Sport’s Greatest

On Saturday morning I slithered slowly from my bed. My poor dull head was thick with confusion and felt like it had gone 12 rounds. Nonetheless, I spat out my gum-shield, splashed my swollen chops with water and – in the absence of a cornermen – administered myself some painkillers.

I clicked on the wireless and discovered the sad era-defining news – Mohammed Ali had lost his final fight. I took to the Internet to read tributes of the great man written by far wiser men than me. The sheer awe in which almost everyone held the man shone through every phrase.

Though no angel, the boxer was a groundbreaker and certainly earned the right to be called “The Greatest.” It is truly amazing that the world is still focused on a man who hasn’t been able to talk for nearly 30 years – thought he did remarkably never lose his ability to communicate. 

The world has become a poorer place. But it did set me to thinking about who might join Ali in a list of the ten greatest sportsmen and women.

It is a thankless task and one that will lead to endless debate in the bar.

I am not placing these leviathans in any particular order. I have further restricted myself by allowing only one per sport – and promptly broken my rule because cricket really is rather splendid. My decisions are on athletic ability, though in keeping with Ali, a splash of charisma did help.

– Mohammed Ali

He flew like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Not a crass fancy dan with fast feet and lightning hands but a real warrior to boot. The endless pressure and ramrod shots he absorbed from Foreman in Zaire, in 1974, would have put an elephant on the floor by round two but Ali let the big man punch himself to a standstill in the humid air. An eloquent trash talker with a mic in hand and a supreme technical machine inside the ropes. A genius of the sweet science.

– Lester Piggott

No man has cast a shadow over a single sport as Lester Keith Piggott did. The long fellow won 4,493 races, seven Derbies (the first in 1954, aged 18), was Champion jockey 11 times, and won 30 classics (the last in 1992). He was resented by his “colleagues” in the weighing room, viewed as an irritant genius by trainers, coveted by owners for his ability to make the difference in a tight finish and loved by the punters. One can argue his merits as a human being but none can dispute his skills in the saddle, which combined with an imperishable will to win, makes him unprecedented in the equine world.    

– Usain Bolt

The fastest man on earth has been a sobriquet bestowed on athletes dating back to the fabulous Jessie Owens. Nonetheless Usian St.Leo Bolt lauds, legally, over the pretenders of today and the posers of the past. To date, the man has 17 Olympic and World Championship gold medals and holds both the 100 and 200 metres world records. He does it with a dance before the race, a smile after it, and, to cap it all, he bedded the whole of the Swedish volleyball team in 2012! 

– Sir Ian Botham

A rump the size of desperate Dan’s steak enabled Beefy – latterly Sirloin – to bowl fast, hit long and drink big. He swung the ball at will and in his pomp was lighting quick. However, it will be his swing of the bat and ability to pull his teammates out of the mire that made him especially great. Sir Ian is, perhaps, the finest cricketer to grace the club house after a day in the sun. I’ll raise a glass to that.

– Michael Schumacher

If there wasn’t a Michael Schumacher, German motor racing would have created him. Schumacher is so German that his odour is probably that of gasoline, sauerkraut, and Pilsner. At work, on the track, he was relentlessly fast, venal, and a cereal winner. One felt he would sell his grandmother to win a race but he was unequivocally brilliant. The Teutonic pilot won an unparalleled seven World Driver’s Championships and according to the official Formula One website, he is “statistically the greatest driver the sport has ever seen”.

– Sir Donald Bradman

The Don averaged 99.94 in test cricket. That statistic is enough to persuade even the wonderful Sachin Tendulkar that he really is the finest chap to pick up a willow. The diminutive old bean struck fear into the minds of captains and the creaking bodies of fast bowlers the world over. He specialised in scoring.big runs, remorseless runs, at a decent rate. His style was coaching-manual perfection and his stroke-play sumptuous. His staggering average is arguably the greatest achievement by any sportsman in any major sport. In 52 tests he scored 6,996 runs and compiled an astonishing 29 centuries.

– Pele 

I stood two yards away from Pele last week and he is rather diminutive – a pocket rocket perhaps. Edson Arantes do Nascimento is credited with making the phrase “the beautiful game” synonymous with football. Pele shot to prominence as an electric 17 year old at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, and he played his last World Cup in 1974. An assassin in front of the goal he scored 1281 goals in 1363 games, along with three World Cup winners medals.

– Johnny Wilkinson

International sport is about seizing the moment and, by God, did Johnny do that in 2003. The staggering World Cup-winning drop goal that silenced two continents and aroused a thousand cameras, will certainly be the humble man’s epitaph. Let us not forget his sumptuous Indian summer in Toulon. A bludgeon in defence, a perfunctory passer, and like a surgeon’s scalpel with his trusty left boot. England’s rose.

– Jack Nicklaus 

Many may talk up Tiger in his pomp, the panache of Seve, or the solidity of Tom Watson. But, in my opinion, statistics don’t lie and the golden bear looms over them all and it looks extremely unlikely that his numbers will ever be passed. The insurmountable 18 major wins and, lest we forget, 19 second placed finishes is mind boggling. Jack was prolific as part of golf’s big three through the ’60s and ’70s though age and a wave of bright young things slowed the great man down in the ’80s. There was, beautifully, a chance for him to play Lear for a receptive gallery in 1986 – he vanquished the lively younger generation for a final Masters win aged 46. He did it with skill, that knowing modest smile, the renowned hunched putting style, and a bucket of class.     

– Roger Federer 

He is elegance personified. Despite beginning his career as an enfant terrible with a bad temper and a sumptuous backhand, Federer would go on to become the finest grass and hard court player of the modern era. He has won more majors than anyone else – a merciless winner but it is his languid style that is indelible. One is reminded by the line by Proximo,in the movie Gladiator, “I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom.”

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