Heroes the Sports World Needs in 2017

Zac Wassink@https://twitter.com/ZacWassinkFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2017

Heroes the Sports World Needs in 2017

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Not all heroes wear capes, so goes the saying, and that's true in the sports world.

    Some sports heroes become icons and athletes respected as the best talents of their generations. Others earn admiration because they attract attention and make money for organizations. Heroes, or villains depending on your views, such as LeBron James, Sidney Crosby, Tom Brady, David Ortiz and others become the faces of teams and of sports. 

    The sports world needs a mix of new and proven heroes in 2017. 

    Joanna Jedrzejczyk could be the next superstar in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Kristaps Porzingis seemingly possesses the talent and composure needed to save a franchise such as the New York Knicks. Serena Williams remains the biggest female tennis star in the sport regardless of her age or status in WTA rankings. 

    You may not cheer for every sports hero who becomes a celebrity, but odds are you'll watch such noteworthy athletes compete in competitions and for championships. Their ability to draw eyes to televised events makes these figures so important. It is, of course, a plus if these people are heroes when off the field and not competing against opponents. 

    *The best athletes would also be the best people in a perfect world. For now, however, we'll concentrate only on matters pertaining to competition and on-the-field action. 

Tiger Woods

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    We care less about golf when Tiger Woods isn't playing. There, I said it. 

    Per Alex Myers of Golf Digest, television ratings for last month's Hero World Challenge enjoyed an increase of 190 percent from a year ago. Woods didn't play in the event in 2015, but he was on the course this past December. 

    Woods may no longer be the player of old, but he remains golf's biggest draw by a wide margin. 

    Woods' numerous physical setbacks are known among casual fans who watch different programming whenever he isn't playing in the final round of a tournament. The 41-year-old is attempting a comeback as of the start of 2017, and the hope among those who want to see Woods play is that he can make an impact at the Masters later this year. 

    Imagine how awesome it'd be watching Woods compete for a win one last time at Augusta. It's the comeback story golf needs in 2017. 

Kristaps Porzingis

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Sports leagues are better when certain teams are good. 

    It's fun to root for or against the Dallas Cowboys as the Cowboys pursue a Super Bowl. Major League Baseball is more entertaining when the New York Yankees are legitimate contenders. 

    The NBA is better when the New York Knicks are a playoff team. Kristaps Porzingis is the man to guide the Knicks toward the mountaintop of the conference standings, but he likely won't begin to play the role of New York basketball hero until next fall. 

    Porzingis is in the middle of his second season in the NBA, but the 21-year-old is already a budding superstar who plays home games at Madison Square Garden. The big man is a force underneath the rim who can also drain shots from beyond the arc, and he's a handful on the defensive end of the court. 

    It was back in November, per ESPN.com, when First Take's Max Kellerman argued Porzingis and not Carmelo Anthony should lead the Knicks. For that to happen, though, the Knicks may need to trade Anthony and trust Porzingis can be the hero Anthony never was as a member of the franchise. 

    Make it so, Knicks, and let "Lordzingis" save the franchise as quickly as possible.  

Khabib Nurmagomedov

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    Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    It's difficult to imagine Conor McGregor will become a bigger star following 2016, if only because there's not much left for McGregor to accomplish. The outspoken Irishman became the first person to hold UFC titles in two divisions simultaneously when he won the lightweight championship in November, and McGregor is already the biggest draw in UFC history, per Dave Meltzer of MMA Fighting. 

    McGregor, like any other successful fighter, needs a rival for 2017. Khabib Nurmagomedov may be McGregor's next opponent and the man who can take McGregor's championship. Nurmagomedov holds a perfect record of 24-0 at the start of 2017, and the 28-year-old has earned a title opportunity sooner rather than later. 

    Nurmagomedov is a proven commodity in the cage and as an entertaining figure. He went out of the way to talk trash about McGregor to UFC boss Dana White during a fight this past November as Damon Martin of FOX Sports explained. A feud between Nurmagomedov and McGregor could put the Russian on the radar of casual fans, especially if he is able to silence McGregor for even one night. 

Connor McDavid

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    Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images

    The NHL needs a new hero for the upcoming decade. 

    Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins are both incredible players who have won multiple titles and may once again hoist the Stanley Cup later this year. Both men should, theoretically, be past their primes come 2020, and thus one cannot help but wonder who will be seen as the league's top superstar three years down the road. 

    Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid may be that man. McDavid, per NHL.com, is tied with Malkin in points as of the afternoon of Jan. 3, and McDavid currently leads the league in assists with 29.

    Perhaps most impressive about McDavid is he's only 19 years old. As SportsNet's Mark Spector wrote back in October, McDavid became the youngest team captain in NHL history this past fall, and he has proven himself worthy of that honor during the first half of the campaign. 

    McDavid also seems to be a good guy off the ice. As Sammi Silber of Oil on Whyte explained in late November, McDavid spent some time with a 10-year-old fan battling a terminal illness during the fall. The young man apparently "gets it" as it pertains to being a star and a face of a franchise, and all should look forward to watching him grow as a player and person. 

Serena Williams

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    Jason Oxenham/Associated Press

    Serena Williams certainly isn't a new figure, but she remains the tennis hero modern fans need as of the start of 2017. 

    No disrespect meant to Angelique Kerber, who currently sits atop the official WTA rankings, but Kerber is not yet as big a star as Williams is. It's Williams, not Kerber, who can potentially break the record for the most Grand Slam titles won by any player, female or male. 

    As Linda Pearce of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote this past summer, Margaret Court won 24 singles Grand Slam championships during her historic career. Williams, who turned 35 years old this past September, trails Court by two titles, and the American is expected to play in the Australian Open later this month. 

    Williams has nothing left to prove, as her incredible resume speaks for itself. Topping Court's record and leaving no doubt she is the greatest player in the history of the sport would make for a heroic sendoff, and it's why we want to watch Williams achieve this great accomplishment in 2017. 

    Every year Williams continues to play is a gift to the sport and to those lucky enough to watch her compete. 

Tony Romo

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo deserved better. 

    In a fair world, Romo would be starting for the best Dallas roster of the past decade during the playoffs. That, as you know, isn't happening, as a back injury sidelined Romo in August. Rookie Dak Prescott guided the Cowboys to a 13-3 record, and the first-year pro will remain in the lineup even though Romo is healed and able to play. 

    It seems likely the Cowboys will move on from Romo in 2017 unless he is happy to serve as Prescott's backup for another season. Romo, who has been a professional teammate publicly since recovering from his latest physical setback, turns 37 years old in April, and he may have only one last shot to win a title before he rides off into the sunset. 

    Maybe Romo can lead the Denver Broncos back to the postseason, or perhaps the veteran can make the Arizona Cardinals a contender next fall. We want to see Romo back on the field, because it would be a shame if he ended his career as a spectator. 

Russell Westbrook

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is arguably the top babyface in the NBA. 

    Westbrook was left without his best teammate when 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2016. Instead of experiencing a letdown season, Westbrook is flirting with becoming the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson did so during the 1961-62 season, as Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine explained. 

    Westbrook may win MVP honors later this year, but he likely won't participate in the NBA Finals during the spring. The Thunder, simply stated, aren't as good as the Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors and other top clubs. Westbrook is a tremendous player, but he can only do so much. 

    Per Spotrac, Westbrook could make a move from Oklahoma City after the 2017-18 season. We would rather see Westbrook be the hero Thunder fans need and deserve, and commit his long-term future to bringing a first NBA title to the city. 

Joanna Jedrzejczyk

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The UFC needs a new female hero in 2017.

    Ronda Rousey probably will never again be the dominant force she was when she reigned as the bantamweight champion of the promotion. Rousey suffered demoralizing defeats in her past two fights, and she appeared completely unprepared to face current champion Amanda Nunes on Dec. 30, 2016. Her status as an active fighter is unknown as of the first week of January. 

    Enter Joanna Jedrzejczyk, a woman who could become a household name before 2017 comes to an end. Jedrzejczyk is the undefeated champion of the strawweight division who seemingly has no equal as it pertains to future opponents. The woman nicknamed "Joanna Champion" begins the year as the top-rated female fighter in the official UFC rankings

    Jedrzejczyk has the tools any promotion would want in a top-level competitor. She can win fights on her feet or on the mat, and she can cut entertaining promos before and after encounters. A few more impressive victories could cement Jedrzejczyk's status as the biggest female star of mixed martial arts before Dec. 31. 

Bruce Arena

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    It's easy to be cynical about the state of American soccer in January 2017. 

    Major League Soccer remains an afterthought among casual sports fans living in the country. The men's and women's national teams failed to impress throughout 2016, and coach Jurgen Klinsmann parted ways with the men's team last November. 

    As Ives Galarcep of the Sporting News recently wrote, Bruce Arena replaced Klinsmann and is now tasked with saving the men's side before 2018. The United States will play World Cup qualifiers and Gold Cup matches this year, and fans expect Arena to lead the program back to the biggest stages of the beautiful game. 

    The United States may not be a world soccer power, but the country failing to qualify for any World Cup is downright inexcusable. The World Cup would lose value and importance among American sports followers if the United States wasn't involved in the tournament, and it's on Arena to ensure such a catastrophe doesn't occur. 

Hue Jackson

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    You don't have to be a fan of the Cleveland Browns to feel sorry for those who passionately follow the organization. 

    The Browns haven't had a winning season since 2007, and the club has played a single playoff game since returning to the NFL in 1999. As Charles Curtis of USA Today explained, pockets of Cleveland fans planned to host a parade if the club's terrible roster failed to win a single game during the 2016 campaign. 

    Head coach Hue Jackson is clearly determined to make the Browns a winning organization. Per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, Jackson declared on Monday that he will take a swim in Lake Erie if the Browns go 1-15 a second consecutive season. 

    Jackson seems to be a likable guy, and a club that lacked talent fought hard for the coach throughout what became a lost season. Jackson needs to be the hero who saves the Browns and rewards fans who continue to spend money on a team that has lost more games than it's won over the past decade. 

    Perhaps Jackson should give Tony Romo a call. The two could help each other and create quite the fairytale in northeast Ohio.