To Be the Man: Sports Stars Who Dethroned an Icon
To be the man, you got to beat the man.
Former wrestling icon Ric Flair told us as much, and the 16-time world champion spent plenty of time perched atop his field. Sports fans have since taken his motto to heart, always seeking watershed moments to formally coronate a new star.
It doesn't always work that way, but there's something special about watching an athlete achieve greatness by conquering an icon. Viewers never forget a legend getting dethroned in a marquee matchup.
On Sunday, Matt Ryan will get a chance to join this list when he leads his red-hot Atlanta Falcons into Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots. A win over Tom Brady's crew will immortalize the quarterback mercilessly criticized throughout a subpar 2015 season.
He wouldn't be the first passer to make his mark with a Super Bowl win over the Patriots. One could also turn the clock 15 years to remember Brady kick-starting his Hall-of-Fame career in similar fashion.
These inclusions focus mostly on individual superstars, but some teams are also recognized for overthrowing a dynasty. When the dust clears, everyone will remember these passing-of-the-torch moments.
Boston Red Sox
Head-to-head storylines don't translate well to baseball, a sport driven by isolated outcomes. More than any sport, even the best players will experience rough patches, so let's not single out one player.
Instead, let's examine a larger changing of the guard between the sport's biggest rivals.
The New York Yankees had won six of the past eight American League pennant entering 2004's American League Championship Series. Up 3-0 to the Boston Red Sox—whom they bested in heartbreaking fashion to reach 2003's World Series—they looked poised to make it seven for nine.
Boston than flipped the script with two come-from-behind victories. Curt Schilling, whose Game 7 gem led the Arizona Diamondbacks to dethrone the Bronx Bombers for the 2001 title, delivered a strong Game 6 outing before the offense generated 10 runs in a runaway Game 7 triumph.
The series especially marked a star-making moment for David Ortiz, who went 12-for-31 with three homers and 11 RBI. As for taking down a legend, fabled postseason hero Derek Jeter recorded one extra-base hit, a double.
While the Yankees remained a playoff mainstay, they have since won one title on their only AL pennant. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have made up for lost time with two more championships in 2007 and 2013. A crucial component to all three rings, Ortiz retired after 2016 as one the team's' most iconic players ever.
Despite posting mind-boggling numbers, Drew Brees has spent his career overshadowed by Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. For someone third in all-time passing yards and touchdowns and first in career completion percentage, he still doesn't receive as much credit as his elite peers.
Imagine how much less praise he would receive without a Super Bowl ring.
By the time his New Orleans Saints won the NFC in 2009, Brees already catapulted to stardom. A year after engineering the NFL's second 5,000-yard passing season in 2008, he netted a 70.6 completion percentage, 8.54 yards per pass attempt and 109.6 quarterback rating, all career highs at the time.
Peyton Manning posted a lower mark in all three categories. He also had one fewer passing touchdown and five more interceptions. Because he was Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts notched one more victory—the Saints started 13-0 before taking their foot off the accelerator to finish 13-3—he won his fourth MVP award over the more deserving Brees.
Although Brees has still never received the honor, quarterbacks are (often unfairly) judged more by championships. The undersized passer earned sweet payback by going a methodical 32-of-39 for 288 passing yards and two touchdowns in a Super Bowl XLIV triumph over Manning's Colts.
Before besting Manning and Co., the Saints triumphed over Brett Favre's Minnesota Vikings, giving Brees monumental wins over the two men above him in career passing yards and touchdowns.
Had Minnesota or Indianapolis prevailed, Brees would remain forever connected to Dan Marino as a prestigious gunslinger with gaudy stats but no championship. That's far from an unflattering comparison—most observers can appreciate outside variables and regular-season greatness for over a decade—but the Super Bowl win vaulted him to undeniable all-time great territory.
Stephen Curry didn't outplay LeBron James in the 2015 NBA Finals. No mortal human could have. James kept his hobbled Cleveland Cavaliers competitive by averaging a ridiculous 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists during the six-game series, but the Warriors prevailed behind Curry's economical 26.0 points per bout.
Only a handful of players can identify as the top player on an NBA champion. Upon enrolling in that exclusive club, Curry spent the entire 2015-16 season as basketball's equivalent to Daenerys Targaryen. He didn't need three dragons to pursue the league's throne. His jumpers emitted more fire.
The guard obliterated his own record by draining 402 three-pointers, a 40.5 percent increase over his previous 286. He joined Steve Nash as the second 50-45-90 member and the 50-40-90 club's first scoring leader.
As the defending champions soared to a regular-season record 73 victories, Curry momentarily held the NBA belt. Against all odds, a scrawny shooter took the top spot from a basketball cyborg who will easily go down as one of the best ever.
Of course, James didn't let Curry get too cozy. His Game 7 triple-double capped off a redemptive rematch and comeback from down 3-1, but Golden State's two-time MVP has already written a lasting leacgy at age 28.
Entering 2011's Wimbledon tournament, Rafael Nadal had captured four of the last five men's Grand Slam singles titles. After eliminating hometown hero Andy Murray to reach the final, he had won 20 consecutive matches at the All England club event.
The top-seeded star then ran into a sharp buzzsaw named Novak Djokovic.
This wasn't the first hint of Djokovic's rise to stardom. He had captured his second Australian Open title earlier that year, but he also experienced seven semifinal shortcomings as well as a 2010 U.S. Open final defeat versus Nadal.
He received redemption in England by snapping the Spaniard's Wimbledon winning streak.
"It's really hard to describe this with any words except as the best day of my life, the most special day of my life," Djokovic said after the monumental win, per BBC.com's Piers Newbery.
When they met later that year in a U.S. Open final rematch, Djokovic again earned the upper hand.
He walked into 2011 with one major title and left with four. Now he has a dozen adorned on his crowded mantle, and the 29-year-old is far from finished despite his stunning second-round upset at this year's Australian Open.
More than anyone else on this list, Eli Manning needed these major moments to redefine his career, and it only helped to achieve them at a legend's expense.
Peyton Manning retired the all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns who happened to also have participated in two Super Bowl victories. His younger brother, however, would infuriate New York Giants fans if not for his two magical championship runs, both of which ended in upsets over the Patriots.
Take away the team success, and Big Blue's quarterback holsters a mediocre 59.7 completion percentage and 7.07 yards per attempt. If the 36-year-old keeps playing for a few more years, he could finish as high as second in career interceptions thrown. He has averaged 17 picks per 16 games and is currently 62 behind George Blanda, runner-up to Favre.
Despite the "Playoff Eli" narrative, his 87.4 postseason quarterback rating, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, isn't significantly greater than his regular-season 83.7 clip.
Aside from durability—he hasn't missed a start his taking over in 2004—what separates him from the Jay Cutler's of the NFL? Two championships culminating in wins over Brady's Patriots, who have yet to lose a Super Bowl to anyone else entering their upcoming clash with the Falcons.
Before catching fire in the playoffs, Manning tossed 20 interceptions during an atrocious 2007 season. An instant playoff ousting may have placed his starting tenure in jeopardy, but he instead beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field and ended New England's perfect season in a 17-14 Super Bowl XLII stunner.
That shocker gave him wiggle room to progress into a sturdy quarterback without the New York fans and media seeking blood. During his 2011 run, he played a bigger role in Big Blue's success with 1,219 passing yards, nine touchdowns and one pick over their four postseason victories.
Is he better than Brady? Of course not. But twice his team was better than Brady's squad on the biggest stage, so Manning can always live off those triumphs.
Conor McGregor needed 13 seconds to knock out a fighter who hadn't lost in 10 years.
Jose Aldo won 18 consecutive fights leading up to his December, 2015 showdown with the boisterous Irishman, which was postponed due to an Aldo injury. The up-and-coming McGregor earned a second-round TKO over replacement Chad Mendes to capture the interim UFC Featherweight Championship.
Aldo, who also defeated Mendes the previous year, was 25-1 with 14 knockouts. Considered one of, if not the top pound-for-pound fighter, he blended strong strikes with a disciplined takedown defense. Yet he was not properly prepared to combat his aggressive adversary.
As UFC President Dana White told the Los Angeles Times' Lance Pugmire before the fight, McGregor did not conceal his game plan.
"I was in Ireland five weeks ago when Conor told me, 'I'm going to run across the octagon, I'm going to unload and hit him with bombs and I will knock him out in the first four minutes of this fight,'" White said. "That's what he said to me. And I believe … he will run across the octagon."
For all his borderline-arrogant confidence, McGregor sold himself short. It took well under a minute to crush Aldo.
After not defending the title for a year, McGregor abdicated it back to Aldo late in 2016. Rising to instant celebrity status following the sudden knockout, he's now UFC's most recognizable headliner who moved up 10 pounds to claim the Lightweight Championship.
Another Super Bowl shortcoming by a Peyton Manning-led squad led to the victor's breakout party. In this instance, it felt wrong honing the attention on the quarterback.
That's no knock on Russell Wilson. He did his part in ensuring the Seattle Seahawks' 43-8 Super Bowl XLVIII trouncing of the Denver Broncos by going 18-of-25 for 206 passing yards and two touchdowns. Yet the defense stole the show by stifling a historically prolific offense to one score.
Manning set season records in passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55), but he mustered a measly 5.7 yards per throw and surrendered two picks to the Legion of Boom. The ground game didn't help, accruing 27 rushing yards.
While Malcolm Smith took home Super Bowl MVP honors, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett all decimated Denver's powerhouse offense with the world watching.
“It’s all about making history,” Thomas said after the win, according to an Associated Press report via the Denver Post. “This was a dominant performance from top to bottom.”
For four consecutive seasons, the Seahawks finished first in scoring defense before placing a measly third in 2016. That alone should cement their spot in the record books, but they guaranteed their place among the league's fiercest defenses when they ended an all-time legendary quarterback's best season on a sour note.
Calm down, "WWE isn't a sport" crowd. How could a list inspired by Flair not feature a wrestler manifesting his mantra?
The pinnacle of last week's Royal Rumble, John Cena tied Flair's record with his 16th world championship in a victory over AJ Styles. Months before the epic rematch, however, Styles took his place atop the wrestling promotion by besting The Face That Runs The Place.
Styles, who made his WWE debut at 2016's Royal Rumble, skyrocketed up the pecking order. Fans immediately flocked to the former TNA and New Japan World Wrestling star, who beat Dean Ambrose for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in October. In order to claim his spot atop the SmackDown brand, he needed to first defeat Cena.
To the shock and delight of WWE viewers who have watched Cena overcome the odds for over a decade, Styles obtained a clean victory in a SummerSlam classic. The decisive pinfall passed the torch to The Phenomenal One, who held the title for nearly five months.
WWE has struggled to establish new stars, instead leaning on reliable veterans (Cena, Randy Orton) and part-time attractions (Brock Lesnar, Goldberg, HHH, The Undertaker). Yet Vince McMahon's company cemented Styles as a justifiably main-eventer by putting him over Cena.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the only non-champions listed. By that elevated barometer, they never dethroned anyone.
Their 2012 Western Conference Finals win over the San Antonio Spurs wasn't the harbinger of a future dynasty everyone expected at the time. Victims of bad breaks, stout competition and frugal ownership, they never reached the NBA Finals again.
That shouldn't take away from three burgeoning stars in their early 20's taking down a Spurs juggernaut arguably playing the most beautiful basketball of Tim Duncan's career.
A lockout-shortened 66-game schedule did not deter San Antonio from keeping its streak of 50-win seasons (still standing at 17) intact. They reached a higher gear in the postseason, sweeping the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers with a 13.75-point average margin of victory before gaining a 2-0 lead on Oklahoma City.
The Finals matchup with the Miami Heat seemed inevitable, but fans had to wait another year. Long before they matured into three of the NBA's top-10 players, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden stunningly rattled off four straight wins to send the Spurs packing. A huge reason why the organization chose him over Harden, Serge Ibaka swatted 16 blocks and had a 26-point Game 4.
Durant especially shined, averaging 29.5 points per game throughout the series.
Even if it wasn't a true coming-out-party for the Thunder—or end of the Spurs—reaching the Finals put Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka on the map.
Serena Williams has surpassed everyone from the Open era with 23 Grand Slam singles titles. That of course includes her sister, Venus Williams, who once stood above her with the top-ranked spot.
In 2000 and 2001, Venus won both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. In the following two years, however, she fell short in five finals appearances. Serena, who had one title at the time, was responsible for all five misfires.
At the time, the encounters ascended both sisters to the unquestioned top seats of women's tennis. Serena never abdicated her chair.
Both in their early 20's at the time, it looked like the beginning of a long family feud far more entertaining than the one hosted by Steve Harvey. Serena instead used those wins as a stepping stone to stardom while Venus fell from grace.
Had she convinced her sibling to play a different sport, Venus could wield double-digit titles with a four-year peak for the ages. She instead took a back seat to Serena, and her Australian Open comeback ended with her younger sister make history.