Cam Newton celebrating his touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals on November 14, 2021

The Greatest Individual Returns and Comebacks in Sports History

On Sunday, November 14, 2021, NFL quarterback Cam Newton returned to the field with the Carolina Panthers. Earlier in the week, the Panthers signed the veteran player after the team’s starting quarterback went down with an injury. What made the signing so special was the fact that the Carolina Panthers drafted Newton number one overall in the 2011 NFL draft. For eight years, Newton starred as the quarterback for the Panthers. In 2015, he won the NFL Most Valuable Player Award (MVP), and he led his team to the Superbowl. However, the Panthers lost the game.

After the 2019 season, the Panthers released Newton. He spent one year with the New England Patriots, but that team released Newton before the start of the 2021 season. Newton was out of football for several weeks before he signed with his old team.

On Sunday, Newton scored on his very first play. After he ran into the endzone, he took off his helmet and yelled “I’m Back!” Later, Newton threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Robby Anderson. The Panthers went on to win the game 34-10.

Cam Newton’s return to the Carolina Panthers, the team that originally drafted him, is almost too good to be true. It was almost like a Hollywood movie. His return also ranks among the best individual sports returns or comebacks in history. This article will examine some of these inspiring moments. We’ll start off in the world of boxing.

Muhammad Ali: 1974

Muhammad Ali looking down at George Foreman during their fight in Zaire. Foreman is trying to get up from the canvas.

Often regarded as the “Athelete of the Century”, Muhammad Ali is arguably the greatest boxer of all time. In 1964, Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), defeated the heavyweight champion Sony Liston in a fight many believed Liston would easily win. After his victory, Ali defended his heavyweight championship belt against a series of contenders. In each defense, Ali showcased his incredible boxing style.

He had speed and agility never before seen in a heavyweight boxer. Often times, Ali’s opponents were unable to hit him as he expertly dodged their punches and fired back with his own. By 1967, it looked like Ali’s championship reign would last for years. However, it abruptly ended when Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army. Ali applied for conscientious objector status based on his religion (a form of Islam preached by The Nation Of Islam). However, his application was denied, and Ali was stripped of his belt and his boxing license. He was effectively barred from the sport.

Exile and Return

Ali’s exile robbed him of his athletic prime and his income source. He became a public speaker, appearing at various benefits and universities. At the same time, he campaigned to get his boxing license back. In 1970, Ali finally won the right to box again. He scored two relatively easy victories against Jerry Quary and Oscar Bonavena. However, he lost “The Fight of The Century” against the champion, Joe Frazeir. Following that loss, Ali won fights against weaker opponents. But he was also shockingly defeated by underdog Ken Norton. At the time, it seemed like Ali was all but washed up.

Rumble in the Jungle

In 1974, George Foreman was the heavyweight champion of the world. He had devastating knockout power, which he showed in wins against Joe Frazeir and Ken Norton. After defeating Frazier in their second fight, Ali secured a title shot against Foreman. The fight was to take place in Kinshasa, Zaire, Africa. The 25-year-old hard-hitting Foreman was heavily favored against the 32-year-old Ali. Many believed Forman would secure another easy knockout.

As the fight began, Ali repeatedly struck Foreman with right-hand punches. This stunned the champion. However, Forman soon settled in and threw wild, violent punches at Ali. Ali then went into his special strategy, now known as the rope-a-dope. Essentially, Ali leaned on the ropes and covered up while Foreman threw heavy punches. Most of the punches landed on Ali’s arms or body, and eventually Foreman tired out. As the fight progressed and Foreman tired, Ali increased his punches. Then, in the eighth round, Ali unleashed a quick combination that sent Foreman falling to the canvas. He was unable to beat the count, and Muhammad Ali became the new heavyweight champion of the world.

An Iconic Return

Ali’s win over Foreman is one of the greatest sports returns in history. Just like he shocked the world in 1964, Ali stunned everyone by defeating George Foreman. After being stripped of his championship in 1967, it was poetic justice that Ali returned to take it with a knockout victory.

Eric Berry: 2015

Eric Berry celebrating during a football game. He is holding a football in a raised arm.

Eric Berry is a retired American football player who played in the NFL from 2010-2018, all with the Kansas City Chiefs. He played the defensive back position, and he was widely regarded as one of the top players in his position. For four years, he starred in his role for the Chiefs, helping the team reach the playoffs in 2013. However, in 2014, his career almost came to an end. On December 8, 2014, doctors found a mass in Berry’s chest. He was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. The Chiefs removed Berry from their active roster in order for him to begin treatment. Thankfully, Berry’s diagnosis was not life threatening and was easily treatable with chemotherapy.

Berry’s Return

Nine months after his initial diagnosis, Berry was cleared to resume football activities. Berry returned fulltime to the Chiefs for the 2015 NFL season. He played exceptionally. It was if he never had cancer at all. Week after week, Berry elevated his already stellar playing skills. He finished the 2015 season with 61 combined tackles, ten pass deflections, and two interceptions. Berry also led the Chiefs to the playoffs. He helped the Chiefs win their first playoff game before losing the following week to the New England Patriots. For his season, Berry was named the NFL Comeback Player of the year.

What makes Eric Berry’s return so remarkable is the fact he was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma, a deadly form of cancer. Most football players experience season-ending injuries like torn ACLs. While these injuries are debilitating, they are not life threatening. Eric Berry faced a life-threatening illness, and he was able to beat it. To even return less than a year later and play at a high level is an amazing feat.

Tiger Woods: 2019

Tiger Woods celebrating his victory at the 2019 Masters Tournament. A crowd is cheering behind him.

As soon as he turned professional in 1996, Tiger Woods took the golf world by storm. At the end of 1997, the 21-year-old Woods had won three PGA events as well as his first major golf event, the 1997 Masters. He won that event by 12 strokes, which broke the previous record. Throughout the 2000s, Woods dominated the golf scene. He won multiple Masters tournaments and PGA Championships. On two separate occasions, he was ranked the top golfer in the world: from 1999-2004, and 2005-2010. Woods also became the face of professional golf. Millions of people around the world loved him. He signed endorsement deals with Nike and Titleist. These deals earned Woods millions of dollars.

However, Tiger Woods’ success came crashing down in 2009. It was rumored that Woods had an affair with a New York City nightclub manager. At first, Woods denied the allegations, arguing for his and his family’s privacy. But eventually, Woods admitted to multiple infidelities. As a result, several companies ended their sponsorship deals with Woods. While his personal life crumbled, Woods’ golf career declined as well. His play suffered due to various injuries, and he fell out of the top world rankings. Further harming Woods’ career was a 2017 DUI arrest. With all of these setbacks, it seemed Woods’ career would never recover.

The 2019 Masters

In 2018, Woods embarked on a career comeback. His goal was to return to the top of the golf world. While he showed flashes of his former self, he continued to struggle. However, Woods slowly showed signs of improvement. At the 2018 PGA Championship, he finished second, which was his best finish since 2009. This set up his return at the 2019 Masters Tournament. At first, Woods struggled, but his fortunes turned on the 12th hole. At the fifteenth hole, Woods was tied for first place with five other players. He eventually secured a one-shot victory. As Woods’ last shot entered the hole, the gathered crowd cheered while Woods celebrated.

Tiger Woods’ win at the 2019 Masters Tournament was his 15th championship victory. His win erased some of his past struggles and returned him to prominence in the golf world.

Monica Seles: 1995-1996

Monica Seles celebrating on a tennis court.

Monica Seles is a former number one ranked women’s tennis player. At the age of 16, she won the French Open, the youngest person to do so. Seles won eight Grand Slam titles before her 20th birthday, which is an unbelievable feat. But just as her career began to take off, she was the victim of a bizarre attack. On April 30, 1993, Seles faced Magdalena Malveena in Hamburg, Germany. Suddenly, a man in the stands ran onto the court and stabbed Seles between her shoulder blades. The attacker’s name was Günter Parche, an obsessed fan of German tennis player Steffi Graf. Parche’s plan was to put Seles out of competition so Graf could take control of women’s tennis. And to some degree, he was successful.

Seles’ Return

Even though Seles’ injury took only a few weeks to heal, she took two years off from tennis. Then, in 1995, she returned to professional tennis. That year, Seles won her first comeback tournament, the Canadian Open. In early 1996, Seles won the Australian Open, her fourth win of that tournament. To win the Australian Open, Seles came back from a 5-3 set deficit in the semifinals. The 1996 Australian Open was the last Grand Slam title Seles would win in her career. She would lose the 1996 U.S. Open finals match to Graf, and she struggled to maintain her best playing style. Her last Grand Slam finals appearance came at the 1998 French Open, where she was defeated.

Some argue that Seles became a changed tennis player after the 1993 stabbing: she could not recapture her previous success. While there may be a glimmer of truth in that argument, the fact that Seles returned at all after such a horrific attack is a testament to her resilience and courage.

George Foreman: 1994

George Foreman (on the left) throwing punches at Micheal Moorer (on the right) during their championship fight.

Up until 1974, George Foreman was one of the most feared boxers on the planet. All that changed when Muhammad Ali knocked him out in Zaire. Foreman was devastated by the loss. He somewhat lost his killer instinct. People ridiculed him for losing to the much older Ali. All through 1975, Foreman did not enter the boxing ring. However, he did participate in an exhibition match, where he fought five men in one night. The event was ridiculed by many. In 1976, he announced a comeback with the intention of winning back the heavyweight championship. He began his comeback with a brutal war against the hard-punching Ron Lyle. He followed that victory with a knockout win against Joe Frazier. It seemed like George Foreman was returning to his former self. However, in 1977, he lost by decision to crafty boxer Jimmy Young. After the fight, Foreman experienced a life-changing event.

He was exhausted and suffered from heat stroke. He collapsed in his dressing room. While unconscious, Foreman claims he entered a hellish world filled with nothingness and despair. He described it as a near-death experience. Once he came to, Foreman decided he had just experienced a religious awakening. He quickly left boxing and became a Christian minister. For the next 10 years, Foreman devoted his life to God.

Foreman’s Return

In 1987, Foreman announced his return to boxing. He stated he wanted to return in order to earn money to construct a youth centre in Houston, Texas. He also said he wanted to face the current heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson. At age 38, Foreman had put on a lot of weight since his last fight. Most boxing writers and fans treated Foreman’s comeback as a joke. Others viewed his return as a mistake. And there was always the fear the Foreman would get seriously hurt in one of his fights. Many did not give him a chance of winning back the heavyweight crown. Foreman played along with the novelty of his comeback. He joked about his weight and his age. His friendly, good-natured demeanor contrasted his earlier self. As a young man, Foreman was moody, quiet, and aggressive.

Foreman steadily improved his physique and skills. His opponents also got tougher. In 1991, Foreman fought heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Although he lost the fight, Foreman displayed courage and proved he was still a capable boxer.

Foreman vs. Moorer

In 1994, Foreman secured a title shot against champion Michael Moorer. No one gave Foreman much of a chance against Moorer, who was 19 years younger. The fight took place on November 5 in Las Vegas. It was almost exactly 20 years since Foreman lost his title to Ali. To highlight this point, Foreman wore the same red trunks as he did in Zaire.

As the fight started, it became clear that Moorer would have no trouble with his older opponent. Moorer constantly moved around the ring, throwing combinations. All Foreman could do was lumber forward and throw one or two punches. After nine rounds, Foreman’s face was swollen. It looked like Moorer had secured an easy victory. However, in the 10th round, Foreman launched a comeback. He landed several of his punches. Suddenly, Foreman threw a right-hand punch that connected with Moorer’s chin. He fell and was counted out by the referee. And just like that, George Foreman became the heavyweight champion of the world.

At age 45, Foreman became the oldest boxer to win a world title. His win proved the age does not always prevent people from achieving their goals. By achieving the impossible, George Foreman’s return to boxing is one of the greatest individual comebacks in sports history.


Cam Newton high fiving fans after the game against the Arizona Cardinals on November 14, 2021.

Professional sports have seen several incredible comebacks. Many teams have battled back from low points and achieved victory. Individual players have also staged remarkable returns and comebacks. They may have bounced back from a poor performance. Or, they may have risen from a low point in their career to return to the top of their field. The sports figures on this list faced various hardships. They range from an imposed exile (Muhammad Ali) to battling cancer (Eric Berry). In each instance, the person fought through adversity and returned to glory.

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