There are dozens, if not hundreds, of star athletes who impress us with their abilities. But how many of those athletes can create just as much buzz off the playing surface?
Whether it's the aura of Tim Tebow, the scandals of Kobe Bryant or the controversy that surrounds Floyd Mayweather, there have been plenty of star athletes that have intrigued us with more than just their athletic talents in the 2011 calendar year.
These are the athletes we talk about at the water coolers. The ones who can polarize and spark a debate amongst just about any group of sports fans. For better or for worse, we discussed them a lot over the past year.
They might not prefer Dos Equis, but they are the most interesting athletes in the world, at least in 2011.
There wasn't a lot of actual fighting involved in 2011 for Chael Sonnen. However, there were more than a few verbal jousts and controversial stories surrounding the UFC bad boy over the last year.
Sonnen started the year serving a suspension for essentially failing a drug test that showed he had an elevated testosterone/epitestosterone ratio. Once the suspension finally ended, Sonnen won his only fight of the year on Oct. 8. However, it was what he said afterwards about Anderson Silva that grabbed the attention of everyone.
To top things off, Sonnen ripped Canadian TV host Michael Landsberg of TSN in an interview that went viral. This, combined with a few other things he said, made him the No. 5 sports villain of 2011 according to Yahoo! Sports.
He is "the next one" on the world football stage. Some are predicting he might surpass Lionel Messi as the best footballer in the world in the next few years, even though Messi is only 24 years old.
2011 was huge for Neymar. The 19-year-old Brazilian was the most talked-about player of the year in the beautiful game, partly because of his talents and partly because of the rumblings surrounding a transfer deal between his Brazilian club and one of those outrageously rich Spanish clubs like, oh I don't know, Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Humphries is an honourable mention for this list for one reason.
You might not like it, especially if you're a Knicks fan, but Humphries was one of the most-discussed NBA players of the year because of his ex-wife. For better of for worse, and it's probably for worse, many people are fascinated with Kardashian, which meant they also became fascinated with Humphries in 2011.
By comparison, 2011 wasn't any more or less interesting than any of Manny Pacquaio's other recent years.
He won both of his fights, although one of his victories came in a somewhat controversial decision. He was involved in yet another HBO 24/7 series, he continues to be involved in politics in The Philippines and he became a top-20 recording artist thanks to his cover of Dan Hill's "Sometimes When We Touch." Oh, and he also KO'ed Daniel Tosh of the TV series Tosh.0.
Overall, it was just another year for Manny.
Simply put, Roberto Luongo became the most polarizing hockey player in the world in 2011.
It's not as if Luongo didn't have his detractors before. The fans who insisted that Team Canada won the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in spite of him come to mind.
However, the Vancouver Canucks were at the center of the hockey world for the majority of 2011 thanks to their wonderful regular season and their run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. This gave fans, members of the media and even some of Luongo's peers a huge platform to take unfair shots at his performance.
Whether it was Canucks fans or NHL fans in general doing the criticizing, the majority of them seemed to ignore Luongo's overall stellar play during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and focused on his three of four bad games during the finals.
To be fair, Luongo is one of the most inconsistent star athletes in sports, let alone hockey. It's hard to find an athlete that's among the very best at his position and can look so good most of the time, but also allow as many horrible and bizarre goals as Luongo does.
Perhaps this is biggest reason he is such an interesting study.
Regardless, the polarization of Luongo was taken to the next level during the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, and it has continued during the 2011-12 NHL season.
Amidst all the questions surrounding which team he would sign with at the conclusion of the 2011 MLB season, Albert Pujols proved why he is probably the greatest baseball player ever.
Pujols led the St. Louis Cardinals on one of the most remarkable runs in sports history, bringing them from 10.5 games back of the National League Wild Card with a little over a month remaining in the regular season to make the playoffs. He then trumped that by leading the Cardinals to the most exciting World Series victory in baseball history.
The calendar year of 2011 for Pujols was a year that served as a great script for a Hollywood movie. It began under uncertain circumstances with his uncertain contract situation. This created a great side plot throughout the entire baseball season, which didn't start well, but turned into a storybook season for Pujols and the Cardinals.
Pujols may not have won the NL MVP or the World Series MVP, but he was easily the biggest reason the Cardinals became champions this year. He joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as just the third player to hit three home runs in a World Series game, and he made his $300 million contract demands seem at least somewhat realistic after his team won it all in early November.
The 2011 Hollywood movie for Albert Pujols ended with him signing in Hollywood, ironically enough. He didn't get $300 million, but he did get $254 million over 10 years from the L.A. Angels, a deal that was named the transaction of the year in baseball, according to ESPN.
Imagine if LeBron James and Albert Pujols didn't act like professionals and aired their grievances about their respective teams on a weekly basis during their contract years. How much crazier would the stories surrounding them have been if they gave their opinions on signing with all 30 teams throughout the season while they were pending free agents?
This is what 2011 was like for Carlos Tevez.
He's a wonderful player, but Tevez's conduct and public indecisiveness off the field has led to one of the biggest club transfer sagas in world football history. While Tevez went back and forth over his future with Man City during the first half of 2011, he appeared he had made up his mind about leaving England and returning home to Argentina during the summer, ripping Manchester in the process.
He then magically returned to Man City for the start of the season before he allegedly refused to play during a Champions League match against Bayern Munich. Tevez was consequently suspended for this and hasn't played in a game since.
Meanwhile, the rumours have gone wild over Tevez being transferred to almost every team in Europe and South America as a result of this controversy.
The circus is still ongoing, and it has made everyone in the football world take an interest to Señor Tevez for all the wrong reasons. It also made him the No. 8 sports villain of 2011 according to Yahoo! Sports.
The sports world is always interested in Kobe Bryant. He's one of the most well-known athletes in the world.
However, 2011 was another year marked by the scandals for the Lakers superstar.
Amidst the possible end of an era for the Lakers, with the team getting swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round and the subsequent departure of Phil Jackson, Kobe was involved in a couple of big stories that no one wants to be involved in.
First, he was caught on camera calling a referee a gay slur, which resulted in a $100,000 fine.
Now his wife, Vanessa, who became a public figure during the rape allegations against Kobe a few years ago, has filed for divorce because of Kobe's multiple infidelities.
If any of these alleged mistresses of Kobe decide to speak out publicly, this could turn into another version of the Tiger Woods saga from two years ago. At the very least, it's already made Kobe a very interesting figure over the last few weeks. As a result, it seems as though the rise, fall and rise again story of Kobe Bryant is headed for another fall.
Bold, brash, outspoken and egotistical are just some of the many adjectives you can use to describe Floyd Mayweather, and he proved why once again in 2011.
Mayweather's only fight in 2011 will be remembered for a long time because of how it ended. After being headbutted by his opponent, Victor Ortiz, Mayweather took advantage of an apologetic Ortiz by sucker punching him while referee Joe Cortez wasn't looking just after the two fighters had finished hugging.
It was one of the most controversial endings to a boxing match in recent memory, and Mayweather's antics, along with his angry post-match interview with Larry Merchant of HBO, only furthered his reputation for being an arrogant fighter with a lack of sportsmanship.
While Mayweather was the talk of the sports world on that night in mid-September and the days that followed, he also grabbed plenty of headlines for his domestic abuse charges that resulted in a 90-day jail sentence earlier this month. This only fueled the fire for Mayweather's detractors and sparked a debate among boxing fans everywhere about his future in the sport.
If that's not enough to make Floyd Mayweather an interesting athlete, then how about the $1 million bet he reportedly made against another interesting athlete in Tim Tebow and his Denver Broncos in their Week 15 game against the New England Patriots? I guess Floyd doesn't believe that Jesus supports Tebow after all.
After an overtime goal to win an Olympic gold medal for his country and an incredible 25-game point streak in 2010, you wouldn't think that Sidney Crosby could get any more attention in 2011, especially when he only played in 10 games all year.
Unfortunately, it was because he only played in 10 games that he received so much more attention than his concussed brain ever wanted.
We knew the NHL had a concussion problem before 2011, but the severeness and longevity of Crosby's symptoms brought every single negative aspect of head injuries in sports to the forefront.
The Penguins mishandling Crosby's injury by letting him play initially, along with the subtleties of his immediate symptoms and the scary effects on his brain in the months that followed were all on display during Crosby's 320-day absence. As a result of this and his status as the best hockey player in the world, Crosby became the face of the rapidly-increasing concussion problem that is now a major concern in both the NHL and the NFL.
We were briefly reminded of Crosby's greatness when he made his triumphant return to action on Nov. 21 and lived up to the most-hyped regular season game in years by scoring two goals and adding two assists. Then, he suffered another concussion just two weeks later and still hasn't returned.
It's just too bad that we became so interested in Sidney Crosby's brain in 2011 instead of his jaw-dropping talent that we only got a brief glimpse of.
2011 marked the start of a new era in the NFL, and its leader is Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers was deservedly named the 2011 Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, as he led the Green Bay Packers on a phenomenal run to the Super Bowl and to a 13-0 start to this season.
But what fascinates us the most about Rodgers is how quickly he took the awkward passing of the torch from Brett Favre as the new starting quarterback for the Packers and made everyone forget about a legend we thought would never be surpassed in the state of Wisconsin.
Three years. That's all it took.
However, as remarkable as how quickly he took a transitioning Packers team to Super Bowl glory was, Rodgers has outdone himself and the entire league this season. His statistics and his success have amazed us all, especially when you consider he was a scarcely-recruited afterthought by most colleges.
Many stories about how Rodgers was motivated by his doubters have surfaced in 2011. He's even drawn comparisons to Michael Jordan because of it.
Rodgers and the Packers only lost one game in the entire 2011 calendar year, and as impressive as that is, it's the way Rodgers has become so dominant so quickly that has us so intrigued by his greatness.
2011 began with the first signs of any ill-will displayed by Yankee fans towards Derek Jeter throughout his entire Hall-of-Fame career.
It was bizarre to hear the rumblings about Jeter being selfish because of his contract negotiations late in 2010 when he had always appeared to be bulletproof against any type of negative press.
This was only the beginning of the roller coaster ride that Jeter went through in 2011, as the attention then shifted to his race towards the 3,000-hit mark. On July 9, the milestone was reached in legendary fashion, as Jeter became only the third player in MLB history to hit a home run as his 3,000th hit. He also became the first Yankee to join the 3,000-hit club, and all the negative press had been forgotten, at least for a while.
However, stories about Jeter's selfishness popped up once again when Jeter made no public attempt to compensate the fan who caught his historic ball after the fan returned the ball to Jeter without asking for a reward.
Then came the negative press over Jeter's decision to skip the All-Star game that the fans voted him into, while still collecting his hefty $500,000 bonus for being selected.
Oh, and his relationship with one of the hottest WAG's alive ended in 2011 as well.
Overall, it was a strange but interesting year for Derek Jeter. Who would have thought he'd receive so much negative attention in the year he reached 3,000 hits?
If 2010 was the year of "The Decision" for LeBron James, 2011 was the year of the travelling circus known as LeBron and his Miami Heat teammates.
It's hard to think of another team in sports history that was scrutinized as much as the Heat were last season, and it was all thanks to LBJ. Every game brought hundreds of reporters, and every time LeBron stepped on the floor in the opposition's building, he was treated as the ultimate villain.
This was a new role for LeBron, and it was a role that he ultimately couldn't embrace. James struggled beyond belief in the NBA Finals and took the debate of what defines greatness to a whole new level.
Is it personal talent, or is it team success?
We may never come up with a definitive answer to that question, but the consensus in 2011 seemed to be that LeBron still isn't among the all-time greats in basketball.
Nevertheless, it was certainly one of the most interesting rides that any professional athlete on any professional sports team has ever taken us on.
It's not easy to sum up why Tim Tebow is so interesting is a just a few sentences, even though millions of Twitter users enjoy giving their thoughts on him in 140 characters or less every Sunday. Forget about your weekly appointment with God. Sundays have now become #TebowTime!
Tebow went from a college hero to an underwhelming underdog to a worldwide evangelical legend, all in approximately 11 months. His name has somehow become a noun, adjective and verb at the same time, and his simple praying pose is being imitated by all sorts of people from all walks of life.
But at the end of the day, the reason why Mr. Tebow has fascinated the world over the last few months is because he gives us a reason to believe, regardless of whether or not you have any religious beliefs at all.
If a man that doesn't even come close to fitting the traditional prototype for a quarterback can lead his team to so many improbable victories, then what exactly is stopping any of us from achieving great things in life?
What's more important than his belief in Jesus Christ is Tebow's belief in himself. Even though there have been moments during the Denver Broncos' improbable run where even a staunch atheist might start believing in a higher being thanks Tebow's heroics, we can't forget how Tebow really got to where he is today. Hard work, perseverance and a humble attitude that's always refreshing in a world of egotistical athletes.
It's for this reason that Tim Tebow has become known more as a symbol than an athlete. He symbolizes what any young man or woman can do if they have faith in themselves and those around them, which is far more important than the simple statistics and trophies that any other star athlete brings to the table.
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