15 Greatest Athletes of All-Time
If you’re a sports fan, you have undoubtably been involved in the endless debate over who the greatest athlete of all-time is. It’s probably the hardest, yet most fun conversation there is in sports, and many people have assembled their own ranking. But before you can create a list like this, you must come up with some criteria on which to base your opinion. Here are some of the things I took into consideration when creating this list, in no particular order of importance.
1. What are the athlete’s accomplishments in their sport(s)? Things like Gold Medals, Major victories, MVP Awards, All-Star Selections, Hall of Fame recognition, and Championships.
2. What special attributes did/does the athlete have that separate them from all other athletes?
3. How long did the athlete dominate their sport and how far above their contemporaries are they?
4. How strong was/is the era in which the athlete dominated the sport?
5. How much impact did/does the athlete have on their sport, and the sports world as a whole?
6. Did they excel at more than one sport, in professional ranks or in college ranks?
7. What was the level of respect the athlete received from their contemporaries?
8. Did the athlete have an impact that stretched beyond the sports world, did they become bigger than sport?
9. What are the “measurables” of the athlete i.e. sprinting speed, height, and weight, jumping ability, etc.?
10. Does the athlete have unmatched physical abilities such as size, speed, and power combinations?
As you can see, there are many variables involved when creating a list like this and it can be difficult to compare athletes of different eras in different sports. ESPN took on a similar task when they released their top 100 N. American athletes of the 20th Century. ESPN included 3 horses on their list, and had Dion Sanders and Bo Jackson in the 70’s, while having Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth at numbers 1 and 2 respectively, needless to say, I disagreed with ESPN on this one. Well without further ado, let’s get things started!
15. Serena Williams
The most dominant female tennis player in history, Serena can not be ignored on this list. Serena has reigned supreme atop the Woman’s Tennis Association (WTA) for over a decade. At 5’9″and 155 lbs, she is an imposing figure when she steps on the court against any opponent. Her first stint as the number 1 ranked player in the world began in 2003, she has been ranked number 1 for a total of 280 weeks and counting, as she is currently the number 1 ranked female in WTA rankings. If you combine all of that with her 4 Gold Medals, 21 Grand Slam titles, and career record of 743-124 Serena is a legitimate choice for the single greatest female of all-time.
14. Paul Brady
Most people are probably asking,”WHO”? But, Paul Brady is the greatest, and most accomplished handball player of all-time. At 5’9″ he is hardly the most physically intimidating player on a handball court, but his ability to generate elite level power and his all-time great attention to detail has enabled Brady to dominate the game for the past 15 years, with no end to his dominance in sight . “The Gunner” as he is referred to, has an unprecedented 5 World Handball titles, 11 All-Ireland Senior titles ( including 9 in a row), 10 US National Championship titles, along many Irish and US pro circuit victories during his current stretch as the game’s most dominant player. Brady is also an accomplished Gaelic Football player, he has two county U21 medals, three Cavan SFC medals (1998, 2006 and 2012) and one Senior League medal (2012). He was Man of the Match in the 2012 county final win over Kingscourt Stars.
13. Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee is an icon in the world of martial arts and also in the landscape of American culture. The legacy he left on the world of martial arts is evident in the current sports of MMA and UFC. Lee was not know for his results in a tournament format or structured events. He is more the one-of-a-kind type of athlete that has no platform to compete but rather just astonishes viewers with his seeming super-human abilities. In his prime, Lee was able to hit with the same force as Muhammad Ali, Lee was of course only 130 lbs, while Ali was 235 and heavyweight champion of the world. It has been said that Lee was able to do over 1,000 continuous push-ups and 400 continuous 1-armed push-ups. The man is folklore personified.
Pele is the greatest athlete the world’s most popular game has ever seen. Scoring a career total of 1,281 goals in 1,363 games is something we will likely never see in the career of a futbol player again. Pele revolutionized the game while also bringing great attention to the sport and leading the charge in popularity. Pele is the only player in World Cup history to win 3 championships, as he did with Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970. He also recorded 12 goals in his World Cup career. Pele has been portrayed in film, and has been memorialized on postage stamps, along with many other lifetime achievement recognitions.
11. Babe Didrickson Zaharias
Babe Didrikson Zaharias unanimously regarded as the greatest female athlete of all-time. Her accomplishments are endless and she was a standout in many sports, being most dominant in golf, track and field, and basketball. Didrikson was a machine on the golf course, winning 41 LPGA events and 11 majors. She often played in tournaments with men and did very well, in 1948 she became the first woman to attempt to qualify for the US Open, but her application was denied because she was a female. In the 1932 Olympic games Didrikson won 2 gold medals, setting world records in the 80 meter hurdles (11.8 seconds) and in the javelin throw (43.69 meters). She also won a silver medal that year in the high jump. Babe has the resume of a life long athlete, but unfortunately she died of colon cancer at the age of 45 and her career was cut short, otherwise she may have found herself even higher on this list.
10. Dion Sanders
As a two-time Superbowl champion, Dion Sanders is more than just a winner and Dion’s abilities were more than just football specific. He spent 14 seasons playing in the NFL while also playing most of nine seasons in Major League Baseball. He was a solid outfielder and a speedy leadoff hitter for many years, but ultimately Dion decided that, as he put it, “football is his wife, and baseball is his mistress”, so he focused his energy to the gridiron. Sanders’ accolades on the football field are enough to rank him in the elite echelon of all-time football players. NFL.com’s latest ranking has Dion slotted as the 34th best player in league history. He was selected to 8 Pro Bowls, 8 All-Pro teams, he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1994), and 2 time NFC Defensive Player of the Year (1993, 1994). After his career ended, the awards kept coming. He was voted on to the 1990’s All-Decade team as well as being elected into the NFL Hall of Fame and NCAA College Football Hall of Fame in his first years of eligibility. “Prime Time” lived up to the billing as an athlete.
9. Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all-time. He has accumulated a total of 22 Olympic medals, including a World Record 18 golds in his Olympic career. He owns 39 World Records including the 100 meter butterfly and the 200 meter butterfly. Phelps has won a total of 75 medals during his participation in Olympic games, Pan Pacific games, World Games, and World Aquatics Championships. He has been crowned World Swimmer of the Year 7 times, and American Swimmer of the Year 8 times. He was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the year in 2008 and twice was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year (2008,2012)
8. Jesse Owens
In his junior year at Ohio State, Owens competed in 42 events and won them all! Including four in the Big Ten Championships, four in the NCAA Championships, two in the AAU Championships and three at the Olympic Trials. During the height of Nazi Germany, the 1936 Olympic Games were held in Berlin, Jesse Owens showed up, and dominated the “superior race” in every event he participated in. Owens won gold in the 100 meter, 200 meter, 4×100 men’s relay, and the long jump, all in the face of Adolph Hitler. Hitler was quoted as saying he was “highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive”, Hitler said with a shrug; “their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.” Owens was not just competing for himself but rather the entire world, against not only his contemporaries, but an entire ideology. Owens’ accomplishments earned him many other honors through his lifetime including in 1976, when President Ford presented Owens with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. can bestow upon a civilian. Also, a decade after his death, President Bush posthumously awarded Owens the Congressional Medal of Honor. Bush called his victories in Berlin “an unrivaled athletic triumph, but more than that, a triumph for all humanity.”
7. Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson grew up in Pasadena, CA, after being born in Cairo, Georgia. Robinson went to UCLA and was the first ever athlete to letter in four sports for the university. Robinson played baseball, football, basketball, and track and field for the Bruns, winning the NCAA championship for long jump in 1940. Being the first African-American baseball player was the hardest challenge of Robinson’s career. He was a superstar player his entire career, but was never given an opportunity in the Major Leagues until 1947, by then he was already 28 years old. When Jackie did get his chance, boy did he deliver. In 1947 Robinson went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award, as he led the league in stolen bases. He is a World Series champion (1955), MVP Award winner (1949), and also led the league in batting in 1949. Major League Baseball (MLB) has honored Jackie with some distinguished and deserved awards, Jackie was a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 1962 as well as the only player in (MLB) history to have his number retired by the entire league, and in honor of Jackie, once a year MLB has all of its players wear Jackie’s number, 42.
6. Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe is thought by some to be the most well-rounded athlete of all-time. Thorpe was a stand out in every athletic endeavour he pursued, including ballroom dancing, in which he won the 1912 intercollegiate Ballroom Dancing competition. Thorpe would go on to a career in American Football, Baseball, and Olympic athletics. Thorp won 2 Gold Medals in the 1912 Olympics, in the decathlon and the Pentathlon. Thorpe spend 6 years in Major League Baseball, and he spent 2 years traveling with a professional basketball team, Thorpe is probably most well-known for his accomplishments in professional football though. Thorpe spent 15 seasons playing professional football and was honored as a 2 time consensus All-American, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
5. Jim Brown
Jim Brown was far ahead of his time as an athlete, with his combination of size, speed and gracefulness. He excelled at 3 sports while attending Syracuse University. He was a stand out basketball player, during his sophomore season, he averaged 15 points per game and was the second leading scorer on the team, and in his junior season, he was a second-team All-American. He ended his basketball career at Syracuse, but lacrosse was his best sport at the University. In 1957 Brown led Syracuse to the NCAA Lacrosse National Championship, and was named a first-team All-American. Brown went on to become a National Lacrosse Hall of Fame inductee in 1983. Jim Brown is, however, synonymous with football more than any other sport he played. He is still the gold standard for the running back position. In just 9 seasons of play, Brown was able to set the all-time career rushing record, and is currently 9th on the list. Brown is a 3 time MVP and a 1 time champion with 8 first-team All-Pro selections to his credit as well.
4. Michael Jordan
Air Jordan comes in at number 4 on the list. The man is simply the greatest basketball player in the history of the game and his athleticism has to rank with the all time greats. At 6’6″ and 215 lbs, Jordan has a supreme size/athleticism combination seen only once in a generation. His career speaks for itself as a 6 time NBA Champion, 6 time NBA Finals MVP, and 5 time league Most Valuable Player, and leaves little doubt about where he ranks in the NBA hierarchy. After winning 3 straight NBA titles Jordan decided to try his hand at his favorite childhood sport, baseball. Jordan spent a year and a half playing minor league baseball before returning to the NBA to take back his crown as the leagues best player. Jordan retired as the all time leader in points per game (30.1) and playoff average as well (33.4). Jordan was reported to have a 4′ vertical leap during his playing days and he once dunked the ball from the free throw line, 15 feet away from the basket. The Jumpman symbol has become a world-wide brand and His Airness will be a sports icon forever, Jordan was also ranked the number 1 athlete of all-time in the latest ESPN rankings.
3. Bo Jackson
Bo Jackson is the only player to ever make the MLB All-Star team and the NFL Pro-Bowl team. Jackson had one of the greatest combinations of power and speed ever showcased in a sports arena. He holds claim to the fastest 40 yard dash ever recorded at the NFL combine (4.12 seconds). Jackson qualified for the NCAA nationals in the 100-meter dash during his freshman and sophomore years of college. As a stand out football player at Auburn University Jackson won the Heisman Trophy and was a 2 time All-American. Jackson was a dominant running back in the NFL as well, and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1990. His football career was cut short due to a hip injury but he was able to continue his baseball career a little longer. He spent 8 seasons in Major League Baseball and was an All-Star in 1989. During the height of his powers, Jackson was one of the top 10 football players and top 20 baseball players of the time. If his career was not ruined early by injury, Bo Jackson could have been a top this list.
2. Muhammad Ali
Cassius Clay broke onto the boxing scene at a young age, by the time he was 18 years old Clay had won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union National Title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics. As an amateur fighter, Clay posted a record of 100 wins and only 5 losses. Once he became a heavyweight and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, he morphed into the icon of American history we are all familiar with. Ali is a 3 time heavyweight champion, as well as being known as one of the most strategically savvy athletes of all time. Ali was innovative in using words as weapons during competition, he had the ability to trash-talk an opponent out of their game, and once he got into their head the fight was over. Ali also demonstrated one of the most impressive strategies every implemented when he fought the much stronger and much younger George Forman. The fight has been immortalized for decades, and is often referred to as the “Rumble in the Jungle” or the “Rope-a-Dope”. Ali found that the ropes of the ring were tied loosely and he was able to use that to his advantage as he leaned against the ropes heavily which in turn forced Forman to expand his energy reaching for Ali and ultimately Ali was able to win the fight. Ali was brought to the big screen when he was portrayed by Will Smith in the movie “Ali”. When ESPN released their rankings, Ali was put at the number 3 spot.
1. Lebron James
Lebron James is a new breed of athlete, Standing 6’8″ and weighing 260 lbs, Lebron possesses the coordination and athleticism to match any athlete of any size in any era. James was shoved into the spotlight at age 17 when he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and began having his high school games aired live on ESPN. He was dubbed as “The Chosen One” by the publication, he has lived up to, and exceeded the lofty, and unfair expectations. During his days at St. Vincent St. Mary’s, Lebron was a 2 superstar. Along with being the number 1 ranked high school basketball player at age 16, Lebron was being courted by many Division 1 football programs as well, including his home state Buckeyes of Ohio State. He decided to turn his sole focus to basketball after suffering a football related injury during his junior season. As an 18-year-old Lebron was already a bona-fide NBA superstar. The freakish athletic abilities on display were never before seen by sports fans before. ESPN’s Sports Science department reported in 2012 that LeBron’s top sprinting speed was measured at over 20 miles per hour. In addition to his speed James utilizes his 6’8″ frame to his advantage as well, the average NBA player takes about 13 strides to get from one end of the court to the other, Lebron James takes only 9 strides and his standing reach is at an amazing 8’10”. Lebron has already been to 6 NBA Finals in his 12 full seasons including the last 5 NBA Finals. He is a 2 time champion and a 4 time league MVP. While still in his prime Lebron has the resume of a first ballot Hall of Famer. He has become the standard by which all other athletes are measured, and rightfully so.