GOAT of GOATs: Who will make the last four?

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(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

1. Wayne Gretzky vs. 8. Babe Ruth

The “Great One” racked up 2,857 points in his 20-year career and would own the NHL’s all-time scoring record even if you took away his career goals (894) and counted only his assists (1,963). A nine-time MVP, Gretzky was so brilliant he cast a shadow on three men who would otherwise have great NHL GOAT cases: Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux. 

Why is Babe Ruth baseball’s GOAT? Let’s put it this way: For every other athlete in this series, you could say that he or she was “the Babe Ruth of their sport” and you’d have a good case without writing another word. But since we have the space: More than eight decades after his last plate appearance, Ruth is still the career leader in two of the game’s most important stats: WAR (182.5 games) and OPS (1.1636). He’s third in home runs (714), second in RBI (2,214) and 10th in career batting average (.342). And if you want dominance, in 1927, Ruth hit 60 home runs — more than the total posted by 12 of the 15 other teams. Also, here’s what the all-time home run list looked at the end of 1935, Ruth’s final year: 1. Babe Ruth – 714; 2. Lou Gehrig – 378; 3. Jimmie Foxx – 302; 4. Rogers Hornsby – 300; 5. Al Simmons – 256. Oh, and he won 94 games and owned a career 2.28 ERA as a pitcher.

2. Michael Jordan vs. 10. Tom Brady

Michael Jordan was so good his claim to the NBA’s GOAT throne is still gaining momentum almost a quarter-century after his retirement from the Chicago Bulls. “The Last Dance” documentary reminded us how thoroughly he eviscerated the league. Jordan went 6-for-6 when a title was on the line, winning Finals MVP each time. He added five regular-season MVPs, three more scoring titles than anyone else in history and a Defensive Player of the Year award. No amount of honors or statistics can properly calculate how much fear Jordan’s blend of skill, athleticism and confidence struck into opponents’ hearts when the game mattered most.

As the MVPs, Pro Bowls, records and Super Bowl rings pile up, it becomes difficult to argue against anyone but Tom Brady as the greatest NFL player of all time. Perhaps there’s some distinction to be made between “greatest player” and “greatest résumé,” considering so much NFL success is based on being in the right situation (and Brady has been in an incredible one), but why belabor the point when Brady’s résumé blows anyone else’s away? He has more Super Bowl rings than any other player in NFL history. He won his first championship at age 24 and his latest at 41, and it’s unlikely that will ever be matched. He is one of five players with at least three MVP awards, and tied for the all-time record with 14 Pro Bowls. And he’s still adding to his legacy. 

3. Roger Federer vs. 11. Tiger Woods

Roger Federer’s six-year run from 2004-09 remains unapproached in its dominance in the history of men’s tennis: World No. 1 for 237 straight weeks (second best is Jimmy Connors at 160); winner of 14 of 24 Grand Slams; finalist in six others; completion of the career Grand Slam. In one stretch, he reached the finals in 10 straight Grand Slam events and in 17 of 18. That stretch alone cements him in the conversation of the greatest ever. That he accumulated a record 20 Grand Slam titles playing in the same era as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Nos. 2 and 3 on the Grand Slam list, only augments Federer’s résumé.

If we’re talking dominance — and we are — then Tiger Woods’ stretch from 1999-2002 is without comparison. He won five of six majors, including four in a row, and seven of 11. His 82 PGA Tour wins put him in a tie for first.

4. Muhammad Ali vs. 5. Michael Phelps

No matter which version of Muhammad Ali you pick — the fast, agile, almost-impossible-to-hit-boxer
of his youth or the wily, gritty tough guy who returned after more than a three-year exile from his sport — he has an argument as the greatest of all time in his sport. Ali won an Olympic gold medal, held the heavyweight title on three occasions, went 11-3 against opponents who wound up in the International Boxing Hall of Fame and became the biggest star the sport has ever known.

Michael Phelps has … deep breath … won 28 Olympic medals, 10 more than anyone else; collected 23 golds, 14 more than anyone else; has the single most dominant Olympics in history, winning eight golds in 2008; has set 39 world records; set a world record at 15, won gold medals in his 30s. Oh, and he has won 20 more Olympic medals than Usain Bolt.

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