TOP 15 ACTIVE PRO SPORTS LEGENDS (AS OF MARCH 2013)

This may be the greatest time in the history of pro sports to be a fan.

It’s true that we have unprecedented access to global sports due to advanced technology in this modern era.

But, more importantly, we have the ability to witness several living sports legends in action right now.

It may never have been this good.

Think about it:

Tiger Woods.

Peyton Manning.

Roger Federer.

Mariano Rivera.

Serena Williams.

Shaun White.

This is just a sampling of the athletes who will go down in history as the best ever in their sport, and we fans are able to catch them in action right now.

We don’t have to rely on internet clips, or what other people have said about them.  We can actually see these athletes live in person, or watch them whenever we want on tv.

That’s pretty special.

So, for fun, let’s take stock of what legends we are able to witness as sports fans now and rank them.

(Note – This list only contains unretired athletes & those who have reached “legend” status in their sport.)

1.     Roger Federer

Roger Federer is arguably the greatest tennis player to have ever lived.  To me, he’s also the greatest living athlete still in action today.  It’s not just his statistics that have me in awe, but also his natural ability to play the sport.  And, experts agree.

In a recent Tampa Times article, John McEnroe said he thought Federer was the best ever: “He’s the most beautiful player I’ve ever seen… Roger, he can do everything, and makes it look easy.”  Further, he said – “If I had to pick [best all around], I’d pick Roger.”  That’s high praise indeed from McEnroe, a legend in his own right.

Federer turned pro in 1998 and now at age 31, he’s currently ranked #2 in the ATP World Rankings.  He’s done it all without major injury and without a coach.  And, he’s still going.

Some of Federer’s accomplishments:

  • Most Grand Slam wins ever: 17
    • 7 Wimbledon (Tied for most ever);
    • 1 French Open;
    • 4 Australian Open (Tied for most ever);
    • 5 US Open (Tied for most ever).
  • Only one of 7 men to win all four majors, and the only man to have reached the final of each Grand Slam tournament at least 5 times.
  • Most weeks at World Ranking #1: 300+
  • Most ATP World Finals: 6
  • Most Masters 1000 Finals: 33 (21 titles, 12 runner-ups)

2.     Tiger Woods

If it wasn’t for the fact that Tiger has only 14 major championships to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18, I may have ranked Tiger #1 on this list.  Still, Tiger has 76 PGA wins already, compared to Jack’s total of 73.

Regardless of statistics, no one can argue that Tiger is the greatest living golfer playing the sport right now.  He has been called “the greatest closer in history” by multiple golf experts.  He also owns the lowest career scoring average and the most career earnings of any player in PGA Tour history.

He is also the youngest of only five players to have won all four professional major championships in his career.  And, Woods is the only player to have won all four professional major championships in a row, during the 2000–2001 seasons.

Currently at age 37, Woods is still very active, albeit, a reduced schedule as compared to previous years.  His focus now appears to be on the bigger tournaments and majors.  There’s still plenty of time for him to break Nicklaus’ record and I can’t wait to be a witness to history.

3.     Lionel Messi

Considered by many to be the best footballer in the game now & greatest in history.  Few records remain that this 25 year old Argentine and forward for La Liga club FC Barcelona hasn’t smashed.

Here’s just a sampling of what he’s accomplished so far:

  • Most goals in one UEFA Champions League match;
  • First player to top-score in four successive Champions League campaigns;
  • Highest scorer in Barcelona history;
  • Most goals scored in La Liga season;
  • Most hat-tricks in La Liga season & overall;
  • Most consecutive La Liga matches scored in;
  • Most goals all international competitions;
  • Most goals in European competitions;
  • Most goals in UEFA Champions League
  • First football player in history to win four FIFA/Ballons d’Or, all of which he won consecutively;
  • Olympic Gold Medal;
  • Guiness World Record title for the most goals in a year: 91 goals
  • Most international goals in a year (club and national team)
  • Most goals scored in FIFA Club World Cup: 4 goals;
  • Most consecutive league matches scored in: 17 matches (27 goals)
  • Most goals scored in a European Cup season: 14
  • Most European Cup top scorer awards: 4
  • Highest scorer in a European Cup game: 5

It is doubtful that many Americans will get to see Messi play in person, but watch the following link to a recent 60 Minutes segment on him to see what you’re missing: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50142054n

4.     Kobe Bryant

At the age of 37, Kobe Bryant is one of the most accomplished basketball players to have ever played the game.  There is some dispute among experts if he, Michael Jordan, or LeBron are the best ever.  But due to pure statistics amounted, Kobe ranks as a legend above LeBron and among active players for this list’s purposes.

Among Bryant’s list of awards:

  • 5× NBA Champion;
  • 2x NBA Finals MVP
  • 1x NBA Most Valuable Player;
  • 15× NBA All-Star;
  • 4x NBA All Star MVP;
  • 2× NBA Scoring Champion (2006–2007);
  • 6× All-NBA First Team (2002–2004, 2006–2008);
  • 2× All-NBA Second Team (2000–2001);
  • 2x Olympic Gold Medal
  • 132x 40+ points games (5 of those 60+; 26 of those 50+)

5.     Mariano Rivera

A 12x All Star and 5x World Series Champion, Rivera is the greatest closer in the history of Major League Baseball and destined to be a first ballot Hall of Famer.

His list of accomplishments is too many to note here.  But among the stats, he has the most career saves by any pitcher (608), and best ERA average in the reg season (18 years – 2.21).  He also has the most career saves in the post season (42) and lowest career ERA (0.77).

Perhaps the most amazing thing to consider is that Rivera did it all with one pitch, a cutter (or cut fastball).  Over the course of his 18 years with the New York Yankees, he consistently struck out batters (1,119 in 1,051 games pitched) with that cutter.  It was/is that unhittable.  Former Kansas City Royals first baseman once said about Rivera’s cutter, “You know what’s coming, but you know what’s coming in horror movies too.  It still gets you,”

But, there isn’t much time to catch Rivera in action.  He recently announced that at the end of this 2013 season, and at 43 years old, he will retire.

6.     Serena Williams

Serena’s stats are unbelievable, but what makes her so special is her utter dominance over the other ladies in the tennis world when she is healthy.  In last year’s Olympics for example, she only dropped 17 games total during the entire tournament (winning 81%) and did not lose a single set when she faced 6 of the world’s top ladies players.

Also, among active tennis players, male or female, Serena now holds the most Major titles in tennis (15 singles, 13 doubles, and 2 mixed doubles) and currently, she is tied for eighth on the all-time list, and still counting.  There are only 10 women to have ever won the “career grand slam” and Serena is one of them.

Serena is 31 now, but like Roger Federer, she hopes to play as long as her body holds up.  If it does, the ladies on tour still have a lot to worry about.

For more on Serena Williams, check out my December 11, 2012 post, “Sportsperson of the Year 2012 – Sorry, it’s not LeBron.”

7.     Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning is the best NFL player with legendary status currently active right now.  For what he has accomplished in his 14 seasons as an NFL quarterback and his ability to command the football field, it is fair to say that he is on most experts top 5 lists for best NFL quarterback ever.

Some of his stats to consider:

  • Super Bowl Champion;
  • Super Bowl MVP
  • 2× AFC champion (2006, 2009)
  • 6× AFC Player of the Year
  • 4× AP NFL MVP
  • 2nd Most Career Wins in reg season by starting QB (154)
  • Fastest ever to reach 50,000 yards passing
  • Fastest to 4,000 completions
  • Fastest to 400 passing touchdowns
  • Most seasons with at least 4,000 passing yards: 12
  • Most games w/perfect passer rating:

8.     Shaun White

If you don’t think a professional skateboarder and snowboarder belongs on this list, you’re kidding yourself.  Cuz Shaun White is that good.

The amount of medals White has won on multiple tours is staggering:

  • 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
  • In 2003, White was the first to compete and medal in both the Summer and Winter X Games in two different sports;
  • In 2012, White became the first person to score a perfect 100 in the men’s Snowboard Superpipe in the history of Winter X Games.

Singularly amazing is that White is only 26 years old to have accomplished so much.  There’s still plenty of time for more fun.  He’s a blast to watch:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=y43FolFlY78

Even more amazing is that he was born with a congenital heart defect for which he endured two open-heart operations before the age of one.

9.     Tom Brady

The 2nd best legendary NFL player to me is Tom Brady.  His stats are close to Peyton’s, but what separates Brady is his phenomenal record in the post season.

Namely, he’s 17-7 in the playoffs.  And, he’s a 3x Super Bowl Champion.

Also, Brady may not have as many career wins in the regular season as Peyton, but his winning percentage is the highest (.777; 136-39).

Some of Brady’s highlights:

  • Most games, 145+ passer rating, season: 4
  • Most games 35 completions, season: 3
  • Most consecutive 400+ yards passing games: 2 (2011)
  • Most Passing Touchdowns, Season: 50 (2007)
  • Best completion–interception ratio, season: 81.0-1 (324-4) (2010)

10.     John Force

John Force may not be a household name.  But, at 63 years of age, he is a living legend in the sport of professional drag racing (NHRA).

Since 1998, Force has been racking up more achievements as a Funny Car driver and owner than any other person in the history of the NHRA:

  • A first ballot inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega;
  • The first drag racer ever recognized as Driver of the Year for all of American motor racing in 1998;
  • Considered the #2 Ranked driver on NHRA Top 50 drivers of all time (Behind Don Garlits, founder of NHRA & retired);
  • From 1993-2002, Force racked up 10 consecutive championship seasons.  No one person or team in the history of any sport has ever accomplished this feat;
  • Force is second only to Richard Petty for wins in all major motorsports;
  • Won at least 1 national event for 15 straight seasons and has won 10 or more races five different times – the combined total of 10-win seasons for everyone else in the sport is three;
  • Won a tour event in 25 of the last 26 years, failing to do so only in 2009, two years after surviving a potentially fatal accident at Dallas;
  • 15 NHRA Championships;
  • 17x NHRA Championship Owner;
  • 134 wins in 217 final rounds;
  • 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 career round-wins (755);
  • Most rounds run (1,006);
  • Most top 10 finishes (28 consecutive seasons).

So, if you’re lucky enough to attend one of the live NHRA events currently touring the US, look out for John Force.  He’ll be the gray-haired driving genius flashing the biggest smile.

11.    Derek Jeter

In my mind, Yankees fan or not, Jeter is a living legend in Major League Baseball and future Hall of Famer for sure.  Some experts have him on their top 5 list already as one of the greatest shortstops in history.  But, what really sets him apart is the combination of his excellent play, leadership, and consistency.

The Yankees drafted Jeter out of high school in 1992, and he debuted in the major leagues in 1995. The following year, he became the Yankees’ starting shortstop, won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, and helped the team win the 1996 World Series.  He would go on to be instrumental in helping the Yankees win 4 more Championships (1998, 1999, 2000, 2009).

More statistics:

  • 13× All-Star;
  • 5× Gold Glove Award (2004–2006, 2009–2010);
  • 5× Silver Slugger Award (2006–2009, 2012);
  • World Series MVP Award (2000);
  • All-time MLB leader in hits by a shortstop;
  • 28th MLB player to reach 3,000 hits;
  • New York Yankees team captain (2003–present);
  • New York Yankees career hits record;
  • New York Yankees career stolen bases record;
  • Most career singles by any active MLB player (2,460);
  • Most career hits by any active MLB player (3,304)

And, if you think Jeter is slowing down at age 38, think again.  Even with an off-season characterized by a lot sitting to heal a broken bone in his leg, he is resilient.  After having his worst season in 2011, Jeter came back in 2012 to finish the year with a .316 BA; lead the AL in singles (169); lead the AL in hits (216); got on base the 3rd most times in AL; made the 3rd most outs in AL (502); and had most plate appearances in the AL (740).

12.    Jimmie Johnson

There is much debate over whether or not Johnson belongs in the list of top 5 NASCAR drivers of all time.  This is subjective, but what he’s already accomplished is awesome:

  • First rookie driver to lead the point standings (2002);
  • First rookie to win twice at the same track during a season (2002);
  • First rookie to get 3 wins in first year (2002);
  • Won NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship 5 consecutive times (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010);
  • Won Daytona 500 2x (2006, 2013);
  • Johnson became the first racing driver to become Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year (U.S.) in 2009;
  • Won Driver of the Year four times, most recently in 2010.
  • Between 2002 and 2012, Johnson won 60x, 166 top-fives, 248 top-tens, and 29 pole positions.

The 37 year old is currently ranked #3 in the NASCAR standings and going strong. Let’s see what other magic he can pull out of his race car.

13.     Usain Bolt

The fastest man on the planet ever and living legend.

At least that’s what IOC President Jacques Rogge said in August after Bolt’s Olympic performances, “Usain Bolt is an active performance legend, he is an icon, he is the best sprinter of all time.”

Bolt is just 26 years old, but this Jamaican man has proven that he is a track and field star.  He is the first man to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records;  along with his teammates, he also set the world record in the 4×100 metres relay; the first man to win six Olympic gold medals in sprinting, and a five-time World champion; and was first to achieve a “double double” by winning 100 m and 200 m titles at consecutive Olympics (2008 and 2012).

Behold some of his other accomplishments below:

  • 6 Gold – Olympics;
  • 6 Gold, 2 Silver – World Championships;
  • 1 Gold – World Athletic Final;
  • 1 Gold – CAC Championships;
  • 1 Gold, 2 Silver – World Jr. Championships;
  • 1 Gold, 1 Silver – Pan American Jr. Championships;
  • 7 Gold – CARIFTA Jr. Championships;
  • 1 Gold – World Youth Championships;
  • 4 Gold – CAC Junior Championships;
  • 3 Gold, 2 Silver – CARIFTA (Youth) Championships;
  • Silver – World Cup.

14.    LeBron James

I think it’s fair to say that if LeBron James retired tomorrow at the age of 28, he’d still go down as one of the best in NBA history.  He has accomplished a great deal, but the potential for him to continue adding to his greatness is most alluring.  I couldn’t leave him off of this list for that reason.  Plus, it’s just pure fun to watch James in action.

List of accomplishments:

  • NBA Champion;
  • NBA Finals MVP;
  • 3x NBA MVP;
  • 9x NBA All-Star;
  • 2x NBA All-Star Game MVP;
  • NBA Rookie of the Year;
  • NBA Scoring Champion (2008);
  • 6x All NBA First Team;
  • 2x All NBA Second Team;
  • 4× NBA All-Defensive First Team;
  • NBA All-Rookie First Team;
  • USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year (2012)
  • Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year (2012)
  • Cleveland Cavaliers all-time leading scorer
  • 2 Gold, 1 Bronze – Olympics.

15.     Rafael Nadal

There are several tennis players on this list, but it’s a grueling sport and the depth is extreme at this timeframe in the history of the sport.

Rafael Nadal deserves his place in this conversation, for sure – The greatest clay court tennis player ever.

At just 26 years of age, lefty keeps adding to his impressive repertoire of wins and dominance on that red clay.

  • 11 Grand Slam Wins including:
    • 1 Australian Open
    • 7 French Open (Most all-time)
    • 2 Wimbledon
    • 1 US Open
  • Olympic Gold Medal (2008);
  • Career Record (595-123) (82.74%);
  • Career Titles: 52;
  • 21 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments (tied with Roger Federer),
  • Part of the Spain Davis Cup team that won the finals 4x;
  • Second male player to complete the Career Golden Slam (winner of the Career Grand Slam and the Olympic gold medal) after Andre Agassi;
  • At least two Grand Slam titles on each of the three surfaces (hard court, grass, and clay), the second player to achieve this feat after Mats Wilander.

 

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