Top 10 Biggest Athlete Comebacks That Almost Happened

Tags: #DennisRodman ,   #JimBrown ,   #AlainProst ,   #DominikHasek ,   #RockyMarciano

Michael Wendom

Michael Wendom

Last updated:  2021-11-15 14:34:19

When a successful athlete makes a comeback, that always turns into a big story. Like Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson, some of them managed to return in style, which wasn't the case with Diego Maradona or Michael Schumacher. Yet, you might not know that many sports stars considered a comeback but ultimately didn't. This time we are talking about the best of them, as they were all top athletes. To make things more transparent – we considered only those that prepared for a comeback at the professional level and in the competitions that made them famous. 

10. Theoren Fleury

The best moment of Theo Fleury's comeback!

Theo Fleury stayed in the NHL for 15 years and even won the Stanley Cup with Calgary Flames in his second season. Despite his miniature status, Fleury used strength as his advantage and was very productive as a right winger. Fans did recognize his dedication, as he played in seven all-star games. Yet, his biggest achievement came in 2002, when he won the Olympic gold with Canada. Unfortunately, Fleury was out of the NHL only a year later because of his drug and alcohol addiction. As he was 35, many thought that this was the end for him.

Yet, two years later, he decided to play in amateur leagues before winning the Player of the Year Award in the UK's Elite Ice Hockey League. This all made him attempt an NHL comeback and clean his image. At 41, Fleury trained hard for six months and even had his NHL suspension lifted. Shortly after, the Calgary Flames gave him a chance, as he scored a winning goal in his first game. Unfortunately, his overall performance in the other three matches was relatively modest, resulting in a cut. Yet, Fleury said that he is happy that he ended his career with the Flames and didn't consider joining other teams.

9. Nigel Benn

Unfortunately, many remember Benn for this tragic fight against Gerald McClellan

In the nineties, the British ruled boxing among the middleweights and super-middleweight. Among them was Nigel Benn, who won his first 21 fights via knockout. Despite a few setbacks, he got several world titles, including the WBC super-middleweight belt. Yet, his glory days were over when in 1996, he lost three matches in a row. Furthermore, after suffering an ankle injury, Benn announced his retirement at only 32. Such an ending was very bitter for him, as he felt that he deserved much better closure.

However, he announced his shock return in 2019, at the age of 55! His match against Sakio Bika (also the former super-middleweight champion) was scheduled for November 2019 and should have been his last. Despite some concerns, Benn got his boxing license, and it looked like the bout would happen. Unfortunately (or luckily?), it never did, as he suffered a shoulder injury while sparring. Totally frustrated, Benn finally gave up and never thought about another match.

8. Shawn Kemp

Shawn Kemp had a successful career, but he could have done so much more

As one of the best power forwards in history, Shawn Kemp was drafted by Seattle Supersonics in 1989. He was already a dominant force in his second season, and he continued to be for the next ten years. Unfortunately, he never won the title, losing a final against the mighty Chicago Bulls in 1996. Yet, he was a six-time NBA All-Star and won a gold medal at the 1994 FIBA World Championship. Unfortunately, because of his weight and drug abuse problems, his performance quickly declined. By 2003, he was out of the league.

However, two years later, Kemp wanted a comeback. By April of 2006, he was in excellent shape, and the championship contenders Dallas Mavericks wanted him. Yet, as the NBA refused to grant an injury exception to the team, nothing came out of it. Not giving up, Kemp looked even better several months later, hoping to join the Denver Nuggets or Chicago Bulls. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, and after playing a few games in Italy, he retired.

7. Nigel Mansell

Mansell already had an unsuccessful comeback in 1995

Nigel Mansell was a very late bloomer. The British Grand-Prix driver won his first Formula One race (Brands Hatch) at 32 and fought for his maiden title the following year. Yet, only at 39 he finally did it, taking the crown in 1992 with Williams Renault. After doing the same in the Indy Car next season, Mansell had another stint in F1, which lasted for only six races. Following two horrible events for McLaren, he was out of the Grand Prix racing at 42. Yet, he decided to give it a go one more time.

During 1996, Mansell established a strong relationship with Eddie Jordan and his improving Jordan Grand Prix Formula One team. The idea they agreed on was for Mansell to sign a deal for the 1997 season, as the team's main sponsor would cover his sustainable salary. This all culminated in December 1996, when Mansell joined the team for the test session in Barcelona. Though he was slower than the rookie Ralf Schumacher, the difference was only 0,3 seconds. After the event, Mansell was pretty happy, estimating that there's a 60% chance he'll drive the following season. Additionally, he revealed that he has several more offers and even hoped to challenge for another title. Yet, a few weeks later, he decided against it, saying that he couldn't fully commit.

6. Jim Brown

Jim Brown talks about his retirement

Though he was a very talented multi-sport athlete, Jim Brown found his fame playing for Cleveland Browns in the NFL. As a fullback, he was a Pro Bowler in every season of his career while winning three MVP titles. Also, he was NFL champion in 1964. Brown was so dominant that it was a shock when he announced retirement in 1966 at only 30. He revealed later that he wanted to continue playing but was running behind schedule with his other projects. These involved a movie career and activist work, which felt more exciting than returning to the turf.

Yet, in 1983, Brown stunned the world by announcing he'd be back in the NFL, despite being 47 years old. As Franco Harris was about to break his all-time rushing record, Brown wanted a deal with the Los Angeles Raiders. Yet, Brown wasn't upset about someone breaking his record, but he didn't want Harris to do it. Unlike him, Harris often ran out of bounds instead of risking his body for every yard. Yet, when Walter Payton broke the record, Brown became a much happier man and decided against returning.

5. Jim Palmer

This spring training was Jim Palmer's first and the last during his comeback attempt

Jim Palmer played in the MLB for 19 seasons and was among the best pitchers in the league. Even at the age of 38, he was a vital member of the Baltimore Orioles, as he won his third World Series. Apart from that, he collected tons of individual awards and had six All-Star appearances. Once the Orioles released him in 1984, he retired and turned to broadcasting. Yet, seven years later, he desired to get back to the MLB.

At 51, he was at spring training and looked to be in great shape. Yet, his performance was unspectacular, as his balls weren't as fast anymore. Despite this, he played a single spring training game, allowing five hits and two runs. After suffering an injury, Palmer decided there was no point continuing. This time, his retirement was permanent.

4. Dennis Rodman

It felt like Rodman was close to making a comeback

Dennis Rodman is the best rebounder in history, who won five NBA titles with the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls. What made him so special was his incredible work rate and dedication, resulting in excellent defensive abilities. Despite his controversial image and many ejections, Rodman was one of the most beloved players in the NBA. After winning his fifth crown with the Bulls, he moved to Los Angeles Lakers before a short stint in Dallas Mavericks. Despite still being a dominant rebounder, his wild antics got him released in 2000.

To a surprise, Rodman was back in 2003, playing for the Long Beach Jam in the American Basketball Association. Yet, this should have served only as a preparation for his return to the NBA. In 2004 and 2005, The Worm negotiated with the Bulls and the Lakers, but nothing came out of it. Despite being 44 at the time, many believed that he could still perform well, as he was finally sober and focused. Yet, he never got a chance and retired in 2006.

3. Alain Prost

Prost was still in great shape during the testing session for McLaren

In 1993, Frenchman Alain Prost won his fourth Formula One World Championship quite easily and then retired. This was a bit surprising, as he still had a contract with the dominant Williams Renault team. The same contract forbade him to drive anywhere else, but when Williams broke it by hiring Ayrton Senna, Prost suddenly started dreaming about the comeback. So, once he got an offer from McLaren in 1994, he decided to give it a go.

At the preseason test in Estoril, Prost had to beat Phillipe Alliot and Martin Brundle for the seat. However, as the reigning world champion, he was very disappointed with the car's performance. After only six laps, he decided to give up and became a TV commentator. However, a year later, Prost had a sensational offer to join the dominant Michael Schumacher in Ferrari for the 1996 Formula One season! While the Frenchman initially agreed, he changed his mind later. As he figured out, he didn't stand a chance against Michael, which would tarnish his legacy.

2. Dominik Hašek

Dominik Hašek could have easily played for a few more seasons

You could easily argue that Dominik Hašek is among the best, if not the best, ice hockey goalie ever. Apart from winning two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, he claimed other awards, including six for the best goaltender. He was also incredibly successful at the international level,  including gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Nevertheless, after winning his second Stanley Cup in 2008, Hašek decided to retire from the NHL. As one of the best over 40 athletes, Hašek was still impressive but cited his lack of motivation to continue.

Yet, only a year later, he was back on the ice, playing for the local team in the Czech Republic and winning the league. After a season in the much stronger KHL, 47-year-old Hašek wanted a return to NHL, as he already talked with the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning. However, the season was delayed because of the lockout, and he decided to retire for good.

1. Rocky Marciano

The last fight of Rocky Marciano's career

Rocky Marciano is one of the best boxers never to lose a professional fight and the only undefeated heavyweight champion. However, he was only 32 when he retired after beating Archie Moore in 1955. That was a massive surprise, as everyone thought he would surely go for the 50th win. Explaining his decision, Marciano said that he just wants to spend more time with his family. Yet, many believed that he was in decline, as he suffered a knockdown against Moore. As he already achieved everything while making loads of money, we can understand him.

Yet, although boxing historians now praise him for knowing when to stop, they forget that Marciano seriously considered a comeback. Four years after his last fight, he eyed a match against the new heavyweight champion Ingerman Johansson. Soon enough, he was in the gym, working in secrecy with his trainer Charley Goldman. The plan was simple – this would be Marciano's final fight which would only cement his best-ever status while earning him millions. Yet, it never happened, as the old problem with his back returned. Those who saw him said that he was in great shape and would surely win the title. Knowing that, it's even harder to accept that it wasn't meant to be.

Tim Tebow, Ian Thorpe, Ricky Davis, Nate Robinson, or Richard Hamilton are other names we considered when making this list. So, if you would rather have some of them in the top 10, we understand why. Yet, whatever your picks are, this list reminds us that making a comeback is already a massive achievement that we shouldn't take for granted. Even when an athlete can't perform at the top level anymore, we should admire their dedication and willingness to stays competative.

What are some of your favorite superstar athletes that were close to making a comeback? Which failure disappointed you the most?

Photo: cocoparisienne/Pixabay


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