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Ten days after becoming the first man to break the sound barrier–you know, without an airplane–when he jumped from near-space, Felix Baumgartner announced that he’s finished with death-defying stunts. “I am officially retired from the daredevil business now,” Baumgartner told United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a visit to the international organization.
This is a great example of a man going out on top before he can make an embarrassment (or a gooey splatter) of himself. Baumgartner’s 24-mile, 834-mph, Mach 1.24 free-fall–the highest skydive in history, which ended with him sticking the landing–won’t be surpassed any time soon. And now he’s securing his legacy by refusing to tarnish it.
If Baumgartner doesn’t plan a Michael Jordan-esque comeback, he’ll join an elite club of guys who had the wisdom to quit while they were still ahead…
1. The Beatles
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Say what you will about their solo efforts–and there’s a lot of good things to say, if you pretend the 1980s never happened–but The Beatles undoubtedly went out with a bang, not a whimper. The band’s 11th and final studio album, 1969’s Abbey Road, featured some of their greatest classics: John Lennon‘s “Come Together,” George Harrison‘s “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” Paul McCartney‘s legendary side-two suite and Ringo Starr‘s… um… Ringo was there too!
The Fab Four turned down millions upon millions of dollars to reunite in the ’70s. As McCartney explains, “[W]e said, ‘You know what? It won’t be as good.’ Because that period when we were The Beatles, it was damn good and we never really ruined it.” Like, say, with “Wonderful Christmastime.”
2. Dave Chappelle
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Although he still makes sporadic, impromptu standup appearances, Dave Chappelle effectively retired from Hollywood stardom in 2005 after the second season of “Chappelle’s Show.” Instead of taking a reported $55 million to return, the comedian (who told an audience, “The show is ruining my life”) traveled to South Africa, where “I don’t have the distractions of fame. It quiets the ego down. … I’ve got to check my intentions, man.” We intend to watch the reruns whenever they’re on TV, because he walked away before making any bad ones.
3. Michael Phelps
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You’re the most-winning Olympian in history with 22 medals, 18 of them gold. What do you do? Apparently sit around with a Subway $5 foot-long to satisfy the munchies. After his incredible streak at last summer’s Olympics, Michael Phelps retired at age 27. “I finished my career the way I wanted to,” he said. “I think that’s pretty cool.” Ryan Lochte probably does too, since no one else is stealing the limelight now.
4. David Blaine
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He’s spent a week underwater, 63 hours in a block of ice and more than a month without food. For his latest stunt, “Electrified: One Million Volts Always On,” Blaine was zapped with Tesla coils for three consecutive days. And now, the masochistic magician is retiring: “This is my last endurance stunt that I’m ever going to do.” Considering that magician Joseph Burrus died in 1990 while trying to outdo Harry Houdini, Blaine should be commended for calling it a day while he still can.
5. Rocky Marciano
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The World Heavyweight Champion from 1952 to 1956, Rocky Marciano retired with zero ties and zero defeats. The boxer thought about a comeback (“I’d be conceited if I said I could [beat Muhammad Ali], but I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t”) except that his wife opposed it, most likely saving his unblemished record.
6. William Shakespeare
After you’ve written the greatest works of English literature, you don’t want to disappoint fans with a dud–which is perhaps why the playwright retired to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1610 after finishing “The Tempest.” He died a few years later, leaving behind a treasure trove of genius that people around the world have pretended to enjoy for centuries.
7. Barry Sanders
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The anti-Brett Favre, Barry Sanders–at 30 years old, healthy and set to earn $35.4 million–abruptly walked away from professional football in 1998. But the Detroit Lions running back quit too early, with less than 1,500 yards (his average per season) to go before he would’ve surpassed the NFL’s rushing record.
“I had already achieved a level of success that gave me much satisfaction and pride,” Sanders wrote in his 2003 autobiography. “I didn’t need to pass Walter [Payton] to prove that to myself.”
Yeah, but he still needed to prove it to others. The lesson: you want to go out on top… not really, really close to the top.