Tom Brady became the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) in NFL history after winning his sixth Super Bowl two years ago. (I mean, I know there are still some people who will say things like "Peyton Manning was better." Those people never watched the playoffs, apparently.) At that time, I measured Brady against the other all-timers in other sports, to see where he'd fit in a G.O.A.T. of G.O.A.T.s ranking -- and I placed him at No. 7.
But, as you might have heard, Brady has since won another Super Bowl. This time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During a pandemic. Meaning it might be time to revisit this list once again.
So revisit it I did. And there were changes. But Brady wasn't the only one making noise by moving up. Yes, there are a few surprises waiting for you below.
As I did last time, I cast a wide net, picking 16 representatives from around the world of sports. And if I rounded it out to 20, I would have included Richard Petty for North American motorsports, Kelly Slater for surfing, Tony Hawk for skateboarding and my friend Johnny Bananas, who recently won his seventh title on MTV's The Challenge. (I'm so sorry to do this, but I again didn't get into rugby and cricket. I know these are two of the most popular sports around the world, the subject of many fantastic suggestions last time around. But I can't talk about them with any authority.)
With that in mind, let's take a look at the latest version of this list:
16) Ric Flair
Sport: Pro wrestling
Accomplishments: 16-time World Champion; winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble; two-time enshrine to the WWE Hall of Fame.
I included Flair last time around, and it really pissed off some people. But I don't care about you. If you're upset about Flair being on this list, you probably also hate the Geico commercial with Tag Team, and your opinion is not one that I value. But Flair was the perfect foil as a jet-flying, limousine-riding title holder, with the clothes and the robes -- and he was one of those exceptional performers who made those around him look like a million bucks. Well, except Paul Roma. Flair is a beloved figure whose legacy impacted the wider world of entertainment beyond wrestling. He's on this list, and I'm not going to budge.
15) Lindsey Vonn
Accomplishments: Four World Cup titles; three-time Olympic medalist (one gold in 2010, one bronze in 2010, one bronze in 2018).
I remember being stunned the first time around to realize she didn't have the Olympic career I thought she had. But Vonn made up for it in the World Cup rankings, where she won a staggering 82 events. That's 20 more than her closest competitor. She also captured four overall World Cup titles. Not as many as Annemarie Moser-Proll. But the numbers point to Vonn being the overwhelming best of the best.
14) Kerri Walsh Jennings
Sport: Beach volleyball
Accomplishments: Four-time Olympic medalist (one gold in 2004, one gold in 2008, one gold in 2012, one bronze in 2016).
Walsh Jennings was part of one of the most iconic duos in sports, winning a trio of Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball with Misty May-Treanor from 2004 to 2012. The two of them made the sport what it is today. Why go with Kerri over Misty? Well, Kerri continued on after Misty retired. She became the most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player of all time at the 2016 Olympics, capturing the bronze medal with partner April Ross.
13) Usain Bolt
Sport: Track and field
Accomplishments: Eight-time Olympic medalist (two golds in 2008, three golds in 2012, three golds in 2016); world record-holder in the 100-meter sprint, the 200-meter sprint and the 4x100-meter relay.
Yes, it's weird to me to have an athlete as decorated as Bolt this far down the list. But this is the G.O.A.T. of G.O.A.T.s. It's not something we take lightly. It's like if you're looking at the Justice League (and I'm talking the comics, not Zack Snyder's version, though I'm looking forward to the Snyder cut). Barry Allen, the Flash, is awesome. But he's not Superman or Batman. Or Wonder Woman. Even though he is very, very good. That's where Bolt falls on this list.
12) Anderson Silva
Sport: Mixed martial arts
Accomplishments: Longest title reign in UFC history, at 2,457 days, from 2006 to 2013; won 16 consecutive fights during that stretch.
MMA is such a relatively young sport compared to the others. You don't have the lore that a sport like boxing does. But Silva was such a dominant champion during his time, I'm not sure his career is ever going to be matched. Future generations will be talking about his brilliance in the ring, with his quick-strike ability. I'm telling you, his KO of Forrest Griffin in UFC 101 (delivered while Silva was backpedaling) was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen -- and one of the scariest.
11) Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Sport: Track and field
Accomplishments: Six-time Olympic medalist (two golds in 1988, one gold in 1992, one silver in 1984, one bronze in 1992, one bronze in 1996).
She was the first participant to score more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon, in the 1986 Goodwill Games. (In case you're not aware, women's heptathlon combines the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter sprint, long jump, javelin toss and 800-meter run.) She was the favorite to win the event in the 1984 Olympics, but she had to deal with a hamstring injury. And yet, she still won the silver. She captured the gold finally in the 1988 games and again in 1992. Dominated multiple events, and even so, I don't think she gets enough love. Yes, I write that even as I keep her out of the top 10 here, but still.
10) Simone Biles
Accomplishments: Five-time Olympic medalist (four golds in 2016, one bronze in 2016); 19 gold medals in the world championships.
I'll admit I don't know much about gymnastics. But when your sport has to ban the moves that you do because other competitors can't do them, then I think you're probably the best who has ever done it at your sport. And there's another Olympics upcoming, which means there is a really good chance she is going to jump up this list very soon.
9) Willie Mays
Accomplishments: World Series champion, two-time NL MVP, NL Rookie of the Year (1951), 12-time Gold Glove winner, 1954 batting champion, four-time home-run leader, four-time stolen base leader.
I had Babe Ruth in this spot last time, but I never felt great about it, because he dominated a league that wasn't integrated. Was Babe better than, say, Josh Gibson? That's something we'll never be able to answer. So I'm removing Ruth and going with the guy I wanted to go with two years ago but didn't. Mays was a plus-.300 hitter. He hit for power. He had speed (he was nearly the first 40-40 guy in 1956 and '57 despite playing a 154-game season, eight fewer than today's standard length). He played great defense. He could throw. He thrived in an era where neither the ball nor the players were juiced. Allegedly. He, to me, was the perfect baseball player and should be the guy all players are judged against.
I will say that I was very tempted to put Mike Trout on this list. Because every year -- EVERY YEAR -- there is at least one story that reads, "Has (this player) passed Mike Trout as the game's best?" And every year, that answer is no.
Accomplishments: Three-time World Cup winner.
He was selected to Brazil's World Cup team at age 16, and he set the record at the time for the youngest player to appear in the World Cup (17 years, 17 months and 23 days). Pelé had a hat trick against France in the semifinals in 1958 and scored two more goals against Sweden in the finals as Brazil won its first of three World Cups during his run. He played professionally in his home country and scored 619 goals in 638 matches. To put that in context for you fans of American football: Jerry Rice, the NFL's all-time touchdown leader, scored 208 touchdowns in 303 games. Pele also played in the NASL for the New York Cosmos. He scored 31 goals in 56 matches -- despite being near the end of his career.
The reason I don't have him (or Willie Mays) higher on this list is because while I have recognized him as the best in his sport, there is still some contention. Just like a baseball observer might have Henry Aaron over Mays (and there's a good argument), the beautiful sport of soccer has Messi, Ronaldo, Maradona and others we could have picked. (Notice how I say "we" when I'm trying to deflect the outrage.)
7) Michael Phelps
Accomplishments: 28-time Olympic medalist (six golds in 2004, eight golds in 2008, four golds in 2012, five golds in 2016, two silvers in 2012, one silver in 2016, two bronze in 2004); all-time record-holder in Olympic gold medals (23); broke Mark Spitz's record of gold medals in a single Olympics (seven) with eight in 2008.
Phelps would have been a solid pick for this list even if he'd stopped competing after the 2008 Olympics, having put together perhaps the greatest performance in sports history -- even if, as we thought he was going to, he'd pulled an Elway and walked out on top. But then he pulled a Brady instead, winning four more gold medals in 2012 and five more in 2016. Incredible. Phelps' position at No. 7 shows just how hard it is to put these athletes in order, because he could easily be ranked first overall.
6) Muhammad Ali
Accomplishments: Career record of 56-5; 37 wins by knockout; three-time heavyweight champion of the world; one-time Olympic medalist (one gold in 1960).
My admiration for Ali has grown a lot in the last two years, which is why I feel it's weird to have him sliding down this list (he was No. 3 last time). But I feel there are athletes still competing who might have taken a step past Ali here. He's still the best boxer by a mile. Don't give me Tyson or Mayweather. I won't hear of it. Ali could match anybody in pure power, as evidenced by his incredible knockout total. And he might have had the fastest hands in the history of the sport, able to throw punches with the kind of lightning quickness typically seen in lighter fighters.
Remember when we talked about Ric Flair's showmanship in and out of the wrestling ring? Ali brought the same panache, possessing the skill to carve an opponent up with a quip that was almost as fearful as his jab. And we have to remember, Ali fought in a time when heavyweight boxing was still king. He boxed against Joe Frazier in "The Thrilla in Manila" and George Foreman in "The Rumble in the Jungle," two bouts that are still legendary to this day. How much more decorated could he have been, had boxing not banned him for refusing to enter the draft?
5) Serena Williams
Accomplishments: 23 Grand Slam titles; four-time Olympic medalist (one gold in 2002, one gold in 2008, two golds in 2012).
There is a healthy debate as to whether Roger Federer or Serena has been the most dominant in this sport. After all, Federer has had to face the likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But then, Serena has dominated the sport for well over 20 years. It's not fair to ding her for the absence of a true rival, because she's pretty much banished anyone who has ever come close to her. Even her own sister. Serena has been No. 1 in the world for a total of 319 weeks, including 186 consecutive weeks. And ... AND she won a tournament while she was pregnant -- PREGNANT -- then continued to compete at a high level afterward. When anyone on the men's side pulls that off, I'll be happy to reopen this conversation. I mean, her home trophy display really says it all. When you think of women's tennis, you only think of one person, and that's Serena. And it's going to be that way for a long time.
4) Tiger Woods
Accomplishments: 108 career wins, including 82 on the PGA tour; 15 major championship wins.
Last time I did this list, I had Tiger at No. 8, but I jumped him into the top five because he won the Masters at age 43. I watch a lot of golf. And I see Justin Leonard and David Duval on the broadcasts as commentators, and I think back to when both of those guys were considered rivals of Tiger back in the late 1990s -- and he's left them all in the dust. Then I think of how Jordan Spieth, who once seemed on track to break all of Tiger's records, is being celebrated for just securing back-to-back top-five finishes. When you consider how mentally tough the game of golf is, and the guys who come and go, the fact that Tiger is still a force (despite again being sidelined with an injury) is a testament to how great he is. And there is a chance he's going to return for the Masters this year, which could move him up even further on this list.
3) Wayne Gretzky
Accomplishments: Four-time Stanley Cup winner; nine-time winner of the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP); most regular-season goals (894), assists (1,963), points (2,857) and hat tricks (50) in NHL history.
The Great One truly lived up to his name as the greatest hockey player to ever live. He was selected league MVP a staggering nine times. NINE TIMES! And there are all of the records that he broke. Even so, Gretzky never seems to get the credit he deserves for how impressive he was in such a demanding sport. I mean, there were guys who were physically more striking, but nobody was as productive as Gretzky over the course of such a lengthy career, which spanned from 1979 to 1999. He won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and somehow made the L.A. Kings the hottest ticket in Los Angeles during the 1990s. He might have even brought the first Stanley Cup to Southern California if Marty McSorley had used the correct stick in Game 2 of the 1993 Final against Montreal.
Gretzky also made those around him so much better. Like Bernie Nicholls, my favorite player as a kid. Nicholls was a great player, but when Gretzky arrived in 1988, he scored a career-high 150 points. It was amazing. One thing hurts Gretzky a bit: The Oilers won a Cup two seasons after he left.
2) Michael Jordan
Accomplishments: Six-time NBA champion; six-time NBA Finals MVP; five-time NBA MVP; 10-time NBA scoring leader; two-time Olympic medalist (gold in 1984, gold in 1992).
Let's be honest about Jordan and his legacy, which has endured long after he retired in 2003. I mean, put his silhouette on a shoe, and you have a best-seller. And, of course, The Last Dance was the TV event of 2020. He's even the subject of not one but two memes, with the Crying Jordan meme having been replaced by his "... and I took that personally" meme. But let's take a look at what he did on the court. The one thing I couldn't get past was that he was a perfect 6-for-6 in championships and Finals MVP awards won with the Chicago Bulls. Yes, Jordan earned fewer MVPs in the NBA than the Great One did in the NHL ... but those finals appearances, though! Coming through on the biggest stage. MJ was dominating Finals right through championship No. 6. He averaged 33.6 points in his career Finals appearances, including an incredible 38 points in Game 5 in 1997, while he was deathly ill with the flu. In the decisive game of the Finals a year later, he stole the ball from Karl Malone, then drained the winner over Bryon Russell in one of the best sequences in sports history. He's the best in NBA history.
The fun thing to think about with Jordan is, how long is he going to be considered the G.O.A.T. in NBA circles? You might have missed this, but LeBron James won another NBA title, his first with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he's playing out of his mind once again, meaning there is a good chance the Lakers win again this year, which would give him five titles -- or one less than Jordan.
1) Tom Brady
Accomplishments: Seven-time Super Bowl champion; five-time Super Bowl MVP; three NFL MVP awards.
All right, haters: Make your case against Brady. Yes, he's lost Super Bowls, while Jordan never lost an NBA Finals that he appeared in. That's fair. And MJ was also dominant earlier in his career than Brady was; whereas Brady didn't win his first title until his second pro season, Jordan won his in ... (checks notes) ... his seventh? Hmm.
Let me just get to the point with Brady. He's dominated a sport that is designed to wipe out dynasties. The NFL had been a dynasty-based sport in the 1960s (Packers), the '70s (Steelers), the '80s (49ers) and the '90s (Cowboys), and even beyond that, if you want to go back to the Canton Bulldogs. The salary cap was supposed to usher in an era of parity. Nobody was supposed to have prolonged success. But Brady has, for 20 years and with two different franchises. He not only drove his own dynasty, he squashed a few wannabes along the way. As my guy Kyle Brandt pointed out on Good Morning Football the other day, both the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks had budding dynasties interrupted by losses to Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Brady might have just done the same thing to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Do I also need to point out the fact Brady just won his fifth Super Bowl MVP award at age 43? With a brand new team? And playing in a brand new system? It wasn't like he followed one of the Patriots' assistants somewhere else last offseason; Brady took over Bruce Arians' Bucs and got them to the Super Bowl. Look at Brady in Tampa, then watch some of Michael playing for the Washington Wizards. Even if Jordan's time in Washington isn't as bad as I remember it being, it's no contest. Brady is one of just two quarterbacks to lead two different teams to Super Bowl titles. And he's the only one to actually be an active participant in that second title. I mean, people almost seem to overlook that Brady threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2020. He threw three touchdowns in Super Bowl LV. In contrast, Peyton Manning was benched for Brock Osweiler during his final season in Denver; Manning might not have even seen the field in the playoffs, when he and the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, had Osweiler not flamed out in the regular-season finale against the San Diego Chargers.
There's no question, we are witnessing history. And there's a good chance we never see something like this again.