Top 10 Greatest Sports Figures of All Time

Blake GibbsCorrespondent INovember 12, 2008

The ten greatest sports figures of all's a fraternity that is perhaps the most difficult to get into. 

There have been tens of thousands of professional athletes who have entertained us with their talents, but only ten are worthy of being on this respected list.  The qualifications to make it on this list were as follows: dominance, effect on sport, effect on community, "it" factor, championships, and clutch performance. 

So, without further adieu, let's get started.


If it wasn't for his devastating hip injury, he probably would be higher on this list.  He had a combination of size (6'1", 228 lbs.), speed (4.1 40 time), and strength (just look at the guy) that had never been seen before.  If you simply go to and type in his name, you will see some of the most dominating highlights in the history of sports. 

His aura was so big that he had a string of commercials where the catch phrase was "Bo knows".  He also gets credit for being great in both the MLB and the NFL.  He was a star for the Royals, White Sox, and Angles in the MLB—and even won the MVP award in the 1989 All-Star game. 

In the NFL, he was a devastating runningback for the Oakland Raiders; where he still holds the record for most rushing yards in a single game on Monday Night Football with 221.  He won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, and is the only player ever to be named an All-Star in two professional sports.


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Perhaps he is most famous for scoring 100 points in a single NBA game on March 2, 1962, between the Philadelphia Warriors and the New York Knicks. 

An interesting side note: that infamous game was not televised, only a radio broadcast remains of the historic achievement. 

Wilt Chamberlin was 7'1" and between 275-300 lbs, depending on which point in his career you point to.  He holds many different scoring and rebounding records, and is the only player to ever average more than 40 points, and then 50 points, in an NBA season. 

He won seven scoring titles, nine field-goal percentage titles, and eleven rebounding titles.  As a center, he even led the league in assists one year. 

He won two NBA championships, four MVP's, and one Finals MVP. He was also selected for 13 All-Star games, is a member of the Hall-of-Fame, and was named to the list of 50 greatest NBA players.


Yes, he is a swimmer, but he is a swimmer who has become mainstream after his dominating performances in the last two Olympic Games.  Before Phelps, when was the last time you saw a swimmer have several nationally promoted commercials?  Exactly.

Phelps qualifies in every single category for this list; if he wasn't a swimmer, his accomplishments would probably place him higher than number eight.  He has won the second most medals in Olympic history (16), more gold medals than any Olympian in history (14), holds seven world records, and holds the record for most gold medals won in a single Olympics (8). 

He is still young enough to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games, so his story is likely not yet finished.


Although he only played for nine years, it was the most dominating nine years by any runningback in NFL history.  Never before, nor since, has a runningback finished with a career average of 5.2 yards per carry, or a career average of more than 100 rushing yards per game. 

In college, he was a multi-sport athlete—lettering in football, track, basketball, and lacrosse.  In football, he doubled as the team's runningback and kicker.  He holds the single game scoring record for Syracuse with 43 points (six touchdowns, seven extra points). 

In the NFL, he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, and became even more dominant than he was in college.  He set numerous records in his short nine year career; some of which still stand today. 

At the time he retired, he was the record holder in single season rushing yards (1,863), career rushing yards (12,312), rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126), and total yards (15,549).  Keep in mind that the majority of his career was played in a 14 game regular season, compared to the 16 game regular season of today's NFL.


Any athlete with the nickname "magic" must be special, and this guy was. 

In college, playing for Michigan State, he was a star among stars.  In a span of just two years, he averaged 17.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game.  Then, he faced off against fellow All-American, Larry Bird, in the 1979 NCAA championship game.  Almost 30 years later, it is still the highest rated college basketball game of all time.

Magic led his team to a 75-64 victory, while earning the Most Outstanding Player award for the Final Four that year.  

His rookie season in the NBA itself was an impressive story.  As the first overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers, he went on to average 18 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game, while leading the Lakers to a 60-win season and an NBA title. 

In the clinching game of the Finals series, Johnson would move from his point guard position to the completely different center position in order to fill in for the injured Kareen Abdul-Jabbar.  He would finish that game with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. 

He became the first rookie ever to win the NBA Finals MVP award, and became the fourth person ever to win NCAA and NBA titles in consecutive years. 

Magic Johnson truly changed the way the game was played.  As a 6'9" point guard, he holds the single game playoff record for assists (24), the Finals single game record for assists (21), the record for career playoff assists (2,346), the All-Star single game record for assists (22), and the All-Star game record for career assists (127).  He is second on the all-time list of triple-doubles with 138; close behind Oscar Robinson, who has 181. 

He is a member of the Hall of Fame, and was also named to the NBA's 50 greatest players list.


There has arguably never been a more physically dominating force in the game of basketball.  In his prime, at 7'1" and 335 lbs., there was simply no one who could stop the diesel. 

In college at LSU, he was a two time All-American and still holds the NCAA record for blocks in a single game with 17. 

In the NBA, he was the first overall pick in the 1992 draft, taken by the Orlando Magic.  As a rookie, he boosted the Magic's win total by 20 from the previous year, and averaged 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds per game. He was named Rookie of the Year, and pulled down two different backboards during the course of two regular season games. 

In his second season, he recorded the first triple-double of his career with 24 points, 28 rebounds, and 15 blocks.  In his third season, he led the Orlando Magic to their first ever NBA Finals, where they were swept by the Houston Rockets.  A couple of years later, O'Neal would move to L.A. to join the Lakers. 

After a few years of playoff turmoil, he teamed with Kobe Bryant to make history.  The Lakers eventually won three NBA championships in a row—where O'Neal was named the Finals MVP in all three.  He also notched the highest scoring average for a center in NBA Finals history. 

In the 1999-2000 season, Shaq was named the MVP of the regular season, and fell just one vote short of the first unanimous decision in NBA history. 

Teams had to completely change the way they played the game when Shaq Daddy rolled into town.  He couldn't be guarded by just one player, let alone two.  He's been to the Finals with three different teams, and won four NBA championships.


One of the greatest sports heroes in American History, the "Sultan of Swat" is a legend in all aspects of the word.  He was the most dominating, charismatic, interesting man ever to play the game of baseball. 

He was the first person ever to hit 30, 40, 50 and 60 home runs in a single season.  In 1927, when he hit 60 home runs in a single season, it was a record that stood for 34 years before Roger Maris broke it in 1961.  His career total of 714 home runs was a record for 39 years until Hank Aaron broke it in 1974. 

Ruth wasn't just a guy who swung for the fences he also had a very impressive batting average.  In 1923, he hit .393—which to this day is still a Yankees record.  He also still holds the MLB records for career slugging percentage (.690), and career on-base slugging percentage (1.164).  He is in the top 10 in six other all-time statistical categories:

—10th in batting average .342

—Second in RBI with 2,217

—Second on-base percentage .474

—Fourth in runs scored with 2,174

—Sixth in total bases with 5,793

—Third in walks drawn with 2,062

Ruth was also an outstanding pitcher early in his career with the Boston Red Sox.  He had a career ERA of 2.28, and had a scoreless inning streak in the World Series that reached 29 2/3 innings.


There has never been a more charismatic sports figure who could back up exactly what he said.  He proclaimed that he was the greatest, and indeed he was.  He was a three time Heavyweight Champion of the world, and the only man ever to win it three times by defeating the reigning champion.

Ali blended blazing hand-speed, a steel chin, ingenious psychology, and swift feet to be one of the most dominant fighters of all time.  Three of his fights are considered to be among the best of all time. 

The first of which is referred to as "The Fight of the Century".  Ali met the current undefeated champion, Joe Frazier, on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.  It was without a doubt the most anticipated match-up in the history of boxing.  It featured two fighters of championship caliber, both of whom were undefeated. 

Frazier had only received the championship belt after Ali was stripped of it for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.  However, he had valiantly defended it since then.  Both fighters had legitimate claims to the title and both had been perfect up to that point in their careers; ultimately, one had to fall. 

The match lived up to the hype with Frazier coming away with the victory.  However, the two would fight twice more, and Ali would win both times.  Ali would eventually go on to defeat almost every top heavyweight fighter in his era—leaving no doubt who the greatest of all time really was.


His story is only half written, yet its contents still warrant him being number two on this list.  Tiger Woods has saved golf from the depths of sports despair, and has very lucrative endorsement contracts with Nike and EA Sports. 

His Nike products have been some of the company's highest selling merchandise over the past decade.  His self-titled video game with EA Sports is a best seller every single year that it comes out.  He is, without a shadow of a doubt, a sports icon. 

He is also a very rich man.  In 2007, it is estimated that he pulled in $122 million from winnings and endorsements; making him the highest paid athlete of the year. From 1996-2007, it is said that he raked in an estimated $769,440,709.  By the year 2010, it is predicted that he will be the first athlete ever to surpass the $1 billion mark. 

Woods is second on the all-time major golf championship titles with 14, and third on the all-time PGA Tour events win list with 65.  Some other notable career achievements:

—Has made 18 career hole-in-ones.

—Has a 14-0 record when going into the final round of a major with at least a share of the lead.

—Was PGA Player of the Year a record nine times

—Was PGA Tour Money Leader, tied for record eight times

—Is one of only five players, and the youngest, to win the Career Grand Slam

—Is the only player ever to win all four major championships in a row

—Is the second golfer ever to win each major championship three times

—Holds at least a share of the scoring record in all four majors

—Holds the margin of victory record for two of the four majors

—Has held the world's number one golfer ranking a total of nine years during his 12 year career

—The only person ever to be named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year more than once

He is still young, and there is still many titles for him to win again and again.  When it is all said and done, he could possibly be the greatest sports figure of all time.  For now, he is only number two.


Was there really any doubt about who number one would be on this list?  Michael Jordan transcended his sports on and off the court.  While on the court, Michael was the most competitive, driven, sensational, clutch, skilled, confident, mesmerizing, and amazing, athlete the world has ever seen. 

He was so good, that he led his franchise to a three-peat, retired for a couple of years, then came back in his 30's and won another three-peat.  Some accomplishments during his playing career include:

—Won five MVP awards

—14 All-Star game appearances

—Three All-Star game MVP's

—10 All-NBA First Team nominations

—Nine All-Defensive First Team nominations

—10 scoring titles

—Three steals titles

—Six NBA championships

—Six NBA Finals MVP awards

—1988 Defensive Player of the Year award

—Holds record for all-time career scoring average (30.12)

—Holds record for all-time career playoff scoring average (33.4)

—Rookie of the Year

—Two time Slam Dunk Contest champion

—1991 Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year

He was the greatest player to ever lace up.  However, it was also his marketability that made him truly the greatest.  He has appeared in commercials for Nike, Gatorade, Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, McDonald's, Ball Park Franks, Hanes, Rayovac, Wheaties, and MCI. His "Air Jordan" shoes by Nike caused such a craze that people were being robbed at gunpoint when a new edition would come out. 

He also starred opposite Bugs Bunny in the Box office smash Space Jam.  This movie caused a craze of Space Jam basketball uniforms that took over the pre-teen culture. 

Overall, Michael Jordan was the greatest player on the court, and he has been the most successful player off the court.  There is no argument—Jordan is the greatest sports figure of all time.

There you have it; the 10 greatest sports figures of all time.  Let the debating begin!