Sports might not be as significant and effective in human life and activity as science, technology, education, business, and politics but they definitely have their own role to play in society not only today but also from the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Next to the music, film, and TV industries, sports entertain or, in rare cases, even offer national pride to fans around the world. There have been various polls and rankings in many different countries about the world’s greatest athletes of all time with most of them either focusing on a few major sports or, even worse, focusing exclusively on athletes from one country ignoring, in this way, many great athletes from different parts of the world. With this list we will attempt to rank the 25 greatest male athletes in history by sport.
Bill Shoemaker, Horse Racing
Despite his small frame and weighing no more than a hundred pounds during his prime, whoever shook hands with legendary Bill Shoemaker will assure you that this small man had one of the most powerful handshakes you could ever imagine. These small but strong hands were the secret behind a highly decorated forty-plus year career, during which Shoemaker won eleven Triple Crown races, 1,009 stakes races, and ten national money titles. He made more than $125 million in purses, about $10 million of which went into his pocket. He won the Kentucky Derby four times and the Belmont Stakes five, and his record for the most wins with 8,833 would last for many years until another immortal of the sport, Laffit Pincay Jr., would finally break it in 1999.
John Brzenk, Arm Wrestling
The legendary American arm wrestler from Illinois is doubtless one of the most dominant champions in the history of any sport since he remained undefeated for an incredible span of twenty-three years. In 1983 he won his first world title when he was only eighteen and he remains to date the youngest world champion in the history of the sport. The Guinness Book of World Records named him the “Greatest Arm-wrestler of All Time.” He also made a cameo appearance in Over The Top, starring Sylvester Stallone, which is the most popular movie ever related to the sport. It is estimated that he has won over 250 titles and tournaments during his incredible career.
Kelly Slater, Surfing
Kelly Slater is the greatest and most famous surfer who ever lived. The American surfing superstar has won the ASP World Tour Championships a record eleven times, and also holds the record for being the youngest to ever win the world title (at age twenty) and the oldest ever as well when he won it for the last time in 2011 at age thirty-nine. His net worth is estimated to be about $20 million, which makes him the richest surfer of all time as well.
Tony Hawk, Skating
“The Birdman,” as he is better known among his fans, is a former professional skater and the first true superstar the sport ever produced. Tony Hawk pioneered several skating moves during his career and was the one who first completed the epic “900,” which is considered one of the hardest aerial spins performed on a skateboard ramp because the skater has to perform 2½ revolutions (900 degrees) without falling. Additionally, Hawk became the highest-paid athlete from any extreme sport and made millions, had video games, shoes, and skates named after him and won nine gold medals at the X Games, the Olympics of Extreme Sports. In 2014, Fox Weekly named Hawk one of the most influential skateboarders of all time.
Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Biathlon
Ole is the equivalent of Michael Phelps but for the Winter Olympics. The Norwegian professional biathlete and superstar of the “icy sports” is the most decorated Olympian in the history of the Winter Games with a whopping thirteen medals in five different Olympics. He started his medal collection at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. With the two gold medals he recently won at the 2014 Sochi Olympics he reached eight career gold medals, and his collection also includes four silver medals and a bronze. Add into the mix thirty-nine (nineteen of them gold) more medals from the world championships and you know perfectly well why he’s on our list.
Yiannis Kouros, Ultra Marathon
Yiannis Kouros is the definition of athlete that makes you truly wonder about the true capacities and limits of the human body and soul. He’s racing against nature, time, distance, and as he has stated when his body cannot carry him anymore he does it via his mind. However, he remains widely unknown outside running circles, even though he is the athlete from any sport that holds the most world records according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and the human who has run more miles than any other in recorded history. Kouros has set over 150 world records competing in races such as the one from Athens to Sparta, from Sydney to Melbourne, 1,000-mile races, and six-day events, and has won over seventy world ultra marathon titles in an incredible career that has lasted over thirty years.
Nikolai Andrianov, Gymnastics
Nikolai Andrianov is unquestionably the most accomplished male gymnast who ever lived and possibly the second-most-popular overall behind the great Nadia Comăneci. From the 1980 Olympics on he held the men’s record for most Olympic medals in any sport with a total of fifteen (seven of them gold) until Michael Phelps broke his record almost thirty years later at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He currently ranks as the third athlete overall in cumulative Olympic medals after Phelps (with twenty-two) and Larisa Latynina, a fellow Soviet gymnast who won eighteen during her career.
Karch Kiraly, Volleyball
Karch Kiraly is to volleyball what Babe Ruth is to baseball and Michael Jordan is to basketball—simply the greatest ever. In 1999 the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), volleyball’s highest governing body, named Kiraly the greatest volleyball player of the twentieth century and rightfully so, if one takes into account the numerous honors and titles he won during his amazing career: two gold Olympic medals with Team USA at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, a third gold medal in Beach Volleyball, this time in the 1996 Olympics, gold at the 1986 World Championships, and numerous NCAA and club titles and personal honors in both indoor and beach volley, giving Kiraly a mythical status inside volleyball circles.
Sergey Bubka, Track & Field (Field)
Al Oerter in the discus throw, Carl Lewis in the long jump, Viktor Saneyev in the triple jump, and Jan Železný in javelin have had more Olympic triumphs than the Ukrainian legendary pole vaulter who won only once, at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, but his dominance in the sport lasted longer than any other athlete’s in the history of any track & field event. From 1983 to 1997 he won a record six consecutive times in one event in the IAAF World Championships, and he also won four more gold medals in the World Indoor Championships. During the course of his illustrious career, Bubka set seventeen outdoor and eighteen indoor world records, an incredible thirty-five records total, which makes him the individual athlete with the most world records in the history of track & field. He was also the first pole vaulter to enter pole vaulting’s “Elite 18 Member” 6-meter Club and the first one to jump over 6.10 meters, too
Eddy Merckx, Cycling
“Handsome” Eddy Merckx is widely considered the greatest professional cyclist who ever lived and not unfairly so. At 6’1″ and 165 lbs of muscle Merckx was unusually tall, athletic, and muscular for the sport, especially for his time, and was one of the most significant pioneers who helped modernize the sport during the sixties and seventies. He won the world championship three times, the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia five times each, the Vuelta a España once, and also broke several world records before retiring in the late seventies. The French magazine Vélo described Merckx as “The most accomplished rider that cycling has ever known,” while the American magazine VeloNews named him the greatest and most successful cyclist of all time.
Jim Brown, American Football
Just like in most other team sports there’s a great debate about who’s the greatest in NFL history and opinions vary widely. Some will say Jerry Rice, some Joe Montana, and more recently, Peyton Manning, who has gained supporters after breaking several records, including the one for most MVP awards in NFL history. However, most players and experts will tell you that Jim Brown is the greatest ever and for a good reason too. In 118 career games, Brown averaged 104.3 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. None of the NFL’s career rushing leaders comes even close to these staggering numbers. When Brown retired from the sport he was the highest-paid and most-honored NFL player of his day and one of the very first superstars the sport had ever produced. In 2002, Sporting News named him the greatest professional football player of all time.
Gareth Edwards, Rugby
Welsh legend Gareth Edwards is the equivalent of Jim Brown in the world of rugby since he was the first rugby player to pioneer the style of the sport and lay the foundations for its modernized version. Even though he played back in the seventies, thanks to his supreme athleticism and rare supreme playing skills there’s no doubt that he would still be on top even if he played now. He was the definition of the term “all-around player” and could do it all: he was extremely fast, had incredible passing skills, his kicking was of the highest level, and most important, he had a very high IQ inside the pitch and could read the game better than anyone. In 2003, a poll of international rugby players conducted by Rugby World magazine declared Edwards the greatest player of all time, and later a 2007 list of the “50 Greatest Rugby players” in The Telegraph named Edwards the greatest player ever as well.
Fedor Emelianenko, Mixed Martial Arts
Fedor “The Last Emperor” Emelianenko is probably the most loved Russian athlete in the history of American sports. Never have so many American fans cheered for a Russian athlete and in most cases against their fellow American athletes. Fedor was probably the first global superstar of the relatively new sport and his fame expanded from Russia to Japan and from the US to Brazil.
He was the RINGS Open-weight Champion from 2001 to 2003, the PRIDE Heavyweight Champion from 2003 to 2007, and WAMMA Heavyweight Champion from 2008 to 2010, remaining undefeated for over 10 years in an incredible career in which he beat numerous champions and hall of fame fighters. Emelianenko is also the longest-reigning top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter in MMA history and was recently voted the greatest MMA fighter of all time with a whopping 73% of the votes in the biggest MMA online poll that ever took place in Brazil, the native country of the runner-up, Anderson Silva, a fact that indicates the global acceptance and respect Fedor enjoys from the fans.
Jack Nicklaus, Golf
In an individual sport such as golf things are less complicated since there are no different weight divisions as in boxing or wrestling, different events as in track & field or swimming, and the competition a champion has to face doesn’t affect things as much as let’s say in tennis. In golf you compete against yourself pretty much. Despite what the contemporary media might tell you about Tiger Woods or even Rory McIlroy more recently, the fact is that in golf to be the best you have to beat the best’s record, and in that case the best record belongs to Jack Nicklaus with eighteen wins in major championships. So even if the fans’ opinions might vary just as in every other sport, and despite the names of Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, and Gary Player often mentioned for the title of the greatest golfer ever, numbers never lie and until someone wins nineteen major championships, “The Golden Bear” will hold the record and the title of the greatest ever.
Michael Phelps, Swimming
Michael Phelps is without a doubt the most decorated and most successful Olympian in the history of the modern Games. And how couldn’t he be, taking into account the incredible twenty-two medals he won by age twenty-seven and in only three different Olympic Games, with eighteen of them being gold. In the meanwhile, he won twenty-seven more gold medals in the world championships and broke thirty-nine world records, more than any swimmer in the history of the sport. With a total of seventy-seven medals in major international long-course competitions, sixty-one of them gold, Michael Phelps is arguably the most successful individual athlete of the past fifty years.
Michael Schumacher, Auto Racing
With all due respect to the great champions NASCAR, WRC, and Moto GP have produced during the past decades, Formula-1 is one of the three most popular and highest-paying individual sports in the world along with tennis and golf; for that reason the king of F-1, Michael Schumacher, gets the nod as the greatest driver of all time. During his illustrious career he broke many records in the world’s most popular auto racing sport including the most world championships with seven, the most race victories with ninety-one, the fastest laps with seventy-seven, and most pole positions with sixty-eight. He was named Laureus World Sportsman of the Year twice and is the second-richest athlete of all time behind Michael Jordan with an estimated net worth of $850 million.
Wayne Gretzky, Ice Hockey
Wayne Gretzky isn’t just the greatest hockey player of all time but the face of one of the big four sports in the United States. During the course of three decades he played twenty seasons in the National Hockey League, won four Stanley Cups, and set an amazing total of 61 different NHL records; more than any other athlete from any team sport in history. He has been named the greatest hockey player ever by every single poll and official ranking there has been and he’s also the North American sportsman with the most MVP awards from any sport winning a total of nine Hart Memorial Trophies (the NHL’s regular season MVP award).
Usain Bolt, Track & Field (Track)
With all due respect to mythical figures of running such as Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and Emil Zatopek among others, Usain Bolt is the absolute “running god” and the fastest man to ever live. The running phenom is the first and current holder of both the 100 and 200 meter world records, became the first man to achieve the “double double” by winning 100 m and 200 m races at consecutive Olympics and he recently became the first man to break the ten-second barrier in the indoor 100 m race as well by setting a new world record by running the distance in only 9.98 seconds.
Donald Bradman, Cricket
It won’t take you long to understand what a “sports god” Sir Donald Bradman really was if you take a look at his literally unbelievable career and statistics. An average of 99.94% in any career field is considered mythical, not to say godly. A heart surgeon, for example, with such a success rate would save pretty much every patient he had to operate on.
So the undisputed greatest cricketer of all time, Sir Don Bradman, played in fifty-two matches and batted in an incredible eighty innings, while a simple look at the list of cricketers with the best batting average in history shows that the far distant second cricketer has a career test batting average of 65.55% in just twenty-two innings. Bradman’s career test batting average of 99.94% is often claimed to be the greatest accomplishment by any sportsman in any major sport and is considered truly unbreakable.
Roger Federer, Tennis
Just as in golf, in a sport such as tennis to be the best you have to break the best’s record. Despite the fact that Federer played and won most of his titles during a relatively weak era of tennis before the likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic emerged, and despite the names of Pete Sampras, Björn Borg, and Rod Laver always being dropped on the table, when it comes to the greatest ever the fact is that Roger Federer holds the record for the most total weeks in the number one position, 302, and for winning the most Grand Slam singles titles in history with seventeen, and until someone breaks his records he will be considered the greatest player of the world’s most popular individual sport.
Muhammad Ali, Boxing
Some will tell you that Sugar Ray Robinson is the greatest pound for pound boxer who ever lived and for that matter Muhammad Ali would even agree with such a statement since he was a huge fan of “Sugar.” Muhammad Ali didn’t have more title defenses than Joe Louis, he didn’t retire undefeated like Rocky Marciano did, he didn’t hold the title as long as current champion Wladimir Klitschko, and he definitely didn’t make as much money as Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather made in the modern era of the sport, but when it comes to legacy nobody will ever be able to touch Muhammad Ali.
Ali is the most famous boxer of all time and one of the most famous athletes who ever lived regardless of sport. His colorful personality and struggle against racism and injustice gave him a heroic status and inspired many of his fellow African-American citizens to stand up and fight for their rights during an era of change. There’s no doubt that there have been many great boxers from antiquity to today and due to the many weight divisions it’s really hard to compare their skills and reign but there’s only one boxer who managed to become bigger than the sport itself and we all agree that this man is Muhammad Ali.
Alexander Karelin, Wrestling
Alexander “The Experiment” Karelin is without a doubt the most intimidating and dominant champion from any combat sport during the twentieth century. Karelin’s life story reads like a Greek myth. He was born on the frozen wasteland of Siberia in 1967 and until the age of thirteen when he started wrestling, he would hunt foxes and sables in the snow-covered Siberian forests. His immense size and raw power as well as his unusual, evolutionary technique made him the most dominant wrestler the world has ever seen.
During his career he won three Olympic gold medals, nine world championships in nine participations, and twelve European titles in twelve participations. He remained undefeated for over thirteen years, a mythic achievement, and six years without giving up a point, an even more mythic feat considering the nature of the sport. The Experiment’s wrestling record was 887 wins and only two losses, which he avenged. Shortly after his retirement in 2000, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles named him the greatest wrestler of all time.
Babe Ruth, Baseball
Baseball and American football are two traditional American sports and in most cases the popularity of the greatest athletes in these two sports is limited to the US. But there are a few exceptions, with Babe Ruth being the most famous one. Despite all the records he broke and titles he won as a baseball player, “The Bambino’s” legacy and fame surpass the sport itself. Babe Ruth was arguably the first true icon and superstar in the history of any sport and his name became popularized through films, chocolate bars, stamps, and baseball memorabilia, of course.
Ruth has been named the greatest baseball player ever by the vast majority of surveys and polls with the most notable of all being conducted by The Sporting News in 1998, ranking him number one on the list of “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players.” The following year he was named the greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century by the Associated Press’ list of the 100 greatest athletes of the century.
Michael Jordan, Basketball
Michael “Air” Jordan is arguably the most famous athlete of the past twenty years and one of the most recognized pop icons from the nineties. During his amazing career he won six NBA titles with the Bulls, six NBA Finals MVP trophies, was elected the NBA’s regular season MVP five times, played in fourteen NBA All-Star Games, won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA, but most important, he is the man who popularized the NBA around the world in the late 1980s and 1990s and became the first basketball player to surpass the footballers (soccer players) of his era in global popularity and fame, something that never happened before him.
Despite this sounding like an overstatement, Michael Jordan is the only basketball player in history to become bigger than the sport, a fact that no fan will ever deny. In 1999, he was named the greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century by ESPN ahead of other sports titans such as Muhammad Ali, Jim Thorpe, and Babe Ruth.
Diego Maradona, Football (Soccer)
This might surprise many American sports fans but there’s no doubt that soccer is the king of sports globally and the clear proof of this is that the recent World Cup final between Germany and Argentina was watched by over a billion people, which is twice the number of fans who watched the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the MLB World Series, and the Stanley Cup Finals combined!
Diego Armando Maradona gets the top spot on the list as the greatest athlete worldwide simply because he’s the king of the king of sports. He is the only man in the history of any team sport to win a World Cup almost by himself in 1986; he went to a minor league Italian team, Napoli, and a few years later led them to the Italian Championship twice and the UEFA European Cup, the only major titles in the club’s history; he scored the “goal of the century” and the most controversial as well (the “Hand of God”), both in the same game against England and was ultimately voted footballer of the century ahead of the likes of Pele, Zidane, Di Stefano, Cruyff, and Beckenbauer in the biggest Internet poll ever conducted for any sport by collecting an astonishing 55.60% of the people’s vote ahead of Pele, who got only a slim 18.53%.
Do you agree that these are the greatest male athletes in history? Whether you do or don’t you should till check out these 25 Bizarre Sports You Probably Never Heard Of.