Many athletes begin training at a young age. They receive the best coaching and incredible facilities. But that isn’t the case for everybody. Some sports stars had to start at the very bottom. In fact, several sports stars have come from extreme poverty. They have had to fight against incredible adversity to achieve their dreams.
Today, we’re going to look at sports stars who struggled in their early lives. There are some incredible stories on this list. Some of them were homeless or shared one room with their entire family. Others escaped warzones and lives of crime. There’s even one athlete who was a child soldier. Their experiences only served to make them even stronger and enhance their spirit. These athletes are truly inspirational. Check out our list below.
30. LeBron James
Undoubtedly the greatest basketball player of his generation, James is on top of the world. The four-time MVP has an estimated net worth of $450 million. He’s one of the most popular athletes in the US. Furthermore, the three-time NBA champion is also a 15-time All-Star. The man is an NBA legend.
So it may come as a surprise that this man truly rose from rags to riches. James’s mother was just sixteen when he was born and his criminal father was not in his life. They moved around the seedy neighborhoods of Akron, Ohio, until James’ mother finally allowed him to live with the Walker family. This changed everything for him, and the rest is history.
Pacquaio’s family was so poor that they often went without rice. His father would climb up 70 trees a day trying to find coconuts to sell and feed his family. Raised in a single-room shack in the Filipino town of Tango, they lived in shocking poverty. Everything looked hopeless until his uncles introduced him to boxing.
Sardo Mejia is responsible for putting Pacquaio on the path to glory. Mejia still keeps his nephew’s first pair of gloves. To sum up, Pacquaio is now a legend in his country. He’s the only eight-division world champion in the history of boxing. Furthermore, he’s currently serving as a state senator in the Philippines.
The former sprinter is a living legend. An eight-time Olympic gold medallist, Bolt is the only sprinter to win 100m and 200m titles at three consecutive Olympics. Furthermore, he is also the most successful athlete in the history of the World Championships with 11 wins.
Bolt’s Olympic success has also brought positive change to his childhood community. None of his fellow villagers had running water when he was young. After his first three gold medals, he was able to bring that gift to his people. The youngster’s school teachers spotted his potential and convinced him to give up his soccer dreams to continue running.
Hailing from Philidelphia, it’s no surprise that McClain was a boxer as a child. However, the NFL was where his talents would eventually lie. His childhood was extremely tough. Raised by his mother, he spent many nights in Philly’s Salvation Army. Eventually, his aunt and uncle permanently took him in.
After attending Syracuse University, he joined the Baltimore Ravens as a free agent. This totally changed his life. The highlight of his career was winning Superbowl XLVII in 2012. Now, he’s currently the Director of Player Engagement with the Ravens. McClain continues to contribute to the Salvation Army.
Colombian winger Cuadrado is one of the quickest players in soccer today. The Juventus star has lit up Serie A with his searing pace and silky skills. A mainstay for his national side, Cuadrado has played in two World Cups. His attributes have seen him compared to players of old, with his direct style harkening back to the past.
Cuadrado had a seriously rough childhood though. Born in gang-ravaged Necoli, this was a tough place to be a child. When he was five years old, his father died in front of him when gangsters murdered him. Cuadrado’s mother also prevented him from playing football unless he got good grades in school.
Adriano was arguably Brazil’s last great striker. Regarded as Ronaldo’s natural successor, the soccer star didn’t always cope well with that pressure. He came from very humble beginnings, hailing from the Rio de Janeiro favela of Vila Cruizero. The favela gained infamy for the murder of journalist Tim Lopes.
The soccer star dreamed of breaking free of the favela and buying his mother a new home. Then, Flamengo came in for him and changed his life. He went from there to Inter Milan, where he became one of the best soccer stars in the world. However, inconsistency held him back from unlocking his true potential.
Now retired, Butler is a two-time NBA All-Star. He played for eight teams in the league and his most successful season was with the Denver Pistons. Butler managed to become an NBA champion. But he had to overcome some hard times on his way to glory.
Born in Wisconsin, his childhood was rough and poverty-stricken. Things got worse as he got close to his teens. Butler turned to drug dealing at the age of 11. His life of crime included 13 arrests before the age of 13. It was in a juvenile detention center that he rediscovered his love of basketball.
Mathieu currently plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. Nicknamed the ‘Honey Badger’ for his tenacity against much bigger opponents, he’s a popular player. However, he’s prone to causing controversy or two. This has given him a reputation for being a bad boy. With his background though, you could argue he’s turned out well.
His biological father, Darrin Hynes, has been incarcerated for murder most of Mathieu’s life. Meanwhile, his mother was absent for most of his childhood as well. The Chuck Bednarik Award winner is defensively brilliant. He’s just so good at snagging turnovers.
Kebede’s family was extremely poor when he was a child. He was the fifth of thirteen children and only ate one meal per day. The youngster collected firewood to sell and herded livestock to supplement his father’s earnings, paying for his own education and the rest of his family. But then he began to run for pleasure. Yes, some people actually do that.
He quickly rose to become a prominent distance runner and established himself as one of Ethiopia’s top athletes. The Olympic bronze medalist won the 2010 London City Marathon. To sum up, Kebede could never have imagined that he would be traveling the world as one of its top endurance athletes.
Poverty comes in different forms. The Rosengard district of Malmo, Sweden, is one of the toughest places to live in the city. Crime and drug use is prolific, so it’s easy for youngsters to fall into a life of crime. Born to immigrant parents, the young Ibrahimovic’s father was an alcoholic. Yet somehow, he managed to make his way.
This soccer superstar went on to have an incredible career. He’s currently lighting up the MLS with LA Galaxy. After spells with some of the biggest clubs on the planet, his trophy cabinet is full. The 11-Time Swedish Player of the Year won over 100 caps for his country.
Holyfield was a force of nature. The legendary boxer is still the only man to be the undisputed champion in two weight classes. Born in Alabama, his family later moved to Atlanta. They lived in the crime-ridden Bowen Homes Housing Projects. This was one of the toughest parts of the city. However, Holyfield’s mother managed to keep the youngest of her nine children on the straight and narrow.
‘The Real Deal’ is the only man to hold the heavyweight title four times. He’s famous for his rivalry with Mike Tyson, with the latter even biting a chunk out of his ear. As well as beating Tyson, Holyfield has victories over legends like George Foreman and Larry Holmes.
The volatile Argentinian was a genius on the soccer field. He’s given the world some iconic moments including the infamous ‘Hand of God.’ There was also that incredible goal against England where he ran past half the team before scoring. In short, he was a true crazy genius on the pitch and could do anything.
Maradona definitely wasn’t born with a silver spoon though. His family lived in a Buenos Aires shantytown. He was the fourth of eight children and they all lived in one room together. Fortunately, his natural talents saw him escape from poverty and reach greatness.
Djokovic is currently the number one men’s tennis player in the world. The Serbian superstar has won 16 Grand Slam titles in his career. Winning countless tournaments has earned him fame and fortune. In short, he’s one of the three best tennis players of this era alongside Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But it wasn’t always an easy life for the Serbian.
During the 90s, Serbia was a war-torn country. Djokovic was born into this environment and raised in Belgrade during some of the worst years of the conflict. Even though his parents didn’t have access to basic items like bread and milk, they still did their best to raise him well. To sum up, they obviously did a good job despite the circumstances.
Love him or loathe him, Neymar is one of the greatest soccer players in the world today. The Brazilian forward has lit up La Liga and France while carrying the weight of his nation on his shoulders. He managed to reach 100 caps quicker than anybody else in the history of the Brazilian national team. Furthermore, he’s one of the most marketable players on the planet.
But it wasn’t always like this. Neymar grew up in a cramped room in his grandfather’s house. He shared it with his siblings and parents before going on to become a soccer prodigy. His success has managed to change his entire family’s life, so it’s fair to say they owe him a lot.
Brazilian MMA fighter Fernandes is one of the best athletes to never fight in the UFC. He’s currently the ONE bantamweight champion and is one of the best grapplers on the planet. Fernandes is a training partner of Demetrious Johnson, the most successful champion in UFC history.
However, his childhood was insane. Fernandes grew up on the streets of Manaus. His mother tragically died when he was just six years old, prompting his father to abandon his family. The future champion and his four siblings took to the streets and even found themselves living in the Amazon rainforest.
‘The Predator’ is one of the most terrifying power punchers in heavyweight MMA history. Hailing from Batie, Cameroon, Ngannou worked in a sand quarry from a young age. His muscular frame attracted the attention of many gangs. However, Ngannou wanted to stay clean and moved to Paris.
He lived homeless on the streets of France. But then Fernand Lopez, the head coach of the MMA Factory, changed his life. Ngannou had never even heard of MMA before meeting Lopez. Now he’s a top contender in the UFC and even fought for the title. This is a true rags-to-riches story.
Brazilian forward Pele is one of the best soccer players in the history of the sport. In fact, some say he is the very best. Whatever you think, his numbers are astonishing. Pelé is the most successful domestic league goal-scorer in football history scoring 650 goals in 694 league matches, and in total 1281 goals in 1363 games.
But he came from incredible poverty. His father was also a soccer player, but nowhere near his son’s levels. As such, he struggled to make a living. Pele first learned to play the game by kicking a rolled-up sock filled with rags. Those are some humble beginnings. He’s now a living legend.
Is it any wonder that Tyson went crazy? He had one of the toughest childhoods in the history of sports. Born into a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, his family was poverty-stricken. Then, to make matters worse, Tyson’s father abandoned his family. His struggling mother moved them to an even worse area.
Needless to say, ‘Iron Mike’ fell in with the wrong crowd. His childhood included 30 arrests by the age of 13. Those arrests included a number of armed robberies. His incredible boxing skills were actually discovered when he was serving time in a juvenile detention center. But he would go on to become the unified heavyweight champion.
The first of two Liverpool forwards on this list, Mane is an inspirational figure. The Senegal international is one of the best soccer players on the planet right now. Alongside his teammate Mohammed Salah, he won the 2018 Golden Boot. Furthermore, he helped his team to win the 2019 Champion’s League Final.
But it could have been very different. Mane’s father banned him from playing the sport as a youngster because he thought it would disrupt his son’s studies. Since escaping from poverty, he has built schools in his hometown of Bambali and donates money to families there every month. Never forget where you come from.
Cruz came from the tough town of Patterson, New Jersey. Tragedy struck when his father took his own life. It would have been very easy for him to fall into a life of crime and drugs, but somehow, he managed to stay on track. Poor grades prevented him from attending the University of Massachusetts. So he went to community college and got what he needed.
Once he reached UMass, it was clear that he was talented. He joined the New York Giants. Then things stabilized and he went on to have a glittering career. With the Giants, he won Super Bowl XLVI over the New England Patriots and made the 2012 Pro Bowl.
Puig made a deal with the Cartel to smuggle him out of his native Cuba. He grew up in poverty and eventually turned to baseball as a way to make a living. But his income was just $17 a month. The Cuban starlet saw the US as a land of opportunity, and that’s why he took such a drastic step.
But they held him captive to extort even more money from him. If Puig and his representatives didn’t pay, the Cartel threatened to cut off his arm. That’s not exactly ideal for a budding baseball player. But he’d make it through adversity. Puig is currently playing for the Cleveland Indians in MLB.
Nobody in the Egyptian village of Nagrig could have expected the rise of Salah. The Liverpool forward’s numbers are startling. His searing pace has helped him become the focal point of the Merseysider’s attack. Salah’s impact helped Liverpool to win the Champion’s League in 2019, the sixth time they’ve lifted the trophy.
However, the Egyptian comes from extremely humble beginnings. Hailing from a dusty village, Salah had no interest in school. He poured all of his focus into soccer and fortunately, he was good enough to make it. Now he’s one of the best attacking players in the world. It’s crazy how things turn out.
The former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder is something of a cult hero. By far the greatest soccer player to come from the reclusive European country, Hleb operated in the hole behind the strikers. His creativity and vision made him a fan-favorite at the Emirates Stadium, although he never established himself in the Nou Camp.
Hleb’s story is a bizarre one. He grew up in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. His father volunteered to demolish houses left uninhabitable due to radiation. This would cause health complications for him later in life. Hleb played on the concrete courts of Minsk until his skill caught the attention of scouts.
The former UFC featherweight champion is one of the best fighters in MMA history. He went unbeaten for 10 years with 18 fights across the decade. Aldo uses brutally efficient striking. Until Conor McGregor came along, the Brazilian looked unstoppable. But he’s still the greatest featherweight ever.
However, it definitely wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the former champion. He was born into poverty in the Amazonian city of Manaus, Brazil. His sister dropped him on a barbecue when he was a child, scarring him for life. When he moved to Rio De Janeiro to become a professional fighter, he literally had just the clothes on his back.
Now retired from football, the young Moreno had a tumultuous upbringing. Born in the Bronx to young parents who weren’t able to look after him, his childhood was rough. There were times where he didn’t even have a roof over his head. He moved between homeless shelters with his father as they struggled to survive.
That sums up the first decade of his life. Then, thankfully, his grandmother adopted him and changed everything. He showed superb potential as an athlete as a young man. To sum up, Moreno went on to play in the NFL for the Broncos and the Dolphins. Moreno credits his faith in giving him to strength to endure the toughest moments.
Uruguay’s Suarez is notorious for his use of the dark arts. But considering his tough upbringing, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The Barcelona forward spent the first years of his life playing shoeless soccer in Salton. Then, his father’s job brought the young man to Montevideo.
After his father abandoned his family when he was 12, Suarez struggled for focus. He fell in with a rough crowd during his early days with Nacional. However, his natural talents saw him pull through. Now he’s one of the most successful and well-regarded soccer players on the planet.
Ibaka’s story is a crazy one. Born in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, he was the third-youngest of 18 children. Somehow, both his mother and father were basketball players. Ibaka first started playing basketball as a form of escapism as he lived through tough circumstances.
After moving to Spain, he attracted the attention of NBA scouts. Ibaka joined the Oklahoma City Thunder and impressed. He’s a three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team selection and has twice led the league in blocks. However, his crowning glory came in 2017 when he won the NBA title with the Toronto Raptors.
Of all the athletes on this list, Ouma’s story is definitely the most harrowing. He was born into extreme poverty in Uganda. Then the National Resistance Army trained Ouma as a child soldier. The five-year-old killed grown men on the battlefield. Consequently, he didn’t see his family for five years.
Of course, this is a horrific experience to have to live through. After he left the army, Ouma decided to box so that he could feed his family. Then it turned out that he was very good at it and he became the IBF junior middleweight champion. Ouma has survived two shootings in the US. It turns out Florida is just as dangerous than war-torn Uganda.
Oher’s story inspired The Blindside, a Hollywood movie starring Sandra Bullock. He was born in Memphis, Tennesse, as the youngest of 12 children. However, the children were impoverished because his mother was a drug addict. Furthermore, his father was in and out of jail. Oher spent time in the foster care system and was even homeless for a while.
But this man went on to have a sublime career. First of all, he earned All-American honors at Mississipi. Then the offensive tackle famously won the Superbowl with the Baltimore Ravens. After a family adopted him and realized his difficult upbringing he was able to meet his potential.
Ronaldo is one of the greatest players to ever set foot on a soccer field. The superstar has represented Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus and is worth millions of dollars. However, he came from incredibly humble beginnings in his native Portugal.
As a child, Ronaldo shared a room with his sister and three brothers. His mother was a cook while his father was a gardener. His parents struggled to feed their children because money was so tight. To sum up, they could never have imagined that he would become the most marketable athlete on the planet.