The 5 Worst Chokers in the History of Professional Sports
Updated: May 28, 2023
Anyone who grew up playing sports will have choked at one point or another.
Although it pains me to admit this, I have a few horrific memories of screwing up at the most crucial time.
From missing an open goal on a debut for my new soccer team to accidentally tripping up one of my own players before they scored a potentially match-winning try in a rugby game (sorry, Jay), I have enough material to haunt my dreams for eternity.
Anyone who played sports consistently will have a few similar stories. If they don’t, then they’ve either repressed or buried those memories so deep into their subconscious that they are inaccessible, or they are lying.
It’s all good. These things happen when you’re growing up. Let go.
Easier said than done, of course.
But there is a huge difference between screwing up on the football field in front of a few overzealous parents and the mortification of losing a game that matters to your city or your country.
Missing a score that is the difference between eternal glory and heart-breaking defeat in front of millions around the world is another thing altogether.
Your name etched into the annals of history as a “choker” is something that no professional sports player can ever shake off.
5. Roberto Duran
- When? In the Sugar Ray Leonard Rematch of 1980
“Hold on, what? Roberto Duran, a choker?”
Maybe not by the same standard as others on this list — and certainly not as consistently throughout his career — but against Sugar Ray Leonard in their highly-anticipated rematch in 1980, the “Hands of Stone” crumbled like cotton candy.
Now, call it frustration if you want, but Duran decided to quit in the middle of the 8th round, dropping his hands and turning his back on Leonard.
The Panamanian superstar, with a 72-1 record heading into the fight, then waved his glove at referee Octavio Meyran, allegedly mouthing “no más” (translated from Spanish into English as “no more.”
Leonard, the tens of thousands in attendance, and the millions watching around the world were stunned.
Duran’s reputation as a fearsome warrior and arguably the greatest lightweight in the history of the sport was suddenly under scrutiny.
He had simply bottled it.
I must admit that I’m not entirely comfortable with labeling Duran’s baffling decision to quit as a “choke,” but I do believe it is an extraordinary example of when an athlete breaks under pressure.
Or when someone loses their temper to the point of just giving up completely. It’s debatable, at least.
To completely understand why Duran snapped and didn’t want to continue, we have to go back to the first fight between him and Leonard.
In the build-up to that first blockbuster, Duran was extremely personal, aiming below-the-belt insults at Leonard and his wife.
Rather than fight in his usual slick and cerebral style, Leonard opted to stand toe to toe with Duran in an effort to prove he was there to inflict as much damage on his rival as possible.
The switch in tactics cost Leonard the fight, with Duran holding the advantage in close-quarter combat.
In the rematch, Leonard reverted to the style the world knew and loved, and he completely dominated. Having been outboxed and beaten to almost every punch, Duran choked and simply gave up.
4. England Soccer’s Penalty Takers
- When? In Penalty Shootouts Before the 2018 World Cup
If you ever want to see the blood drain from an England soccer fan’s face at an alarming rate, make sure to pay one a visit before their country partakes in a penalty shootout.
In soccer, the way that a game is decided following a stalemate in both regular and extra time is by taking penalty kicks. The team that scores the best out of five wins.
At the 2018 FIFA World Cup this summer against Colombia, England’s players did what had never been done before — they won a penalty shootout at the world’s major international soccer finals.
Finally, the “curse” that had plagued the English had been broken. From here on, penalty shootouts will not be the heart attack-inducing sagas that they were prior to Eric Dier’s winning spot-kick in Russia.
Of course, watching from the sidelines was Gareth Southgate, the England manager who had become the bane of the country following a missed penalty that knocked his team out of the 1996 European Championships at Wembley.
His face after the kick spoke volumes.
Why Did England Choke in Penalty Shootouts?
A lack of skill? Was it a loss of composure under pressure? Psychological weakness?
Penalty shootouts are, for the most part, a lottery. Players are often physically and mentally exhausted having played over an extra 30 mins of a game and may buckle under the weight of expectation.
England, however, seemed to have a proclivity for screwing up at this point.
All in all, England has lost three of the four World Cup penalty shoot-outs they took part in. The same record (3 losses with 1 won) applies to their efforts in the European Championships.
When it comes down to it, English teams are among the worst penalty takers in international soccer history. They certainly don’t need any reminders of that.
Germany, who has only ever lost in a penalty shootout on one occasion in an international tournament, is among the most successful. Against England at the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championships, they cemented themselves as the true enemy where penalties are involved.
3. Greg Norman
On April 14, 1996, Greg Norman looked like close to a certainty to win the Masters.
Having shown a propensity for messing things up at the final hurdle in the past, the 41-year-old began to look worryingly shaky.
Although he had led on the leaderboard at six strokes ahead of Nick Faldo, somehow, Norman would crumble under pressure and suffer the greatest choke in the history of golf.
Norman shot 78 in his final round, eventually losing by five strokes to Faldo. While Norman was devastated, Faldo was incredulous, having won the tournament despite looking a certainty for second place.
The old habits haunted Norman right up to what should have been a career-defining win for the Australian.
It was the third time that Norman had finished as a runner up at the Masters, adding 1996 to 1986 and 1987. Norman also finished second in the U.S. Open in 1984 and 1995. Oh, and he posted his best finish in the PGA Championships in 1986 and 1993 in — you guessed it — second.
According to Norman, he buckled under pressure.
Despite claims at the first tee that he was “totally in control,” Norman later admitted to struggling with the burden of being on top.
“I’m probably the only guy in the world who thinks, ‘I don’t know if I can hold it,'” he admitted years after the event.
Even by Norman’s habits of messing up in major events, this was a complete and utter disaster.
While you can only feel sorry for the World Golf Hall of Fame inductee of 2001, at the same time, you have to wonder how one player can be so talented at screwing up.
2. The New Zealand Rugby Team
- When? Between 1991 and 2007
New Zealand’s rugby team is the most dominant sports team on the planet.
With the best winning record of any international team in any sport in history, the “All Blacks” are habitual winners.
Between the years of 1991 and 2007, they were also serial chokers at World Cup finals.
New Zealand’s rugby team has pretty much occupied the number-one spot in the World Rugby Rankings since they were introduced. They have frequently made a mockery of other teams on their way to creating the blueprint for how the sport should be played.
The second-best rugby team in the world right now, according to those same rankings, is Ireland. The Irish have only ever beaten the Kiwis twice in the history of the sport, which goes a long way towards explaining just how formidable the country has been in rugby.
Somehow, this dominance hasn’t always translated into silverware.
Having won the very first World Cup in 1987, for all their dominance and supreme ability, the All Blacks would have to wait 20 years — five tournaments later — to take the Webb Ellis Cup back to New Zealand.
How can a team that is so far and away the best on the planet consistently fail when it matters most?
Allergic to the World Cup?
The All Blacks have gone a long way towards banishing the “chokers” tag that has plagued them since 1991, having won the 2011 and 2015 World Cup.
However, fans old enough to remember the old days will still lament the disasters that occurred at the 1991 Rugby World Cup semi-finals, the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, the 1999 Rugby World Cup semi-finals, the 2003 Rugby World Cup semi-finals, and, of course, the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
Despite being favorites for all five tournaments, the world’s greatest exponents of rugby went home empty-handed.
Following their shortcomings, the media in New Zealand tried to make sense of the country’s profligacy when it comes to the World Cup.
While the 1995 final allegedly saw New Zealand come down with a rather suspicious bout of food poisoning, they were playing a team who wanted it more on the day. South Africa was undergoing radical social changes, and the victory was instrumental in bringing joy to the country.
Against France in the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, Kiwis still lament the “questionable” refereeing decisions they believe were instrumental in that loss.
Regardless of the excuses, the country was a massive underachiever throughout this period and will forever be remembered as “chokers” when it mattered most.
1. Buffalo Bills
It’s hard to find a team, franchise, or athlete in American sports that consistently screwed things up at the final hurdle quite like the Buffalo Bills.
Kids across the US would delight in relaying the acronym for Bills, “Boy, I Love Losing Super Bowls,” given that they had lost four Super Bowls in a row. Yes, that is four Super Bowls (1, 2, 3, 4) in a row.
On one hand, is it fair to brand any franchise that has made four Super Bowls in a row as “chokers”?
Maybe, but that would completely destroy the narrative of this piece, so therefore, we will just sweep that sentiment to one side for now.
As painful as it must be to be a Bills fan, imagine being Jim Kelly, the talented quarterback of a team that made four straight finals only to walk away with a grand total of zero rings.
Imagine being in Kelly’s position. At some point between brushing your teeth in the morning and turning the bedside light off before sleep at night, flashbacks of those finals must hit you like that truck out of Pet Sematary.
The blame that Kelly took for the Bills’ impotence is unfair. After all, they were a team, and every player played their part. However, as the maestro of the orchestra — which all great quarterbacks should be — it is only natural that he would be the one to catch the most flak.
Just How Do You Lose Four Consecutive Super Bowls?
By playing for a team where the word “Bills” follows the word “Buffalo,” I guess.
As the only team to ever make four consecutive Super Bowls — the Miami Dolphins came closest, having made three in a row — you have to give credit where credit is due.
However, they should have won at least one, right?
On Jan. 27, 1991, the Bills — a 6.5-point favorite — lost out to the New York Giants by a score of 20-19.
This was largely down to the absence of Phil Simms, the Giants’ starting quarterback, and an excellent offense that had looked very difficult to stop. However, as the Bills soon found out, it was, in fact, very stoppable.
In 1992’s Super Bowl, the seriously underrated Washington Redskins consigned the Bills to their second consecutive defeat in the championship by 37 to 24.
Was this a game that the Bills lost? No. This was a game that the Redskins won, hands down. Washington was a 7-point favorite prior to kickoff and justified these odds with a commanding performance to win the game.
In 1993, the Dallas Cowboys absolutely annihilated the Bills by 52 points to 17.
At just a 6.5-point favorite heading into the game, backing the Cowboys made a lot of NFL betting enthusiasts very happy indeed. Those who adopted the “the Bills have to win one at some point” mindset were taught a valuable lesson.
Then, on January 30, 1994, the Cowboys once again showed the Bills a ruthless streak, winning 30-13 and turning them into a laughing stock.
Although the Bills had a 13-6 lead at halftime, they wouldn’t score a single point in the second half, giving up 24 unanswered points and confirming their status as the biggest chokers in the history of sports.
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