Late Stage GOATs: The Comeback

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At the last PGA Tournament event of the year, Tiger Woods strolled up to the 18th green, swarmed by droves of fans wanting to get close to the greatest golfer of all time as he capped off his first win in over five years. Less than a week later, Lil Wayne released his legendarily-delayed album Tha Carter 5 to much more aplomb than anyone could’ve possibly anticipated. Tiger and Wayne’s journey in the public consciousness has been very similar. They were precocious out-of-this-world talents who impacted their fields right away; they peaked around the same time (2005-2008), wherein Tiger was winning major after major, and Weezy released a deluge of mixtapes capped off by the tremendous Carter 3. Both believed they were the greatest in the world, and people agreed with them.

Then came the struggles. Wayne went to prison, and then released a slew of critically panned projects (although I am partial to Tha Carter 4). Around this time, Tiger’s salacious lifestyle was put on blast, in a very, very different era (2010) when consensual extramarital dalliances could ruin one’s public persona. And yet things managed to get worse for both of them. Tiger tore his ACL and had to get back surgery after back surgery. Wayne had a public falling out with his label head and father-figure Birdman; this led to a lawsuit, and to Birdman blocking the release of Tha Carter 5. It also led to Birdman and Young Thug allegedly shooting up Wayne’s tour bus. Wayne was in a dark place. There were reports of his seizures and his burgeoning addiction to lean. Tiger was arrested for a DUI when his car was found parked at a red light while a concoction of pills were working their way through his system. It looked bleak. Two of the greatest figures of the 2000’s, seemingly headed for tragedy. It didn’t look like C5 would ever be released. Many people thought Tiger would never win again.

It’s difficult to emphasize the ubiquity of Tiger and Weezy’s influence in their respective fields. The image of a rapper in 2018 is exuberant, face-tatted, releasing free streamable music in droves— a model invented by Wayne almost a decade ago. And it had its detractors then, like 50 Cent saying that Lil Wayne was going to wear people out by releasing so much music. Everyone making rap music now has been directly or indirectly influenced by him. Similarly, Tiger Woods is easily the most important figure in the history of golf (the ratings for the last round of the Tour Championship were up 206% from last year solely because of him). He took golf from being a lame sport for old guys to something that could possibly be cool (emphasis on “possibly”). The younger generation of golfers like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy directly attribute their love of the game to Tiger.

Lil Wayne and Tiger, for a moment, suffered from the ambient hate directed at people that are too dominant in their fields, but then something switched; they were outed as not being the superhuman overachieving freaks that they were assumed to be, but rather people that struggled, too. They were humanized. They became underdogs. So when Tiger Woods was walking to that last hole to seal his victory on the last Sunday of the PGA Tour, people were rooting for him. Weezy was an underdog when he dropped his album too. People wanted it to be good. They didn’t want to see a former great turn out a limp, outdated album. They didn’t want to see Tiger get defeated at the very end.

There’s no reason for this late-stage success, though. There’s no discernible reason—after being out of the cultural consciousness for so long—that Wayne could release an album that’s actually good. Sure, it’s a little too long. Sure, there are some duds (“Start This Shit Off Right” is ostensibly there to remind the Young Money faithful that Mack Maine is still alive). And some of the tracks have the outdated sound of songs that were recorded a few years ago—which many were. But overall it’s all you could possibly want from Weezy in this stage of his career. It would’ve been very easy for Wayne to release the album equivalent of going on SNL and wearing a water bottle costume and doing an all-time-horrific performance with a teenager (see: Kanye), but instead he released a project that oscillates through his peak modes: silly, sensitive, spastic, vulnerable. Even though he rippity-raps a little bit throughout, it isn’t the exhausting word vomit of an angry, out of touch Eminem; it’s a confident rapper who acknowledges his influence and is comfortable in his position. Tiger pulled off an athletic equivalent of Tha Carter 5. He shouldn’t have won a golf tournament. His back is a disaster. He basically had to learn how to swing again. And golf is such a mental sport, that being publicly shamed and fighting a possible drug addiction are not conducive to success.

But they did it; they weren’t their old, unstoppable selves, but they pulled it off. Lil Wayne is probably the greatest rapper of all time, if you consider poise in your later stages as a factor (again, see: Kanye); and Tiger is definitely the greatest golfer ever if you ask anyone other than the old country-clubbing Jack Nicklaus stans. Teddy Atlas, Mike Tyson’s old trainer, said recently on a podcast that Mike Tyson was really 0-5 in his career because whenever he had a real challenge, he couldn’t rise to the occasion. That’s what cements the legacy of a GOAT: when the odds are stacked against you and you still overcome. Everything came too easily to Wayne and Tiger early in their careers, but now they’ve proven they can win when nobody thinks they can. And that’s why they’re the best ever.

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