Adorned across t-shirts, caps, and various other stash, igniting debate across the globe's pubs, bars and living rooms, Floyd Mayweather's proclamation that he was The Best Ever caused quite the stir in the city that never sleeps.
Countless newspaper columns and internet articles post fight centered on his place in the pantheon. Better than Sugar Ray Robinson? As exciting to watch as the great middleweight fights of the 80s between Hearns, Hagler, Duran and Leonard? Is he loved like Ali?
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Can we really answer these questions though? Can we compare fighters across weight divisions? Can we proclaim a certain fighter as the best ever or is it just conjecture, personal opinion?
Take cricket as a starter. Being such a statistics heavy sport does make a comparison ‘easier’ than in other sports. You can look at a bowler’s average, strike rate and economy, across his career, across a series or in different countries, all of which can provide a decent idea of their place in history.
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However, significant changes in the game such as covered pitches, helmets, the effect of one day cricket and the advances in bat making mean that the game now is quite different to the one from the first half of the 20th century.
To compound this, the lack of video coverage until the latter decades of the century mean that there are numerous players in history who very few have actually ever seen play, let alone to the extent we see modern players play.
These factors mean that players with outstanding statistical records such as Jack Hobbs, Sydney Barnes, even Garfield Sobers, are hard to fully evaluate when it comes to their place in history for the majority of those living now as we simply have not seen them and the game has moved on so much. Of course, comparisons can be made to their peers and it goes without saying that the aforementioned players are all greats of the game; but, is it really possible to state with the evidence available that Barnes is the nth best bowler ever.
In more recent times, a performance that reenergised the relationship between the public and the cricket team was the man of the match effort from Ben Stokes against Sri Lanka as England sprinted to victory at Lord's/
Inevitably, given Stokes’ status as an all-rounder, instant comparisons were made with Botham hooking Lillee out the ground at Headingley or with Flintoff’s heroic feats at Lords in 2009.
Ever since Botham’s retirement every potential England all-rounder has been stacked up against him and in the aftermath of this test Stokes’s stats after ten tests were being compared to the aforementioned pair. Yet is an objective comparison realistically obtainable, in cricket or any other sport for that matter.
American football is another classic case of how a sport has changed over the years. From the days of running backs dominating and quarterback ratings in the 70s, to the spread offense we see now.
With the top quarterbacks are now throwing for 5000 yards per season, with defenders penalised more than ever before at the slightest hint of contact, no huddle offenses and running quarterbacks en masse, the game now is a completely different spectacle to that which was the preserve of Lombardi’s Packers in the early Superbowl years.
Examples such as this abound in sport, whether it is wooden tennis rackets, new high tech swimsuits or the changes in F1 cars and ski equipment over the years. Rapid technological advances over the past few decades have been arguably the main driver in changing the face of some of the sports we love.
For better or worse, whatever the sport, the differences between now and years gone by are numerous. The advance of professionalism has completely changed the way sportsmen live and prepare, with special diets and in some cases teetotalism a feature amongst many stars.
Coaching has come on hugely, with athletes employing fitness trainers, chefs/dieticians, physiotherapists and even psychologists as the importance of the mental side of sport has grown in prominence. Sides in prominent team sports such as football or rugby have backroom staff galore that ensure no stone is left unturned, detail missed, or marginal gain wasted.
Opponents are scrutinised like never before now there is wide video footage available, whilst the importance of an analytical and statistical based approach to sport has certainly found favour in many quarters.
Put simply, sport, like society around us, has changed immeasurably over the years thanks in large part to technology, but also modern medicine, increasing safety measures, professionalism, and revolutionary thinkers. Is a fair objective comparison between teams or players across different eras possible?
Detailed research and analysis can always help to place respective achievements into context to some extent but there are too many variables and ultimately too much speculation to unequivocally state how someone stacks up throughout history.
So, back to the Mayweather debate. Can we really make a sure judgement? I think not. But, if you're asking me? It has to be Ali.
Who is the greatest boxer of all time? Let us know below!
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