The best athletes who have ever lived are like artists. They paint a clear picture of greatness every time they step on the field or court. Acrobatic feats of strength, creative jumps, flexible defensive plays, and intelligent collaborations with teammates all build an outstanding athlete's reputation into that of someone truly legendary.
It's very difficult to adjust our opinions of athletes as sports evolve and the game changes through the decades. We tried our best to combine the eye test with statistical dominance to compile a list of the greatest.
1. Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky demolished his competition in ways other team sport athletes never have. The greatest and best ice hockey player of all time, the Great One, was a better passer than every other player was a scorer. Gretzky notably played for the Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers, and New York Rangers, winning four Stanley Cup Finals with the Oilers. Even if people haven't heard anything about hockey, they know Wayne Gretzky's name.
2. Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi defines the “heart over height” trope in sports to a tee; standing at only 5'7”, the Argentinian soccer star defies all sports logic by finessing his way through defenders and scoring at will all over the pitch. While he doesn't have quite the marketability of Cristiano Ronaldo, he has the success to back up his place in history. His World Cup victory with Argentina in 2022 topped an already complete career.
3. Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan transcended the sport of basketball by elevating hoops well above the rim and then perfected his skills to remain relevant well into the late 1990s. His reign with the Chicago Bulls, an incredible six NBA titles in nine seasons, and his five MVP awards give him something other basketball players don't — the perfect combination of team and individual success.
4. Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth famously ate hot dogs and smoked cigarettes between games and sometimes between innings, but his hitting prowess remained revelatory in the game of baseball. Ruth often hit more home runs than entire teams, demonstrating that offenses were going to have to expand outside the ballpark to truly have an impact going forward. A century after his debut, the Babe is still unmatched on the diamond.
5. Serena Williams
Serena Williams inspired millions of girls all over the world with her fearless brand of tennis. With 23 Grand Slam titles, including one while she was pregnant with her first child, the California native never seemed to cease having the ability to find new ways to win. The WTA will have a hard time ever finding a replacement for Williams as their top star.
6. Novak Djokovic
With 24 Grand Slams to his name, Novak Djokovic has surpassed rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the best male tennis player of all time. Djokovic's relentless defensive skills and will to win never waver, even with off-court controversies and fans who oppose him on championship Sundays. He seems to have many more years in his bag to pad his stats and move up this list even more.
7. Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps made swimming the biggest event of the Olympics every time he took to the pool. In a sport focused on national pride, Phelps made Americans happy to be from the United States, a stark contrast from the typical divisive nature of sports. Phelps has the most medals of any Olympic athlete, and his honesty about his personal life troubles makes him feel more authentic and relatable.
8. Tom Brady
Known for playing American football until the age of 45, Tom Brady's longevity allowed him to win Super Bowls in three different decades, with a total of seven titles to his name. Brady's precision passing and high intellect made him the quintessential leader on and off the field. The quarterback's partnership with head coach Bill Belichick will live on in the New England Patriots' lore for eternity.
9. LeBron James
LeBron James was crowned the king of the NBA when he was fresh out of high school, and he's lived up to the hype for two decades. James has won a championship with three different NBA teams, and his power and athleticism are probably only matched by Wilt Chamberlain in the history of the sport. James is still going strong in 2023, attempting to bring one final shot at glory to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Pelé pioneered superstardom in the world of soccer. The Brazilian brought talents and modern athleticism to the game that was never seen before and often hasn't been matched since. In the years after his retirement, he served as an ambassador role for the sport, much like Bill Russell in basketball and Billie Jean King in tennis.
11. Tiger Woods
Personal controversies aside, Tiger Woods has been the highlight of the men's golf tour since the late 1990s. Watch Woods walk the back nine of a course on the fourth day of a major championship, and all eyes are glued to his presence like a deity. Jack Nicklaus may have more major wins, but Woods' electric style had a bigger impact on golf.
12. Jim Thorpe
Nobody has more sports under his belt as a professional than Jim Thorpe. The superstar of the early 20th century competed at the highest level in the Olympics and then took on baseball, basketball, and football for good measure. Learning about Thorpe should be a prerequisite in any history class, especially if discussing Native American icons.
13. Roger Federer
Watching Roger Federer play tennis creates butterflies in the stomach. Not only do his 20 Grand Slam titles indicate his place in tennis lore, but the variety of finesse and tactical output on the court feels unlike what any other tennis player is capable of. He may be surpassed in accomplishments, but he'll never be usurped in our hearts.
14. Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was the best boxer of all time, and he'd surely let you know if you didn't agree with him! Defeating his main rivals, such as George Foreman, Joe Frazier, and Sonny Liston, Ali became even more famous outside of the ring for his convictions. The Greatest wasn't afraid to sacrifice his career for what he believed in, and in the process, became a freedom fighter during one of America's most contentious decades.
15. Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt moves at speeds literally never documented by any other human on record. The Jamaican sprinter broke a multitude of running records in his time participating in the Olympics, capturing the attention of the world with a unique smile and an incredible gait. Watching him win at the same time as swimmer Michael Phelps allowed for an unmatched occurrence in sports history.
16. Jim Brown
Jim Brown remains the best runner in NFL history over 50 years after his retirement. The Georgia native left no doubt about his impact on the football field by obtaining records left and right, including eight rushing titles. Brown showed teams that running the football was the key to an outstanding offensive attack, and his trail still glows bright today.
17. Simone Biles
Simone Biles inspires children worldwide with her unfathomable routines in gymnastics on the Olympic stage. Along with several peers, such as Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, Biles refined what it meant to be successful in American artistic gymnastics. With the 2024 Olympics on the horizon, hopefully, we get to see one last hurrah from the GOAT.
18. Allyson Felix
Allyson Felix is one of the most underrated Olympians of her generation. Without getting the praise of someone like Usain Bolt, Felix quietly piled up medals during four different Olympic competitions. Her longevity in track and field is unmatched by male and female athletes.
19. Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo brings a swag to the pitch backed up by his substance. One of the most feared scorers in the sport, Ronaldo's rivalry with Messi has brought immense interest to soccer, even in areas that otherwise wouldn't be engaged in the sport. He's still looking for that elusive World Cup title that would have pushed him higher up the list.
20. Cheryl Miller
Despite never playing a game in the WNBA, Cheryl Miller remains the greatest women's basketball player of all time. Miller could score at will, once topping out at 105 points in a game for Riverside Polytechnic High School. She continued to dominate the sport at USC, winning two National Championships. The biggest what-if of her career remains how decorated her WNBA resume would have been if the league had existed during her career.
21. Don Bradman
Don Bradman is to cricket what Babe Ruth was to baseball. The cricketer played at a level unheard of during the first half of the 20th century, and he initiated an influx of fans, both of himself and the sport, in Australia. Cricket fans still marvel at the records Bradman achieved, such as his test batting average of 99.94.
22. Bo Jackson
Many athletes have attempted to play two professional sports, but none have done it quite like Bo Jackson. The combination of football and baseball skills Jackson possessed allowed him to garner an All-Star berth in both NFL and MLB competitions.
Shawn Laib is a writer who has loved all things pop culture from a young age. Growing up playing classic Nintendo games and being introduced to a variety of movies and shows, he always enjoyed analyzing and getting to the bottom of the point of a story. As he went into high school, basketball and sports in general became a main focus. Shawn decided to put his skills in English class to good use and majored in the subject area at the University of Washington, graduating with a B.A. in 2020. He began his freelance writing career after college with sites like SUPERJUMP, Den of Geek, and Quote.com. He now remains a fixture with publications like The Manual and Wealth of Geeks.