What were the most famous comebacks of all time? For my purposes here, I will define a "comeback" as
a return to glory or success against overwhelming odds. Please keep in
mind that the opinions expressed here are one man's, and thus subjective.
Who had the most celebrated and
applauded comebacks, turnarounds, rallies and recoveries? I will consider
comebacks in sports, music, the arts, poetry and other writing, science,
technology, religion, business, government, the military, law, medicine,
exploration, comedy, movies, TV and other forms of entertainment.
Related Pages: Famous Flameouts, Burnouts,
Meltdowns, Flubs and Failures
compiled by Michael R. Burch
Thomas Edison's teachers said he was "too stupid to learn anything." He was
fired from his first two jobs for being "non-productive." Edison made 1,000
unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. But he ended up holding 1,093
U.S. patents and is now known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park."
Sappho of Lesbos
Gleyre Le Coucher de Sappho
by Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre
Sappho of Lesbos is perhaps the first great female poet still known to us today,
and she remains one of the very best poets of all time, regardless of gender.
She is so notorious that we get our terms "sapphic" and "lesbian" from her name
and island of residence. But most of her work was lost and survives only in
fragments today. Thanks to the work of other writers, translators and
archeologists, a good deal of her work has survived and been restored. Once
again she is known as the Tenth Muse, which isn't bad because other nine Muses
were goddesses! And as you can see from the two stellar epigrams
below, Sappho remains a timeless treasure:
Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch
Eros harrows my heart:
a wind on desolate mountains
Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation by Michael R. Burch
A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!
Albert Einstein's childhood nickname was Depperte ("the Dopey One")
because he was laggardly in learning to talk. Einstein was supposed to take over
the family business, but it failed in 1894. In 1895, he failed to pass the
general admissions exam for Zürich Polytechnic—although he
did very well in physics and math—and had to go to a secondary school for
a year to brush up on his history, geography and French. After Einstein was
admitted to Zürich Polytechnic the following year, a Professor Pernet advised
him to give up physics, saying: "There is no lack of eagerness and goodwill in
your work, but a lack of capability." Another professor, Hermann Minkowski,
referred to his pupil as a "lazy dog," perhaps because Einstein skipped so many
lectures. After graduating with a teaching degree and less-than-stellar grades
in 1900, Einstein was unable to obtain a teaching position despite a two-year
search, and ended up taking a job as a lowly third-class patent clerk in 1902.
The head of the patent department considered him to be "lacking in technical
training." He was passed over for a promotion until he "fully mastered machine
technology." But then in 1905 the 26-year-old Einstein would publish four
revolutionary scientific papers, including his theory of special relativity and
the famous e=mc2 equation.
The Divine Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde may be the most notorious "bad boy" in the annals of poetry and
literature. He was flamboyantly gay
at a time when polite society was prim, proper and violently homophobic. As a
result, he was sentenced to
hard labor at Reading Gaol and died soon after his release. But his writing
continues to survive and flourish. Wilde is justly famous
today for his disdain for "respectability" and dull and dulling conformity, as his witty epigrams
Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.
I can resist everything except temptation.
I believe God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.
Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.
There is no sin except stupidity.
Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Voltaire was hounded by the religious authorities of his day. His books and
pamphlets were publicly burned. Voltaire, a champion of free speech and the
right to think independently, was forced to use aliases when he wrote, to
protect his own life and freedom. He was driven from France into exile. But he
never gave up, and by the end of his life when he finally returned to Paris,
Voltaire was hailed by an adoring public like a conquering hero. Voltaire is now
considered to be one of the greatest writers and philosophers of all time, and
an ultra-important voice in the creation of modern democracies with freedom of
religion, speech and dissent.
Tiger Woods seemed down and out for the count. Once considered to be the world's
greatest golfer, or in the top two with Jack Nicklaus, by 2017 the former Big
Cat had dropped to 1,199th in the world rankings. Starting the 2018 season, at
age 42, after having gone through four back surgeries, including spinal fusion,
the question was not whether Tiger could drive a golf ball 300+ yards, but
whether he could ever again swing a club again without debilitating pain. He got off
to a slow start in 2018, but began to gather momentum. When he tied for sixth in the
2018 British Open, it was his highest finish in a major since 2013. Then he
almost won the 2018 PGA Championship, finishing second with his best-ever final
round score in a major, a superb 64. In a few months he had risen 1,173
positions in the world rankings, to 26th. He was 20th in the Fedex Cup rankings.
And the "tiger roars" of his myriad fans were louder than ever.
So how good was Tiger Woods before his health woes? Well he has the six best
adjusted Vardon Trophy scoring averages of all time, and eight of the top ten.
He won nine Vardon trophies and was the PGA player of the year eleven times in a
seventeen year span. No player of his era came close to matching Tiger Woods in
scoring, tournaments won, or majors won. In 2018, playing against golfers nearly
half his age, after spinal fusion, Tiger was once again roaring and threatening
to win another major. If he does, it will be one of the greatest comebacks of
all time. But even if he doesn't, it still is.
Gypsy Rose Lee
Gypsy Rose Lee was a famous burlesque performer known far and wide for
her stripteases. It was said that her
first striptease was accidental,
occurring when the strap of her gown broke and it fell to the floor during one of her acts. She went on to develop
a more casual style of striptease, emphasizing the "tease" and incorporating
humor. She was frequently arrested during police raids on her performances,
which would be considered to be quite tame and in good taste today. But she was
also a dancer, actress, producer, author, and playwright whose 1957 memoir was
made into the stage musical and film Gypsy.
The computer was roundly dismissed by IBM, whose CEO Thomas Watson said in 1943:
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." (IBM did manage to
sell more than five computers.) Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment
Corporation, concurred: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in
their home." (DEC was not as successful as IBM at embracing the personal
computer and has never been heard from since.)
In 1946, another new invention was roundly dismissed
by 20th Century Fox when Darryl Zanuck said: "Television won't be able to hold
on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get
tired of staring at a plywood box every night." That did not turn out to be the
most accurate of predictions.
Decca Records rejected the Beatles, saying: "We
don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out. They have no future
in show business."
Elvis Presley was fired after one performance by the Grand Ole Opry. The show's
talent manager, Jim Denny, told him: "You ain't goin' nowhere, son. You ought to
go back to drivin' a truck." Elvis would soon be known as The King.
Ulysses S. Grant was a terrible soldier. He drank too much, fell into depression
and quit the Army. Then he went home and failed at business as well. When the
Civil War broke out, he was asked to rejoin the Army and he eventually Union's
top general. After leading the Union to victory, he was twice elected president
of the United States. His Memoirs became the best-selling book in
American history to that point.
Abraham Lincoln grew up in meager circumstances, failed at business twice, and
apparently had a nervous breakdown. He lost when he ran for Congress, lost twice
when he ran for the Senate, and lost as a vice presidential candidate. But he
persevered and is now one of four presidents immortalized on Mount Rushmore. He
is considered by many to be the greatest American president. Oh, and he was also
Ulysses S. Grant's boss!
Walt Disney was once fired because "he lacked imagination and had no good
ideas." After starting his own company, he suffered major financial setbacks for
the better part of a decade, including losing rights to his popular Oswald the
Lucky Rabbit character. Disney was $4 million in debt by the early 1930s. That
was a LOT of money in those days!
He reportedly couldn't pay his rent and had to eat dog food. With barely enough
cash to finance the project, Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
in 1938. The blockbuster movie made $8 million during its initial release and
was the highest-grossing movie with sound to date. It remains a top ten
moneymaker in inflation-adjusted dollars.
After his first audition a casting director advised
Sidney Poitier: "Why don't you stop wasting people's time and go out and become
a dishwasher or something?" Poitier went on to win Oscars for Lilies of the
Field and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.
Fred Astaire's first screen test did not result in rave reviews. MGM's testing
director of MGM noted: "Can't act. Can't sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a
little." David O. Selznick, who commissioned the test, stated in a memo: "I am
uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin
line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this
wretched test." Astaire, who went on to become an Oscar-nominated actor, singer
and dancer, reportedly kept the negative note in his Beverly Hills home to
remind him of where he came from.
Steven Spielberg was rejected three times by the film school he wanted to
attend, at the University of Southern California. He went to another college but
soon dropped out. He did okay after that.
Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a television reporter at age 22 because
she was deemed "unfit for TV."
Lucille Ball was widely regarded as a B-movie actress, and not a very successful
one at that. But she became a comedy star of the highest magnitude and the first
woman to run a major television studio, Desilu. She also won four Emmys and
earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center Honors.
The first time Jerry Seinfeld appeared at a comedy club, he froze and was booed
off the stage.
In 1955, Harlan Sanders was broke. A newly-built interstate had bypassed Corbin,
Kentucky., where "Colonel Sanders" had been cooking chicken at
his restaurant/motel for two decades. But the
resourceful Sanders sold his building and started franchising his chicken
restaurant concept. Within five years he had 400 Kentucky Fried Chicken
A young woman was living on welfare and struggling as a single mother. When she
applied for assistance, she described her economic status as being as "poor as
it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless." She lost her
mother, became clinically depressed and considered suicide. She had written a
novel, but it was rejected 12 times by publishers. When the book finally did get
published, she was advised to get a day job because there was little money in
children's books. The starving writer was J. K. Rowling and she has since sold
over 450 million Harry Potter worldwide! She would be the world's first
billionaire author, if she hadn't given so much money to charities.
Stephen King's novel Carrie was rejected 30 times by publishers. He has
since sold more than 300 million books.
In 1997 a once-successful company was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.
Nothing was going right. Its stock had dropped below a dollar per share, making
it a "penny stock." The company's glory days were obviously over. Then the
company brought back its founder and found new life. In 2018 it became the first
company anywhere in the world to be valued at one trillion dollars. The company
The Apple founder who returned to help save the company was Steve Jobs.
Actually, he was a co-founder of Apple, along with Steve Wozniak. They had
attended the same high school, Homestead High School, which had strong ties to
Silicon Valley. Wozniak designed and built the original Apple I computer in
1976. The computer was "brainstormed" in the garage of the house owned by Jobs'
adoptive parents, since at the time he and Wozniak had "no money." Jobs was
described as "barefoot" and "hippie-like." Indeed the name Apple was taken from
from the apple orchard of the All One Farm commune in Oregon where Jobs had once
lived while experimenting with psychedelics. Fortunately, the Apple I, Apple II
and Macintosh were hits, and the founders' finances improved. But in 1985 there
was a power struggle at Apple. Jobs, who lost the tug-of-war, faced being
virtually powerless within the company he founded. So he left Apple to form NeXT
Inc. Later, Jobs would also found the company that became Pixar. (Disney would
purchase Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion, making Jobs Disney's largest
shareholder, with 7% of the company's stock.) In 1997, as Apple continued to
founder, the decision was made to purchase NeXT for $427 million and bring Jobs
back as CEO. The rest, as they say, is history.
Muhammad Ali had been on the top of the boxing world. In 1960 he won an Olympic
gold medal. In 1965 he won the heavyweight championship of the world, in a
stunning upset over the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston. But in 1967, after
refusing to serve in the US military due to his objections to the Vietnam War,
Ali was stripped of his championship and his boxing license. He was convicted of
draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000. Although
Ali did not serve time, he would not be allowed to fight again until 1970. But
Ali had been robbed of his prime years and he lost his 1971 bid for the
heavyweight crown to Joe Frazier. In 1973 he lost a fight to Ken Norton in which
his jaw was broken. He appeared to be washed-up, a has-been. But then in quick
succession Ali won rematches with Norton and Frazier, earning him the "right" to
be knocked out by the reigning heavyweight champion, the hulking George Foreman.
But in the celebrated "Rumble in the Jungle" a middle-aged Ali rallied to defeat
Foreman and suddenly he was back on top of the boxing world again. Ali would go
undefeated until 1978, when at age 36 and obviously not the fighter he once was,
he would lose the championship to Leon Spinks. But that same year Ali went into
training and recovered enough of his skills to defeat Spinks and become the
first three-time heavyweight champion of the world. By the time he retired, Ali
was not only the most famous boxer on the planet, but the most famous athlete
and probably the most-recognized human being around the world. He truly was "The
Twenty years later, in 1994 at the age of 45, George Foreman went up against
heavyweight champion Michael Moorer and somehow won to reclaim the title he had
lost to Ali.
Richard Nixon retired from politics after losing the 1962 California
gubernatorial race, saying: “For 16 years you've had a lot of fun. Just think
how much you're going to be missing. You don't have Nixon to kick around
anymore!" The 49-year-old Nixon had recently lost the 1960 presidential election
to John F. Kennedy, sweating a storm during televised debates. But the man known
as Tricky Dick unretired and ran for president again in 1968. He won, only to go
down in flames over Vietnam and Watergate. Sometimes winning may not be the best
Lance Armstrong had an intense battle with cancer. He was given a 40% chance of
living and had to undergo brain surgery. But he came back to
win the grueling Tour de France bike race a record seven consecutive
times from 1999 to 2005.
Michael Jordan won three NBA championships, then walked away from the game in
1993 to play minor league baseball. But in 1995 he returned to the NBA and went
on to win three more championship rings, including "one for the thumb." He is
now generally considered to be the greatest NBA player of all time, but probably
wouldn't be if he hadn't come back and picked up where he left off.
Shortly after defending teenage murderers Leopold and Loeb—in a sensational,
headline-grabbing trial—the famous attorney Clarence Darrow announced his
retirement. (Darrow managed to keep the defendents from being executed and he
received a great deal of criticism as a result.) But within a year, Darrow was
back in the courtroom for the famed Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, in which he
defended John Scopes for teaching evolution in his classroom. Darrow lost the
case, but it was eventually overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The artist Marcel Duchamp retired to become a professional chess player.
However, during his “chess years” Duchamp was secretly working on a new piece of
art from 1946-1966 that only his wife knew Etant Donnés existed. In 1969, a year
after Duchamp’s death, the work—a pastoral image of a naked woman as viewed
through a peephole—was unveiled to the public.
In 1971, Frank Sinatra announced that he was retiring. His sales had dwindled
and popular music had moved beyond his "crooner" style to acts like the Beatles,
Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley. But the Chairman of the Board didn't stay
retired for long. In 1973, Sinatra started recording again (with an album and
television special appropriately titled Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back). He
scored one of his biggest hits with “New York, New York” in 1980. Sinatra's
second career lasted more than 20 years, until his final professional
performance in 1994.
Sherlock Holmes was killed off by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in 1893.
Doyle "retired" Holmes by having him fall to his death from a cliff during a
fight with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty). Doyle wanted more time to
devote to historical novels, and had become sick of Holmes. But his fans wanted
more, so eight years later Doyle wrote a Holmes prequel, The Hound of the
Baskervilles. Still, fans clamored for more and finally Doyle caved to
publisher pressure, reviving Holmes and explaining away his death in a 1903
novel. Interestingly, Robert Downey Jr. played Sherlock Holmes during his
personal comeback for drug arrests, jail and rehab.
The Buffalo Bills recovered from a 32 point deficit to win a 1993 playoff game
against the Houston Oilers.
The Boston Red Sox won the very first World Series and won four more by 1918.
However, they did not win another world championship for 86 years. In 2004, the
Sox played their hated rival, the New York Yankees, in the American League
Championship series. The Red Sox began the series by losing the first three
games. No team in Major League Baseball history had ever comeback from a 3-0
deficit to win a postseason series. Yet, the Sox won four straight games to win
the series and then won four straight against the St. Louis Cardinals to win
their first World Series in 86 years.
Other Notable Comebacks
Mary Kay Ash (founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc.)
Robert Downey Jr.
Michael J. Fox
France after WWII
Bill Gates (his first product was called Traf-O-Data)
Germany after WWII
Great Britain after WWII
Josh Hamilton (baseball player)
Ariana Huffington (founder of The Huffington Post)
Hugh Jackman (fired from a Seven-Eleven)
Japan after WWII
R. H. Macy
Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop)
Dave Thomas (CEO of Wendy's)
The World (after various ice ages, various plagues, crusades and other "holy
wars," colonialism, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the atomic bomb, the Cold
The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" with the US hockey team beating the heavily favored
USSR team for the Olympic gold medal
The 1969 "Miracle Mets" or "Amazin' Mets" came out of nowhere to win the
National League pennant and the World Series; the Mets had never finished higher
than ninth in a ten-team league
A horse named Upset upsetting Man O' War in the Sanford Memorial Stakes; Man O'
War had never been beaten and Upset was a 100-1 underdog
Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston in their first fight
Muhammad Ali over George Foreman in the famous "Rumble in the Jungle"
Muhammad Ali over Joe Frazier in the "Thrilla in Manila" (well, okay, Ali was
favored 8-5 in this one)
The New York Jets and Broadway Joe Namath over the Baltimore Colts (+17) in the
1969 Super Bowl (the biggest upset in Super Bowl history)
The 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack, coached by Jim Valvano, defeating the
heavily favored Houston Cougars with Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwon and Clyde "the
Buster Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, knocking out an undefeated Iron Mike Tyson for
the heavyweight championship of the world
The New York Giants and Eli Manning winning the 2007 Super Bowl over the
undefeated New England Patriots and Tom Brady
Jimmy Carter charging from behind to win the Democratic nomination for president
in 1976, and eventually the presidency
Appalachian State defeating the number five Michigan Wolverines (+27) in 2007 by
a nail-biting score of 34-32
The 2004 Boston Red Sox finally lifting the 86-year "curse of the Bambino" by
winning the American League pennant and World Series
Sean Combs aka "P Diddy"
F. Scott Fitzgerald
William Randolph Hearst
Abraham Lincoln (he dropped out at age 12)
J. D. Salinger
Visions of Beauty,
Best Marilyn Monroe Pictures,
Marilyn Monroe Rare & Unusual Pictures,
Famous Historical Beauties,
Famous Pool Sharks,
Famous Forgers and Frauds,
Famous Flops and Flubs,
The Dumbest Things Ever Said,
Famous Last Words,