Over the last 40 years, from 1979-2019, we’ve witnessed some of the greatest athletes in the history of the world competing at the highest levels imaginable. Sometimes they competed at a level even higher than what we thought possible. These athletes not only rewrote record books; some completely changed the way their game is played. They are revolutionaries. They are idols. They are G.O.A.T.S.
When tasked with ranking them against each other, many factors were taken into account, including statistics, competition, physical stature, athletic ability, championship performance, and much more. But ultimately the two biggest factors considered were how dominant they were at their peak and how long they competed at that level. With that in mind, here are the greatest 40 athletes of the last 40 years.
1. Michael Jordan
Jordan is idolized for his high-flying dunks and game-winning shots. But what separated him from everyone else was his unyielding and ferocious determination to dominate every player he faced in every aspect of basketball. He led the league in scoring 10 times, was league MVP five times and made 14 All-Star Games. He also made the All-NBA defense team nine times and averaged 30.1 points, 5.3 assists, and 6.2 rebounds per game during his career.
Jordan dominated some the greatest players in NBA history, including Bird, Magic, Ewing, Olajuwon, and Isaiah Thomas. Most impressive, he shined brightest on the biggest stage, winning six NBA Finals MVP awards to go along with his six championship rings. Scottie Pippen and many others played a role, but Jordan willed those teams to greatness, holding himself to a seemingly unattainable standard, and somehow always rising to it.
2. Wayne Gretzky
Perhaps in no other sport does one player stand above the rest more than Gretzky. His nickname, The Great One, says it all. He truly was, is and always will be the greatest single player in hockey history. He scored 894 goals in his career, 93 more than the next closest player. Likewise, his 2,857 career points are 936 more than anyone else. Neither of those records will likely ever be broken.
At his peak, he recorded an NHL-record 215 points in a single season (another seemingly unbreakable record) and was named NHL MVP nine times. His longevity is equally impressive as he played in the NHL from 1978-1999. Gretzky won four Stanley Cups over his 21-year career. More than just being the Great One, he is the Greatest One, and likely will be for as long as they play hockey.
3. Tom Brady
Tom Brady didn’t even earn the starting quarterback job at Michigan over Drew Henson early his senior year. Then he was selected with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. That lack of faith lit a fire under Brady that has yet to extinguish. When Drew Bledsoe got hurt in the 2001 season, Brady was given the reins to the Patriots offense and has guided them to greatness every season he’s played since. Six Super Bowl titles. Nine Super Bowl appearances. Four Super Bowl MVPs. Three NFL MVPs. 70,514 passing yards. 517 passing TDs. And how many miraculous comebacks and unforgettable throws?
He’s been elite for over 15 years. You can say Bill Belichick deserves a lot of credit for his success, and you’d be right. But what athlete on this list didn’t have a great coach or mentor? Brady set a new standard for quarterback play in the NFL and continues to raise that bar even as he ages. Now 41 years old, it somehow feels like he still has years to add to his nearly flawless resume.
4. Tiger Woods
During his peak, Woods was so dominant they changed the most famous golf course in the world (Augusta National) just to make it harder for him to win. Even that didn’t work. Woods singlehandedly revolutionized the game of golf, dominating like no one before or since. In 2000-2001, he won four straight major championships, the only modern golfer to hold the four majors. From 1997 to 2005, he won 10 majors playing against golfing legends like Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els.
Somehow, Woods was even more dominant on the PGA Tour, winning 81 events in 22 years. Crazier still? He changed his swing multiple times during that period, constantly tinkering with what was already the greatest golf game in the world. Why? To challenge himself. Most recently, using yet another swing, Woods won his 15th major with a captivating comeback win at the Masters, proving we are not done writing the book on him yet.
5. Serena Williams
A fierce competitor with arguably the most powerful all-around game women’s tennis has ever seen, Williams has been the best in her sport since she was 21 years old. At that time, her biggest competition was her sister, Venus, a legend in her own right. Williams quickly established her superiority in that series (18-12 lead) as well as against the likes of Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, among others.
She has won 23 major championships over her 24-year career, the second-most in women’s tennis history. She’s also won 14 majors as a doubles player with Venus. Overall, she’s earned 337 career match victories. Her nearest peer has 306 wins. Her powerful serve and forehand get most of the attention, which makes sense because it’s probably the strongest women’s tennis has ever seen, but her footwork and defense are equally elite. That combination has allowed her to dominate women’s tennis for over 20 years and she’s still pushing for more.
6. LeBron James
More so than perhaps any athlete before him or after him, LeBron James has been shackled with seemingly unattainable expectations since before he was even in high school. Somehow, he’s lived up to all of them. He established himself as the best player in the NBA in only his fifth year, winning the first of four MVP awards. He had to leave his Ohio home to win his first two NBA Championships with the Miami Heat, but he returned and delivered Cleveland’s first championship since 1964 with a dramatic 3-1 comeback against the greatest team of this generation, the Golden State Warriors.
In his career thus far, LeBron has won three Finals MVPs, and earned 15 All-NBA first-team selections, along with six All-Defense nominations and 15 All-Star game appearances. Of course, he’s still criticized with every move he makes, but there’s no denying his place among the top 5 NBA players of all time. Simply put, he’s accomplished things no player has before all while playing under the strongest spotlight imaginable.
7. Michael Phelps
No Olympic athlete in history has ever been more dominant than Phelps. But perhaps his most impressive quality is his longevity. In a sport where most athletes have a 4- or 8-year (max) shelf life to succeed, Phelps dominated the world of swimming for 12 years.
Everyone remembers the year he won eight Olympic gold medals at the 2008 Bejing Olympics. But don’t forget the six he won in 2004 or the five he won at the 2016 Olympics. Of course, he also won 21 gold medals at the World Championships and 13 gold medals at the Pan Pacific Championships. He’ll always be remembered for the 28 total Olympic medals he’s won, including 23 golds, both of which are Olympic records.
8. Cristiano Ronaldo
Ever since he was a pimple-faced teenager playing for Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo has amazed on the pitch with a combination of world-class speed and incredible touch. The man can seemingly score from any spot on the field, whether powering home headers in the box or curling in free kicks from distance.
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than his amazing highlights is Ronaldo’s competitiveness and ability to convert for his team in the clutch. A five-time Ballon d’Or winner, Ronaldo has won the top League title playing for Manchester United, Real Madrid and now Juventus. He also has five Champions League titles. Overall he’s won 28 trophies, including winning the Euro with Portugal, an international title his biggest rival hasn’t matched.
9. Lionel Messi
The debate between Ronaldo vs Messi has raged since both burst onto the scene. While Messi has never led Argentina to a top trophy, that is the only blemish on his otherwise perfect resume. Messi has won the Ballon d'Or five times. Playing for Barcelona, the only club he’s represented, Messi now has 10 league titles, six Copa del Rey victories, eight triumphs in the Supercopa de Espana, four Champions League trophies, three UEFA Super Cups and three Club World Cup winners' medals.
His balance and control of the ball on the move is perhaps the greatest in the history of soccer. His ability to finish on free kicks is impossibly consistent. Despite being undersized, Messi has dominated for nearly two decades and isn’t done yet.
10. Jerry Rice
There are very few positions in football where there’s no debate as to who was the greatest to ever play the position. Even more than Brady at quarterback, Jerry Rice is unquestionably that for the wide receiver position. Even though he played in an era where running backs got 300 touches a year and defensive backs were allowed to manhandle receivers, Rice still set every important receiving record in NFL history, records which, despite rule changes making it easier for wide receivers, will likely never be broken.
He had 22,895 receiving yards, 197 touchdowns, and 1,549 catches over his 19-year career. Rice’s work ethic is legendary and so is his competitiveness. He won a Super Bowl MVP and three Super Bowls in his career. He’s the GOAT wide receiver, and that’s not up for debate.