Was Muhammad Ali the Greatest? Top Ten Athletes of All Time

Wes BennettContributor IIIMarch 4, 2012

Was Muhammad Ali the Greatest? Top Ten Athletes of All Time

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    Many watched this past weekend as Muhammad Ali celebrated his 70th birthday with entertainers and celebrities singing and rapping his praises. Those from this generation who were raised on Ali's legend have no qualms about proclaiming him "The Greatest" as he famously labeled himself many years ago.  Those who were alive in the 1960's often have mixed feelings about him. I can remember as a Junior High student, I gave a book report on Ali and was scolded by my teacher who did not hold Ali in the high regard that I did. She thought he was a braggart and less than a patriot for his stance on the Vietnam War. Yet no one can argue the impact that Muhammad Ali had on sports.

    The question is: As we have witnessed the decline in boxing's popularity over the last quarter of a century and have seen MMA become more mainstream, why do we still love Ali? Is he the still "The Greatest" in the minds of those who love sports?  Which athletes have made the greatest impact on the world as we know it? You might wonder why pure two-sport athletes such as Deion Sanders or Bo Jackson didn't make the list. What about great , multiple Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks such as Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, or Tom Brady? Who could forget the social impact of athletes such as Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens? How about Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, or the freakish dominance of Lebron James?  The great ones who showed their surly side such as Kareem Abdul Jabaar and Barry Bonds didn't make this list. And although there were great female athletes who could be considered, this list is ranked by the sport's overall impact and appeal. There are dozens of athletes who might be included.  But for this list, let's focus on those who had championship success in their sport, showed uncommon charisma, character and personality, and who dominated their eras in the eyes of the sports world.

    Here is my list of the top ten athletes of all time:

Number 10: Nolan Ryan

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    Not many have reached the level of longevity in Major League baseball that Nolan Ryan achieved.  He played from 1966 to 1993, an astounding 27 seasons as a power pitcher.  This was long before the days of "pitch counts" in an era where many pitchers had colorful nicknames like "Catfish" and wore full mustaches and colorful uniforms.  Ryan's trademark was a heater that he blew by hitters with regularity.  Many believe that his record of 7 no hitters may never be broken. According to "The Baseball Almanac" website, Nolan Ryan threw a fastball recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records at 100.9 mph.  At the age of 40, Ryan could still routinely smoke them in there at 95 mph.

    Nolan Ryan played for four different teams: the New York Mets, the California Angels, the Houston Astros, and the Texas Rangers.  Three of those teams, the Angels, Astros, and Rangers have retired his number. He is one of only 29 other players to play professional baseball over the span of four decades. His 5,714 strikeouts are more than 800 over the second place Randy Johnson who has retired from the game.

    Although he never won a Cy Young award, Nolan Ryan's impact on the game of baseball was significant. His fastball and stamina are still appreciated almost twenty years after his era.

Number 9: Jack Nicklaus

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    Many golf enthusiasts today may still have a "wait and see" attitude about this pick.  After all, Tiger Woods is not finished with his stellar career by a long shot. But Tiger's off-the-course choices in life may have tarnished his legacy when all is said and done.  Family man Jack Nicklaus has maintained a healthy image for several decades while setting the bar high with 18 major wins and 19 second place finishes. Nicklaus captured the imagination of middle- aged guys everywhere by winning his final major at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia at the age of 46.

    Arnold Palmer had his army of followers, but it was Nicklaus who always seemed to out duel him in the big moments of their rivalry. Until someone with a better combination of talent and character comes along, Jack is the choice for best golfer.

Number 8: Emmitt Smith

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    Out of Escambia High School in Florida, some thought Emmitt Smith might be too small to play major college football even though he rushed for a state record 8,804 yards that stood for 25 years. After proving his worth at the University of Florida where he became an All American, he was chosen in the first round of the NFL draft by the rebuilding Dallas Cowboys in 1990.  Smith became the cornerstone of a dynasty that grabbed three Super Bowl titles over the next five years.  Teaming with fellow first round draft picks and Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, Smith is the only player to win the MVP award, the single season rushing crown, the Super Bowl Championship, and Super Bowl MVP in the same year (1993).

    Although fans may appreciate the splendor of Jim Brown, the power of Earl Campbell, the 'sweetness' of Walter Payton, the short but brilliant career of Gale Sayers, or the dash and flash of Barry Sanders, no one back can match the yardage or championships.  Emmitt Smith was a durable and dependable back for 15 glorious seasons as he became the NFL's all time leading rusher.

Number 7: Larry Bird

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    Larry Bird played his high school basketball at Spring Valley High School in French Lick, Indiana where he got the nickname "the hick from French Lick".  After enrolling at Indiana out of high school, Bird dropped out after only 24 days because he felt overwhelmed by the whole experience.  Only after spending a year back in French Lick and a time working for the street department did he resume his basketball career at tiny Indiana State.  Bird led the Hickories to the 1979 championship game against the Michigan State Spartans and Earvin "Magic" Johnson in what would be the first of many showdowns between the two stars.

    After the loss in the NCAA championship game, Bird went on to play for the Boston Celtics who had actually drafted him in 1978's NBA draft, not knowing if he would play his senior year at Indiana State or turn pro. Bird was voted "Rookie of the Year" over Magic Johnson and went on to play in the first of his 12 All Star game appearances. In Bird's second season, the Celtics added Robert Parish and Kevin Mchale to what would become one of the best back courts in NBA history. Larry Legend captained the Celtics to three championships and basketball dominance during the 1980's before back problems led to the premature end of his career.  Even with an ailing back, Bird averaged over 20 points a game his last three seasons before joining the Dream Team with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic games to cap a magical career.

Number 6: Jerry Rice

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    Jerry Rice received his only offer to play college ball at tiny Mississippi Valley State where he excelled from 1980 to 1984 before being drafted by Bill Walsh, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.  Rice benefited from having two hall of fame quarterbacks in Joe Montana and Steve Young in winning his three Super Bowls.  But no one can take away the fact that he was the three time NFC Offensive Player of the year, 12 time Pro Bowl pick, 13 time All Pro selection, and rated the Number 1 NFL player of all time by NFL.com.

    Rice played for the Niners, Raiders, and Seahawks in a career stretching from 1985 to 2004 where he racked up 1, 549 receptions, 22,895 yards and 208 touchdowns before joining the NFL Hall of Fame. His peers nicknamed Rice "Jesus in cleats" because he was absolutely unstoppable no matter what game plan employed against him. Though he was not considered a speed merchant, Rice was seldom caught from behind.  We may never see another receiver blessed with his gifts of great hands and football instincts again.

Number 5: Earvin "Magic" Johnson

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    Some critics may wonder about the choice of Magic Johnson knowing that character is part of the criteria for this list.  But since the revelations of his infidelities and the fact that he has the AIDS virus, Johnson has seemingly turned his life around.  The only thing Americans love more than a good scandal is a story of redemption and success. Earvin "Magic" Johnson has remained married to the same woman since college and built a business empire since his retirement from basketball.

    Earvin Johnson was first dubbed "Magic" when playing basketball for Lansing Michigan's Everett High School where as a sophomore he scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds, and dished out 16 assists.  When promised that he could play the point guard position, Johnson signed with the Michigan State Spartans to play his college ball. After defeating Larry Bird's Indiana State team in the 1979 NCAA National Championship game and earning Final Four MVP honors, Magic Johnson was drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA draft. At 6'9, Johnson revolutionized the point guard position passing over defenses, dropping in three pointers, and driving the lane against smaller defenders. During the 1980's, his Lakers won five NBA championships, often dueling the Boston Celtics in the Finals. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird will always be linked as many give them credit for the worldwide popularity that the NBA attained during their era. Not many fans of basketball will forget the 1992 Barcelona games when Magic, Bird and Michael Jordan led an All-Star cast to domination as they sent a message that USA basketball was still the best in the world.

Number 4: Wayne Gretzky

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    Wayne Gretzky is the leading point scorer in National Hockey League history, as well as the only NHL player to ever total more than 200 points in one season. He began his professional hockey career with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association in 1978 before being traded to the Edmonton Oilers. After the WHA folded, the Oilers joined the NHL where Gretzky led them to 4 Stanley Cup Championships. He won the Hart Trophy as league MVP nine times, the Art Ross Trophy for most points in a season ten times, and two Conn Smythe Trophies as playoff MVP.

    When traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, a hockey phenomenon was born in California with kids and teenagers joining hockey leagues from San Diego to Sonoma. Gretzky led the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals and played briefly for the St. Louis Blues before finishing his career with the New York Rangers. Upon his retirement in 1999, Gretzky was immediately elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame when the waiting period was waived. Wayne Gretzky was lauded for his character, awarded the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and performance five times during his 16 year professional career.

Number 3: George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Jr.

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    After watching 19 year old George Herman Ruth, Jr. work out for half an hour, he was signed to play professional baseball for the then minor league Baltimore Orioles in 1914 by the owner and manager Jack Dunn. Because he was not yet 21, the legal age to be released from the St. Mary's orphanage where he was raised, Dunn had to become Ruth's legal guardian.  When seeing the teenager with Dunn, the other players called Ruth "Jack Dunn's baby" and the nickname "Babe" stuck to him for the rest of his career.

    In 1916, after having his rights sold to the Boston Red Sox, Ruth dominated as a pitcher, recording a 23 -12 record with nine shutouts and a 1.75 ERA.  The Red Sox defeated the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series four games to one with the Babe throwing a 14 inning complete game victory in game two. In 1917, Ruth amazed again as a pitcher, going 24 -13 with a 2.01 ERA and 6 shutouts. The following year in 1918, Ruth won two games in his final appearances as a pitcher in the World Series with a combined ERA of 1.07.

    Babe Ruth is best known for his hitting prowess for the New York Yankees from 1920 - 1934 where he clobbered most of his 714 home runs to set a record that wouldn't be broken until Hammerin' Hank Aaron came along. Although Ruth was known as a brawler, a womanizer, and a late-night partier, his contribution to sports and his enduring legacy can't be ignored. Home runs are still described as "Ruthian" in the modern age, and most baseball purists agree that it was Ruth who made the New York Yankees a household name. Few athletes can match the charisma and appeal that Ruth brought to the national sports scene in an age before the internet and television.

Number 2: Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan leaped into the national consciousness with a last-second winning basket for North Carolina Tarheels to win the NCAA national championship in 1982.  Leading the Chicago Bulls to the NBA Championship six times, Jordan picked up five league MVP trophies in his stellar professional basketball career. With an NBA record six Finals MVPs, three All Star game MVPs, ten top three finishes in the league MVP balloting, Michael Jordan is the most decorated NBA player ever.

    Many people who were not traditional basketball fanatics became fans of Michael Jordan as he became one of the most marketed personalities ever, appearing in commercials and movies.  The loss of his father in a roadside murder, his mid-career switch to baseball, and his shoe deal with Nike captured the attention and fascination of millions of people.

    No one ever dunked with such tongue wagging, gravity-defying flair until "His Airness" came along and adorned posters in little boys' bedrooms everywhere.

Number 1: Muhammad Ali

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    Muhammad Ali was first known as Cassius Clay when he won Olympic fame as a Gold Medalist for the United States Boxing Team in the 1960 games in Rome. After capturing the Heavyweight Championship of the world from Sonny Liston in 1967, he changed his name and revealed that he had converted to the religion of Islam. Those religious beliefs led him to refuse his draft into the Vietnam War, which led to many in the public turning against him. The various boxing commissions stripped him of his title and denied him a license to fight, until four years later, when Ali won his appeal to the Supreme Court.

    Muhammad Ali became the first three-time heavyweight champion of the world defeating all comers on his way to becoming the most recognizable sports figure in the world.  His three fight saga with Smokin' Joe Frazier is still considered the best trilogy of fights of all time by most fight experts today.  Before George Foreman became famous for his lean, mean, fat grilling machine, he was the dope in the famous "rope-a-dope" strategy that Ali defeated him with for the heavyweight crown in Zaire, Africa.

    Although boxing has lost its luster because of scandal and corruption, Ali endures as the most idolized fighter in one of the oldest sports in human history. Happy 70th to Muhammad Ali. Long live "the Greatest."