RANKING THE TOP 20 ACTIVE PRO SPORTS LEGENDS (AS OF MARCH 2017)
This is the greatest time in history for a sports fan to be alive.
Beyond unprecedented access to athletes around the world, some of the greatest legends in sports are in action as we speak.
Back in 2013, I first ranked who I thought the top 15 sports legends were still performing their craft.
Now, four years later, I revisit that list, update it and expand it to 20. Feel free to leave me a comment as to what your list would look like, or how you would rearrange mine.
20 – J.J. WATT, NFL Defensive Lineman (Houston Texans)
Whoever graded Watt for his 2011 Combine Assessment underestimated his abilities when they came up shy of considering him a “once in a lifetime player”, which he is turning out to be. During his 5 years in the league so far, he has dominated and disrupted offenses while sometimes being double or triple-teamed. Hopefully he returns from back surgery (2016) to full form soon.
- AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year 3 times in first 5 seasons (2012, 2014, 2015);
- First player in NFL history to record two 20+ sack seasons in a career (2012, 2014);
- Named to the Pro Bowl 4 times;
- Holds Texans franchise records for both sacks and forced fumbles;
- 76 sacks in 83 games played;
- Ranked 70th – All-Time Sacks Leaders.
19 – MIKE TROUT, MLB Outfielder (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
Since his first full season in the big leagues (2012), Trout has been the best player and it’s not even close. In 2013, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated said he is, “the best young player in baseball since Ted Williams more than 70 years ago. Yes, that’s right: better than Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle.”
- Rookie of the Year Award (2012);
- Two MVPs (2014, 2016);
- Two Runner-Up MVPs (2013, 2015);
- Five Silver Slugger Awards;
- All-Star 5 times;
- 4-time Runs Leader (2012, 2013, 2014, 2016);
- RBI Leader (2014);
- Stolen Base Leader (2012);
- Walks Leader (2013, 2016);
- Highest OBP (2016);
- Highest Slugging % (2015);
- .306 Batting Average (Career);
- Highest WAR & Offensive WAR (2012-16).
18 – SHAUN WHITE, Snowboarder/Skateboarder
In recent years, many fresh-faced and talented snowboarders continue to splash onto the scene of this fast-growing sport, while White has struggled to medal.
Still, we must give this 30-year-old credit for being the most decorated X-Games athlete in history and the first crossover athlete. Besides, he’s not done yet.
- 2 Gold medals – Winter Olympics;
- 6 Gold medals – Winter Dew Tour;
- 13 Gold medals, 3 Silver, 2 Bronze medals – Winter X Games;
- 1 Gold, 1 Silver – TTR World Snowboard Tour record;
- 1 Gold – U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix;
- 2 Gold, 2 Silver, 1 Bronze – X Games, Men’s Skateboarding;
- 3 Gold – Dew Tour Men’s Skateboarding;
- 10 ESPY Awards;
- First athlete to compete and medal in both the Summer and Winter X Games in 2 different sports (2013);
- First person to score a perfect 100 in the men’s Snowboard Superpipe in the history of Winter X Games (2012).
17 – RORY MCILROY, Golfer
Scottish golfer Colin Montgomery once said that McIlroy is better than Tiger Woods ever was.
Beyond the statistics being way off (Tiger has 79 PGA victories & 14 majors versus McIlroy’s 13 PGA wins & 4 majors), the 27-year-old Northern Irishman would even dispute that praise himself. In 2016, he considered Tiger “the greatest player that has ever played this game”.
Regardless, along with Jack Nicklaus and Woods, McIlory is the only other player to win three majors by the age of 25. He’s also a Masters win shy of completing golf’s Career Grand Slam, which only 5 players have ever accomplished in the modern era. And, along with Tiger Woods, he is the only other golfer to win both The Silver Medal and The Gold Medal at The Open Championship (as amateurs).
16 – LYDIA KO, Golfer
Even though this 19-year-old turned pro but 3 years ago, she’s been so dominant on the LPGA Tour, some experts already consider her the G.O.A.T.
Early this season, she’s had a mediocre start by her standards and her No. 1 ranking may be in jeopardy. But she also started the year with new clubs, a new coach and new caddie. It’s only a matter of time before the talented prodigy adjusts and starts winning again.
- 14 LPGA wins including 2 major championships and 2 Race to the CME Globe Awards (their version of the PGA’s FedEx Cup);
- Ko was the youngest player of either gender to become the No. 1 ranked player in pro golf (17 years, 9 months & 8 days);
- Her 14 victories were won at a faster trajectory than anyone in the history of golf (even Tiger Woods who had 15 by his 24th birthday).
15 – MARCEL HIRSCHER, Alpine Skier
This 28-year old Austrian is not a household name in America, but in parts of Europe, Hirscher cannot simply go out and enjoy a meal with his girlfriend without interruption by a mob of interested fans and/or paparazzi.
He earned this popularity by being the most dominant male skier since 2012 with a record 6 consecutive World Cup Titles from 2012-2017 (most overall and most consecutive), 45 World Cup victories (5th most in history), 4 World Championships, and 9 World Championship Medals (including 6 gold).
Perhaps a major accolade lacking in his career would be an Olympic gold medal. But, he recently said it’s “not necessary” and is unsure if he plans to participate in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
14 – CLAYTON KERSHAW, MLB Starting Pitcher (Los Angeles Dodgers)
He’s one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history and this 29-year-old southpaw is still getting better. Luckily for us baseball fans, we can tune in to watch him in action every 5 days or so. Well, only time will tell if his back continues to give him problems like it did in 2016, but if his March 24 spring training game is any indication (he struck out 11 over 6 innings), he’s at least ready to start the 2017 season in dominant fashion.
- 37 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 1,918 SO (Career);
- 3-time NL Cy Young Award (2011, 2013, 2014);
- NL MVP (2014);
- Triple Crown (2011);
- 2-time NL Wins Leader (2011, 2014);
- 4-time NL ERA Leader (2011-14);
- 3-time NL SO Leader (2011, 2013, 2015);
- No hitter (June 18, 2014).
- 6-time All Star (2011-16).
13 – SIMONE BILES, American Gymnast
The most decorated American gymnast in history, Biles stands at only 4’8, but is known for the tremendous power and height she can generate for her size. She also has an awareness and intellect which combined, has helped her to become the great champion she is.
- 19 Olympic & World Championship medals combined;
- 4 Olympic gold medals in 2016 (An American record for most in women’s gymnastics at a single Games);
- Three-time world all-around champion (2013–15);
- Three-time world floor champion (2013–15);
- Two-time world balance beam champion (2014, 2015);
- Four-time United States national all-around champion (2013–16);
- Member of the gold medal-winning American teams at the 2014 and 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
12 – LINDSEY VONN, Alpine Skier
Unfortunately, Vonn may be recognized more as Tiger Woods’ ex-girlfriend than the most successful American ski racer in history. But, the 32-year old’s dominance, versatility and tenacity will stand out in history, along with her vast list of awards and medals.
- 77 World Cup wins (All-time women’s record);
- 4 Overall World Cup Titles (2008-10, 2012)- One of only two female skiers to do this;
- 3 Olympic Teams & 2 Medals (1 Gold) – The first American woman to win gold in downhill Olympic skiing;
- A record 8 World Cup season titles in the downhill discipline (2008–2013, 2015, 2016);
- 5 titles in super-G (2009–2012, 2015);
- 3 consecutive titles in the combined (2010–2012);
- She won her 20th World Cup crystal globe title in 2016 – An all-time record among men or women;
- 1 of 6 women to have won World Cup races in all 5 disciplines of alpine skiing (downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and super combined).
11 – JIMMIE JOHNSON, NASCAR (Stock Car) Driver
If you asked a handful of NASCAR fans who the best active driver is, they’ll likely give you a handful of different names. But, statistically speaking, Johnson is the most accomplished stock car driver behind the wheel now. The 41-year old California native’s career has evolved over the years from motorcycles, to racing buggies and off-road trucks, and then to NASCAR (first the Xfinity Series and then Monster Energy Cup Series). He begins his quest for an 8th NASCAR championship this season, a feat no driver in history has ever accomplished.
- 7-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion (Tied with Richard Petty & Dale Earnhardt for most all-time);
- First and only driver in NASCAR history to win five consecutive championships (2006-10);
- Ranks 7th on the All-Time Wins List (80 wins);
- 2-time Daytona 500 winner;
- Won 4 races a year in the last 5 seasons;
- Won multiple races in all 15 years he’s competed full-time;
- All-time winningest Cup driver at California Speedway (6); Charlotte Motor Speedway (8); Dover International Speedway (10); Kansas Speedway (T-3 with Gordon); Las Vegas Motor Speedway (4); and Texas Motor Speedway (6).
10 – JOHN FORCE, NHRA (Drag Race) Driver
He’ll be 68 years old in May, but that won’t affect this perennially energetic speedster. He’s been racing dragsters professionally since 1978 and shows no signs of stopping. He recently said, “Age is not a limit… I don’t go to a race without believing I can win. The day I don’t believe I can win, then it’s time for me to quit.”
- 2nd only to Richard Petty for wins in all major motorsports;
- 16 NHRA Championships;
- 18x NHRA Championship Owner;
- 147 Funny Car Career Wins and 1,265 round wins;
- Most #1 Qualifications in NHRA history;
- Most final rounds in a season (16);
- Most wins in a season (13);
- Most round-wins in a season (65);
- Most career final rounds (153);
- Most top 10 finishes (28 consecutive seasons);
- Most consecutive championship seasons (10) (1993-2002). No one person or team in the history of any sport has ever accomplished this feat;
- Considered the #2 Ranked driver on NHRA Top 50 drivers of all time (Behind Don Garlits, founder of NHRA & retired).
9 – LEBRON JAMES, NBA Player
I’ll get it out of the way quickly: I put James in this spot on the list, because I am not convinced he is the NBA G.O.A.T. Yeah, you’ve heard this argument before. Is he better than MJ, Bird, Jordan? I will concede, however, that he is easily the best player of this generation. It’s not just his stats that shine, but how he carries his team(s) on his back and of course, how he brought the championship home to Cleveland after returning from Miami lifts his status to legendary.
- 3-time NBA Champion (2012, 2013, 2016);
- 3-time NBA Finals MVP (2012, 2013, 2016);
- 4-time NBA MVP (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013);
- 13-time NBA All-Star (2005-2017);
- 2-time NBA All-Star MVP (2006, 2008);
- NBA Rookie of the Year (2004);
- NBA Scoring Champion (2008);
- 2-time AP Athlete of the Year (2013, 2016);
- 2-time SI Sportsperson of the Year (2012, 2016).
8 – CRISTIANO RONALDO, La Liga Footballer (Real Madrid)
There exists a healthy debate about whether the 32-year-old Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo or the 29-year-old Argentine Lionel Messi is the best in the world, or even in history.
I’ve seen arguments for both and picking either may be an injustice for the other. But, I rank Messi slightly higher than Ronaldo due to a comparison of their records in La Liga (top division of the Spanish football league). Of course, this may be debatable since Messi has spent his entire career with Barcelona (since 2004), while Ronaldo played with Manchester United for 7 years before going over to Real Madrid (since 2009).
Also, Ronaldo was the fastest player to score 200 goals in La Liga (in 178 games), has the most hat-tricks in La Liga history (32), most goals scored from penalty kicks in La Liga history and the only player to reach 30 goals in 6 consecutive La Liga seasons.
- 4 – Ballon d’Or (2008, 2013, 2014, 2016);
- 4 – European Golden Shoe Awards (Most all-time);
- 1 La Liga Title;
- 2 Copa del Rey Titles;
- 2 UEFA Champions League Title
- 2 FIFA Club World Cups;
- FIFA World Player of the Year (2008);
- Best FIFA Men’s Player (2016);
- Real Madrid’s all-time scorer;
- Forbes Highest Paid Athlete (2016);
- ESPN Ranked World’s Most Famous Athlete (2016).
7 – LIONEL MESSI, La Liga Footballer (FC Barcelona)
As mentioned above, it was a close contest to pick Messi above Ronaldo. But, what swayed me most was the fact that Messi has won 8 La Liga Titles (their Super Bowl) over Ronaldo’s 1. Messi also has 4 UEFA Champions Titles & 4 Copa Del Rey Titles (versus Ronaldo’s 2 Champions Titles & 2 Copas del Rey) and Messi has the most goals scored in La Liga. Guess who has the 2nd most?
- 5 – Ballon d’Or (2009-12, 2015);
- 3 – Golden Shoe Awards;
- 8 La Liga Titles;
- 4 Copa del Rey Titles;
- 4 UEFA Champions League Title;
- 3 FIFA Club World Cups;
- FIFA World Player of the Year (2009);
- FC Barcelona’s all-time scorer;
- All time goals scoring records in both La Liga & Champions League;
- Forbes 2nd Highest Paid Athlete (2016);
- La Liga All-time Top Scorer (337).
6 – TOM BRADY, NFL QB (New England Patriots)
After Brady recently helped the Patriots to win their 5th Super Bowl since 2001, his legacy has been cemented as the greatest football player of all time. He has not just been a talented guy in the quarterback position, but his leadership skills and never-quit attitude makes him rise above the rest. Yet, like I did in 2013, I still wonder if Brady would be the same player without Coach Belichick at the helm. With that in mind, I rank him below the greatest individual talents the sporting world has ever known.
- 5-time Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016);
- 4-time Super Bowl MVP (2001, 2003, 2014, 2016);
- 12-time Pro Bowler;
- 2-time NFL MVP (2007, 2010);
- 2-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year (2007, 2010);
- NFL Comeback Player of the Year (2009);
- SI Sportsperson of the Year (2005)
- 2-time NFL Passing Yards Leader (2005, 2007);
- 4-time NFL Passing TDs Leader (2002, 2007, 2010, 2015).
5 – MICHAEL PHELPS, Swimmer
He announced his retirement in 2016, but since he made the same claim earlier in his career, I’m leaving him on this list for now. Besides, at only 31, the world’s most decorated Olympian should keep his career going, shouldn’t he?
- 28 Total Olympic Medals (including 23 Gold Medals; 13 Gold in individual events; 16 Medal in individual events);
- 8 Gold Medals won in 2008 Beijing Games;
- Broke fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz’s 1972 record of seven first-place finishes at any single Olympic Games.
- At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Phelps won 4 gold and 2 silver medals;
- At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, he won 5 gold medals and 1 silver;
- Most successful athlete of the Games for the fourth Olympics in a row.
- 83 medals in major international long course competition, of which 66 gold were, 14 silver, and 3 bronze, spanning the Olympics, the World, and the Pan Pacific Championships;
- 2008 SI Sportsperson of the Year Award.
4 – USAIN BOLT, Athletics Sprinter
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the 30-year-old Jamaican said, “I am trying to be one of the greatest. Be among Muhammad Ali and Pele. I hope after these Games I will be in that bracket.” It’s safe to say, yes – the fastest man on planet Earth accomplished just that. By receiving gold in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m races in Brazil, he completed the “Triple Triple” or, 3 gold medals in 3 consecutive Olympics. (He also received golds in those events in Beijing (2008) and London (2012).) Bolt says he intends to retire after the 2017 World Championships, but will he?
- 9 Olympic Gold Medals
- 3 – 100m (2008, 2012, 2016);
- 3 – 200m (2008, 2012, 2016);
- 3 – 4 x 100m (2008, 2012, 2016);
- World Records – 100m (Berlin, 2009); 200m (Berlin, 2009); 4 x 100m (London, 2012);
- 11 World Championship Golds, 2 Silvers (Most successful athlete of W.C.)
3 – SERENA WILLIAMS, WTA Player
While Williams has more Grand Slam victories than Federer, it is a fact that women tennis players are only required to complete the best of 3 sets in the majors compared to the men where best of 5 is the rule. In that sense, I think Federer has the edge over Williams in the history books. Still, her consistent dominance cannot be overstated and what she has done in doubles is also unbelievable. I’m glad to have witnessed her wonderful play over the past 20+ years.
- 72 Career Singles Wins (5th Overall Rankings);
- 23 Career Doubles Wins;
- 783-130 or 85.76% (Singles Record);
- 185-31 or 85.98% (Doubles Record);
- 39 Grand Slam Wins (23 Singles + 16 Doubles = 3rd all time)
- 7 – Australian Open Singles Titles;
- 3 – French Open Singles Titles;
- 7 – Wimbledon Singles Titles;
- 6 – US Open Singles Titles;
- 4 – Australian Open Doubles Titles;
- 2 – French Open Doubles Titles;
- 7 – Wimbledon Doubles Titles;
- 3 – US Open Doubles Titles;
- 3 – Career Grand Slams (Singles);
- 2 – Career Grand Slams (Doubles);
- 4 – Olympic Golds.
2 – TIGER WOODS, PGA Golfer
He may well be past his prime, but he is the greatest player in the history of golf and technically still active. So, for what he has accomplished and the potential that he can still be – it’s why he ranks here in this list.
For those of us super fans of Woods, we like to daydream that he will eventually recapture some of his past success. But, perhaps we should just hope that he will accept who he is today, and not look back. He doesn’t need to be super human anymore, just Tiger Woods now.
- 14 Major Championships (2nd all-time)
- 4 – Masters (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005);
- 3 – US Open (2000, 2002, 2008);
- 3 – The Open (2000, 2005, 2006);
- 4 – PGA Championships (1999, 2000, 2006, 2007).
- 106 Professional Wins;
- 79 PGA Wins (2nd all-time);
- 40 European Tour Wins (3rd all-time);
- 11-time PGA Player of the Year Award Winner (Most all-time);
- 9-time Vardon Trophy Recipient;
- 9-time Byron Nelson Award Winner (Most all-time);
- 2-time Fedex Cup Champion (2007, 2009);
- Record for most consecutive weeks at World Number One Ranking;
- Youngest player to achieve the Grand Slam;
- Youngest player to 50 tournaments wins on Tour;
- Achieved the Grand Slam 3 times (Jack Nicklaus is the only other golfer to accomplish this);
1 – ROGER FEDERER, ATP Tennis Player
I put a lot of stock in athletes who play individual sports, particularly tennis which entails a continuous grinding test of both the mind and body. That is why I am most impressed with Federer and all that he has accomplished over the course of his long career. He has consistently shown how talent combined with hard work and love for sport are the keys to success. He’s also given us a prime example of how an athlete can endure over time: by the willingness and ability to adjust both the mind and body.
- 90 Career Singles Titles (3rd in Open Era);
- 8 Career Doubles Wins;
- 1096-246 or 81.67%;
- 18 Grand Slam Singles Wins (Most Men’s all time);
- 5 – Australian Open (Most Men’s all time);
- 1 – French Open;
- 7 – Wimbledon Title (T-Most all time);
- 5 – US Open Titles (T-Most all time);
- Only 1 of 7 men to win all 4 majors and the only man to have reached the final of each Grand Slam at least 5 times);
- Reached a record 28 Men’s Singles Grand Slam Finals (10 consecutive, and another 8 consecutive – the two longest streaks in history);
- Most weeks at World No. 1 Ranking;
- Only player to register at least 10 titles on three different surfaces;
- Reached the most finals (28), semifinals (41) and quarterfinals (49);
- 6-time ATP World Tour Finals Champion;
- 1 – Olympic Gold & 1 Silver.
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