“Imma show you how great I am!”. The iconic words of Muhammad Ali are as recognisable today as they were in September 1974 when Ali began his tirade on George Foreman. But what does it actually mean to be the greatest? To be the greatest, do you have to transcend sport? Do you have to do more than just gain titles and records? And does the sport that achievements are made in have any impact on the validity of the achievement?
So, if a sport is more popular and there is more competition, or if a sport is harder to access and practise, does this make the achievements within that sport more impressive and laudable?
As the most popular sport in the world, football (or, as some irritatingly call it, soccer) is the sport whereby there is the most competition for places. So, in that sense, it could be seen as the hardest sport in which to succeed.
The legendary names of Pele and Maradona, along with the modern legends of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, have sensational records and achievements. And, due to the worldwide appeal of the sport, their sporting impact has been far-reaching and globally renowned. So, are any of these names a shoo-in for ‘the greatest’?
For me, despite seeing football as the best sport in the world, I must say unfortunately not. It must be noted that a team sport such as football is much harder to gauge in terms of individual ability and achievements.
Also, although competition of places at the elite level of football is fierce, it is an easily accessible sport – with most towns having multiple weekend league teams and it being a prevalent part of the national PE curriculum.
So, what about individual sports? Golf and Formula One, for example. Both of these sports are much less accessible than football.
Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the two names that challenge one another for the top spot upon the pedestal of golfing greatness. Now they are both true greats, but, for me, Tiger has the slight edge. This is because golf was once a white, middle-class sport and, although some of that stigma remains, Woods dragged the sport into the modern era and became the greatest golfer in the world in spectacular and clinical fashion.
In the world of F1, Michael Schumacher is undoubtedly the outstanding candidate. Not only did Schumacher win seven world championships, but he also continued his work in many charities and awareness programmes following the end of his career. Both Woods and Schumacher clearly make the shortlist of sporting greats. But are either of them the greatest?
How about the world of athletics? There are so many ‘legends’ of athletics, but whose achievements were so good and whose impact was so great that they are in with a shout of being the greatest?
Nothing else in athletics quite has the pull that the 100m does. To have everyone on the edge of their seat in every corner of the globe for 9.58 seconds; step forward Usain Bolt. Entertainment and calmness personified.
And how about Mo Farah? Seen as one of the ‘nicest guys’ in the world of sport, Mo knocked the Ethiopians and Kenyans off their lofty perch in order to dominate the world of long-distance running – with double Olympic gold (5,000m and 10,000m) for two Olympics running (2012 and 2016).
Despite being a one-Olympic-wonder, Jesse Owens’ achievements reverberated around the world and have huge historical impact – not merely in a sporting sense. In the 1936 Berlin (‘Hitler’) Olympics, Jesse Owens won 4 Olympic gold medals. This was all despite the fact that the entire Olympics was seen as a racist propaganda campaign.
*If you don’t know the details of what happened at this Olympics and the impact of what Owens did then it really is a must-read!!!*
Michael Phelps. Do I need to say any more? 28 Olympic medals – with 23 of them in the twinkling of gold. Phelps utterly dominated his sport and is the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Tennis is one of the biggest sports in the world and it’s within this sport that you’ll find a wealth of female contenders for this list. The likes of Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Billie Jean-King are all iconic names within the sporting world and have all had a huge role to play in terms of being pioneering athletes promoting the women’s game.
Serena Williams, similar to Tiger Woods, perhaps has the slight edge, as she has been a dominating sporting force and voice, not just for gender equality, but also for racial equality (in a largely white, middle class dominated sport).
In terms of sporting domination and sheer talent, Roger Federer is also a name that is very much touted for one of the greatest athletes ever. In a popular sport, Federer has been sublime. He has smashed records and dominated for years past what is expected to be a sportsman’s prime.
There are a few names that come to mind who have completely dominated their sport and have become legends and household names. However, with their sports being less popular on a worldwide scale than the likes of football, athletics and tennis, are they worthy of a place as one of the greatest?
Phil Taylor (16 time world darts champion), Tom Brady (6 time Super Bowl winner), AP McCoy (20 consecutive times as Champion Jockey), Charlotte Dujardin (4 time world dressage champion and 3 time Olympic gold medallist) and Wayne Gretzky (the only ice hockey player to have his jersey number retired across the whole sport).
These names are undoubtedly legends of their sport and legends of sport in general. But can they truly be the greatest if they do not have the mass appeal of certain other sports?
Now. It’s time for my favourite. And he’s the favourite for a reason. Former unified heavyweight champion of the boxing world, 6 feet and 3 inches tall, a 78” reach, an orthodox stance and the nickname “The Greatest”…(formerly Cassius Clay) Muhammad Ali.
Ali was an icon for the civil rights movement, he was one of the most talented sportspeople the world has ever seen and he was certainly one of the most entertaining. There are countless quotes of Ali’s that the vast majority of the public would be familiar with. In that sense, he has the iconic inspirational power of historic leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X and Nelson Mandela (among numerous others).
For me, Muhammad Ali is the one sporting great who is not only a historic, recording breaking sports person, but also a worldwide influencer; an influence and a voice that has echoed through society for generations passed and will continue to do so for generations to come.