Does the expression “all-time” when applied to sports make anyone else crazy? I’m not just talking about the rush to craft hyperbolic statements about the last title we’ve seen, as in, for example, the labeling of Bill Belichick as the Greatest Football Coach of All-Time or Tom Brady as Greatest Quarterback of All-Time or whatever, but rather this pretension that last season is of some grand historical importance to the human race.
Not content to capture the imagination with a “controversial” and/or overexcited claim of witnessing greatness in the past hour, the writer/producer/talking head feels compelled to slap on that “of all-time” at the end.
So what does that even mean? What is the significance of labeling J.J. Watt “The Greatest Houston Texans Defender of All-Time”? Human civilization is at least 10,000 years old; the Houston Texans are 15. Mariano Rivera is “The Greatest Relief Pitcher of All-Time”? Modern-style relief pitching goes back to about 1949; Earth is over four billion years old;. Even to name “The Greatest Bowler of All-Time in Test Cricket” seems silly when considering that the first official Test match took place in 1887 and that the universe itself is … ah, you get the point.
So let’s apply a little perspective to the that “all-time” marker. Let’s celebrate 3,000 years of so of organized sporting competition with our Truly Top 10 Athletes of All-Time.
• Coroebus of Elis (776 BC?-?), track and field. Stretching this far back into the past, little specific is known about Coroebus – except for his single known sporting achievement. Coroebus is in fact the inaugural recorded sports champion in Western Civilization for bagging top prize in the “stade” event at the first Olympic games, a run of just under 200 meters.
Consider also that Coroebus of Elis was probably the first bona fide sports hero in the Greek city-states and those influenced by the empire. Before him, the greatest athletes in Greek annals were deities and meta-mortals such as Hercules. Bonus points, too, for competing in the traditional style of the ancient Olympic Games, i.e. in the buff. Let’s see your “all-time” greatest Liverpool defender or New York Yankees shortstop plying his trade naked…
Best of all, check out Coroebus’ amazing Wikipedia bio: Coroebus of Elis “was a humble Elean baker and athlete who won the stadion race in the first recorded Ancient Olympic Games in 776 BC.” Now that’s the stuff of pulp sports legend – or maybe it was merely something in the water, as Elisean runners would take first prize for over 50 more years’ worth of Olympiads until entirely new running events were added to the program to end Elis’s dominance.
• Gaius Appuleius Diocles (c.118-c.142), chariot racing. In a Roman “bloodsport” wherein the only apparent rule was that drivers had to spur on their auriga to complete seven laps around an in-stadium track, most chariot racers tended to last about two or three years. In dramatic contrast, Gaius Appuleius Doicles was a combination of Gordie Howe, Satchel Paige, George Blanda, and Michael Schumacher multiplied by your basic general badass Roman gladiator in taking bodily punishment until retiring at the age of 42.
And Diocles certainly racked up a most impressive stat line in his sport: In a reported 4,257 races, he won 1,462 – for a ridiculous winning percentage of .343 in a sport that was team-based roughly in the fashion of modern NASCAR racing – and placed in 1,437. In other words, over 24 years of competition, Diocles finished first or second in more than two of three races.
Even more mind-numbing in the 21st-century are Diocles’ other statistics: the financial ones. According to Professor Peter Struck of the University of Chicago, “Twenty-four years of winnings brought Diocles – likely an illiterate man whose signature move was the strong final dash – the staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money.”
Incidentally, that already impressive-sounding 35 million-plus in ancient currency would be worth in the area of $15 billion today. More in line with Diocles’ time, Struck reckons that the chariot racer’s wealth could have fed the entire city of Rome with grain for one year. So who needs a Nike endorsement?
• Flamma (before 200 AD), gladiator. The other high-level ancient Roman spectator sports were of course those arena combat games idolized in pulp fiction and Hollywood film. Though the name Spartacus has become directly related with gladiatorial sport in the public consciousness, one of the most impressive careers on record appears to belong to Flamma.
A soldier from what is present-day Syria, Flamma was captured in battle at the age of 17; a quick (and victorious) turn in the stadium followed. For the next 13 years, Flamma would take on Romans and other wartime captures until his death at the age of 30.
Flamma’s 21-4-9 lifetime record is notable for many reasons beyond the simple fact that the most common career mark for one in the gladiator games was certainly 0-1-0. In the second-century arena games, a victor was proclaimed when his opposition had clearly sustained a mortal wound; the four losses sustained by Flamma implies this gladiator beat back the Grim Reaper himself on multiple occasions – and today going on injured reserve is a big deal.
In addition, Flamma a four-time reception of the “rudis.” Extremely few gladiators received more than one rudis, for such a prize allowed the awardee to walk through “the gate of life,” i.e. to exit the stadium with all the rights of a free man. Despite racking up these passes, Flamma persisted in fighting. The circumstances of Flamma’s demise are unknown, but surely it can be surmised that if this ultimate bloodsport warrior didn’t die in an arena, thoughts of such glory were certainly on Flamma’s mind in his final moments.
• Two unknown players (c.1200 BC?-c.1520 AD), Mesoamerican ball game variants. One of the first ball sports on planet Earth was created in Olmec culture probably around 1500 B.C. While morphing somewhat as the game passed around to cultures which were ultimately to a great extent cut off from one another, descendants of the Olmec’s sport – typically referred to by historians and anthropologists simply as the “ball game” – from the Incans’ Ollomo to the Aztecs’ Tlachtili lasted 2,700 years.
Whether played with maximum padding or none, with softball- or soccer-ball sized sphere, with six players or twelve, all ball games played in Mesoamerican cultures shared some distinct rules: The hands could not be used, but other body parts and/or some kind of bat could be to propel the ball into a high ring set vertically against a well.
The early Mayans are said to have invented the hoop aspect of the game, both in terms of its placement high above the court and the tradition that one score ends a game; the popularity of tlachtli in the Aztec world between 1200 and contact with the Spanish cannot be underestimated, however, with populations from all city-states and major townships fielding teams for semi-regular play.
As far as the whole sacrifice-the-losing-team’s-captain (and thus, as more than one wag has commented, creating the first supporters of sports league expansion) is concerned, no one can really say for sure how often such a thing occurred or even whether winners or losers were sacrificed; artifacts portraying the ritualistic sacrifice of ballplayers have been found, but no matter. This game was dangerous enough before time expired, with frequently-sustained bruises huge enough to require lancing and blows from the ball to the head or midsection known to kill, padding or no.
Though literally no records exist of specific ball game players, for purposes of this list, one unnamed player each for the Mayan and Aztec culture are given a spot. And you can bet that when King Nezahualpilli of Texcoco and Montezuma II of capital city Tenochtitlan staged a best-of-five series to settle a bet over the fate of the Aztec Empire in 1516 or so, at least one of the now-forgotten true all-time ball players was on the court.
• Raiden Tameemon, 1790-1811, sumo wrestling. Sumo wrestling is said to feature the longest continuous written history of any sport surviving to the current day. Formalized rules for competition were first set down in the 16th century and by 1684, samurai looking to turn some extra cash competed in the sport’s first modern-style tournament.
Against this three centuries-plus of play, Raiden still stands out 220 years after his debut. Aside from his stunning win-loss record (see below), however, Raiden’s most notable distinction, is his never having been awarded the top rank of “yokozuna.” While such a promotion was rare in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – only three had been awarded before the 1780s and no such award was bestowed from 1798 to 1828, when Ōnomatsu Midorinosuke became the sixth-ever yokozuna – experts still disagree as to why the great Raiden was ever denied the honor.
No matter: Raiden’s records still stand, albeit many unofficially, as pre-organized competitions are not recognized by the modern-day Japan Sumo Association. After getting training from the legendary Tanikaze Kajinosuke, Raiden would go on to achieve notable stats like:
• winning every tournament in which he participated between November 1793 through April 1800;
• winning 28 of 35 tournaments lifetime, including seven in which he finished 4-0 for the competition;
• compiling a streak of 11 straight wins over three tournaments; and
• a lifetime .962 winning percentage.
If any athlete in any sport ever has topped that last mark, please inform.
• Koca Yusuf (1885-1898), Turkish oil wrestling/wrestling. Now mostly relegated to Asia Minor, this form of wrestling has remained the staple of a great sports culture throughout modern Turkish culture itself. Standardized oil wrestling began in ancient Egypt and tournament rules were created in the Persian Empire in about 1065 BC. Turkey’s national “Kırkpınar” oil-wrestling tournament has been running annually since 1346, a clear record for longevity.
Even though Gaddar Kel Aliço, who also reportedly bore a killer nickname roughly translated as “Ruthless Bald Aliço,” was champion for an incredible 26 years, his notoriety was topped on an international level by the guy who took the oil wrestling belt from Aliço in 1885. After winning at Kırkpınar, Yusuf went on keep the title for 13 years; more importantly, Yusuf secured wins over top wrestlers throughout Europe and, after defeating American champion Dan McLeod in May 1898, became the undisputed world titleholder.
Unfortunately, Yusuf wouldn’t get a chance to defend the title, as on his return voyage to Turkey, the ship on which he was travelling sank off Nova Scotia. Circumstances surrounding his drowning death are sketchy, though both versions are fairly ignominious. Wikipedia notes that “It is said that Koca Yusuf tried to get on piece of floating debris with other survivors, but they refused to let him board for fear an additional person would cause it to capsize. They repeatedly beat at his hands as he tried to grasp the float and pull himself aboard; finally, one of the passengers hacked at his hands with a sharp object, whereupon Yusuf ceased his efforts to board and was left to drown.”
A second, more oft-repeated story, contains some of all of this retelling’s elements: Yusuf acted crazed when all realized the ship was going down, fighting his way through fleeing passengers, with or without a weapon to the lifeboats. He jumped into a lifeboat which was already overcrowded and thus capsized.
In yet either version of the story, Yusuf drowns due to the weight of his $10,000 (worth about $650,000 today) gold world championship belt.
And in his prime, too.
• Jim Thorpe (1907-1928), several sports. Let’s put this simply: The greatest athlete of the 20th century was Jim Thorpe, a.k.a. Wa-Tho-Huk, a.k.a. Shining Path. (Kudos from the future to those voting with ABC Sports, who gave the honor to Thorpe, at that time.)
Competing in a time without even ubiquitous TV or radio coverage, Thorpe’s life and time straddles the boundary of myth and reality – a good definition for “sporting legend,” in fact. We’ll never know for sure whether the Sac and Fox kid actually broke Carlisle College’s established pole-vault record on his first try; modern historians have only recently (re)discovered his participation in national basketball barnstorming tours and his winning of a national ballroom dancing competition.
Certainly we what do know is well more than enough to put Thorpe near the top of any list. We’re talking about a guy who took top spots in both decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games – an achievement nowhere near approached since. Subsequent (perhaps racially-motivated) stripping of the awards is irrelevant, as those Thorpe bested in the events turned down their would-be retroactive ascensions to the top of the podium.
What else? In American football, Thorpe played 11 seasons in 13 years at the professional league after a sterling career with upstart Carlisle. Playing plus coaching, refereeing and league work ultimately added up to eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. Thorpe was at least a competent Major League Baseball player, as evidenced by his .327 batting average at .787 OPS at the age of 32 in 1919.
Now, who’s the competition again…?
• Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1931-1955), basketball, golf, track and field, others. With concepts like “suffragettes” and “working women” burgeoning in the 20th century, one-half of humanity was given infinitely more leave to play competitive sport than ever before. Certainly the greatest female athlete of the 20th century, Babe Didrickson dominated the women’s side in two sports and probably could have tromped through a nice career in professional hoops, had such a thing been viable decades before David Stern entered the scene.
Didrikson seemingly picked up sports like we mere mortals pick up bad habits. After graduating high school, Didrikson joined the amateur basketball team sponsored by her Dallas employer, the Employers Casualty Insurance Company. In 1931, she led the team to the American Amateur Union (AAU) basketball championship; Didrikson was named all-American. The following year, she played in the AAU Championships, a track-and-field competition, and won eight of the ten offered events. Her team of one won the championship at the ’32 AAUs.
Didrikson parlayed this performance into a trip to Los Angeles for the 1932 Olympic Games, where she won two gold medals and a silver in track and field. In 1935, she got into golf; at first denied amateur status, Didrikson became the first woman (and last for 65 or so years) to golf on the men’s side of the PGA tour. Going back to the ladies’ side in 1942, Didrikson would go own to win 82 amateur or professional tournaments, including five majors and 17 straight amateur tourneys, before retiring in 1955 due to terminal cancer.
• Pelé (1956-1977), soccer. Though the inclusion of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, a.k.a. Pelé, on this list may not go over very well here at The Grueling Truth, there’s no doubting his outstanding legendary greatness in what is certainly the world’s most popular sport ever.
Still the top scorer of “all-time” by FIFA standards, Pelé unofficially scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 career appearances, for an incredible ratio of one score every 1.064 games; not including exhibition and amateur-level matches, these numbers go up to 1,201 goals in 1,276: one goal per *1.062* matches.
True, other longtime legends of The Beautiful Game may top such ratios – the recently-passed away Eusébio managed one goal per 1.016 matches; Fernando Peyroteo, thought to be all-time leader, was good for 1.68 goals per game in 12 seasons with Sporting CP, but the combination of longevity (21 seasons pro plus 92 caps earned in 14 years with Team Brazil) and consistency added to his presence on three World Cup-winning teams earns “The King” a spot on this list.
As world soccer history rolls on, literally billions of kids playing the game make Pelé’s past achievements greater by the day. The Brazilian is quite literally one in a billion, a true sporting gem worthy of the “all-time” sobriquet.
• Honorable mention: Bo Jackson (1982-1994), American football and baseball. Statistics and history aside, ultimately the individual’s perception of sporting achievement will be subjective: Maybe this is at the heart of the hyperbole problem. The rush of adrenaline, the “Did You See That” moment is far more compelling than a cold number, no matter how sabermetric-orientated one is – and that excitement of immediacy may be immediately conveyed via the online medium.
Born before his time was Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson.
Anyone who saw Bo’s incredible prowess, speed and strength in either field of his excellence knows – just *knows* – that he was the greatest athletic specimen in our lifetime. Those too young to have seen the man may verify Dad’s seemingly over-dramatized tales of Bo Running Up The Outfield Wall or Bo Running Through The End Zone And Into The Locker Room or Bo Throwing Out The Runner At The Plate From The Warning Track on YouTube and be amazed again.
After meeting with the crippling hip injury in a 1991 NFL playoff game that so tragically cut short his career(s), Bo returned to Major League Baseball *later that calendar year* with *a plastic hip*: a miracle of technology and a literally awesome athletic achievement. Had Jackson not been broken, he might have racked up an NFL Hall of Fame-level career after beginning with four years of 5.4 yards per carry. In the MLB, Bo became more known for brilliance on individual plays, but here’s to thinking the Kansas City Royals might have enjoyed a bit more success in the 1990s with Bo around.
But fate has strange ways of toying with us and fans of Jackson are left to forever play the “what if” game. It seems Bo will have to settle for his induction into the College Football Hall and a prominent place in the memories of anyone who ever witnessed his – yes – all-time greatness.