We lost a legend last week when Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74. His life will be celebrated by many as one of the greatest athletes of all-time. Maybe even better than his actual “greatness” as an athlete was just how iconic he was to the sports world as we know it today.
In honor of the champ, here are the most iconic athletes of all-time.
10. Babe Ruth
None of us have seen “The Babe” play before, but that’s not the point. Does anybody not know who Babe Ruth is? Not only was Ruth the greatest player of his generation, he did it jacking homers on beers and hot dogs instead of a finely tuned athletic regimen. Ruth also is the inspiration for “The Curse of the Bambino,” which has given us all these years of the Red Sox vs. Yankees rivalry.
9. Bo Jackson
Bo is arguably the greatest athlete of all-time. The 1985 Heisman Trophy winner began his career in baseball, went on to be one of the best running backs in the NFL, hurt his hip, and then switched back to to the MLB where he continued to thrive. Jackson’s greatest feat might have been playing both sports at the same time — winning MLB All-Star Game MVP in 1989 and playing in the 1990 Pro Bowl. The “Bo Knows” campaign by Nike elevated his fame to the next level, making him a part of sports and culture lore.
8. Wayne Gretzky
“The Great One” has what’s got to be one of the most unbreakable records in sports. Nobody has ever had a season with 200+ points in the history of hockey. Aside from Gretzky, who’s done it four times — highlighted by a 215 point season in 1985-86. This season, the points leader was Patrick Kane, who was also the only player over 100 points (something Gretzky did 16 times) with 106. Gretzky won the NHL MVP award in his first season in the league, and did so for eight consecutive seasons. His records are absurd, and they make it impossible to suggest anyone else as the greatest hockey player of all-time.
7. Deion Sanders
Deion was Bo, but with even more of a magical feel to him. We don’t have time to go through all the accolades, but the guy played in the Super Bowl and the World Series. That’s a big deal. He was the reason the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1994. Then he was the reason the Cowboys won the Super Bowl in 1995. Sanders is the most electric playmaker of all-time and has the personality to match it. Even as a defender, the opposing offense couldn’t let Deion touch the ball, or they knew it’d end poorly.
6. Tiger Woods
Life hasn’t been too swell for Tiger since 2009, but we can’t ignore that he was one of the best athletes on the planet for 10 years prior to the incident. Still one of the most famous faces in sports, just say “Tiger” and everybody knows exactly who you’re talking about. He’s not going to pass Jack for the most majors ever as we once thought he was a lock to do, but Tiger still may have had the most dominant run golf has ever seen.
5. Magic Johnson/Larry Bird
Magic and Bird come in a tandem. You can’t say one’s name without thinking of the other, and without both of them, the NBA wouldn’t be even close to what it is today. Not many cared about the NBA in the ’70’s, but in the ’80’s that changed because of these two. It was the perfect rivalry — Boston vs. L.A., blue collar vs. flashy, hick vs. Hollywood. Everyone loved it. But the best part was the basketball. These were two of the best five players of all-time that would do anything to beat one another, despite respecting the hell out of each other.
4. Bill Russell
Speaking of iconic, this dude has more rings than fingers. Sure, 11 championships is much less impressive when there’s 8-10 teams in the league and the opposing center looks like Will Ferrell, but Russell was still way ahead of his time. Racially, he was the first black superstar in basketball, he was the first black coach (mind you he coached while he was still the starting center) and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what he did for the game. Russell embodied team defense, sacrificing his own offensive game to do so. He’s the perfect example of the person you want your star player to be, and that goes for any sport.
3. Jackie Robinson
Robinson’s contributions are obvious, so I want to try and mention the things that aren’t that apparent. Firstly, people forget how incredible Robinson actually was at baseball. He wasn’t just the guy that broke the race barrier in baseball, he broke it because he was so damn good. You couldn’t keep this guy out of MLB. More importantly, Robinson’s name stands for all those athletes that either didn’t get a chance to make their name before him because of the color of their skin, and all the athletes that were able to make their name because of him. Number 42 is retired across baseball, and well deserved. I’d argue you could retire it across professional sports.
2. Muhammad Ali
Ali might be the most compelling athlete of all time. All the legends on this list have some type of magic surrounding their name, but Ali’s was even more special. In Ali’s day, boxing was front and center and the heavyweight champion of the world was the most famous athlete — and that was Ali. He was too fast for the other big fighters. He was too powerful for the other little fighters. But above it all, he had the greatest personality in sports. All the quotes, all the showboating, everything he did had the world paying attention.
1. Michael Jordan
Jordan just barely edges out Ali for me. I hope it’s not my basketball bias, but between the generation he played in, being handed the torch by Magic and Larry, dominating the ’90’s, and then Jordan Brand exploding into what it has today … you can’t argue against MJ. Michael was the perfect basketball player. Who did Kobe strive to be? Who does LeBron strive to be? Everyone wants to be “Like Mike,” and nobody ever will be. Jordan will forever be the greatest competitor we’ve ever seen.
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