Sports stars who haven't figured out they aren't famous anymore

Sports stardom isn't like other forms of celebrity. Movie stars, for example, can age out of lead roles and become, say, Judy Dench, lauded for literally decades after her presumed "peak." She's just a Dame now! But believe this, when another "Dame," Damian Lillard, loses half a step on his crossover, the Portland Trailblazers will be looking for the nearest ice float— and not just for his aching knees.

It must be distressing to live your whole life with actual superpowers like outlier strength and speed and size and coordination, and then suddenly, at some point in your mid 30s, you just poof, become human. The BMI breaks bad, the explosiveness implodes, the injuries pile up. Sports stars, of course, never want to call it a day, but they always find out, as Matthew put it, "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." 

Sports careers are also short. The average NFL career lasts just 3.3 years, according to ESPN. It starts around age 22, according to FiveThirtyEight, with the average rookie salary at just $500,000, says CNBC. So you're talking retirement before 25, with just $1.5 million in the bank— before Uncle Sam and agents and groupies all get their pound of flesh. The best athletes, of course, do a lot better, but they also spend A LOT more too. Sometimes our beloved sports heroes have to make a curtain call and play a bit of career overtime. And second acts in life are tough. Success may vary.

Dennis Rodman worms his way into North Korea

There's a big debate afoot these days about various national embarrassments, and who exactly is the biggest. Perhaps an underrated contender in this important discussion is five-time former NBA champion — one of the true defensive and rebounding greats to ever pick up a basketball — "The Worm" himself, Dennis Rodman.

Rodman oddly became one of the few westerners to ever meet the mercurial North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, in 2013. Apparently, the tyrant has a "special affection for the Chicago Bulls," and a "soft spot for Rodman," according to ABC News. The two were even pictured hugging, the 6'8" worm telling the comparably runty regent, "You have a friend for life." 

Rodman's trips to North Korea became a bit of a regular thing as the two bros further bonded. During a trip in 2014, Rodman bowed and sang happy birthday to Kim, whom he called a "very good guy," according to CNN. In the aftermath, a tearful and erratic Rodman suggested an American prisoner held in North Korea was at fault. (Rodman apologized for these comments.) In 2018, Rodman inserted himself into a summit between Donald Trump and Kim, which was even too much for Trump. As ABC News reported, the White House shot down any official duties for the former NBA star. Rodman still took credit, however, via TMZ, for the sometimes-friendly relations between Trump and Kim. Meanwhile, Earth is hoping negotiations betwixt nuclear nations involve literally anyone else.

Roy Jones Jr. fights Father Time

Roy Jones Jr. was maybe the most gifted boxer of all time. Just like other prodigies of the sweet science — Floyd Mayweather Jr. in particular — Jones' father was his trainer. Practically boxing in his cradle, by the time he faced anyone in a ring, he was miles ahead of the game. He was a near-Olympic gold medalist (winning silver in one of the most infamous robberies in the sport's history) and claimed so many world titles, it's not even worth counting.

Jones was officially knocked off his perch as the king of the sport though in 2004 when the relatively unheralded and quite rote-fighter Antonio Tarver floored him in round two of their clash over the unified light-heavyweight title. Jones would go on fighting 14 more brutal years past his prime, until he finally hung it up in 2018.

That all changed in 2020 when former heavyweight GOAT Mike Tyson announced essentially a senior's division where he'd take on the now 51-year-old Jones. Jones had been busy as the best color commentator in boxing until 2018 when HBO Sports quit the business, according to The New York Times. That left the door open for iron Mike Tyson, 54, to lure a clearly reticent Jones into this exhibition. Tyson still can pack a serious punch, and he told The Dan Patrick Show (via CBS Sports) to look out for "broken eye sockets, broken jaw, broken rib. That's fun to me." Someone, please stop this.

O.J. Simpson gets squeezed

For a time, O.J. Simpson had stepped back from the public spotlight. Not voluntarily mind you, but because he was in prison — though not for a hideous crime, like say, the brutal murder of a spouse and a waiter. Rather, Simpson was sentenced to 33 years behind bars in 2008 after he attacked two men in a Las Vegas hotel room to retrieve sports memorabilia he claims were stolen, according to SI NFL. The litany of charges, including two counts of first-degree kidnapping with a deadly weapon, spoke to what had become of this formerly beloved sports star.

According to CNN, the judge said the sentence wasn't "payback for anything else," alluding to the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, of which Simpson was acquitted. That real killer is still at large according to O.J., of course. Also notably, "The Juice" was found liable for Brown and Ron Goldman's death in civil court, according to Vanity Fair, and ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages, which he has failed to do

Despite the hefty sentence for his 2008 crimes, Simpson slipped away again and was paroled in 2017, according to The New York Times. The Juice was loose, and feeling it. He joined Twitter in 2019, blasting all the imposter accounts and added ironically, "I've got a little getting even to do." The civil judgment against Simpson has doubled to $70 million, and remains uncollected, so others may feel the same about him.

Anna Kournikova takes a bow

Praise be to this goddess of the hardcourt. Anna Kournikova was an athlete-influencer before the internet was really even functioning, and long before social media. She was still the most searched athlete long after her 2003 retirement, according to Sportskeeda. But this crown princess of tennis, despite the passions she generated, never actually won a grand slam tournament and peaked at number eight in the world in the year 2000, according to the WTA. The highlights from her 2002 match with Serena Williams start with Williams pounding winners on the outmatched Russian, as the very English announcer can only exclaim, "Oh, dear."

These days Kournikova, along with longtime partner Enrique Iglesias, is more like an actual influencer. And at age 39, the new mother still gets the occasional write-up of the "Hey, this celebrity you remember posted a photo, please read our website!" variety. The birth of her daughter Mary in 2020 was such an occasion, with Yahoo! Sport proclaiming the baby photo "sent fans into a frenzy." 

So really, these days, it's baby Mary taking center court. New kids, especially ones this cute, give outlets like People a chance to gush over the various outfits Mary "rocks." So much rocking. Surely more to come. Given the photogenic nature of this blessed child, brace for an entire genre of blogs dedicated to describing Instagram photos of Mary, as outlets continue to insist the "frenzy" is a creation of "fans."

CM Punk gets punched

CM Punk was a very big deal in pro wrestling, despite not being a very big guy. At 6'1" and only 170 pounds when he's in real-fight shape, he wasn't exactly one of the WWE titans, a group that includes the enormous hunk of meat Brock Lesnar.

Then in 2014, Mr. Punk did a brave thing. He walked away from fake fights to take real punches in the UFC. But in two UFC bouts over the course of the subsequent four years, he looked about as one would expect a nearly 40-year-old guy with no genuine fight experience. First, he was rag-dolled and then choked out by a novice with zero striking skills, in 2016. In 2018 he fought journeyman Mike Jackson to a unanimous decision loss in a fight so uninspiring and tedious, UFC president Dana White said the experiment was over, "The guy is 39 years old ...I think he should call it a wrap. He got clipped a lot in that fight." 

Punk got beaten up so badly in his second fight he couldn't do media afterward and was transported to the hospital. As of 2020, he remained in the UFCs Olympics-style random drug testing pool, which is necessary to compete further, but that seems unlikely. Punk didn't depart from the WWE on the best of circumstances, telling the Art of Wrestling Podcast (via The Baltimore Sun) president Vince McMahon forced him to compete coming off serious surgery. The future seems uncertain for the Punk. 

Johnny Manziel blows smoke

The story of Johnny Manziel is one of limitless potential, unfulfilled. Especially for Cleveland Browns fans. 

Manziel was a wizard behind center at Texas A&M and scrambled all the way to a Cotton Bowl championship. He became the first-ever freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012. In 2014 he signed an NFL contract worth over $8 million, according to Forbes. But Manziel washed out in only two years. The success was just too much for a small-town kid, according to Vanity Fair. Manziel's friends and family were worried his drinking and drug use was out of hand back in college. An intervention was tried before the draft, but to no avail. By 2016 Manziel was indicted for domestic violence, according to USA Today. (The following year, the charge was reportedly dismissed.) Then he was suspended for violating the NFL's drug policy, according to TMZ.

"To me, Manziel is the biggest bust of all time," NFL columnist Mike Freeman told Vanity Fair, "He was lazy. He didn't study. The guy is out of the NFL today because he refused to work at his craft." Manziel next flamed out of the CFL in 2019, again for contract violations, according to USA Today. At still only 27, the retired QB can now be found at various LA bars, cigarette hanging from his mouth, talking to TMZ, and taking it all in stride. "I'm just trying to do other things in life that make me happy," he says. "That's it."

Ronda Rousey taps out

Whether or not you think Ronda Rousey is still famous has something to do with whether you think professional wrestling is a niche worth paying any mind. Rousey was once the baddest woman on earth, winning eight straight Strikeforce/UFC women's bantamweight world title fights. The former Olympic judoka became the first-ever MMA star with real crossover appeal, landing the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in 2016.

But the end was already nigh. In 2015, one kick from Holly Holm undid her air of invincibility — perhaps most so in Ronda's own mind. Her media presence became sullen. She refused to do normal press in the run-up to her comeback bout against Amanda Nunes in 2016, according to ESPN. Rousey couldn't abide losing. But when Nunes gave a diminished Rousey the beating of a lifetime at UFC 207, in an embarrassingly lopsided defeat, she walked out of the cage, without congratulating Nunes, and out of the sport for good.

Some blame Rousey's semi-infamous trainer, Edmond Tarverdyan, for never developing her striking skills beyond that of a rote amateur; when she finally began facing real athletes she couldn't simply Judo-toss, her reign was over. But it was her "classless" attitude in defeat, as described by The Daily Utah Chronicle, after being so brash in victory that soured fans on Rousey. These days, all her wins are scripted, and the movie star turn that was supposed to follow has not exactly materialized.

Time to split, Marion Jones

Being known as the fastest woman on earth is the kind of thing that can make you think the rules don't apply to you — because physically, they don't. It's also something no one can ever take from you. Olympic medals, on the other hand, are a different story.

And it turns out, Marion Jones had more going on than natural gifts. In a tearful press conference in 2007, the three-time Olympic gold medalist finally admitted she was a drug cheat. "And so it is with a great amount of shame, that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust," she said. "I want you to know I have been dishonest, and you have the right to be angry with me." Jones plead guilty to two counts of making false statements to federal agents about her steroid use and was sentenced to six months in prison, according to CNN.

The former college basketball player attempted a comeback in the WNBA in 2010, but averaged less than one point per game, and was quickly waived, according to the AP (via ESPN). As recently as 2017 Jones sat for a softball local-tv interview, introduced as a former "WNBA star," and hit with the laziest question in the business: "What advice can you give to young women athletes?" To Jones' credit, she seemed slightly embarrassed by the fawning, all things considered. "We all go through challenging times, it's all about how you rebound from that," she said.

Floyd Mayweather ropes many dopes

Floyd Mayweather's signature move inside the ring was the shoulder roll. He leaves his hands low, convincing his opponent to open up and throw a shot. "Money" would then literally shrug his shoulders, deflect the punch, and sting back with perhaps the fastest set of hands in pugilistic history. He rode this minimalist style to a 50-0 record, spanning three decades, and yielding world title after world title.

As a retired fighter, Mayweather has employed a similar rope-a-dope scheme with the media. He baits reporters with a ridiculous comeback fight, the free press piles up, and then he dances back out of range. A second Manny Pacquiao matchup is a frequent ploy, often via TMZ. Mayweahter was even supposedly even "in talks" to fight influencer Logan Paul, according to Sky Sports. Even at age 43, no responsible commission would make a fight between an all-time boxing great and a YouTuber. Paul could get seriously hurt or worse.

Part of the fuel for this silliness comes from the fact Mayweather did actually rake in $275 million in his crossover bout with boxing novice, UFC superstar Conor McGregor, according to Forbes. The 10-round drubbing had to be the easiest night of Mayweather's career. He barely even trained. That easy work has supposedly convinced Money to consider cashing in again. There's now rumors of a rematch against both McGregor, and ridiculously, a bout against an even less-skilled boxer, current UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, according to ESPN.

Lance Armstrong's downhill climb

Question: What's the surest sign mega-fame has faded? Answer: You order a podcast mic on Amazon Prime. Yes, Lance Armstrong, the seven-time tour-de-cheater champion, has a new audio program called The Move. It follows the current Tour de France, which goes on for days, with off-the-cuff and analysis and humor, and is kind of a hit — at least with hardcore racing fans.

The show has been described as a "guilty pleasure" for cycling enthusiasts. As The Irish Times put it, the podcast "has been by turns touchingly informative and hilarious rubbish, part comedy sketch, part impression show, part product placement, the perfect blend of insight and bullsh*t."

Armstrong became an international hero after surviving testicular cancer and then winning seven-straight Tour titles from 1999 through 2005. But it turns out, the entire time he was both orchestrating and viciously covering up an elaborate blood-doping regimen that literally propelled him to these superhuman achievements. Then he did the truly unforgivable: he brazenly lied to Larry King. And of course, eventually, confessed his sins to the high priestess of American forgiveness, Oprah Winfrey. Lawsuits flowed like oxygen-enriched blood through an IV, and Armstrong was humbled. None of that, however, could save him from the ultimate celebrity punishment in this life, or the next: becoming a podcaster.

Kris Humphries couldn't keep up with the fame

Former NBA journeyman Kris Humphries became a national punchline under some unfair circumstances. Why? Well, mostly because his 72-day marriage to Kim Kardashian publicly imploded in 2011, and was edited by Keeping Up With The Kardashians producers to make him look somewhat feckless. NBA fans were ruthless. The boo birds really come out for stars who get mixed up in Kardashian drama. Ask Tristan Thompson.

Humphries also handled it poorly. He parlayed the sudden media interest into a five-minute sit-down with ABC News but acted like they'd somehow forced him into the makeup chair, his mother at his side. Humphries woodenly dodged every news-worthy question, hurling baritone-drone cliches. "For me it's just, certain things happen in life and you've got to move forward," he said of his divorce. Okay, then.

Humphries changed his tune in 2020 with a genuinely fascinating essay in the Players Tribune entitled, "I Never Wanted to Be That Guy," where he reflects honestly on his brush with tabloid celebrity. He insists the marriage was "100% real," and calls the public blowback "brutal." Humphries says he dealt with severe anxiety in the frenzied aftermath of KUWTK fame and didn't even want to leave his house. "Do they think I was trying to be famous?" he muses. He didn't really. Or as he put it, "And then I met a girl who happened to be really famous, and I got married, and..... Damn."