The world has seen many cocky athletes come and go. Many of them, like Muhammad Ali and Cristiano Ronaldo, justify their self-indulgent patter and mannerisms by winning tangible awards. However, nobody is perfect, and no matter how much confidence an athlete exudes, an off-day is never far away, and here are some that realized it only too late.
4. Alf-Inge Håland – English Premier League (April 2001)
Across the Atlantic, the English Premier League has been around for nearly three decades. In that time, a great number of boisterous characters have emerged. Amongst them is Roy Keane, who plied his trade for Manchester United between 1993 and 2006, winning the Premier League seven times and the Champions League once.
Keane was aggressive, hot-headed and took no slights from opponents. Few men were cocky enough to dare rile him, but a Norwegian by the name of Alf-Inge Håland was one such man. In August 1997, rivals Leeds and Manchester United clashed at Elland Road, and Keane was charging around the pitch.
During an attempt to foul Håland of Leeds, Keane damaged his anterior cruciate ligament – an injury which ended his season and ultimately did much to see United end 1997/98 without a trophy. Håland openly stood over the writhing Keane after the botched tackle and accused him of feigning injury in order to avoid the referee’s wrath yet again.
In April 2001, Keane and Håland shared a pitch once more. The 1997 incident was at the back of a few minds, but few could have foreseen the sheer brutality of Keane’s vengeful career-threatening tackle on Håland. The Irish midfielder sent every stud on his boot crashing into the side of Håland’s knee, snapping ligaments with a sickening crunch.
Keane did not even wait for the red card to be brandished, and Håland’s career was effectively over, with the tackle exacerbating an existing injury.
3. Prince Naseem Hamed – vs Marco Antonio Barrera (April 2001)
The world of boxing is unquestionably filled with overconfidence at times. It stands to reason that the fighters who can justify their hype will do anything to stand out, and be it Mike Tyson’s terrycloth in lieu of a robe or Floyd Mayweather Jr’s money-burning stunts, the law of the boxing jungle demands a maverick fighter.
With his signature tiger-print trunks and third-person patter, that is certainly what Prince Naseem Hamed aspired to be. His life as a pro boxer was a far cry from his humble beginnings in Sheffield, which he clearly left firmly in the past, as he racked up a sensational 35-0 record after turning pro in February 1992.
By the time he took on Marco Antonio Barrera in April 2001, Hamed had made 15 successful defenses of his WBO featherweight title, which he initially won in September 1995. IBF and WBC titles would follow, and in beating Barrera, Hamed would add the IBO featherweight title to his collection.
According to recollections, Hamed did not take preparations for the fight seriously. His belief in his own invincibility was further justified by his status as an odds-on favorite across the board. Barrera, by contrast, imposed himself to the very limits of his body – and beyond.
Inevitably, Barrera dominated the fight, and while he did not necessarily 'destroy' Hamed, the judges did, awarding a unanimous decision in the Mexican’s favor and making him the proud owner of four featherweight belts.
In the end, Hamed also destroyed himself, fighting just once more before enduring a torrid mid-2000s, in which legal troubles led to the forfeiture of his MBE.
2. Conor McGregor – UFC 196 (March 2016)
McGregor is brash, arrogant and proud of it. The man from Dublin is a known fan of the WWE franchise and has never shied away from behaving like some of its more outspoken products – both in and out of the octagon.
It took McGregor a relatively long time to reach the bright lights of the UFC, but with a fighting style that solely focused on the knockout, he would quickly become a fan favorite. However, groundwork has never been a strength of his, and of his first six professional fights, two ended in first-round submission defeats.
By the time McGregor faced Nate Diaz at UFC 196, those defeats were but a distant memory, as he entered the octagon for his welterweight debut with an impressive 19-2 record – and a 7-0 record as a UFC fighter. As expected, the pre-fight shtick was fiery:
As is often the case though, reality did not match expectation. Diaz was too wise to McGregor, and with the Irishman perhaps making the move up to welterweight prematurely, he found himself beaten in the second round via a textbook rear-naked chokehold.
Five months later, he would atone for that loss by winning a rematch via decision. Beyond that, however, he would fight only twice more in the UFC, and there will always be the question of just how much his defeat at UFC 196 to Diaz impacted upon his prime-time trajectory.
1. John McEnroe – Wimbledon Open (July 1985)
The United States has produced some exceptional tennis talent, and even today, Serena Williams is amongst the favorites at Grand Slam tournaments, showing no sign of slowing down. However, her sister's - Venus Williams - loss at Wimbledon 2019, to 15-year old Coco Gauff, is one topical example of how even the best stateside products are not infallible.
Back in the mid-1980s, John McEnroe was the terror of opponents and umpires alike. As a foil to his magnificent skill, there was an infamously volcanic temperament and some memorable outbursts during the peak of his success in 1984. Annihilating a juice cart with his racket in Stockholm that year, after vocally calling out the umpire, McEnroe had finally crossed the line from passion to outright arrogance.
But his decline would begin the following year when he lost in straight sets to Kevin Curren at Wimbledon. Seeded number one, McEnroe had decimated his opponents prior to the quarter-final against his countryman, and with seven wins against Curren from as many previous meetings, he could not help but believe in the hype surrounding him.
On this occasion, Curren’s studying of McEnroe’s style paid off, and once Curren had won the first two sets 6-2, the game was all but up. McEnroe rallied somewhat, losing by a more respectable 6-4 in the third set, but in barely an hour, McEnroe’s hold on the sport was all but extinguished. A period of absence followed in 1986, after which McEnroe would appear in just three more Grand Slam semi-finals before finally calling it a day in 1992.