25 Most Iconic Athletes in the History of Sports

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While it can be hard to pick the greatest athletes of all time, if you narrow your criteria the task becomes a little simpler. Factors that influenced our particular list include the athlete’s accomplishment in their particular sports, the number of years they were considered its best player, and their impact not only in their own sports but on the world in general. Here are the 25 most iconic athletes in the history of sports.

25. Jim Thorpe

Voted the ‘greatest athlete in the first half of the 20th century,’ he was also known as ‘The Greatest American Football Player’ of all time. Aside from football, he also dabbled in other sports and won gold medals in the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics in pentathlon and decathlon. His decathlon scores weren’t broken for nearly two decades.

24. Babe Ruth

George Herman Ruth Jr., was also known for his moniker as “the Bambino” and “the Sultan of Swat.” Elevated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he is remembered for his impact and influence in one of two most popular sports in the United States during the first half of the 20th century.

23. Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Mildred Ella Didrikson Zaharias was a great American female athlete who achieved outstanding success in golf, basketball, and track and field. Named the “10th Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century” by ESPN and the 9th by the Associated Press, she broke the accepted models of female athleticism.

22. Jackie Robinson

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was a great all-around baseball player who broke the color barrier in the modern era of Major League Baseball. Apart from his exploits on the baseball field he was also accomplished in tennis, football, track, and basketball.

21. Sugar Ray Robinson

five-time world champion with a long career in boxing, Walker Smith Jr’s performances in the welterweight and middleweight divisions started the “pound for pound” rankings of sportswriters to compare fighters regardless of weight. Inaugurated into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, he became the first boxer in history to win a Divisional World Championship 5 times when he defeated Carmen Basilio in 1958.

20. Willie Mays

Willie Howard Mays Jr. was a great all-around player who is often known as the 2nd-best player in major league history. “The Say Hey Kid” who spent the majority of his career playing for the New York and San Francisco Giants, was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. Mays had won 2 MVP awards and ended his career with 660 home runs. In 2000 he was elected to the Major league Baseball All-Century Team.

19. Pele

Edson Arantes do Nascimento is the best soccer (football) player of all time though this may be disputed by the fans of Diego Maradona. His game highlights include scoring 1,281 goals in 1,363 matches and he won three World Cups.

18. Jim Brown

James Nathaniel Brown, an American professional football player was known for setting world records in his nine-year career as a running back for the NFL Cleveland Browns. Named in 2002 as the ‘greatest professional football player ever,’ he had a potent combination of power and speed. After his retirement he dabbled in acting and also was inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

17. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., an all-time NBA leading scorer with 38,387 points won 6 MVPs and 6 NBA titles. After retiring he became an actor, a basketball coach and an author and was named US cultural ambassador in 2012.

16. Muhammad Ali

Cassius Clay, a heavyweight boxer was outranked only by middleweight fighter Sugar Ray Robinson for the best boxer of all time category, though this is surely a point of contention for fans. If you have seen his fights, you will never see another athlete again who was so far ahead of his time. His display of athletic skills include blinding speed, instincts and brains. A three-time heavyweight champ, his most notable fights were those against George Foreman and Joe Frazier.

15. Bobby Orr

Robert Gordon Orr, a Canadian former professional ice hockey player, was acknowledged as ‘one of the greatest hockey players of all time’ and is the youngest player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame at the age of 31.

14. Dan Gable

The greatest freestyle wrestler ever, he won the 1972 Olympic gold medal without a single point scored against him in 6 matches. Later on, he became head coach at the University of Iowa where his wrestling team won 16 NCAA team titles from 1976 to 1997. In Iowa, it is common to hear the expression that “Michael Jordan is the Dan Gable of basketball.”

13. Bruce Lee

He spent his life developing his own martial arts techniques as he thought that the existing systems were inferior. His fast reflexes would have beaten the best fighters in the higher weight classes especially with his fabled one-inch punch, which had people heavier than him flying in all directions.

12. Nadia Comaneci

One of the greatest performances in the history of modern sports was by Nadia Elena Comaneci on the balance beam in the 1976 Summer Olympics. The Romanian gymnast was not only awarded 3 Olympic gold medals in the same competition, but was also the first female gymnast ever to receive a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic event. The youngest Olympic gymnastic all-around champion ever, she also won two more gold medals at the 1980 Summer Olympics and became the world’s most famous gymnast. She was also later named “athlete of the century” by the Laureus World Sports Academy.

11. Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Douglas Gretsky was a professional hockey player who played in the NHL from 1979 to 1999. “The Great One,” he was lauded as the greatest hockey player ever with mind-blowing career stats including winning four Stanley Cups and 8 consecutive Hart Awards.

10. Carl Lewis

Considered “the greatest male track and field athlete ever”, Frederick Carlton Lewis has also been voted the “Olympian of the Century.”

9. Martina Navratilova

Considered the greatest singles, doubles, and mixed doubles player of all time, she won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, the all-time record of 31 major women’s doubles titles, and reached the Wimbledon finals 12 times from 1982 to 1990.

8. Cheryl Miller

dominant force in the 1984 women’s Summer Olympics basketball games, Cheryl appeared objectively better than the rest of the players on the court. Sometimes referred to as the most under-appreciated female athlete of all time, she was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1995 and was later inducted to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

7. Bo Jackson

Vincent Edward Jackson was the first athlete to be named an All-Star in two major American sports and he also won the Heisman Trophy in 1985. Known for his combination of power and speed, he became a college football star at Auburn University, though his professional football career was cut short by a hip injury. He also played as a left fielder and a designated hitter for the Kansas City Royals, the White Sox, and the California Angels in Major League Baseball.

6. Michael Phelps

Michael Fred Phelps II is the most decorated American swimmer and Olympian of all time. He also holds the all-time records for 18 Olympic gold medals, 11 gold medals in individual events, 13 gold for individual events for male and 8 medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. Considered the most successful athlete for the third Olympics in a row, his international titles and record-breaking performances have earned him the “World Swimmer of the Year Award” 7 times and “American Swimmer of the Year Award” 9 times.

5. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee, one of the best female track and field athletes ever, won 3 gold medals, 1 silver medal and 2 bronze Olympic medals at four different Olympic Games, and was voted the “greatest female athlete of the 20th century” just ahead of Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

4. Deion Sanders

Known for his blinding speed and quickness, and other athletic abilities such as extreme agility, great balance, and body control, he was the best defensive player and the best cover cornerback in the NFL’s history. Accomplished in three sports, he played nine seasons of professional baseball where he became the only person to play in the Super Bowl and the World Series.

3. Tiger Woods

Golf may not be as physically challenging as other sports, but it requires a high degree of skill which Tiger Woods apparently has. Born Eldrick Tont Woods, Tiger is one of the most successful golfers of all time. He was also cited as the highest paid athlete for several years according to Forbes magazine. His record-breaking performance came in the 1997 Masters, when he first reached the number one position in the world’s rankings, the youngest person ever to do so.

2. Roger Federer

Considered by tennis critics and former and current players to be the “greatest tennis player of all time”, Federer owns several world records. He won 17 Grand Slam titles, with 5 of them all-time records and reached the Wimbledon finals 8 times.

1. Michael Jordan

Considered “the greatest athlete ever,” Jordan dominated the world of basketball during his prime. Having some the most exciting game play in NBA history, his impact spans generations and he has become somewhat of a cultural icon and legend.

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