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The boxing, baseball and football stars who never said “Never”

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Professional sport often requires participation, guidance and specific training from an early age, but the occasional ‘late bloomer’ gives us all hope that we may yet defy the odds to make it as professional athletes.

In the world of boxing, Ken Norton and Rocky Marciano are commonly regarded to be ‘late bloomers’. Norton first became WBC Heavyweight Champion at an age of over 30 and beat the great Muhammad Ali in his illustrious but slow-burning career. Marciano never lost a fight in his professional career but only won the World Heavyweight title in his 43rd fight, at the age of 29, just four years prior to his retirement from boxing. Similarly to the retired British 800m runner Kelly Holmes, both men had completed military service prior to starting their sporting careers, which had delayed their progress.

Prior to the 1999 Major League Baseball draft, young outfielder Josh Hamilton was heralded as a future star but injuries and drug addictions stalled his career so that he only made his Major League debut in 2007, for the Cincinnati Reds. However, since then he has gone from strength to strength, making the American All Star team for 5 consecutive years since 2008. So astonishing is his story that on June 22, 2012, he agreed a deal with Hollywood film-maker Casey Affleck to create a movie based on Hamilton's life.

Copyright: Tsutoma TakasuFrom farm4.staticflickr.comIn the world of football, the rule to becoming a professional player is, invariably, being part of an academy from as young an age as 7. However, it is not uncommon for players to be released by top-flight clubs in their late teens or early twenties, having failed to ‘make the grade’. For some, this is the catalyst for a downward spiral in their career but for others, it is an opportunity to prove their former employers wrong.

Italian striker Luca Toni is perhaps the ultimate example of this. He spent much of his early career playing in the lower Italian leagues, but in 2003, something clicked for the 26 year-old. In the next 5 seasons, he would go on to score over 120 goals at club level and make nearly 50 appearances for the Italian national team, scoring 16 goals. He was also part of the Italy side that won the World Cup in 2006 and is regarded as one of the most prolific goal scorers in the history of Italian football.

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