Never in the history of the world have goats seen such popularity. Well, maybe after the invention of goat cheese, but I maintain my premise! The pop-culture market is oversaturated with GOATs as if people have forgotten what the words ‘Greatest’ and ‘All-Time’ mean. It’s like Highlander people, there can be only one! Well… okay, there actually can be more than one. So let us perform an Mt. Rushmore thought experiment in order to weed out the imposters and show us who among them, are truly the Greatest Of All-Time. Four entries to be etched into our nonexistent stone.
I’ve taken a look at three different factors in a GOAT’s life: Athletic Contributions, Pop Culture Impact, & Overall Lasting Impact. In order to make our mountain, a GOAT must not only have been the best in their sport, but they must have had an outsized reach beyond the field of play and their impacts should have lasting power in the world long after their playing days are done. It was awfully hard to keep this list to only four people. Some credit is due to these Demi-GOATs who were considered but did not make it to the mountain top.
Jim Thorpe might have been the greatest American athlete ever. Thorpe was an Olympic champion, major league baseball player, pro basketball player, and a star football player both
in college and the fledgling pro football scene. Jim Thorpe was essentially Bo Jackson, 60 years before Bo Jackson. If he had been born in Jackson’s time, I’m confident that he would likely make our Mt Rushmore, but Thorpe was born in Oklahoma when it was still ‘Indian Territory”, a son of native peoples. He battled racism his entire life and was largely scrubbed from history due to his heritage. Sadly, the malevolent forces of power are sometimes too strong to defeat in one’s lifetime. Thorpe, more than most, deserves the immortality provided to the very best of his profession.
Man, this was a tough one. Tiger is the greatest golfer of all time. He also was largely responsible for making golf a top tier sport in America and growing the sport globally. Through his partnership with Nike, he stayed a fixture in global pop culture for nearly two decades. Then he fell off the deep end. That is not to say that his personal troubles are the reason he didn’t make the mountain top. You will see more names with complicated personal histories further down. But when his personal life (and game) went to hell, Tiger Woods quickly disappeared from the world stage. His 2019 Masters win was an all-time redemption moment, but there is no denying that the sport shrunk in his absence. His impact on global culture did the same, and currently, it is up in the air as to what his larger legacy in both the sport and the larger world will be in the decades to follow.
Didrikson suffers from the same curse that sidelined Jim Thorpe. She was born decades before her time. Like Thrope, she was an Olympic champion in track and field and Didrickson also toured the sporting communities of her time, generally laying waste to anyone who stood against her. She was tremendously charismatic and quickly became a household name. Imagine a depression-era Serena Williams or Megan Rapinoe if they could play multiple sports at the highest level. That was Babe Didrickson. At nearly 25 years of age, she took up golf, the sport for which she is best remembered. Unable to gain amateur status thanks to her pro status in other sports, Didrickson decided to skip competition against women and began entering into PGA events, going against the top men in the sport. She made two PGA cuts in her career; a feat not yet matched by another female golfer. She also co-founded the LPGA, one of the oldest women’s sports organizations in the world.
Whoa, whoa, whoa! I know, “The Hulkster” did not ply his trade in a legitimate sport, but hear me out. Hulk Hogan was, and largely still is Pro Wrestling. The man was so hot, so incredibly over, that he almost single-handedly gave Vince McMahon the power to grow his World Wrestling Federation from a regional product to a global juggernaut. The fabled (and contested) 93,000 on hand at the Silverdome who watched him slam Andre The Giant didn’t much care if what they were watching was legit. Love him or hate him, Hogan made the WWE, Wrestlemania, and then legitimized rival WCW when he defected. More importantly, Hogan was the first performer to breakthrough to the general public. Put his face next to any of our Mt Rushmore members and odds are most people on the planet would be able to pick Hulk Hogan out of the lineup. He’s the George Washington of Pro Wrestling’s Mt Rushmore, and he barely misses out on ours.
As any of you who regularly read this site are aware, I'm a hockey guy. It's the greatest sport and all of you who don't sip from the (Stanley) cup of greatness are wasting valuable time on this Earth being completely wrong. That being said... hockey's GOAT doesn't deserve to be on our Mt. Rushmore. I love Wayne Gretzky, just ask my parents, I think they still have nightmares of me cornering them in the house spewing the Great One's stats at them like I knocked on their door wearing a white shirt and black tie. Gretzky's stats are incredible, the man would still lead the NHL in point if he had ever scored a single goal in his career. He decided to pad that points lead by also becoming the leading goal scorer in history. But here's the thing, I'm not convinced he's actually the best player ever. Mario Lemieux might have a run on that title. Others would argue Gordie Howe might have been the best all along. Beyond that, his impact on the larger world is, in my opinion, overstated. Is hockey better off than it was when he played? I'm not sold on it. Did he turn the game into a global power like the others I've listed above him? Certainly not. Sorry, Wayne. I hope you don't read this.
The GOAT’s GOATs:
This list is in no particular order, but I do feel the need to be honest with you, Tiger Woods was in until I thought of Pelé. Hopefully, I can make a strong argument as to why he beat out the greatest golf had to offer. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, blessedly better known as Pelé,
was simply the greatest player of the most popular sport of all time. The Brazilian striker pulled off feats of magic against the best teams in the world for nearly 20 years. Defenders feared him, fans loved him. Pelé won three World Cups with Brazil and achieved international superstardom in an era void of global tv deals and sponsorships.
So important was Pelé to Brazil’s national identity, the nation’s leader banned his transfer to European domestic leagues in his prime. The New York Cosmos of all teams were able to pry Pele away from his Brazilian team Santos in the twilight of his career. Soccer exploded in America upon his arrival. He gave the joke of a league that was the original NASL instant legitimacy. Crowds of 70,000 would make their way to watch the Cosmos play at the Meadowlands. Between his US debut in the mid-70s and the anointing of the 1999 women’s team as American Royalty, Pelé was the most recognized soccer player in America.
Just how good was Pelé? While playing for Santos and New York, he scored an absurd 750 goals in 763 games. That means on average, he scored in nearly 98 percent of the games he played in. In soccer, the sport that is known for a lack of scoring. Hockey’s GOAT, Wayne Gretzky, ranks just over 60 percent. My Journeyman successor might make a great argument for Messi or Ronaldo in the future, but in 2020, Pelé is one of the very best to ever play any sport.
Both an elite pitcher and All-Time hitter, the Sultan of Swat hit 714 HGH-Free home runs, using a bat so heavy that most modern major leagues would struggle to get it around fast enough to make contact. He hit nearly 3,000 balls safely into play and his overall numbers even pass modern record-keeping. He is either first or second all-time in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) depending on who is crunching the numbers for the stat used to mark the overall value of current players. Ruth is literally the MVP of MVPs. There may be players
with more hits and more home runs, but all these years later there is still a strong argument that Babe Ruth was the greatest player ever.
He also gave baseball a legend that allowed it to move ahead of the most popular sports in the era. Though unlikely that baseball would have gone the way of boxing or horse racing,
Babe Ruth ensured that it became the national pastime. He was the star the game needed after the 1919 Black Sox Scandal and his face was on everything in the ’20s and ’30s from chewing tobacco to tire billboards. Babe Ruth was the first athlete to fully realize the value attached to his persona. He used this knowledge to grow his own myth by calling shots and barnstorming internationally in the offseason. Ruth was the first “Modern” athlete, a man known across the globe as a name and as a brand. Without Babe Ruth, the other names on this list wouldn’t have had a template to work from in terms of their own legacy.
“The Greatest” was truly that. While there might have been better fighters, (Joe Lewis & Sugar Ray Robinson come to mind) Ali was the greatest heavyweight champion in its toughest era. Through his acute knowledge of both the “sweet science” and the media landscape, the kid from Louisville took over the world. Besting all-timers Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman, Ali was named heavyweight champion an unprecedented (at the time) three times even with a hole blown into his prime by the United States government.
Ali’s fight with the feds after refusing to be inducted into the army during the Vietnam War will go down in history as his greatest. For three years Ali was unable to box, as his argument for conscientious objection to the draft wound through the courts. In 1971, his draft refusal was deemed legal by the Supreme Court. His famous fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman took place after this period, long after he had peaked as an athlete.
In terms of global impact, Ali might be in a class of his own. Not only did he become
a household name across the globe, but his actions outside of the ring also had very real impacts on the lives of those citizens. His efforts to be a voice for marginalized black citizens didn’t stop at America’s border. He was also the world’s most famous Muslim, giving a face to the religion for those unfamiliar with its tenants. Presidents even used him as a diplomat from time to time. No other athlete in history has been able to become the best in their discipline and the most popular human on the planet while making the lives of millions of others tangibly better. Even in the silence of his later years, Ali’s actions spoke volumes.
“At Guard, 6’ 6” from North Carolina…. MICHAEL JORDAN!”
Every single child born between 1980 and 1994 can hear that sentence in their head, complete with the accompanying hype music. Michael Jordan is the poster child for the endless pursuit of greatness. Picked third overall by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA draft, Jordan took over the team in a matter of weeks and the NBA in a matter of months. One of the most graceful athletes in any sport as well as one of the best trash talkers, Jordan was perfect for the era he was born into. Able to take flight from anywhere on the court, sponsors were clamoring to sign him to hawk products for them.
Most famous for his partnership with Nike, Jordan perfected the playbook put out by Babe Ruth decades earlier. He became Nike for the better part of two decades, first with an iconic line of sneakers and then with his own “Jordan” sub-brand. Between his on-court antics and is off-court advertising, MJ achieved the kind of international fame that maybe only Elvis and Muhammad Ali achieved.
Jordan also falls into a unique category in that he doesn’t hold the major records of his sport but is largely judged on the eye test of his game and his ability to always find another level in order to beat an opponent. If you watched him play, you knew he was the greatest. The man was a terminator, learning from his opponent’s actions at such a rapid pace that he could exploit weaknesses midway through the first quarter. Jordan was also a two-way player, routinely making plays on the other end of the court just as amazing as any dunk. Players like Magic Johnson, Lebron James, & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could vie for the title of basketball’s best, but ask people on every continent and the first name from their lips will be Jordan’s.