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When all seemed lost: Seeking Brexit inspiration from the greatest comebacks in history

ZAIRE,AFRICA - OCTOBER 30,1974: Muhammad Ali lands a left hook knocking out George Foreman during the "Rumble in the Jungle" fight at the Mai 20 Stadium on October 30,1974 in Kinshasa,Zaire. Muhammad Ali won WBC heavyweight title and the WBA World heavyweight title W KO 8. (Photo by: The Ring Magazine via Getty Images) - Credit: The Ring Magazine via Getty Imag

The anti-Brexit cause might seem entirely lost. But history provides many examples of unlikely comebacks. RICHARD LUCK picks out 10 of the most memorable, to serve as inspiration.

The 1981 Ashes

“The only thing better than winning is coming from behind to win.” Those words were spoken by Australian cricket legend Steve Waugh, which is ironic since the Aussies were the victims of the greatest reversal of fortune in the history of Test cricket. By the time the ancient foes arrived at Headingley for 1981’s third test, England were already one-down and an out-of-form Ian Botham had been stripped of the captaincy. Not only that, but towards the end of the third day, 
the Poms were in such a parlous position, the bookies were offering odds of 500-1 
on a home victory. At which point, a revived Beefy scored 149 not out, the late, great Bob Willis snared eight weeks and the series was levelled. With further Botham-inspired miracles at Edgbaston and Old Trafford, England completed the sort of comeback Lazarus would’ve been proud of. And 24 short years later, England did it again, the combination of Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen helping the home side recover from a hammering at Lord’s to lift the urn for the first time since 1987.

Richard Nixon

It’s not only good guys who overcome the odds. In 1962, having lost the California gubernatorial election, the former vice president informed the press that they wouldn’t “have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore”. His home state defeat coming on the back of his narrow loss in the 1960 presidential election, the man from Yorba Linda had quit politics to join a New York legal practice when a bizarre confluence of events led to him being dragged back into the political arena. Said incidents included the assassination of John F Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson becoming so disillusioned with the Vietnam War that he chose not to contest a second term. Even with all these misfortunes, it seemed improbable that the dour, shifty Nixon could possibly defeat Robert Kennedy, what with the nation so keen to see RFK complete the work his brother had begun. Then Sirhan Sirhan showed up at LA’s Ambassador Hotel and all bets were off. Come the big day, Richard Milhous Nixon comfortably defeated Hubert Humphrey to become the 37th president of the United States. However, by the time he obliterated George McGovern in 1972, Nixon, Congress and the entire country were consumed with a little something called Watergate…

New Order

“[Joy Division] was the greatest music of its era; it should’ve been a massive amount bigger if only America had ever bloody got them. You know, if you look at it, we should’ve given up. When something that talented comes along and then it goes… we should all have given up.” He had a point, Tony Wilson. In the wake of Ian Curtis’ suicide there seemed little reason for either Joy Division or Wilson’s Factory Records to keep going. The question raised was as daunting as it was simple – how does a band continue after the death of its lead singer? Curtis’ bandmates Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook would resolve the seemingly unsolvable by recruiting Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert and by embracing the electronic music that they’d been introduced to by their fallen friend (Sumner: “Ian used to play Kraftwerk records to us, saying, ‘Hey, this is something new – this is fantastic.'”) Renamed New Order, the four didn’t find success immediately. Then a chance discovery while messing about with a drum machine provided the basis for Blue Monday and a new path emerged, one which would include platinum album sales, sell-out stadium tours and the greatest electronic music of the age.

Jonny Wilkinson

For a long while, it seemed as if the 2003 Rugby World Cup final would mark the last time Jonny Wilkinson played for his country. Injuring his shoulder in a club game mere weeks after *that* drop goal, Wilko ended up spending three entire years away from the international scene. For no sooner had his shoulder cleared up than the fly-half damaged his knee ligaments, after which a bout of appendicitis, a hernia operation and further damage to his already wrecked neck ensured it wasn’t until February 2007 that Jonathan Peter Wilkinson would again sport the red rose. A dream return against Scotland at Twickenham was followed by a record defeat in Dublin and a disastrous tour of South Africa. When it came time for England to defend their world title, Wilkinson was again on the sidelines, the position from which he’d watch the Springboks rack up 35 unanswered points against the holders. At which point the man from Frimley returned to the fold and England fortunes changed utterly. Hard-fought wins over Samoa and Tonga preceded an improbable victory over Australia. A week later, the perfect 10 orchestrated a semi-final defeat of hosts France. Somehow England were back in the World Cup final. And against all the odds, so was Jonny Wilkinson.

Muhammad Ali

Boxing is rich in remarkable comeback stories. Vinny Pazienza (aka The Pazmanian Devil) wouldn’t even let a little thing like a broken neck deter him from reentering the ring and regaining his title. If the erstwhile Cassius Clay’s return stands out from the crowd, it’s because that’s what the man did almost every day of his life. Stripped of his world heavyweight title in 1967 after refusing to fight in Vietnam, Ali was away from the ring for 30 months. That he was a little rusty when he stepped back into the squared circle in 1970 
was hardly surprising. Nor was it that great a shock when he was easily out-pointed by Joe Frazier in a 1971 contest for Ali’s old belt. By the time he had his jaw broken in a defeat at Ken Norton’s hands in 1973, people wondered whether the towel ought to be thrown in on Muhammad’s career. Then came a return fight with Smokin’ Joe and the hard-earned win that set up a crack at reigning champ George Foreman. Come that celebrated night in Kinshasa, ‘The Greatest’ proved that nickname was so much more than mere hyperbole. Seven years on from denying the draft, Muhammad Ali was on top of the world again.

Robert Downey Jr

Back in the late 1990s, it was less a question of whether Robert Downey Jr was working on anything new as whether he’d still be alive come year’s end. Such was the extent of the actor’s drug use and so nefarious were his actions – while intoxicated, he wandered into a house that wasn’t his and fell asleep in the bedroom of a random child – Downey wound up in jail, his incarceration due in part to the judge’s fear that the performer would die were he left to his own devices. So how did the future Sherlock Holmes return to high estate? The loyalty of directors like James Toback and Mike Figgis, an infant son from his first marriage, the love of a second good woman, film producer Susan Levin, 
the decision to get sober, a willingness 
to take whatever work came his way – Robert Downey Jr got his life back one day at a time. And when you’re as talented as he is, it’s no surprise that, once he was on his A-game, a place on 
the A-list was assured. But to think we might never had shed tears over the passing of Tony Stark had the Avengers star refused to bid adieu to the bad 
old days.

Johnny Cash

Branson, Missouri, is the place country and western acts go to die. A sort of low-rent Las Vegas, Branson is where Johnny Cash seemed bound come the 1990s. Dropped by not one but two record labels, the ‘Man in Black’ had been reduced to playing on the dinner theatre circuit. His salvation came in the improbable form of Rick Rubin, the co-founder of Def Jam records and the producer responsible for introducing Run DMC and the Beastie Boys to a global audience. Aware of the artist’s reduced circumstances and his ill-health – Cash had been ravaged by a neurodegenerative disease, Shy-Drager syndrome – Rubin suggested Cash apply a stripped-back sound both to new compositions of his and cover versions of songs by artists ranging from Simon and Garfunkel and Lennon and McCartney to Depeche Mode and Nick Cave. Cue the American Recordings albums, four LPs released between 1994 and 2003 that won six Grammys, restored Cash’s financial viability as an act and his reputation as an artist, and provided the first man of American C&W with his swansong, a brittle, hope-free rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt that became a fixture on MTV.

Ana Quirot

Cuba’s greatest female middle-distance runner, Ana Quirot’s dreams of track and field success were initially thwarted by her head of state. After joining the Soviet boycott of the 1984 LA Olympics, Fidel Castro decided that his nation’s athletes should also give the 1988 games in Seoul a miss. Were it not for such churlishness, there’s little doubt Quirot would have picked up a medal. After winning bronze in the 800m in Barcelona in 1992, Ana took a break from the track to have her first child. Any hope of resuming her career seemed dashed after a house fire left Quirot with burns over 38% of her body. More tragically still, the accident led Ana to give birth prematurely, her daughter dying within a week of being delivered. Simply returning to running earned Ana Quirot the respect of sports fans the world over. Winning at both the 1995 and 1997 World Championships was the stuff of superheroes. And if she had to settle for silver at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, it oughtn’t escape anyone’s notice that Quirot’s personal best – 1.54.44 – would have seen her come first at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Dusty Springfield

By the 1970s, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien had all but withdrawn from public life. A combination of depression, alcoholism and her homosexuality meant Britain’s best-selling female recording artist spent most of the decade living in seclusion in California. What little music she did record during this period was released on Peter Stringfellow’s Hippodrome Records and failed to chart. An end to Dusty’s reclusiveness came in 1987 when one of the biggest acts of the time, the Pet Shop Boys, asked her to duet on the track What Have I Done to Deserve This? At a stroke, the Son of a Preacher Man singer was a number two act in both Britain and America. Messrs Tennant and Lowe would again enlist Dusty’s services when they were asked to produce a theme song for the Profumo affair picture Scandal. That number, Nothing Has Been Proved, in turn paved the way for an album Reputation – co-produced by the PSBs – which cracked the top 20, as did the single In Private. Sadly, time wasn’t on Ms Springfield’s side and she’d succumb to cancer in 1999. However, thanks to the Pet Shops Boys and Quentin Tarantino’s use of Preacher Man in Pulp Fiction, when the end came, Dusty had long since escaped the ‘where are they now?’ file.

Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is by no means the first author to kill off their most celebrated creation. However, when he decided to pitch the world’s greatest consulting detective off the Reichenbach Falls, the writer couldn’t have anticipated the reaction of his readership. Hell, people were so upset over the death of Sherlock Holmes, they took to wearing black armbands. Inundated with requests to restore Holmes to life, Conan Doyle resisted for eight long years and when he did revive him, it was for The Hound Of The Baskervilles, a story set prior to Holmes and Watson’s fateful trip to Switzerland. Yet still the fans called out for more. Indeed, so huge a hit was Baskervilles, Sir Arthur was left with little choice but to fully resurrect Sherlock for 1894’s The Adventure Of The Empty House, in which our hero explains to his partner that he had faked his death to confound his enemies. Conan Doyle would continue to write Holmes tales over the next 20 years; great news for his readers but an inconvenience for Sir Arthur who’d much rather have invested the time in matters such as spiritualism and the existence of fairies.

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