1. Muhammad Ali – Boxing
Sometimes great sportsmen come to symbolise something of wider significance. That is why Ali tops so many people’s lists.
He was a brilliant fighter, the man who shocked the world when he beat the fearsome Sonny Liston in 1962 to win his first world heavyweight title.
He was also involved in two of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century – the Rumble in the Jungle, when he beat George Foreman and in the Thrilla in Manila, when he outlasted Joe Frazier.
His time defined him, too.
He came to prominence during the Civil Rights struggle in the USA and by abandoning his “slave name” of Cassius Clay, joining the Nation of Islam and refusing to serve in Vietnam, he came to stand for the triumph of principle over the establishment.
Ali may or may not be “The Greatest”, but then “sportsman” is inadequate to describe a man who helped change cultural attitudes, as well as his own sport. He was certainly sport’s first and greatest trash-talker; the first to truly take advantage of television’s mass-reach; and in terms of sheer impact, popularity and entertainment value worldwide remained untouched until Michael Jordan. As a historic figure, no sports star even comes close.
2. Don Bradman – Cricket
The greatest cricketer of them all. Mathematicians have dissected his famous 99.94 average and proven that no sportsman anywhere in the world has ever been statistically so far ahead of the pack.
He passed 200, 12 times in Test cricket, scored 100 or more 29 times in his 80 Test innings, and 117 times in just 338 first-class knocks. Few batsman pass 50 every third innings, let alone the magic 100 mark, but there we go talking statistics again. Surprisingly, the Don has his doubters and critics. The most common criticism is that he faced just four nations in Test combat…….AND how many nations did baseball legend Babe Ruth face?
3. Michael Jordan – Basketball
Jordan was the man who turned basketball into the world’s street game. Whose influence and fame reached so far into the darkest corners of the world that kids stopped playing their native sports and took up hoops, with a Jordan poster on the wall. Here was a man who became the shoe that made the company that turned Jordan into a man rich beyond sport’s previous levels of imagination. And the reason this happened? The genius and insane competitiveness to become a player so good he seemed to deny physics, to wring gasps of awe from anyone who saw him. And to take a whole franchise on his back and win and win and win.
4. Jack Nicklaus – Golf
Before there was Tiger Woods, there was Jack. The American won 18 Majors and was runner-up a further 19 times. Nicklaus owned golf, which wasn’t easy to do in the era of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Many say it’s a measure of Nicklaus’ greatness that he overcame such worthy foes.
5. Pele – Football
It’s difficult to really grasp the scope of Pele’s achievements. He is the Brazilian footballer who scored four times in every five games for his country, netted 1281 goals over a 20-year career and won the World Cup three times. Fair enough, there are the medals. But those who were there remember the breathtaking style and intelligence of his play, the athletic improvisation: playing in teams packed with fabulous talent (including 1970’s Brazil, possibly football’s greatest ever).
6. Rod Laver – Tennis
Whiplash placements on the run; viciously sliced volleys, half-volleys transformed on the instant into dying drop shots, beaten but admiring opponents… Roger Federer? No, Laver, the first true artist of the court, who tried everything his imagination could conjure, and pulled most of it off. Straddling the amateur and professional eras, the length and success of Laver’s career is simply amazing: he won the grand slam twice – seven years apart and was world No.1 for most of the 1960s, winning at will on every surface available, and garnering 11 Majors. He would have won even more, but going professional derailed his record for five whole years.
7. Roger Federer – Tennis
That Federer is the beat best we’ve seen in the television era is beyond doubt. Take the Sampras serve, the Agassi baseline shots and throw in the craft of a McEnroe and you start to build what we have today. But for all his mastery, which he continues to achieve without ever appearing to sweat half as hard as his opponents, I still rate Laver ahead of him.
8. Diego Maradona – Football
To the small Argentine, the ball was a best friend: his close control was uncanny and no one has ever carried the ball upfield as fast as he did. It never seemed to matter if there were opponents in the way or not – he simply went through them without slowing. His first goal against England at the 1986 World Cup is still rated the greatest ever and is the perfect example of his skills: twisting and turning seasoned internationals with barely a hint of effort, accelerating away and sliding the ball perfectly into the net. Easy. Except it’s impossible. Maradona won one World Cup but should have won more.
9. Carl Lewis – Athletics
Carl Lewis is an example of the happy, brash attitude of the modern professional era of athletics in the 1980s. A dominant figure in sprinting for a decade, Lewis’s defining time was the ’84 LA Olympics, where he won everything he entered: 100m, 200m, relay and long jump, the first to do it since his hero Jesse Owens. The long jump was often seen as his bonus event, but he was equally dominant in the field, and his ’84 indoor world record still stands. But he will be forver remembered for his exploits in the 100 metres.
10. Michael Phelps – Swimmimg
Phelps won 18 gold medals and 22 overall at the Olympics, more than any Olympian. Like any true champion, Phelps doesn’t just win, but wins when it looks impossible like his miracle performance in the 100m fly in Beijing, when he came from nowhere to win.
Here are some others that I thought deserved a mention.
Jesse Owens – Athletics
Many may disagree with this BUT…..
Owens went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a black athlete. Under the Nazi regime and Hitler's belief that the Ayrian race (blonde hair blue eyes) were better, the American proved the dictator wrong.
Owens won gold in the 100m, 200m, the long jump and the 4x100m relay. He defied against the odds in a country that hated ethnic diversity. What he achieved will be legendary forever.
Bjorn Borg – Tennis
Had Borg decided to play the Australian Open more than once, who knows how many Majors he’d have won? When he quit, at just 26, he’d won 11, completing a career of such ludicrous dominance it was hard to believe he’d gone. The two-handed backhand Swede ruled France and Wimbledon, as well as competing in four US Open finals. Severe training, willpower and talent kept him totally dominant until he walked away from the sport in 1981.
Please let us know below via our comment section if you agree or not and give us your list.