglas, of Columbus, Ohio, had a record of 29-4-1 and outweighed the 220 chiseled body Tyson by 11 fat pounds. Douglas was not seriously expected to survive long into the fight and was a 42-1 underdog! Far from being intimidated, Douglas fought an aggressive fight against Tyson’s lackluster performance. Perhaps Tyson was distracted by allegations of domestic violence and disputes with his trainer and promoter. Douglas pressed the action and won in the 10th round by technical knockout, creating one of the biggest upsets in sports history, not just boxing history. A key to Tyson’s loss was the incredibly stupid mistake on the part of his cornermen to not have any device (such as Endswell or ice packs) to deal with his eye swelling shut. A makeshift measure, a rubber glove filled with ice water, was used instead, not what you would expect at a heavyweight champion match! Tyson had nearly pulled out a victory in the 8th round when he knocked Douglas down for a 9 count and pummeled the hurt fighter in an attempt to wrap up the fight right now. Douglas survived the 8th round, barely, and when Tyson tried to finish him off in the 9th, Douglas continued to hang on and finished the round with a barrage of his own. In the 10th round, a Douglas uppercut was followed by another barrage that ended the fight and Tyson’s perfect record. Douglas lost his title in his very first defense, losing to Evander Holyfield. Douglas and Tyson never had a rematch.
7. Jim Ryun loses Olympic 1500 meter race, 1968.
Ryun had become the first ever high schooler to run a sub-4 minute mile and at age 17 became the youngest ever athlete to represent the United States in track and field at the 1964 Olympics. He had run a world record mile time of 3:51.1 in 1967, a record that stood for 8 years. Also in 1967, he set the world record for the 1500 meter run at 3:33.1. When the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico came around, most track fans expected Ryun to bring home the Gold Medal in the 1500 meter run. (The Olympics does not have a mile run as all races are in metric measurements.) Due to the thin air at the high altitude of Mexico City (7350 feet) any thought of breaking the world record in the 1500 meters was laughable, and Ryun estimated a time of 3:39 would be good enough to win. Ryun performed even better than he had expected, posting a great time for the altitude of 3:37.8, but he had not counted on Kenyan Kip Keino who ran an Olympic record time of 3:34.9, a record that stood for 16 years. Ryun was pleased with his performance, even though he lost by 30 yards, knowing he had done his best. The press and track fans treated Ryun as if he had blundered the race and “let his country down.” This sort of attitude is ridiculous, as the victory by Keino is certainly just that, a magnificent effort by a great athlete and not a failure on Jim Ryun’s part. Still, the upset is one of the most famous in track and field history and is remembered as a defeat for Jim Ryun. Ryun went on to serve in the US Congress as a representative from Kansas from 1996 to 2007. (Note: Ryun’s world record mile of 3:51.1 stood until beaten by Filbert Bayi of Tanzania in 1975, the exact same Filbert Bayi that broke Ryun’s world record 1500 meter run of 3:33.1 in 1974.)
8. Browns blow Super Bowl bids, 1968, 1969, 1986, 1987, 1989.
The Cleveland Browns had been the winningest team in the NFL during their history in the league since 1950 until the Super Bowl era, playing in the NFL Championship Game their first 6 seasons straight! After winning their last NFL Championship in 1964, they lost the 1965 title game, their last before the Super Bowl era. Alas, the Browns are one of the few teams to never make it to a Super Bowl, and they do not even have the excuse of being a team added after the Super Bowl era began. The Browns first blew their chance to go to the big show in 1968 when they were beaten by the Baltimore Colts in the 1968 NFL Championship game by a humiliating 34-0. Undeterred, not yet knowing how long their streak of frustration would stretch, the Browns fell again in 1969, this time getting pasted by the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL Championship Game, 27-7. (Note: The NFL and AFL merged in the following season, so the Super Bowl and the NFL Championship became the same thing.) A long drought away from the possibility of going to a Super Bowl began, with an enthusiastic bid in 1980 ending when the Browns blew an easy win against the Raiders in the first round of the playoffs, losing 14-12 on the infamous “Red Right, 88” pass interception in the end zone when a field goal would have won the game. In 1986, the Browns began a incredible hate relationship with the Denver Broncos, losing the AFC Championship in 1986, 1987 and 1989 to horse toothed John Elway and his pals, coming oh so close to attending a Super Bowl or 3 as participants instead of fans. The 1986 loss was perhaps the worst, losing 23-20 in overtime after Elway crafted a superb 98 yard drive in the last minute of regulation time to send the game into overtime. Known as “The Drive,” Elway’s masterpiece is either a great sports achievement or a colossal Browns failure. In 1987 the Browns seemed on the verge of their first Super Bowl appearance, when the Broncos were leading 38-31 with only 1:12 left in the game, with the Browns having the ball on the Denver 2 yard line. Boasting an excellent running game, the Browns seemed sure to score the game tying touchdown. Running back Earnest Byner was stripped of the ball and the fumble was recovered by Denver, who took an intentional safety and once again the Browns had blown their big chance, this catastrophe going down in Cleveland history as “The Fumble.” In 1989, the Browns once again lost the AFC Championship and their last realistic chance of going to the Super Bowl when Denver beat them again, this time more convincingly 37-21.
9. Bobby Riggs win some and lose some, 1973.
Bobby Riggs was the #1 male amateur tennis player in 1939 and became the #1 male professional tennis player in 1946 and 1947. As he “matured” into a retired professional tennis player, at the age of 55 the always hustling huckster took advantage of the Women’s Liberation Movement to challenge the best female tennis professional in the world, 20 year old Margaret Court to a tennis match to “prove” men were so much better at sports than women. Riggs clobbered Court 6-2, 6-1 on May 13, 1973, giving the match the nickname, “Mother’s Day Massacre.” The self-aggrandizing Riggs crowed about his great victory as women mourned the loss by the dejected and chagrined Ms. Court. Along came another female tennis pro, Billie Jean King, the woman Riggs had originally challenged to the match. This time, King was eager to avenge the loss by Court, and “The Battle of the Sexes” was born, a match by the best female professional tennis player in the world against a washed up old male ex-pro. On September 20, 1973 the big event was held in the Houston Astrodome, televised on national TV in prime time. A $100,000 winner take all prize was on the line, and betting mavens made Riggs the favorite to win again. King played magnificently and bested Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, clearly dominating the old guy. A 2017 feature film about the event was made starring Steve Carrell and Emma Stone as Riggs and King, called The Battle of the Sexes. Years after the event, rumors were circulated that Riggs had lost on purpose in order to erase heavy debt he supposedly had with organized crime. Riggs died in 1995 at the age of 77, having become friends with King after the match.
10. Ashland University record setting women’s basketball fold-up, 2018.
After winning the National Championship in Division II Women’s Basketball in 2017 and compiling a record setting 73 wins in a row on their way to an undefeated 2017-2018 season, Ashland (Ohio) Eagles breezed through the playoffs until coming up against Central Missouri in the National Championship Game. The 6th seeded Jennies blasted the 1st seeded Eagles 66-52 in a game that never seemed like an Ashland Eagles game at all. The game started out as most people expected, with the first 7 Eagles shots finding their way into the hoop, building a 16-6 Ashland lead. Then things went downhill for the Eagles, as shot after shot rimmed around and failed to fall, while Central Missouri’s women seemed to get everything to fall. Ashland had scored 99.8 points per game during the 2017-2018 season, winning by an average of 35 points! Seriously, who would have the audacity to think they could win against the reigning National Champion that was even better this year than last? Well, obviously the Central Missouri Jennies. As good as the Jennies played, it really seemed more like an Ashland loss than a Central Missouri win, at least to this observer. It seems the budding Ashland dynasty is unlikely to continue, with the head coach leaving for more lucrative climes and the impaired recruiting that accompanies such a move.
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For more information, please see…
Berman, Len. The Greatest Moments in Sports: Upsets and Underdogs. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2012.
Pesca, Mike. Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History. Twelve, 2018.