What was originally an acronym meaning ‘Greatest of All Time’ has become somewhat of an obsession for sports fans, who love to debate who the ‘GOAT’ of the sport in question is, and why. The man widely credited for originating the term is the late great Muhammad Ali, who referred to himself as ‘the greatest’ in the buildup to his heavyweight clash with Sonny Liston in 1964. The acronym itself comes from a less expected source; the rapper LL Cool J released an album using the acronym in 2000. The debate becomes perhaps even more intense when arguing the merits of different musical artists, but perhaps sports provide the means for a (slightly) more objective debate.
Muhammad Ali’s sport of boxing is a good example of one where debate is rife on the topic, but there are some established factors which must be considered before awarding someone the title of GOAT. Of course, even these factors are not always agreed upon – the downside to arguing about a sport like boxing is that there is no subjective science to doing so, unlike a sport like track and field where the best is determined mathematically.
In 2007, ESPN compiled a list of what writer Kieran Mulvaney called ‘the 50 fighters who were the greatest in their prime’. It was not about hypothesising on who would have beaten whom if they were all at the same weight. Rather, fighters were assessed by 4 criteria; in-ring performance, achievements, dominance, and mainstream appeal. In-ring performance pertained to the style in which they fought and won, achievements were measured in the form of either multiple titles won or a title defended multiple times, whilst the dominance category was designed to reward fighters who stood out amongst their peers. Fighters like Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather Jr, who achieved mainstream recognition and were the by far the biggest names in the sport fare particularly well in this criteria.
Somewhat surprisingly to casual fans, Ali actually ranked second on the list, despite excelling according to most of the criteria. His CV is remarkable, a three-time heavyweight champion (despite missing years of his prime for refusing to serve in Vietnam) who triumphed in epic fights against other legendary fighters such as Joe Fraizer and George Foreman. He displayed incredible speed and athleticism which were at the time unparalleled for a heavyweight, and truly transcended the sport, widely hailed the greatest athlete in American sports history.
According to ESPN, boxing’s true ‘GOAT’ is Sugar Ray Robinson. He is regarded as the best boxer, losing only once in his first 123 fights, a 5 time world champion at welterweight and middle weight, with a near perfect record in the latter division. He had 109 Knockouts, and was only stopped once in over 200 bouts. The level of separation between the two are clearly marginal, and the trendy sporting debate of today involves two athletes of similarly epic stature.
Lebron James and Michael Jordan are the best basketball players of their respective eras, both renowned around the world for their exciting play and dominance of their sport in general, as well as being two of the most marketed athletes in modern history. Ironically, Lebron James’ career began in 2003, the same year Michael Jordan announced his third and final retirement. He was proclaimed ‘The Chosen One’, the player who was to challenge Jordan’s place on the mountaintop of great basketball players, and to become the face of the sport worldwide.
Lebron’s task has been steep to say the very least. Unlike boxing, Basketball is a team sport, and during his 15 year career Michael Jordan accumulated an unbelievable number of individual and team accomplishments, as well as dominating his era with a barely believable blend of athleticism and skill. He played in 6 NBA finals, winning 6 NBA championships, and was named The Most Valuable Player in all 6 of those series’. He won 5 regular season MVP awards, alongside a Defensive Player of The Year award in 1989. He led the NBA in scoring average 10 times, as well as being voted the best player in his position 11 times as part of the First team All NBA team.
Lebron has not quite matched the achievements of Jordan at his peak, but he has a strong argument for being considered the GOAT due to his unbelievable levels of consistency. From 2006 till present day, he’s never been thought of as any less than the second best player in the world, reflected in the fact that he holds the record for most consecutive First team All NBA selections with 11. He has reached the NBA finals in 7 consecutive seasons, something Michael Jordan never managed to do. He is arguably the most well-rounded player ever, being the only man in NBA history who has amassed 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists. He’s stood out amongst truly great contemporaries in his position, including future hall-of-famers such as Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.
Yet again, the argument is very close, and both individuals have strong cases which are hard to overlook. If anything, the nature of these arguments is that they confirm the adage that comparison is the thief of joy. It is probably better to enjoy the brilliance of the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, than to overindulge in arguments that cannot truly be resolved. Often, these arguments are full of either recency bias, or heavy nostalgia, wherein people are too quick to dismiss the accomplishments of today’s athletes. Realistically speaking, truly great athletes in sports such as football, boxing or basketball who dominated their era, could have adapted and excelled in any era.