Ronaldo, Tyson, Bolt, Pele, Messi, Mayweather: The top 50 greatest athletes of all time

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Muhammad Ali, Usain Bolt, Serena Williams, Cristiano Ronaldo and Tiger Woods are just some of the names in the conversation about the greatest athlete of all time.

With so many disciplines and eras to weigh up, the question of sport’s overall GOAT will always prove an impossible one, but that doesn’t make it any less fun for fans to discuss.

And with Tom Brady reportedly set to hang up his cleats as not only one of the finest American Football players in history, but one of the greatest athletes, period, the debate came to our minds once again.

Greatest athletes in history

Now, as much as we could try to nail our colours to the mast by naming our pick for the athlete to end all athletes, no doubt you’ll agree that this is a matter best decided upon by the supporters.

After all, collating together fan opinions is perhaps the fairest way for the complications of different sports and time periods to be traversed and diluted down into one big expression of people’s views.

And that’s where the thetoptens.com comes in because their interactive list on the “Greatest Athletes of All Time,” is arguably the perfect way for fans to settle the GOAT debate once and for all.

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When did Cristiano Ronaldo make his debut for Manchester United?

Physical excellence

Setting out the premise, the vote’s description clarifies: “For the purpose of this list, athletic greatness is defined as possessing a variety of attributes that contribute to athletic prowess.

“These include speed, quickness, endurance, power and hand-eye coordination. That is why this list does not include specialized athletes such as marathon runners or bicyclists.

“While it is clear that Lance Armstrong is a master in his field, he has not proven that he could compete in other sports where more is required than pumping his thighs for hours on end.”

With sports lovers able to up-vote and down-vote contenders depending on their opinions, the resulting list that spans way beyond the website’s titular top 10 makes for fascinating reading.

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Top 50 greatest athletes of all time

As such, don’t let us hold you up any longer because the list truly is something to behold, so be sure to check out the top 50 athletes in history down below according to the fans themselves:

50. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (wrestling)

49. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (football)

48. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (basketball)

47. Mike Tyson (boxing)

46. Sir Chris Hoy (cycling)

45. Sergey Bubka (athletics)

44. Drew Brees (American football)

43. Simone Biles (gymnastics)

42. Tony Hawk (skateboarding)

41. Floyd Mayweather (boxing)

50-41 summary

A fascinating mixture of sports gets the top 50 underway with everyone from ‘The Rock’ – insert your cliché WWE jokes here – to Bubka and Hawk flying the flag for sports you might not have expected.

Meanwhile, Mayweather won’t be too chuffed that he’s only been voted the 41st greatest athlete in history, which doesn’t quite have the same ring as the ‘TBE’ motto that adorns his merchandise.

And does Ibrahimovic really deserve a place in the top 50? When you consider that the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Sachin Tendulkar and Steffi Graf are nowhere to be seen, it’s an emphatic ‘no’ from us.

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40. Zinedine Zidane (football)

39. Barry Sanders (American football)

38. John Cena (wrestling)

37. Michael Vick (American football)

36. Haile Gebrselassie (athletics)

35. Brett Favre (American football)

34. Jackie Robinson (baseball)

33. Larry Bird (basketball)

32. Michael Johnson (athletics)

31. Derek Jeter (baseball)

40-31 summary

Any American sports fans out there? Forgive me, US citizens, because your humble writer isn’t the most knowledgable on basketball and American football despite so many athletes featuring highly.

But you don’t have to be an expert to tip your hat to the quality of Bird, Robinson and beyond as they rub shoulders with athletics legends Gebrselassie and Johnson as well as ‘Zizou’ himself.

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30. Daley Thompson (athletics)

29. Sir Don Bradman (cricket)

28. Peyton Manning (American football)

27. Carl Lewis (athletics)

26. Serena Williams (tennis)

25. Kobe Bryant (basketball)

24. Magic Johnson (basketball)

23. Jerry Rice (American football)

22. Gordie Howe (ice hockey)

21. Tiger Woods (golf)

30-21 summary

We’re striding pretty deep into legendary territory now with Lewis and Thompson enduring as Olympic legends just in the way that Bryant and Johnson will always be icons for the LA Lakers.

As for Woods in 21st place, we’re inclined to think that he’s been hard done by because it’s arguable that no single athlete has dominated their sport more than ‘Tiger’ did at the turn of the century.

And it’s certainly sad to see that Williams, down in 26th, is the highest-placed female athlete on the list despite so many talented sportswomen deserving to mix it with the men at the top of the voting.

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20. Jim Brown (American football)

19. Wilt Chamberlain (basketball)

18. Bobby Orr (ice hockey)

17. Bruce Lee (martial arts)

16. Lionel Messi (football)

15. Tom Brady (American football)

14. Cristiano Ronaldo (football)

13. Jesse Owens (athletics)

12. LeBron James (basketball)

11. Joe Montana (American football)

20-11 summary

There you go, people, sports fans have settled the Messi vs Ronaldo debate and it’s a different result to the one that you might typically expect when it’s just football supporters casting their votes.

And the two Ballon d’Or winners just happen to sandwich Brady who, despite falling short of being crowned the American football GOAT, can still hold his head up high with a 15th-place finish overall.

Plus, yes, we have spotted that Lee has been included in the greatest athletes of all time and as controversial as that may seem, we’ve got to let it pass when you consider the poll’s specifications.

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10. Roger Federer (tennis)

9. Pele (football)

8. Bo Jackson (American football and baseball)

7. Jim Thorpe (athletics, American football, baseball and basketball)

6. Babe Ruth (baseball)

5. Michael Phelps (swimming)

4. Usain Bolt (athletics)

3. Wayne Gretzky (ice hockey)

2. Muhammad Ali (boxing)

1. Michael Jordan (basketball)

Top 10 summary

So, there you have it, Jordan has been named as the greatest athlete in the history of sport and we’ll let you decide how much ‘The Last Dance’ documentary might have contributed to his win.

Joking aside, Jordan is undoubtedly one of the most physically and mentally elite sportspeople in history with his unwavering desire to win reaping no less than two NBA ‘threepeats’ with the Bulls.

And it’s clear that the lofty finishes of Jackson and Thorpe are down to the list’s specification of physical excellence across the board with both athletes remarkably excelling in multiple sports.

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Lack of female athletes

How about that? The top 50 athletes in sports history according to the fans.

Now, regardless of whether you think Woods should be higher or Messi should be above Ronaldo, perhaps the most saddening aspect of the list is that only two female athletes made the cut.

It’s simply scandalous that Nadia Comăneci, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Allyson Felix, Marta and many more aren’t anywhere to be seen in the top 50 even if they can be found further down the rankings.

I guess it goes to show that even attempting to settle sport’s GOAT debate by what feels like the most fair and collaborative method possible is still subject to oversights and errors…

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