Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Problem with Comebacks


Everyone loves a “comeback.”  If life is a play, the “comeback” is the dramatic moment that decides the greatness of the play. We simply love people who have the ability to make a “comeback.” Somehow, the “comeback” moment is always the one that’s talked about. It’s the moment where we’re supposed to see things like grit and determination. It’s where that “extra special” in a person is supposed to shine through.

One only has to think of the 1990s tennis rivalry between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Let’s face it, Sampras dominated that rivalry. He was the more consistent performer, winning most of their matches, particularly in the big tournaments. Sampras stood head and shoulders above his peers. When he played tennis, it was like watching a Mozart give music lessons to a deaf mute. You could marvel at Sampras’s genius with a racket.

However, while Sampras was all about being a beautiful player, the one that inspired people was Andre Agassi. While Sampras won tournaments and broke records, Agassi would often come back from injury or defeat.  We cheered his 1999 French Open win, not because he was the superior player on the day but because he found something special in himself to make the difference when it counted. We could marvel at Sampras’s superior skills but in our hearts we identified with Agassi. With Sampras winning was key….with Agassi it didn’t matter.

The love of the “comeback” isn’t limited to tennis or sports. Business is filled with “comeback” stories. One of the most famous business icons of the 1980s is Lee Iacocca, the former CEO of Chrysler. Mr Iacocca became a hero when he rescued Chrysler from the brink of bankruptcy in 1979.

You could say Mr Iacocca started the trend of “celebrity CEOs,” business leaders who would became brands in their own right. How did he do it? He made himself the hero in a dramatic story called “The Comeback from the Brink of Bankruptcy.” This was the key in the creation of his legend. Had he not taken over Chrysler the chances are, Mr Iacocca would probably have retired as yet another executive, unheard of beyond his industry.

I suspect that we all love the “comeback” moment because it creates an emotional connection between us and that moment. Real life is filled with ups and downs and we fight to survive. Since we fight to survive, we get a kick watching other people struggle and win.

I live a country that has been all about coming back from misfortune. If you were to look at the “key” moment in modern Singapore’s history, it would have to be the 1965 ejection from the Malaysian Federation. Had we not been ejected, chances are, we might have just become another Malaysian city. However, our founding Prime Minister had his dream snatched away from him and he was forced to change course – the rest as they say is history.

There is, however, one major flaw with our love of the “comeback” – namely the fact that great moments tend to centre around individuals, who have the potential to become so much part of the narrative that the institutions they lead and live with end up suffering from their passing. Like or not, human beings are frail and end up falling to bits.

Let’s return to sports – boxing. Who is the greatest boxing heavy weight? The answer most would give is Mohammed Ali. The man dazzled us with his wit and good looks. He had artistry in the ring, allowing him to take on and beat bigger and stronger men. His fights were not ninety second demolitions. They were hard fought slug fest, won by the man with the bigger heart on the day – think of the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier or the “Rumble in the Jungle” against a very young, fit and hard hitting George Foreman.  Ali won the world heavy weight title a record breaking three times.

Much as we loved watching Mohammad Ali displays his pride and courage in the ring, his body reached its limits and he failed to recognize this. This became prominently evident in his 1980 attempt to win the heavy weight title from his former employee Larry Holmes. The contest was so one sided that it became a farce.  He only managed to throw ten effective punches in ten rounds and the anguish on Holmes’s face was clearly evident as he inflicted a savage beating on a man he admired.  

Two decades latter people are asking why the fight was ever allowed to take place. Ali by that time was showing signs of Parkinsons Disease. As things would have it, Don King summed it up best, “How do you tell God he can’t create thunder and lightning anymore?”

 Mohammed Ali had created a legend where he was God. Unfortunately his body didn't function like that. His humiliation at Holmes’s hands damaged him physically, damaged Holmes's reign as heavy weight champion and boxing at large.


The man is only a visible sad example of a man who failed to realize that he was not God the hard way. I think of politics in Singapore where Lee Kuan Yew continues to grab a few moments of the spotlight. If you look at his appearance at the 2012 National Day Parade, you’ll see that he’s barely able to walk. Why does he need to drag his failing body out for one last political battle?

I’m not against old people working. However, there is a need for great people to understand when it’s time for them to step back and leave the stage and recognize the fact that they need to let the new generations grow into their jobs. It took the humiliating loss of a GRC in the 2011 election for him to step down from cabinet. Why did it take an electoral defeat (well, not quite but in Singapore the ruling party is expected to win everything so a loss of more than two seats is considered a major disaster) to get him out of an official position?

This is the very same question that people asked about the 1980 Holmes-vs-Ali fight. A great champion had become a sick old man and was humiliated and damaged.

I am for celebrating the “comeback.” I am for people struggling to achieve something. I’m a big believer in the necessity of struggle in order to achieve greatness. However, I also believe that its vital for the great characters of the world to be reminded of their limits.

In Ancient Rome, a slave would always be present at the side of a triumphant general to whisper, “Remember General, you are mortal.” This was a reality check for the hero in the moment of triumph. There has to be a way for the modern world to offer this to its heroes.  

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