Attempted Athlete Comebacks That Never Should Have Happened

Is it the cheering fans, the spotlight, or perhaps it's the high level of fame that makes a retired pro athlete want to make a big-time comeback? It's happened so many times in sports history. George Foreman is a solid example. The famed boxer retired in 1977 and returned to his sport a decade later at age 45. And guess what? He had marvelous success in his return and won the WBA, as well as the IBF heavyweight titles (via Daily News). But of course, not all comebacks go that way, because many athletes have the opposite story and it happens in various sports.

Who are those people, you wonder? No worries, because we gathered some of them and explained how giving their sport another go, way past their prime, may not have been the greatest idea they've had. So, let's not delay this any further. Here are the attempted athlete comebacks that never, ever should have happened.

Michael Jordan said he felt used

Michael Jordan is known for a few things. His high-flying dunks, his six NBA rings, and having a highly competitive nature. The hoop legend, who played in the NBA from 1984-2003, is also known for retiring more than once. In Jordan's first return after he left the Chicago Bulls in 1993, he eventually returned to his high level of play. But things went differently after he ended his retirement for a second time and suited up for the Washington Wizards in 2001.

It's not that Jordan didn't show signs of his past on-the-court brilliance, because ESPN shows that he averaged a little over 20 points per game in the season he returned. What's more, he was an MVP candidate, as well. But the former shooting guard didn't dominate as he once did. Plus, the Wizards failed to make the playoffs in the two seasons that he played for them. But the main reason one could say Jordan should've stayed retired has to do with his role as the Wizards' president, which he held while playing before being fired.

"I didn't have to [start playing again],” he told "60 Minutes" in 2005. "But I did it with the benefit of trying to help an organization to get back on its feet. And the gratitude that was given? It was, 'Your service is no longer wanted or needed.' So I felt like I was used in a sense."

Muhammad Ali lost badly

Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes used to be sparring partners. So, that could be why Ali felt Holmes would be a good opponent to face in 1980 after coming out of retirement. Holmes was the heavyweight champ then, as well, and Ali was trying to nab the WBC Heavyweight title for the fourth time. The two fought on October 2, 1980, in Las Vegas in what would be billed as "The Last Hurrah!"

Holmes was 30 years old at the time while Ali was 38 and the age difference showed. Ali was sadly pummeled all through the fight, with The New York Times reporting that he landed less than 10 punches in the entire match. The beating was so bad that Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, stopped the fight in round 10, giving Holmes the victory by technical knockout.

Remember, Ali is considered one of the best (if not the best) to lace up a pair of boxing gloves. Plus, he was a pop culture icon, so it was sad for many to see him get beaten so badly, Holmes included, who cried after the fight. He told broadcaster Howard Cosell the tears had to do with how much he respected Ali. The late boxer talked about the fight as well when it was done. "All I could think of after the first round was, 'Oh, God, I still have 14 rounds to go.' I had nothing. Nothing. I knew it was hopeless," said Ali, per Sports Illustrated.

Tiki Barber got rejected

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that people were shocked when Tiki Barber retired from the NFL at the end of the 2006 season at just 30 years old. But those same folks were probably more surprised when he announced his return in 2011. In between those times, Barber took a job with NBC News and became a correspondent on the "Today" show. But despite having previous broadcast experience, he looked uncomfortable on camera and his delivery was far from smooth. NBC decided not to renew Barber's contract in 2010, so that could've contributed to his decision to pick up the pigskin again. He was also going through a divorce with Ginny Cha that same year and it had to cost him financially. But Barber said his return wasn't attached to any of those reasons.

"The game never needs you 'cause there's always someone else to come take your place. But right now I need the game," he said in a 2011 interview on "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." Regardless of the reason, though, Barber's comeback would go anything but smoothly.

Per CBS News, the Miami Dolphins gave him a tryout but didn't put him on the roster. And no other teams expressed interest, which reportedly crushed Barber. "We are flabbergasted that Tiki has not had an opportunity with any team, especially when rosters were at 90 players this year," his agent Mark Lepselter told the publication. Maybe Barber just should've stuck to broadcasting, huh?

Larry Holmes lost because Mike Tyson kept a promise

Larry Holmes came up on top against an aging Muhammad Ali in a 1980 Las Vegas pummeling. But here's the thing about history: It's known to do laps in life, often circling back around to mimic key events of the past. Nearly eight years after that Vegas fight, a 38-year-old Holmes would experience the same thing as Ali when he faced a 21-year-old Mike Tyson. The bout took place in Atlantic City, New Jersey and it was for the IBF, WBA, and WBC championship belts.

Put simply, Holmes was no match for Tyson, who knocked him to the canvas twice in the fourth round, winning by technical knockout. Ali was there for the fight and whispered something in Tyson's ear before it began. Perhaps Ali reminded the young boxer what he told him many years prior. See, Tyson watched Holmes decimate Ali in 1980 while watching the fight with his trainer Cus D'Amato on television. Both D'Amato and Tyson spoke to Ali on the phone the following morning, which Tyson talked about with ESPN in 2011. 

"'When I grow up, I'll fight Holmes and I'll get him back for you.' I was 14 at the time," Tyson recalled. So, there are at least two things that are evident in this story: Tyson keeps his promises, and Holmes' comeback probably never should've happened.

Bob Cousy came back at 41 years old

In the same way that Red Auerbach John Havlicek or Larry Bird is, the name Bob Cousy is synonymous with the NBA's Boston Celtics. And how's this for Cousy's accomplishments: He has six NBA championships under his belt, he's been to the All-Star game 13 consecutive times, and is credited with introducing a whole new style of play with his nifty dribbling and passing. Cooz, as he was affectionately called, retired in 1963 and he did it at the Boston Garden in a packed arena. But that was far from the end of his basketball story because more chapters unfolded. Soon after retiring, Cousy took a coaching job at Boston College, as shows.

Then after leaving that job, he began coaching the Cincinnati Royals and came out of retirement to play at 41 years old in the 1969-70 season. While the teams' ticket sales dramatically increased after the NBA legend suited up again, he didn't display the same basketball wizardry that he did as a member of the Celtics. Cousy only played seven games with the Royals and averaged under one point per game. But still, the unsuccessful comeback didn't tarnish his reputation — not by a long shot. Pun fully intended there, by the way.

Sugar Ray Leonard took a pummeling

By the time most men reach the age of 40, they're watching a boxing match on TV with a bowl of chips on their lap, not slugging it out in the ring with someone who's trying to knock their head off. But that's how old Sugar Ray Leonard was when he ended his retirement to fight Héctor "Macho" Camacho in 1997, who was six years his junior. It wasn't the first time that Leonard retired and returned to the ring, but it would be his last

But before we get into the Leonard and Camacho fight, a little history on the Sugar Man. He won his first title in 1979 in his early 20s against Wilfred Benítez and was a star all through the 1980s, both in and out of the ring. That's because Leonard was a popular media person, often appearing in ads and TV commercials.

But on that fight night in 1997, Camacho had his way with him throughout the fight, landing blow after unanswered blow. Then in the fifth round, Leonard was hit with a flurry of punches, which put him on the floor. But still, referee Joe Cortez allowed him to continue. It would do no good, however, because after getting hit some more, the fight was stopped in the fifth, and Leonard put his boxing career in the rear view mirror.

Brett Favre had on-and-off the field problems

A concussion, a team loss, and having to watch the game from the bench. That's how NFL quarterback Brett Favre's career ended as a player for the Minnesota Vikings after joining the team in 2009. Before that, he became a star as a member of the Green Bay Packers, then retired in 2008. But, he then changed his mind about playing and was a member of the New York Jets for a single season. In Favre's first season with the Vikings, he was plenty successful. Not only did the then-39-year-old lead his team to a 12–4 record, he racked up 4,202 passing yards, as well as 33 touchdowns. Favre made the Pro Bowl in his first season as a Viking as well. 

But the following season wouldn't be as successful, because he threw 19 interceptions, compared to seven the year before, and only had 11 touchdowns. The Vikings failed to make the playoffs on top of that and finished the season with a 6-10 record. One could easily say that Favre should've stayed retired after leaving Green Bay and not just because of that one dreadful season. 

In 2010, Deadspin reported that Favre sent lewd photos and messages to Jenn Sterger, who was a game-day host for the New York Jets when he played for the team. Once the story came out, his reputation took a bigger hit than any tackle he received on the field.

Tim Tebow refused to quit

Former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is a Heisman Trophy winner, he led his team to two national championships, and then there was "Tebowmania." That was a phrase that became popular after the Jacksonville Florida native had some very dramatic comeback wins in the 2011 season as a member of the Denver Broncos. But after being traded to the New York Jets, then playing for the New England Patriots, and being released by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, it looked like Tebow's NFL career was done with. It's probably what he thought, as well, because he exchanged the football for a bat and played in the Met's minor league system before retiring in 2021.

From there, Tebow returned to pro football later that year, after signing a one-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. In his attempt to make the final roster, he switched his position from quarterback to tight end. The position change didn't go well in the preseason, though, as Tebow botched key plays, and missed a block that went viral. He was cut by the Jaguars in August of 2021 and that was that. Now, while some will say Tebow never should've attempted a football comeback, others could say he should be credited for giving it a real go.

Jim Palmer tried, then changed his mind

Former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer had a successful career as an ESPN broadcaster after walking away from the major leagues in 1984. But after the network fell on hard times and asked him to take a pay cut, as well as accept a 3-year contract, he bolted. Afterward, at age 45 and being retired for seven years, Palmer returned to the sport that made him a star and Hall of Famer. "I wouldn't be here today if the broadcasting climate had been more to my liking. That was really my prime motivation, the fact that I no longer had that obligation," he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991. "I'll be real honest — I have no idea if I'll be successful or not. I'm certainly not the future of the Orioles. I'm here to make the ballclub, but if not, then maybe I can have an impact on some of the younger players," added Palmer.

In the end, though, the three-time Cy Young Award winner just couldn't go on after tearing his hamstring and injuring his Achilles' tendon in the preseason. He then called it quits before the official season even began. "I'm not saying I wouldn't like to continue, but I can't," he said during an interview with the Baltimore Sun. "I heard something pop in my leg yesterday. It wasn't a nice sound. I don't know what that means, but I think it's going to play havoc with my tennis game."