Somehow, someone decided that that speculation of Tom Brady’s standing amongst all athletes following Sunday’s Super Bowl was a spectacular idea. And days later, here we are, still extrapolating over it.
The idea that Brady is the greatest and most-accomplished quarterback of all-time goes without saying. The best athlete ever allows more room for debate, but as someone who doesn’t particularly value football in the same way most Americans traditionally do, I simply and respectfully don’t care that much. But to suggest that an uber-accomplished pocket passer is the best athlete of all time, or even of our time, is a flawed premise to pontificate from, given the greatness emanating from one-on-one sports, which generally deserve to be held in higher regard when having this spirited debate, especially in comparison to team-based players, like quarterbacks and pitchers, because they’re only on the field for roughly half the game.
In basketball, you at least play both ends of the floor, and if you’re Michael Jordan or LeBron James, you’ll log over 40 minutes in meaningful playoff games, as opposed to 31 time of possession minutes in a 60-minute game, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had in the Super Bowl. Jordan and James have four other teammates each, but it’s not like Ron Harper, Luc Longley, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman were going to line up and block for MJ as he stood at the top of the key and took jumpers all game. Football is more strategic because of the many moving parts.
But as we rightfully mention Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Wayne Gretzky, Simone Biles, and Tiger Woods in these GOAT athlete discussions, we’re dismissing arguably the most difficult art-forms that have spawned excellence: Combat sports. Boxing and mixed martial arts, in particular.
Why? Because a lot of people don’t know how to talk about them despite being paid, in some form, to do so.
Many outlets avoid discussing boxing or mixed martial arts, whether it’d be about a lack of knowledge, limited intrigue, or a lust for easier understood and clickable athletics that are easily palatable for traditional American sports fans. Additionally, the disrespect of combat sport athletes might be for the better, because they infrequently hire anyone who knows what they’re talking about in these areas anyway, generally speaking.
Even at ESPN, whose coverage around MMA and boxing has been excellent even during a pandemic (but the utilization of Stephen A. Smith around MMA in particular, an art form he’s clearly not knowledgeable of, highlights that even despite the network’s massive UFC contract), we collectively don’t know how to discuss these sports in the mainstream. Higher-ups will tell you that it’ll bring eyeballs to the sport, but plenty of people who care about the art would retort, “So?”
In any event, the lack of knowledge or care to obtain said knowledge is a gift and a curse that impacts one-on-one sports in “greatest athlete ever” discussions. Muhammad Ali, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Amanda Nunes, Floyd Mayweather, Georges St. Pierre, and Claressa Shields are among the names who should be mentioned in these conversations before most, and especially football players who are individually extremely reliant on others during play. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we’re cross-sport comparing, it needs to be accounted for. In fighting, while you do have your team in your corner, it’s just you and your opponent. In tennis, it’s the same principle minus the actual fighting, which is another huge element of this.
Have you understood what it takes to fight? Especially now!?
The disparity that plagues boxing and MMA’s media presence is evident in its coverage. Combat sports-focused sites are, by definition, combat sports-focused sites. They’re niche in nature and would usually be the authorities in combat content coverage. General sites typically focus on the one percent of boxers and MMA athletes who may drive traffic, which means they should theoretically include the greatest within the sports in these discussions, but that’s not the sensibility of casual observers.
And as far as the actual comparison goes, let’s just say the accomplishments together out loud. Khabib is 29-0 and definitively lost one round in his entire career (the second against Conor McGregor in October 2018). Mayweather went 50-0, won 15 World Titles, was knocked down once in 397 rounds, and was rarely ever touched. Nunes (20-4) is the only woman to unify two UFC titles, the first person to defend both titles while simultaneously holding them, and has a resume that includes victories over the most elite fighters of her time, like Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm, and Cris Cyborg, all by first-round knockout. Shields (9-0, with only one amateur loss ever) is the only American boxer ever to win two Olympic medals in consecutive Olympics and the only woman to have two gold medals in the sport. By age 25, she became a nine-time world champion, and she’ll be competing in both boxing and MMA moving forward. GSP is a two-division world champion who went 26-2 almost entirely in the UFC and really helped put the promotion on the map. Both losses on his record were avenged, and he finished his career winning 12 straight championship bouts. And Ali? I mean, c’mon.
Brady is a savant of his craft; his craft just doesn’t outweigh fighters in this specific deliberation. Football players usually are tremendous athletes, but you can’t compare the greatness of a several-time champion pocket passer dependent on offensive line play, route-running, sure-handedness, and competent defense to a several-time world champion in fighting who almost never loses. And in some cases, they never do. Individual athletes should normally be held in higher regard during these fun stupid discussions, fighters especially. It would help everyone learn just a bit more if more people cared to recognize that.