The timing of the question was curious, considering that Serena Williams had just fallen to Japan’s Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open semifinals. Then again, “curious” would be a most apt description for my firstborn, as he’s shown those tendencies his entire 16 years of life.
“Dad, do you think Serena is the GOAT?” Cooper asked, as he happened by, presumably on his way to the kitchen for one of his 19 daily snacks. (He is a teenage boy, after all.)
We’ll pause in the narrative here for a moment. By now, you should be aware that GOAT stands for the Greatest of All-Time. Not sure that the kids even realize that it formerly was undesirable to be deemed a “goat” in the world of sports. The definition has completely reversed in the 21st century.
“Well, she still hasn’t caught Margaret Court for Grand Slam titles, but … yeah. Serena’s the GOAT,” I replied.
Cooper was not only unsatisfied with that response, but he dismissed it as unrelated to his actual question.
“No, I mean is she the GOAT in all sports? A lot of people (in a teenager’s world, “a lot of people” can be defined as whomever he or she follows on Instagram) think she is,” Coop said.
OK, that’s an entirely different conversation, and a complicated one, to say the least. You’re taking both men’s and women’s athletes, from both the team sports realm and those who compete in Olympic and individual sports, looking across all the different eras, and trying to not only determine who is the greatest in each sport, but who is the greatest of all. No sweat. (Yeah, right.)
How do you even do that? I ask, because as I stare at my flashing cursor, I’m starting to see my afternoon flash before my eyes and cursing the notion of tackling such a project.
I think I’ll forgo trying to come up with some sort of computerized metric, some sort of numbers-based ranking system. Not really my forte, but besides that you’re not talking about an apples to oranges comparison here. This is apples to leaf blowers to bobblehead dolls to smoke detectors.
As such, I’ll rely on my (prohibitive) gut. It hasn’t failed me yet, except whenever it leads me to believe that I can still snack like that aforementioned teenager. My gut tells me that in a GOAT-off, two questions must be answered: “Who dominated their sport the most?” and “Who could you take from one era and deposit into another, while knowing that they’d still dominate?” Seems to me that the latter question may end up overshadowing the former in this exercise.
So, let’s get into it. I’m going to take a cue from David Letterman and do this Top Ten-list style, counting down from 10 to 1. Also, right off the bat, let’s agree to disagree, shall we? Any such set of rankings is entirely subjective, so you’re not subject to sharing any of my opinions. With that in mind, allow me to introduce a Top Ten that needs no introduction.
Honorable Mention: Cheryl Miller (women’s basketball), Pele (men’s soccer), Floyd Mayweather (boxing), Roger Federer (men’s tennis), Mia Hamm (women’s soccer), Annika Sorenstam (women’s golf), Kerri Walsh Jennings (women’s volleyball), Karch Kiraly (men’s volleyball).
10. Willie Mays
Say hey, let’s get the debate raging right off the bat. Yes, Babe Ruth is the most iconic baseball player of all-time. Barry Bonds, even taking into account his enhanced performances, is the greatest modern-era player. (Though Mike Trout may be nipping at his cleats.) But Mays is the best all-around player in history.
The late, great sports scribe Jim Murray once wrote of Mays, “The first thing to establish about Willie Mays is that there really is one.” His exploits indeed defied belief. Five-tool players were a unicorn before Mays came along, and there hasn’t been one any better since.
9. Simone Biles
Biles owns 30 total Olympic and World Championship medals, seven more than she has years on the planet. In the gymnastics world, she’s known for taking on incredibly high-degree-of-difficulty skills and then sticking the landing over and over again.
Biles is so good that she’s essentially the Wilt Chamberlain of gymnastics. Meaning, the powers that be have changed the rules in order to suppress her preeminence. For Wilt, they widened the free throw lane. For Biles, they discouraged other gymnasts from performing her skills, lest they injure themselves.
Yeah, Biles is flippin’ incredible.
8. Jim Brown
Brown’s inclusion as the football king may be controversial, considering Tom Brady just won his seventh (!) Super Bowl title. But I’m not disputing Brady’s place as the GOAT among quarterbacks. Believe it or not, football teams consist of more positions than just the QB, though.
Brown’s athleticism should be undisputed. He was not only an All-American in football at Syracuse, but also in lacrosse. In the NFL, he blended sprinter speed with prodigious power to average 5.2 yards per carry for his eight-year career, and then he vanished from the game before he turned 30.
Cleveland was originally named the Browns for team founder Paul Brown, but I submit that the team should forever retain the nickname in honor of one James Nathaniel Brown.
7. Tiger Woods
If this list simply fixated on the numbers, Jack Nicklaus would be the leader in the golfing GOAT clubhouse. Jack’s 18 major titles are a staggering number, as Tiger (15 majors) knows all too well.
However, Tiger gets bonus points for transforming the way we viewed golfers, as legitimate athletes. His level of fitness exceeds anyone who has ever picked up a club. Tiger’s power off the tee would give him an edge if you picked him up and transported him into any other era. Obviously if Tiger had Jack to contend with, he would have won fewer majors, but the reverse is true, too.
At his peak, Tiger seemed unbeatable in a sport where that shouldn’t happen. Remember the Tiger Slam? That’s bonkers, but when you stretch it out even further you see that Tiger won seven of 11 majors from the 1999 PGA Championship through the 2002 US Open. Nicklaus won three straight majors and four of eight at his zenith. As peaks go, Tiger is Everest, and Jack is K2.
6. Usain Bolt
With apologies to the amazing Michael Johnson, Bolt has become the sprinter by which all others should be measured. The fastest man in history, Bolt still owns the world records for the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay, even four years after his last race. His 9.58 in the 100 has stood up for the past 11 years, an eternity in the level-up world of track and field.
Bolt defied logic. Bolt’s challengers — men like Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell — own some of the fastest times the sport has ever seen. Yet in direct competition with Bolt, they always looked as though they were running with ankle weights.
He may be the most aptly-named person on this list, because he was an Insane Bolt of Lightning that shocked and electrified us all.
5. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Jackie is one who is probably criminally underrated in the annals of history. That’s even after Sports Illustrated dubbed her the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.
Joyner-Kersee was the first athlete ever to win consecutive gold medals in the heptathlon — that multivitamin of athletic challenges that includes the long jump, high jump, shot put, javelin toss, 100-meter hurdles, 200-meter dash and the 800-meter run. Her world record of 7,291 points has held up for 33 years.
Ironically, Jackie was inspired to try track and field after watching a 1975 made-for-TV movie about Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who she ended up besting on that aforementioned SI list of the greatest female athletes.
4. Serena Williams
Let us first acknowledge Court’s preeminence on the court, even as some in the tennis world and media seek to disparage her legacy because of her religious beliefs. In terms of sheer winning, Court is the Nicklaus of women’s tennis.
But if you had a time machine and put Serena up against Court, Chris Everet, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf or any other great throughout history, Serena would be awarded the top seed and it wouldn’t be close. She’s in another stratosphere. If she wasn’t whistling her serve past your ear, she was grounding you to dust with her groundstrokes.
Plus, she won the 2017 Aussie Open while pregnant. Top that, Roger Federer.
3. Michael Phelps
The most decorated Olympian in history is “only” No. 3? Just keep swimming, readers.
The Baltimore Bullet owns 28 medals, 23 of them gold. He overpowered his competitors, and it didn’t really matter what stroke or discipline he entered. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he won eight gold medals, and he was the top medal winner at four consecutive Olympics. (Read that sentence again for good measure.)
I’m convinced the guy is part fish. With his tree-branch arms (maybe fins?) he looked like he was constructed in some kind of competitive swimmer laboratory. When he retired after the 2016 Games, Phelps had more medals than 161 different countries.
So, again, why No. 3? Well, because he didn’t have to go up against a defense, like the top two guys. If Phelps had set all those records and won all those races while swimming through a pool of sharks, then we can talk. Until then, he’ll have to go down as the bronze medal GOAT.
2. Wayne Gretzky
I almost put No. 99 at No. 1. His dozens of records are mind-boggling. Did you know that if you took away all of Gretzky’s 894 goals (No. 1 all-time) that he’d STILL lead the NHL in career scoring, thanks to his 1,963 assists (also No. 1)?
Gretzky had it all. He had the speed. He was brilliant at thinking the game. He had the longevity — 20 years in the NHL. He had the star appeal. He was a winner, guiding the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cup titles.
Canadians, understandably, treat Gretzky with the kind of reverence that Catholics reserve for the Pope. I’ll never forget visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame (which Gretzky got an immediate pass into, as the Hall waived the normal waiting period) in Toronto in 2006, and watching people gasp as they came upon an exhibit with 894 pucks, one for each of Gretzky’s goals.
He’s the Great One, no doubt. But as for the Greatest One, that goes to …
1. Michael Jordan
Hold your breath, because the Air is thinner up here. Gravity never had a hold on Jordan when he played, why should it weigh him down now that he’s in a room full of GOATs?
Kids today can’t fully appreciate how mesmerizing Jordan was to watch. He was a you-had-to-be-there movie. He wasn’t good for one “how’d he do that?” move a game — more like six.
Bill Russell and Robert Horry may have more rings than MJ, but Michael will go down as the most ruthless competitor the game of basketball has ever seen. He’d rip your heart out and stomp on it if it meant he got to win.
If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, Jordan should feel especially flattered. Everyone wanted to “be like Mike.” He spawned all manner of clones. Vince Carter? He was Jordan Free (Free of Winning and Defense). Kobe Bryant? He was New MJ. (Like New Coke, it doesn’t have quite the same sweet taste.) LeBron James? He is Jordan Big Gulp. (Bigger, no doubt, but afterward you wish you had just ordered the original.)
That we use Jordan as the standard by which all great players must be measured says it all.
One of the classic, meme-creating images that came out of 2020’s “The Last Dance” was Jordan’s guffawing, dismissive face as he watched a clip of Gary Payton saying his defense in the 1996 NBA Finals “took a toll on Mike.”
You can almost imagine Jordan making that face whenever any modern-day basketball player is compared to him. Is he better than Jordan? It’s the first question anyone asks.
And, ultimately, it’s the last question I asked when ranking the GOATs. Is Gretzky better than Jordan? Is Mays better than Jordan? Are Phelps, Biles or Serena better than Jordan?
Insert the Jordan chuckling face here.
In other words, don’t goad the GOAT.