This acronym may be somewhat new, but the question of who is the Greatest of All Time has been at the center of nearly every sports debate or argument for decades. It was never more so than in the first half of 2017, and for very good reasons.
The great G.O.A.T. debate resumed and shifted into hyper-gear after New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady won his fifth Super Bowl ring, thereby surpassing the great (yes, you will see that word a lot) Joe Montana for total titles, gold bands and the number of diamonds one man can own.
Once the hubbub of the NFL season died down, the G.O.A.T. story moved back to its ever-present leading man LeBron James. The NBA Playoffs were going as expected, with LeBron’s Cleveland Cavs on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors, both teams rolling along with nary a defeat in post-season prelims.
For the tennis fans (among whom I count myself), the G.O.A.T. narrative got going again by mid-January after Roger Federer and Serena Williams both captured the year’s first Grand Slam championship, thus adding to their collective dominance and immense trophy case.
Let me state for the record, I am as guilty as the next guy when it comes to getting suckered and bogged down in this never-ending, always heated and rarely definitive verbal jousting over just who is the Greatest Of All Time in his or her sport.
When I was hosting 3-hour afternoon radio sports shows in Tampa, Fla., many years ago, I’d pull out the G.O.A.T. question to get the phone lines buzzing when the sports calendar on a hazy, hot summer day was scant on story lines. Believe me, things heated up pretty quickly when I tossed around Babe Ruth versus Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali versus Mike Tyson or Rocky Marciano, and of course, back then it was Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson.
Here is where I stand on the great G.O.A.T. debates.
Boxing and horse racing are the only two sports that can stand the test of time so that you can definitively declare someone (man or horse) the greatest of all time. Now that proclamation can spark an entirely different argument, I’m sure, but hear me out.
Boxing and horse racing are the only two mainstream sports in which the competitors and their respective sports have not been affected or gained a significant advantage because of the progression of natural, physical evolution or the advancement in training techniques and the vast array of improved equipment.
Sure, boxers and thoroughbreds of today are trained differently and may in some cases be in better condition. But the difference from 1917 to 2017 is minimal and allows us on the sidelines to compare the generations fairly and equally.
A 190-pound heavyweight from the 1940s could very well fight and beat a 230-pounder from today’s ranks. I would put Marciano, the Sugar Rays (both Robinson and Leonard), Hagler, Hearns, Pryor, Chavez or Arguello against anyone in their weight class and division from today’s boxers. Any match would be a just and fair fight, and you could judge them on the G.O.A.T. standard with no problems.
There is no logical argument that Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown champion, is not the greatest racing thoroughbred of all time and any generation. Man o’ War from 1919 and 1920, winner of 20 of 21 races, runs a close second. But both could be compared with any Triple Crown race winner of any decade.
This leads me to my contention that you simply can’t compare and declare a G.O.A.T. in any other mainstream sport. It can’t be done in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, tennis, golf, auto racing, soccer, softball, pro fishing, track and field, skiing, all combat sports and any and all Olympic sports. It can’t be done in any of the other 750 or so recognized sports played around the world.
First, there’s the natural physical evolution of the human body that has made us bigger, stronger and faster in this century compared to the past.
Second, there’s the enormous amount of improvements and changes in the equipment used in today’s sports and competition. Think wooden tennis rackets versus today’s models; in golf, actual wood drivers compared to today’s enlarged metal clubs. No comparison.
And lastly, the rules of the games have changed dramatically.
The NFL and college football of today is nothing like the game 10 to 20 years ago. In particular, there’s been major change in the ways in which defenses can defend against the passing game and compete against all these record-breaking quarterbacks.
The physicality of basketball is nowhere near what it was in the 1970s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s. If you don’t go back as far I as do, just watch any recent documentaries airing on the Celtics and Lakers rivalry or the epic battles between the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons of the 1990s, and you’ll clearly see it’s a different brand of basketball.
It’s fun to pound the table or bar top and declare Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to play football. Or LeBron James is undeniably the greatest all-around player in basketball. Or maybe even pose that Barry Bonds is the greatest home run hitter by virtue of his 762 career dingers.
Even if Tiger Woods ever matched or exceeded Jack Nicklaus’ 18 career major titles (it’s highly doubtful Woods or anyone else will do it), I could argue against Tiger’s ascension as G.O.A.T. because of the vast difference in clubs and balls, along with the fact that Nicklaus competed weekly against Hall of Famers like Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and the late Seve Ballesteros. Woods battled some dandy players, but they were nowhere near the level of talent Nicklaus faced.
Brady has earned the title of G.S.B.W.Q.B. (can you figure it out?), no question. He’s got five rings and is still counting. He’s done more with less talent around him than almost any other quarterback. His post-season stats are unequalled, and his consistency of play is mind-boggling.
Joe Montana is his G.O.A.T. rival. The 49ers Hall of Famer was the standard bearer until Brady won his fifth Super Bowl in February in that brilliant comeback against the Atlanta Falcons.
You can tell I’m a Brady backer, but I also witnessed the greatest of Montana first hand. And remember, there is a huge generational gap between Montana’s NFL and Brady’s.
The LeBron James-Michael Jordan G.O.A.T. debate will never end. Ever. And for good reason. These are two transcendent superstars, the likes of which we may not see ever again.
I wrote in this column a few weeks ago that the number of championships don’t tell the full story and complete the measure of anyone’s career.
Jordan has six NBA titles. Magic Johnson won five with the L.A. Lakers. LeBron James has three titles and is seeking more. Bill Russell won 11 championships.
I stand by my opinion that James is the best all-around player the NBA has ever seen. He can score with the best of Jordan. He can defend as well and is a better rebounder and passer. He may never match M.J.’s six rings, but that will have more to do with Golden State than King James.
Golden State head coach Steve Kerr, who played and won a title with Jordan in Chicago, scoffed during the NBA Finals when asked about comparing his Warriors to past Bulls’ teams with Jordan. With tongue in cheek, Kerr explained how could anyone expect his Warriors to be better or even comparable to those old Chicago teams, even though the athletes he is coaching are bigger, stronger, faster with a vast complement of shooting and passing talents?
You get his point and mine as well. You simply can’t compare the different generations of athletes and teams because of the evolution of physical traits and of the sports themselves.
Of course, there are a number of special, elite talents who could have competed with Hall of Famers in any era. Brady, Montana, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees could flip-flop between any decade in the NFL and succeeded.
James, Jordan, Johnson, Bird, Barkley, Kobe Bryant, Shaq, Tim Duncan, Kareem, Wilt, Bill Russell, and one of my all time favorites, Pistol Pete Maravich, could play and dominate from the 1950s to the 21st century.
Switch Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson, and they would win no matter the car’s horsepower or design. Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan could strike out any batter from any generation. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken would be stars in any era.
One of my favorite G.O.A.T. face-offs is Jim Brown versus the rest of the running back pack. The legendary Hall of Fame Cleveland Browns star only played 8 years, but amassed 12,312 yards, which puts him 10th on the all-time rushing leaders list. Do Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, the top three running backs in that order, rate that much higher than the supreme Mr. Brown?
My personal favorite has always been Payton. I loved his running style — to continue running yards after being hit — and his passion for the game. One of my top media memories was meeting and interviewing “Sweetness” while I was covering a Super Bowl.
My point is, let’s not dwell on just who is the greatest of all time; instead, we need to appreciate all the marvelous talent we’ve been privileged to see and enjoy over the last 10 to 20 years.
It’s been a who’s who in every major sport you can think of. Many have already been noted here. And let’s not forget about Olympic greats Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.
The issue is not G.O.A.T. — it’s the greats who have converged on us at the same time.
The only sportsman really deserving of the G.O.A.T. crown above all others is the man who first coined the phrase and proclaimed, “I am the greatest of all time … ”