G.O.A.T. Athletes: The Definitive List

The acronym GOAT gets thrown around rather casually these days, but we felt it was the right time to settle any and all arguments in eight popular sports.

GOAT Lead Illustration 2017
Complex Original

GOAT lead Illustration 2017

GOAT Lead Illustration 2017

After watching one blistering punch after another find its mark, the referee had no choice but to step in and put an end to the carnage. He hugged Conor McGregor, waved his hands to signal it was over. With 1:05 in the 10th round of his 50th fight, Floyd ​“Money” Mayweather had officially attained immortal status.

Last Saturday in Las Vegas, Mayweather—the richest boxer the sport has ever seen fighting in the richest bout the world has ever seen—did what he was expected to do—dispatch McGregor. In the process, he set another mark that may never be equaled: passing the great Rocky Marciano and the heavyweight’s 49-0 record.

But does that make Mayweather boxing’s GOAT? To some, yes. Many would argue that a perfect record is analogous to an athlete’s greatness. Others, like us, would say the debate is much more nuanced than that.

The acronym GOAT—Greatest Of All Time—gets thrown around rather casually these days, but we felt it was the right time to settle any and all arguments about who is truly THE god in eight of the most popular sports.

The task was simple: Make the case for why so-and-so deserves GOAT status and make no apologies for your choice. While crowning the GOAT in basketball, baseball, and tennis, for instance, was rather easy, we found that anointing the best of the best in wrestling and football, on the other hand, was much more difficult.

So peep our list and fight us on our selections if you must, but we’re confident that these eight have proven themselves to be above and beyond anyone else in their respective sports. In the case of six of them, we should all bow down to these gods living among us mere mortals.

Michael Jordan GOAT 2017 Illustration

Basketball: Michael Jordan

Six NBA Finals appearances, six titles, six MVPs. Whenever anyone questions Michael Jordan’s status as the greatest ever, it is usually this record that ends any and all arguments. Because, in other ways, other players are able to surpass Jordan. Bill Russell finished with more rings, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finished with more points, and (sacrilege alert!) LeBron James might be a more dangerous all-around player. And, as James seeks his eighth straight Finals appearance, it can be debated that just getting to the Finals is an enormous accomplishment in and of itself. But what cannot be debated is that each time Jordan made the Finals, he not only won, but was named MVP. Perfection is hard to top. —Russ Bengtson

Runners-up: Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James 

Joe Montana GOAT Illustration 2017

Football: Joe Montana

The quarterback is the most important position on the field without a doubt so it should come as no surprise that our pick for the gridiron’s greatest would be a QB. Out of all the notable signal callers to choose from; why not go with a two-time league MVP and a guy with an unblemished 4-0 Super Bowl record? You can compare Joe Montana’s statistics to Tom Brady all you want but it’s clear Brady’s numbers have come during a more pass-friendly era—not to mention all the rule changes that protect the quarterbacks in today’s NFL. Montana didn’t throw one interception in any of the four Super Bowls he played and, oh, the one Super Bowl MVP he didn’t win? He threw for 357 yards and three TDs but was overshadowed by another all-time great named Jerry Rice. Bottom line: Montana dominated the game during his prime. Just imagine how dominant he’d be playing nowadays. — Zion Olojede

Runners-up: Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor, Tom Brady, Jim Brown

Babe Ruth GOAT Illustration 2017

Baseball: Babe Ruth

Since baseball, more than any other sport, is defined by numbers we’ll start there. And Babe Ruth’s, to put it succinctly, are stupid. The Sultan of Swat’s career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stands at an astounding 183.7—Cy Young is second with 168.5. The Great Bambino is also the all-time leader in slugging percentage (.690) and OPS (1.164); he’s second in RBI (2,214) and on-base percentage (4.74); hit 60 home runs in 1927; 714 for his career; and may have single-handedly saved baseball in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. Let’s not forget the Colossus of Clout was also a damn good left-handed pitcher during his days with the Red Sox, going 3-0 in three World Series starts with a 0.87 ERA before the Yankees purchased him for $100,000 in 1920 and watched him become a living legend. Ruth would make the Yankees build a stadium in the Bronx because of his popularity, earn more money than the President of the United States at the time (unthinkable during the Great Depression), have a candy bar named after him, hit home runs at a record pace with nothing but beer and hot dogs in his system, and appear in nearly as many Fall Classics (10, winning seven) as he had nicknames (unofficially, at least a dozen). — Adam Caparell

Runners-up: Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron

Pele GOAT Illustration 2017

Soccer: Pelé

Edson Arantes do Nascimento started his professional football career at 15, and was named to the Brazilian national team at 16. On both occasions he scored in his first match. Named to the 1958 World Cup team, he became the youngest player in World Cup history. He scored a hat trick against France in the semifinal, then two more against Sweden in the Final as Brazil won their first-ever World Cup. With do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, on the side, Brazil would go on to win two of the next three World Cups before he retired from international play. On the club side, Pelé spent 19 seasons with Brazilian club Santos, scoring an absurd 619 goals in 638 appearances, and finished his career with the New York Cosmos of the NASL. Then in his mid-30s, he scored 31 goals in 56 matches. No less a figure than Johan Cruyff stated “Pelé was the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic.” No one has surpassed Pelé yet, and it’s likely no one ever will. —R.B.

Runners-up: Diego Maradona, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Johan Cruyff, Ronaldo 

Serena Williams GOAT Illustration 2017

Tennis: Serena Williams

Since goinng pro in 1995, over two decades ago, Serena Williams has essentially owned the sport of tennis ever since. You could argue she’s the most dominant athlete—male or female—of any current sport, but that’s a debate for another day.

Serena is not the greatest just because she has four Olympic gold medals. Or because with 23 Grand Slam titles; she's the winningest major champion of the Open era. It’s also not just because she has an 80-percent win rate and has been No. 1 in the world for a total of 309 weeks—186 of which were consecutive.

It’s that in terms of sheer talent, broadening the sport’s appeal, and yes, winning, it’s hard to argue that any player has impacted the game of tennis more than Serena. The sport is forever changed by her presence as well as her success.  — Dria Roland

Runners-up: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova

Muhammad Ali GOAT Illustration 2017

Boxing: Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali is, pound-for-pound, the greatest boxer to ever live. Why? Because he was a fighter with the hand speed and dexterity of a lightweight boxer, the power of a heavyweight, and the mouth of a professional wrestler. At the tender age of 22, the Louisville Lip shocked the world when he beat heavy favorite Sonny Liston to become one of the youngest to ever hold the heavyweight crown. Ali continued to shock the world for most of his boxing career, notably when he joined the Nation of Islam shortly after conquering Liston before he was banned from boxing for three years after he refused to enter the Vietnam War draft. The United States government tried to take him down and six years after his ban was lifted, the kid from Kentucky was heavyweight champion again after taking down George Foreman in the legendary Rumble in the Jungle bout that almost killed both men. Like Michael Jordan in the NBA, all boxers are held to the lofty cultural standards that Ali set 50 years ago. — Angel Diaz

Runners-up: Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather

Ric Flair GOAT Illustration 2017

Wrestling: Ric Flair

Without discounting the dons of the WWE’s Attitude Era, it’s hard to place the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair as anything but professional wrestling’s GOAT. It’s not just that he’s (recognized by the WWE as) a 16-time world heavyweight champion; it’s the era he did it in. Flair was one of the last champions who actually helped create talent by traveling to other territories in the country and challenging their best competitor; by the time he left, that person looked like a million bucks, even if they weren’t worth $0.99. Flair made the championships matter while exuding an expensive cool that set the standard for how a champion should dress, speak, and carry themselves. He was a god among men, and his influence has not only touched the world of pro wrestling, but hip-hop, basketball, and how you should stroll into meetings when you’re trying to get shit done. — Khal

Runners-up: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, The Undertaker

Anderson Silva GOAT Illustration 2017

MMA: Anderson Silva

MMA is a young sport and deciding the pound-for-pound GOAT is the kindle for many a fiery Internet debate. We give it to Anderson Silva for his style, striking accuracy, and total dominance during his prime.

Silva has the longest winning streak in the UFC’s history (16). Silva spent almost seven years undefeated—and he did it in incredibly entertaining fashion from front kicks to the face to lethal flying knees. Demetrious Johnson has only matched Silva’s record of 10 consecutive title defenses. George St-Pierre’s style, while brutally effective, will never be as exciting as The Spider’s. And to the naysayers, yes, the end of Silva’s career has been tumultuous but the man remains an icon, regardless of how he chooses to make his exit.

All that said, you can arrange the constellation of greats in our runner up list in any order you desire and convince many a fight fan. But in our book, The Spider is still the greatest of all time. — Madison Hartman

Runners-up: Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Fedor Emelianenko, Demetrious Johnson

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