Sports have been and likely always will be the predominant form of live action entertainment where literally anything can happen. Unlike so called ‘reality shows’, sporting events carry an aura of uncertainty and mystery that have made them irresistible to uncoordinated slobs like me around the world, without having to find some trailer park family in the middle of nowhere whose youngest child is named after a breakfast cereal and enters beauty pageants for overweight 7-year-olds.
Now, being a ripe old age myself, I’ve been fortunate enough to witness most of the most memorable, striking, triumphant and hilarious sporting events of the past 45 years, but few stick out in my mind like those jaw-dropping moments that made me jump up and shriek ‘WTF!’ at the TV while spilling a beer and popcorn everywhere. As with any kind of list someone could put together based on their opinions, the following selections are simply my choices for what I believe have been some of the most stunning moments in sports, and I make no claim that they are in any way definitive, absolute or incontestable, so feel free to debate, deny, disagree or even do the hustle if you take umbrage at any of them. For those who may not have had the opportunity to see the following epic moments, or may never even have heard of them, allow me to present to you my selections for the top 10 all-time shocking moments in sports.
10. Randy Johnson Pulverizes Dove with his Fastball
Six-foot-ten pitching great Randy Johnson was well known for his devastating fastball, but never more so than during a spring training game in 2001. After his windup, he delivered his signature pitch at the exact moment a dove flew in front of the batter’s box and the timing was lethal for the hapless bird. Johnson’s fastball connected with the dove in mid flight, and literally disintegrated it into a pile of feathers within a split second of making contact. The odds on The Big Unit hitting the bird in mid air had to be a million to one, but obviously that poor dove had other ideas, as few moments in sports can be described as more bizarre than that.
9. Gerard Gordeau Kicks Teila Tuli’s Tooth out in First Ever Televised UFC Fight
It’s easy for people to forget that once upon a time, the UFC was a fledgling sport that was desperate for a television audience way back in the day. On November 12, 1993 what is now a major sporting endeavor worth billions annually was literally kick-started via pay-per-view. The very first bout featured Dutch Savate (French Kick Boxing) Champion Gerard Gordeau versus mammoth American Sumo Wrestler Teila Tuli (born Taylor Willy).
Tipping the scales at a whopping 400 + pounds, Tuli looked like he could eat Gordeau for breakfast and still have room left over for a shovelful of pancakes. As the UFC was not sanctioned by any governing body at the time, people really had no idea what to expect, but they were not disappointed. The fight started off slowly with both fighters circling and trying to feel each other out, but suddenly Tuli lunged at Gordeau attempting to grapple him, but missed and slipped to the mat, giving Gordeau the opportunity to strike. With a savage kick to the face, he sent one of Tuli’s teeth flying into the audience and the crowd went completely bananas.
After the referee stopped the bout, and with blood steaming down his face and looking like he got hit with a Mack truck but didn’t get the license plate number, Tuli was forced to withdraw before the end of the first round, and with that he transformed the UFC from unknown entity into gladiator sport supreme.
8. Ali Upsets Liston
It’s probably impossible for our younger readers to think of Muhammad Ali as anything but the shaky and inspirational figure lighting the Olympic flame at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta or his more recent even frailer appearance at the 2012 opening ceremonies at the London Games, but once this man was the living embodiment of male physical beauty and strength. After winning an Olympic Gold Light Heavyweight medal at the 1960 Rome Games at age 18, Ali (then still known by his given name of Cassius Clay) began his professional boxing career that same year and moved steadily up the ranks to finally challenge then Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston for the title in 1964.
The two men could not have been more polar opposites. Liston was known as a brawler (he had twice destroyed Floyd Patterson in less than one round to first win and then defend the title), Ali a fleet footed tactician who employed speed and bravado. Liston was boxing’s conservative, know his place ‘Colored’ man, Ali the brash, cocky and controversial young upstart loathed by an American public plagued by endemic racism. Virtually no one gave Ali a chance to beat Liston.
The fight was one long controversy from start to finish. The early rounds saw Ali ahead with his trademark lightening speed, pinpoint precision punches and incredible defense that confused and frustrated the Champ, though Liston managed to land several savage blows of his own. Ali claimed Liston had put liniment on his gloves that had the contender virtually blinded in round 4, and he famously told his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut his gloves off because he couldn’t continue. Dundee sponged his eyes off and told his fighter ‘Get out there and stay away from him. Still blinking madly, Ali lost round 5 to Liston, but was regaining his sight and his accuracy, so much so that by round 6, he stood toe to toe with the Champion and put on a clinic of punching power and defensive prowess that saw Liston’s eyes swell up and give him trouble seeing.
Awaiting round 7, Liston’s corner signaled their fighter was throwing in the towel, claiming he had injured his shoulder, and bedlam ensued. As people streamed into the ring, a reporter attempted to interview Ali who was freaking out, shouting ‘I’m King of the world! I am the greatest! I shook up the world, I’m King of the world! I don’t have a mark on my face. I upset Sonny Liston and I just turned 22 years old, I must be the greatest. I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!’ The interview famously continued with Ali claiming, ‘I’m pretty, I’m pretty!’ and when the reporter tried to intervene, saying ‘You’re not that pretty,’ Ali replied, ‘I’m a bad man!’
And with that, a legend was born.
7. Zinedine Zidane Headbutt During 2006 World Cup Final
International soccer is certainly no stranger to controversy as any fan can tell you, but the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy in Berlin drove this fact to an as yet unchallenged new low. The match saw the first all-European final since 1982 and was slated to be an intense game between the two arch rivals, with Italy holding the edge in previous head-to-head contests and riding a 24-0 unbeaten streak in international play including their WC results, while France was sporting a 9-0 record largely on the strength of their tournament wins.
Star French forward Zinedine Zidane was playing in his final career game and was one of those in consideration for the Golden Ball Award, handed out to the most outstanding player in the tournament. He rose to the occasion by giving France an early 1-0 lead just 7 minutes into the first half on a freakish penalty kick (awarded after Marco Matarazzi bumped Frenchman Florent Malouda in the penalty area) that first bounced off the crossbar then dribbled over the goal line before bouncing back off the bar again and finally landing behind Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon. Matarazzi made up for his transgression less than 20 minutes later with a beautiful header off Andrea Pirlo‘s corner kick, tying the game at 1-1 and sending the Italian fans into a frenzy.
The match was a largely civil affair as neither team was looking to give their opponent an advantage by diffusing their focus with emotional outbursts or needless penalties that could cost them the trophy, but was unsettled after regulation play. After nearly 20 minutes of extra time, the score remained 1-1 and set the stage for one of the most bizarre moments in World Cup history; Zidane and Matarazzi were engaged in a verbal confrontation that saw the Italian clearly attempting to provoke the Frenchman by jawing at him. He finally got a response from Zidane, though not the one he was hoping for, as the French striker turned and delivered a vicious headbutt with considerable force directly into Matarazzi’s chest. The Italian crumpled to the pitch in obvious pain, and Zidane received a Red Card and was sent off, leaving the French down to 10 men. It didn’t seem to hurt them however, as the match remained 1-1 at the end of extended time, but the Italians used the momentum from this shocking incident to beat the French 5-3 on penalty kicks and claim victory.
Zidane has consistently claimed that Matarazzi incited him with a particularly unsavory personal taunt, though he never revealed what was said. Years later, a contrite Matarazzi finally admitted to having said ‘I’d prefer your whore of a sister,’ after Zidane sarcastically offered to give him his jersey, though he later apologized to him for instigating one of the most stunning moments in the history of international football. I have to admit that I was just glad I got to see it live.
6. Crazy Parachute Guy Lands in Ring During Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield Fight
It’s difficult to describe the sense of incredulous stupefaction that ensued when watching (as I was) a championship prize fight that featured an incident straight out of Mad magazine. During the seventh round of the second Heavyweight title fight between Champion Riddick Bowe and challenger Evander Holyfield (who had lost the title to Bowe a year earlier) on November 6, 1993, a paraglider with a large parachute powered by a giant fan (and subsequently Christened ‘Fan Man’) appeared literally out of the sky and crash landed on the edge of the ring. His parachute lines became ensnared in the overhead lights, and Fan Man (later identified as James Miller) never actually got into the ring, but the chaos that ensued as security dragged him from the ropes was pure insanity.
Fans and supporters of both fighters began wailing on the guy mercilessly, leaving him slumped and unconscious as the cameras rolled and veteran boxing broadcaster Jim Lampley along with former Champion George Foreman narrated it all live. Bowe’s wife Judy, pregnant with the couples’ fourth child, was perilously close to the whole melee and fainted before being taken to hospital on a stretcher as a precaution, a fact that had to affect her husband for the remainder of the fight, as Holyfield won a majority decision.
The madness delayed the bout for 20 minutes, though why it was even allowed to continue remains a source of contention. Miller was taken to hospital still unconscious but later recreated this bizarre stunt three times, first in Los Angeles during an L.A. Raiders vs. Denver Broncos football game, then in London for an Arsenal vs. Bolton Wanderers soccer match and finally by landing on top of Buckingham Palace, where he proceeded to take off his pants before a stunned crowd of tourists. Miller was found to have hung himself years later, long after creating one of the most ridiculous and potentially dangerous events in the history of professional sports.
5. Dale Earnhardt Sr. Killed on Final Lap of Daytona 500
I’ve personally never understood the appeal of NASCAR or any other form of auto racing, but have long suspected much of it is due to some morbid fascination and expectation among its fans for the very real opportunity each race presents for one or more spectacular crashes. Many famous drivers have been killed over the years in virtually every format of the genre. On February 18, 2001 the most successful stock car driver of all time, Dale Earnhardt Sr., unfortunately suffered that fate during the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Traveling at a speed in excess of 180 MPH, Earnhardt was trailing behind the leaders that included his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. when his car was bumped from behind and into the back of Sterling Marlin’s car which sent him out of control and skidding along the wall of the racetrack before colliding with Ken Schrader‘s vehicle and finally slamming into the wall with a devastating impact that left his car a crumpled mess and Earnhardt unconscious. His son, who finished the race in second place, ran to his father’s side as he was cut from the wreckage and taken to hospital. He never regained consciousness and died just a few hours later. The entire accident and subsequent drama of his rescue was broadcast live on television, leaving racing fans to mourn the loss of one of its most celebrated stars.
4. Ali KOs Foreman
The infamous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ Heavyweight title fight between Champion George Foreman and former title holder Muhammad Ali was one of the most remarkable demonstrations of Ali’s wholesale command of boxing, from his unrivalled mastery of promotion to his incredible physical prowess. After being stripped of his title for refusing induction into the U.S. army during the Vietnam war in 1967 (famously stating ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong; none of them ever called me n*****.’), Ali was banned from professional boxing for three years, but avoided prison on appeal. This opened the door for two of his epic fights with Joe Frazier (their first fight saw Ali suffer his first loss as a professional, though he later won a decision in their rematch) and saw Foreman go on to destroy Frazier to claim the Heavyweight title, setting the stage for Ali’s first title shot in seven years.
By now 32 years old and no longer the heralded fighter of his prime, Ali was again the underdog against Foreman, who at 24 had demolished all contenders with a 34-0 professional record. The fight was set for October 24, 1974 at 4:30 am to allow for prime time broadcast in the U.S. from Kinshasha, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) by promoter and criminal extraordinaire Don King. Again, almost no one gave Ali a chance against Foreman’s lethal punching power, despite Ali’s consistent claims that he would emerge victorious, a boast he used to great effect for weeks beforehand and especially during the pre-fight press conference that seemed to leave the supposedly fearless Foreman confused and pondering just what the Hell this aging braggart was talking about.
During the early rounds of the contest, Ali showcased his famous ‘Rope-a-Dope’ technique for the first time, leaning against the ropes and goading Foreman to mercilessly pound away at his body while he covered up in defense, all the while keeping up a constant stream of blistering verbal taunts. Even at that time of day, under the bright ring lights, the African heat and humidity were intense, and Foreman seemed to be losing energy as the fight wore on, as both fighters had landed numerous heavy blows, but nothing decisive. By the end of round 7, Foreman slumped in his corner and was breathing heavily, obviously tired and frustrated that he couldn’t punish Ali as he had done to so many of his other foes, and the fight was pretty much even. Watching this live with my Dad and my two brothers, all of us huge Ali fans, I will never forget our sense of impending doom that our hero was potentially facing his biggest loss.
Late in the 8th round, after Foreman again failed to register any serious damage against Ali’s holding and smothering defense and obviously nearly spent, Ali seized the opportunity he had planned for with less than 20 seconds remaining in the round, and sprang off the ropes delivering a lightening fast combination of 6 lefts and rights that saw the exhausted Champion stagger and drop to the canvass. The place went insane, my brothers and I among them, as we breathlessly watched a bewildered Foreman seemingly rise to beat the count, only to have the referee declare the fight over at 2:58, thus cementing Ali’s claim as the greatest boxer of all time with this incredible victory.
3. 1989 World Series Earthquake
During the introduction to the third game of the 1989 World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park, veteran baseball broadcasters Al Michaels and Tim McCarver were making their usual pre-game banter when the telecast was suddenly interrupted as the screen began flickering madly just as Michael’s was able to blurt out, ‘I tell you what, we’re having an Earthqu…’ Then television screens around the nation tuning in to the game went blank for a few seconds before reappearing with a ‘World Series’ screen shot, as Michaels attempted to continue the broadcast.
The quake lasted only about 15 seconds, but registered from between 6.9 and 7.1 on the Richter scale, the most powerful in San Francisco since the devastating event in 1906. Chunks of concrete fell from the stadium as it swayed from the force of the quake. Fortunately most fans hadn’t yet made their way into Candlestick, but those that did witnessed one of nature’s most ferocious creations. The quake knocked out power and lights at the stadium and the game had to be postponed. Those watching (again as I was) on television were unable to gauge the extent of the damage, though it became evident very quickly that this was one of the most powerful earthquakes to hit the West Coast of the U.S. in history, and hopefully the first and last to ever disrupt a major sporting event.
2. Miracle on Ice
The 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York provided the opportunity for one of the most sensational sports triumphs of the last century. The Russian Men’s hockey team had dominated international tournaments for the better part of the 1970’s, apart from the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series, having won Olympic Gold in 1972 and 1976. Dubbed ‘The Big Red Machine,’ the team was the embodiment of the then Soviet Union’s political ideology of supposedly Communist selflessness, superiority and success. By contrast, the U.S. Men’s team was composed of amateur College players (as this was long before the era of Western professionals’ participation) that almost no one believed could make much impact in the tournament. No one that is, except the team itself.
Led by their irascible head coach Herb Brooks, the Americans set out to prove everyone wrong. Riding a trend of depressing political issues that including the impending boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympiad, the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. was looking for some redemption at these Games, though that seemed unlikely to be found in clash of these two disparate hockey clubs. History appeared to be undaunted by the challenge however, as both the American and Russian teams were destined to meet in a semi-final matchup that pitted the Soviet giants against the underdog Red, White and Blue.
Despite playing on home ice with the fervent support of their country, absolutely no one picked the Americans to even put on a good showing, much less beat the Russians. After a thrilling first period that saw the score tied 2-2 however, hope began to swell that a huge upset could be in the making, though this seemed to be dashed as the Soviets scored an early second period goal to take the lead and steal a good deal of momentum from the capacity crowd on hand. In a literally Hollywoodesque script, the US tied the score in the third period and sent the fans into a maniacal frenzy of patriotic pride and had the Russians wondering just what in the name of Trotsky was going on. When U.S. Captain Mike Eruzione scored with less than ten minutes remaining in the game, it’s safe to say that the entire nation went out of its mind with delight.
No one appeared more stunned than the Russian players, who seemed completely dazed by what was happening, and simply could not match the intensity of the moment as the crowd began counting down the end of the game with an intoxicated delirium. The U.S. had pulled off the unthinkable, they had defeated one of the most powerful hockey teams ever assembled when no one had given them a ghost of a chance. Watching this game unfold live was one of the most enthralling episodes of sporting history I have ever witnessed, and ensured that this team of unknown college kids had forever sealed their place in the annals of athletic excellence by going on to beat Finland for the Gold medal.
1. Tyson Bites Holyfield’s Ear
For those like myself who had followed the spectacular rise of boxing phenomenon Mike Tyson‘s professional career, he was like a throwback to the ancient Roman gladiators; compact, nearly inhumanly powerful and endowed with pugilistic speed, prowess and ferocity, he seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut. The guy was literally like a demon unleashed. Tyson’s rise to glory was just as infamously followed by his dramatic fall from grace, as a series of personal crises seemed to haunt the fighter, many say sparked by the death of his legendary longtime trainer and mentor Cus D’Amato. Nevertheless, on June 28, 1997, challenger Mike Tyson squared off for a rematch against the Champion Evander Holyfield at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas in a bout widely anticipated to be a virtual bloodbath; no description could have been more prescient.
Holyfield had famously scored a TKO decision over Iron Mike in their first contest a year earlier, setting the stage for their historic rematch. Both fighters opened the match throwing bombs, and seemed to be looking for an early K.O. Tyson has long claimed that the referee for both fights, veteran Mills Lane, had allowed Holyfield to get away with headbutting him in both contests, which he says led him to make one of the most stunning decisions in the history of boxing. After a series of head clashes opened a serious cut on the side of Tyson’s right eye in round two, Tyson again complained to the referee that this was no accident, but Lane signaled both fighters to carry on. Holyfield seemed to sense an opportunity to exploit the situation, as he repeatedly led into Tyson with his head, even as the challenger continued to point out to Lane that it was intentional.
The round ended in a series of almost wrestling clinches that saw Lane caution both fighters to break cleanly and at the bell, as Tyson glowered at Holyfield menacingly. In his corner, Tyson’s handlers attempted to stem the wound that was in jeopardy of stopping the fight. Round three saw Tyson spring from his corner, only to be sent back by Lane as he didn’t have his mouthpiece, before trying to unload some huge bombs on Holyfield, obviously attempting to end the fight before the indignity of possibly having it stopped. The crowd buzzed with anticipation of perhaps another of his sensational knockouts. Holyfield staved off the assault however as both men settled into a tactical battle that saw yet more clinches and grappling.
Tyson seemed to be coming on in the round, which only made what ensued even more unbelievable. With less than 40 seconds to go, the two men were again clinching when Tyson delivered one of the most bizarre acts in the history of the sport; as Mills Lane attempted to separate them, Tyson clamped down on the back of Holyfield’s left ear and bit it with purpose, removing a chunk of cartilage. Watching this live with my friends, all of us major Tyson fans, I can honestly say it was the single most bizarre sporting moment we had ever seen. Holyfield immediately began jumping up and down in obvious distress and disbelief. As Lane stooped down to retrieve Tyson’s mouthpiece which he had somehow managed to remove, Tyson approached Holyfield and pushed him from behind against the ropes. The place was now going insane; no one knew what in the name of Zeus was going on, NO ONE had ever seen such a thing happen inside a boxing ring.
As Lane stopped the fight to allow Holyfield’s corner to wash off the blood, Tyson appeared to be completely unmoved by it all. With only a single point deduction, and after consulting at ringside with Nevada Boxing Commissioner Marc Ratner and Holyfield being examined by the ring doctor, Mills Lane read Tyson the riot act in his corner and incredibly, the fight was allowed to continue after several minutes delay. Just seconds after re-starting and not to be outdone, Tyson appeared to take another snack, this time on Holyfield’s left ear, which saw the Champion again registering obvious pain and outrage, but both men seemed determined to go on. The bell ended with a disgusted Holyfield returning to his corner, looking like a man who wanted nothing more than to punch Tyson into the Stone Age.
The crowd erupted in a chorus of boos as the replay clearly showed Tyson trying to biting a chunk of Holyfield’s ear off. Before the start of the fourth round, as it appeared Tyson may have been disqualified, dozens of people streamed into the ring, and at one point Tyson tried to maul his way through Holyfield’s cornermen to get at him, but was restrained by his own people. As bedlam raged in the ring, it was finally announced that the fight was over, Tyson was disqualified (for the first time in a Heavyweight title fight in over 50 years) and Holyfield declared the winner, thus bringing to an end the most shocking sporting moment of all time.
In my opinion anyway.
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