One of the more significant moments in sports history occurred last week, with Tom Brady calling it quits on a truly legendary career. With the sheer number of records he possesses – seven super bowls, the all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, and every playoff record imaginable – Brady has ended any question of a GOAT debate in football. At this point, the more significant question concerns where Brady lies in the framework of the entire sports world.
An Overview Of Some Of Sports’ Biggest GOAT Debates
There are too many sports to cover them all, so I will cover a general sampling here.
Unlike most sports, there isn’t really a debate here. At different points, there were ongoing debates involving Brady. Historically, there was the debate of him vs Montana, particularly with Montana at the time having the all-time super bowl record with four. During his career, Peyton Manning’s gaudy numbers (including the all-time touchdown record that was once his), his two super bowls, and the thrilling rivalry he had with Brady, warranted a debate.
Brady ended up squashing both of those debates. He shattered the super bowl record by winning a whopping seven in 10 appearances. He broke the individual records for yards and touchdowns, dominated his head-to-heads against other great QBs of his era, and even broke Warren Moon’s longevity record by starting (and playing at a high level) at 45. A head-to-head comparison between the resumes of Brady and anyone else in the sport becomes moot fairly quickly.
The debate for basketball’s GOAT is likely one of the most lively ones in the sporting world. Michael Jordan stakes his obvious claim with his six championships and six finals MVPs in all of his six finals appearances. Along with that, he’s accumulated gaudy stats, including five MVPs, 14 all-star appearances, and a top-five overall scoring mark. Simply put, his case is that of the ultimate champion, the one who won at every chance of asking and did it more often than anyone else.
However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the presence of LeBron James in this debate. He’s on the verge of breaking the all-time scoring record and is in the NBA’s top five in all-time assists. He’s been in championship contention more than anyone else, making ten NBA finals – including eight in a row – and winning four championships. His longevity and current level at 37 just increase his claim.
The jury is still out, simply put.
Tennis as a sport is interesting in terms of its GOAT debate. There’s a varied calendar full of tournaments, and while the slams are the most important, it’s hard to single out one metric. Furthermore, the strength and evolution of tennis across different eras make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult.
The current conversation surrounds Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. Federer, of course, was the pioneer of this era, the first to reach 20 grand slams, the original holder of the weeks at number one record, with 310. He easily holds the record for most consecutive weeks at number one and showed his longevity by remaining in the top five until he was 40. His record-tying six ATP finals championships, all-time high eight Wimbledon titles, Olympic gold in doubles, and his second-all-time marks in wins and tournaments add to what is a wonderful resume. His all-time great sportsmanship, character, and elegance only increase his presence among tennis’ greats.
Nadal ties the all-time lead in Grand Slams with 22 and is by FAR the most dominant player ever on clay, with a whopping 14 French Opens (with the obvious corresponding knock of only eight slams outside of clay). His positive head-to-head against Federer helps his case, although Federer does lead the head-to-head on both hard and grass courts. He is the only one of the three to have a gold medal in singles, and while Federer’s dominance kept him away from number one for a while, he has the record for most weeks in the top two.
Djokovic is tied with Nadal at 22 slams, and has the lead in all-time masters titles, as well as weeks at number one, with some championship-level tennis still left. He’s tied with Federer at six world tour finals and has an all-time high 10 Australian opens. Perhaps his biggest achievements are his double career grand slam and his career golden masters. Statistically, he probably has the best case of the three, but his character and sportsmanship are lacking, and in the last few years he’s been able to take advantage of some serious injuries to his biggest competitors and a disappointing group of younger players.
Not only is it hard to pick a favorite of these three, but when bringing in legends from other eras, like Borg, McEnroe, Laver, etc…, picking just one name becomes impossible.
My Personal Mount Rushmore
There are many different criteria with which people define their greatest across all sports. For me, it is the dominance relative to your peers, combined with championship instincts. And to that end, here’s my sporting Mount Rushmore.
It’s hard not to put the fastest man alive on this list. When we talk dominance over an era – we look at a guy who has never lost an Olympic final and has eight Olympic golds in eight counted events. He has 23 total gold medals in his career, and still possesses the 100m and 200m world records, without a close second.
There was never a doubt about Bolt’s status. The rivals in his era competed for second in pretty much every championship race, and he holds every reasonable sprinting record. With the advancement in sports science and the general positive evolution of athletes over time, Bolt’s records may be broken, but nobody will ever dominate their era as Bolt did. Speed is integral in any part of the sports world. Bolt has to have a spot here.
When the question is dominance, how can Phelps not enter the equation? In roughly every possible metric in his sport, he has dominated. Most importantly, he’s the ultimate champion, arguably in sporting history. He has 23 Olympic golds, not only shattering the modern record but even exceeding – almost doubling – Leonidas of Rhodes’ 2168-year-old record of 12 gold medals.
He has a whopping total of 66 gold medals (83 total), and while he doesn’t still hold all of them, he broke 39 world records in his career, most by any FINA-recognized swimmer. Add to all of this his longevity and the fact he competed in and dominated four different Olympic games. Like Bolt, Phelps will eventually see all of his records fall, and Caeleb Dressel is starting to chip away at that. But for his era, the way he towered over his competition and set new precedents, and simply won more than anyone in sport has won before.
The article headlines out there that are along the lines of “10 Wayne Gretzky records that are unbreakable” say it all. Gretzky had a prime level that was nearly untouchable. His raw stats were gaudy enough: 894 goals (1072 including playoffs), 1963 assists in a whopping 1487 games. Gretzky’s prime was longer than almost any other in sporting history. He was the NHL’s leader in points for HALF of his 20 seasons. His 51-game points streak was unprecedented in the sport and is a feat that will likely never be matched again.
His ability to be consistent night after night and season after season was matched by no other in the sport and few in the entire sports world. Gretzky wasn’t just a stat padder, though. In fact, his style was team-oriented, and he pioneered that kind of approach to hockey, and his fusion of explosiveness and facilitation of those around him made him the dangerous force he is. His presence on the ice was always noted, and his +520 career plus-minus was extremely indicative of his ability to influence games. Finally, his four Stanley Cups in six finals showed his ability to turn his unreal stat lines into championship seasons.
It’s impossible not to put a champion like Brady on this list. He’s not an unreal pure athlete, but he’s proof that with enough competitive fire, there’s more than just measurables to a sportsman’s greatness As stated above, his main claim to fame is his ability to simply win. He has more playoff wins than all but one franchise (the one being New England, to whom he provided most of those playoff wins). He has won three more super bowls than any other quarterback ever, made 10 super bowls, and has put himself in a position to make the super bowl a ridiculous 14 times.
His is an interesting case because it wasn’t too often that he put himself as the obvious best player in a given season. Rather, he put himself in the mix year after year for longer than anyone and found a way to win against teams and quarterbacks that appeared to be in better form when it mattered the most. Brady could never be counted out of any situation, and just won football game after football game – and over the course of his career, he put up plenty of impressive numbers to go along with it. Hard to argue with that and with a resume that thoroughly towers over anyone else to play the game.
Is Brady the GOAT of all these GOATs? Without doing a disservice to the others… I have to say yes. His championship instincts and clutch mindset, combined with his unreal stats alone are a hard combo to beat. However, considering his story arc, his initial draft position, his longevity, just make it impossible to have a resume that rivals his.
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