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G.O.A.T. of G.O.A.T.s: Ranking the best of the best in sports

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Tom Brady has clearly ended all debate about his status as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) in NFL circles by winning his sixth Super Bowl. Nobody disputes this. But here's the bigger question: Who is the G.O.A.T. of G.O.A.T.s? That is, who is the best of the best among the top athletes from a cross-section of popular sports? It's like "Top Gun." Maverick was clearly one of the best of the best, one of the elite (and I'm not talking Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks, baby). But he wasn't "Top Gun," because that title belonged to Ice Man.

I've taken it upon myself to rank the G.O.A.T.s from some of the more popular sports in the world -- in an effort to find the G.O.A.T. of G.O.A.T.s. We cast a wide net and whittled it down to 16 representatives. And no disrespect to motorsports' Richard Petty, surfing's Kelly Slater and all of the G.O.A.T.s of rugby, cricket and cornhole ... but we had to make some tough calls. There were a lot of factors going into this, and I tried to do it scientifically, with weighted categories. But that just doesn't translate here. I had to do it by feel. You can agree or disagree, but here is my list.

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16

Ric Flair

Sport: Pro wrestling.

Accomplishments: 16-time World Champion. Winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble. Two-time enshrinee in the WWE Hall of Fame.

This is me, so you know we're starting here. Flair was everything you wanted in a professional wrestling champion. A guy who lived the gimmick as a jet-flying, limousine-riding title-holder, with the clothes, the robes -- and he was an exceptional performer, the kind of guy who could make a broomstick look like a million bucks. Everyone benefited from working with him. Well, not poor Sting. He should have known better after a while. But everyone else, for sure. Flair's legacy also impacted the wider world of entertainment beyond professional wrestling.

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15

Lindsey Vonn

Sport: Skiing.

Accomplishments: Four World Cup titles. Olympics: One gold medal (2010), two bronze medals (2010, 2018).

Vonn doesn't have the decorated Olympic career you might imagine for someone of her stature, but she more than made up for it in the World Cup rankings, where she won a staggering 82 events. That's 20 more than her closest competitor. She also captured four overall World Cup titles. Not as many as Annemarie Moser-Proell. But every advanced metric in skiing points to Vonn being the overwhelming best of the best.

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14

Kerri Walsh Jennings

Sport: Beach volleyball.

Accomplishments: Olympics: Three gold medals (2004, 2008, 2012), one bronze medal (2016).

Walsh Jennings was part of one of the most iconic duos in sports, winning a trio of Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball with Misty May-Treanor from 2004 to '12. The two of them made the sport what it is today. Why go with Walsh Jennings over May-Treanor? Well, Walsh Jennings continued on after May-Treanor retired. Walsh Jennings became the most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player of all time at the 2016 Olympics, capturing the bronze medal with partner April Ross.

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12 (t)

Usain Bolt

Sport: Track and field.

Accomplishments: Olympics: Eight gold medals (two in 2008, three in 2012, three in 2016). World record-holder in the 100-meter sprint, 200-meter sprint and 4x100-meter relay.

Bolt was so impressive to watch and clearly the best of his time. But how do you judge track-and-field here against the other team sports, or even the other individual sports? Obviously, in sprinting, you are competing against others. But no one is trying to bring you to the ground or get in your way, and that factors into the degree of difficulty relative to sports where athletes oppose each other directly. Bolt was clearly the best in the world at what he did, but he's going to be a touch lower than the others.

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12 (t)

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Sport: Track and field.

Accomplishments: Olympics: Three gold medals (two in 1988, one in 1992), one silver medal (1984), two bronze medals (1992, 1996).

She was the first participant to score more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon, in the 1986 Goodwill Games. (In case you're not aware, women's heptathlon combines the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter sprint, long jump, javelin toss and 800-meter run.) She was the favorite to win the event in the 1984 Olympics, but she pulled her hamstring. And yet she still won the silver. She captured the gold finally in the 1988 games and again in 1992.

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11

Simone Biles

Sport: Gymnastics.

Accomplishments: Olympics: Four gold medals (2016), one bronze medal (2016). Fourteen gold medals in the world championships.

For this one, let's bring in a guest analyst who knows a little bit more than I do about the sport:

Gymnastics has evolved perhaps more than any other sport in this list, with major changes being made to the equipment and the code of points over time. It's always tough to compare the greats of the past -- Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut, Mary Lou Retton, Larisa Latynina; the list could go on -- to those of the present. I get that, but Biles is on her own level. The 4-foot-9 five-time Olympic medalist, who is a lock for the United States' team for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo if she stays healthy, blew away the competition in the Rio Olympics and has since added more difficulty (as a former gymnast myself, I'm not sure how that was even possible). Biles is so good that she can fall during a competition (maybe even two or three times) and STILL win against the best in the world. Having won a combined total of 25 Olympic and World Championship medals, Biles is the most decorated American gymnast. Although she doesn't have the number of Olympic medals some former dominant Soviet or Romanian gymnasts do, her unbelievable ability and power, along with her knack for making gymnastics look effortless, set her apart.
-- Brooke Cersosimo, NFL.com

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10

Babe Ruth

Sport: Baseball.

Accomplishments: Seven-time World Series winner. AL MVP (1923). AL batting champion (1924). Twelve-time home run leader. AL ERA leader (1916).

Ruth is Major League Baseball's all-time leader in career WAR (wins above replacement), far ahead of Cy Young, who ranks second. It's crazy to think that, here we are, roughly 100 years after his heyday, still using Ruth as a measuring stick. For example, Mike Trout is currently the greatest baseball player on the planet. He's not getting compared to his peers; he's getting compared to Ruth. And it's going to take him a while to catch Ruth in WAR. The most impressive thing, of course, is that The Sultan of Swat was also an ace pitcher, going 3-0 in three World Series starts for the Boston Red Sox before being sold to the Yankees. Which means that only Shohei Ohtani, who currently hits and pitches for the Angels, will even have a chance to enter the conversation with Ruth down the road.

I don't want to be the jerk who points this out -- but do you remember hearing about Ruth taking Satchel Paige yard? Oh, wait, you don't. Because baseball was segregated for the entirety of Ruth's career, meaning other all-time greats like Paige were playing in the Negro Leagues while Ruth was facing artificially watered-down competition in MLB. So while some of you would like to have baseball's all-time great higher on this list, I just can't do it.

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9

Anderson Silva

Sport: Mixed martial arts.

Accomplishments: Longest title reign in UFC history at 2,457 days. Won 16 consecutive fights during that stretch.

It's one thing to be all, "Hey, this guy is the most-feared badminton player in the world," or whatnot. Being the greatest in hand-to-hand combat is at another level. But let's set that aside for a moment and just look at the competition. MMA is such a relatively young sport compared to the others. You don't have the lore that a sport like boxing does. But Silva was such a dominant champion during his time, I'm not sure it's ever going to be matched. Future generations will be talking about his brilliance in the ring, with his quick-strike ability. I'm telling you, his KO of Forrest Griffin in UFC 101 (while Silva was backpedaling) was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen -- and one of the scariest.

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8

Tiger Woods

Sport: Golf.

Accomplishments: One hundred and seven career tour wins, including 80 on the PGA tour. He's won 14 major championships.

Tiger was a phenom well before he even started playing professionally. And when he did hit the pros, he took over the sport. He won the 1997 Masters at age 21, 12 strokes over second-place finisher Tom Kite. This would set off more than a decade of dominance of a kind that might not be matched by any athlete, ever. He won 14 majors during that time, and he became the most-feared golfer of all time. If he had a lead after three rounds, he was going to roll into Sunday in a red shirt, and it would be over. Still trails Jack Nicklaus for the most major championships (for now). And that's fine. We haven't seen the last of Woods yet. He's still the attraction in a sport that has many rising stars.

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7

Tom Brady

Sport: Football.

Accomplishments: Six-time Super Bowl champion. Four-time Super Bowl MVP. Three NFL MVP awards.

Of all the athletes on the list, Brady participates in the most-team-heavy sport going. But that doesn't make his accomplishments less incredible. There will be those who will try to knock him by saying, "What if the Seahawks had run the ball in Super Bowl XLIX?" Or, "What if the Falcons didn't blow a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI?" But I could easily reply with, "What if Asante Samuel had held on to an interception that would have given New England the only 19-0 season in NFL history in Super Bowl XLII?" And that is why Brady is so impressive: He plays in a league that is designed to thwart dynasties, with wealth being spread amongst all teams. Meanwhile, here's Brady, leading his team to the Super Bowl seemingly every year and winning more than his fair share. He has six Super Bowl wins and nine appearances, more than anyone else in NFL history in either category. Twelve teams had six or fewer wins total in 2018.

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6

Michael Phelps

Sport: Swimming.

Accomplishments: Olympics: 23 gold medals (six in 2004, eight in 2008, four in 2012, five in 2016), three silver medals (two in 2012, one in 2016), two bronze medals (2004). His 23 gold medals is an all-time record. His eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics broke Mark Spitz's mark of seven in a single Olympics.

Here's another guy who dominated his sport for more than a decade. After that incredible run in the 2008 Olympics -- maybe the greatest performance in sports history -- it looked like he was going to walk out on top, maybe never compete again. And it surely seemed like that after the 2012 games. But there he was in 2016, just winning gold medals again. Incredible. He kind of runs into the same problem here as Bolt, in that he's competing against others, but he's really competing against himself. So why is he so much higher than other practitioners of individual sports? He could easily die during his activity, meaning the degree of difficulty is raised a bit, and he gets a higher nod.

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5

Serena Williams

Sport: Tennis.

Accomplishments: Twenty-three Grand Slam titles. Olympics: Four gold medals (2000, 2008, two in 2012).

There is a healthy debate as to whether Roger Federer or Serena has been the most dominant in this sport. After all, Federer has had to face the likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But then, Serena has dominated the sport for well over 20 years. It's not fair to ding her for the lack of a true rival, because she's pretty much banished anyone who has ever come close to her. Even her own sister. Serena has been No. 1 in the world for a total of 319 weeks, including 186 consecutive weeks. And ... AND she won a tournament while she was pregnant. When anyone on the men's side pulls that off, I'll be happy to reopen this conversation. When you think of women's tennis, you only think of one person, and that's Serena. And it's going to be that way for a long time.

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4

Pele

Sport: Soccer.

Accomplishments: Three-time World Cup winner.

He was selected to Brazil's World Cup team at age 16 and was the youngest player in World Cup history at the time. Pele had a hat trick against France in the semi-finals in 1958 and scored two more against Sweden in the finals as Brazil won its first of three World Cups during his run. He played professionally in his home country and scored 619 goals in 638 games. To put that in context for you fans of American football, Jerry Rice, the NFL's all-time touchdown leader, scored 207 touchdowns in 303 games. Pele also played in the NASL for the New York Cosmos. He scored 31 goals in 56 games -- despite being near the end of his career. Like Ruth in baseball, Pele is still the measuring stick by which all current soccer players are measured.

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3

Muhammad Ali

Sport: Boxing.

Accomplishments: Career record 56-5. Thirty-seven wins by knock out. Three-time heavyweight champion of the world. Olympics: One gold medal (1960).

Don't you dare Mike Tyson me. I won't stand for it. Ali could match anybody in pure power, with his incredible knockout total. And he might have had the fastest hands in the history of the sport, able to throw punches with the kind of lightning quickness typically seen in lighter fighters. Remember when we talked about Ric Flair's showmanship in and out of the wrestling ring? Ali brought the same panache, possessing the skill to carve an opponent up with a quip that was almost as fearful as his jab. And we have to remember, Ali fought in a time when heavyweight boxing was still king. He boxed against Joe Frazier in "The Thrilla in Manilla" and George Foreman in "The Rumble in the Jungle," two bouts that are still legendary to this day. How much more decorated could he have been had boxing not banned him for refusing to enter the draft?

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2

Wayne Gretzky

Sport: Hockey.

Accomplishments: Four-time Stanley Cup winner. Nine-time winner of the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP). Most regular season goals (894), assists (1,963), points (2,857) and hat-tricks (50).

The Great One truly lived up to his name as the greatest hockey player to ever live. He was selected league MVP a staggering nine times. NINE TIMES! And there are all of the records that he broke. But Gretzky never gets the credit for how impressive he was in such a demanding sport. I mean, there were guys who were physically more striking, but nobody was as productive as Gretzky over the course of such a lengthy career. He won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and somehow made the L.A. Kings the hottest ticket in Los Angeles during the 1990s. He might have even brought the first Stanley Cup to Southern California if Marty McSorely had used the right stick in Game 2 against Montreal.

Gretzky also made those around him so much better. Like Bernie Nicholls, my favorite player as a kid. Nicholls was a great player, but when Gretzky arrived, he scored a career-high 150 points. It was amazing. But here's the thing. The Oilers won a Cup two seasons after Gretzky left. When you think about whether he should be the top G.O.A.T. overall, well ...

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1

Michael Jordan

Sport: Basketball.

Accomplishments: Six-time NBA champion. Six-time NBA Finals MVP. Five-time NBA MVP. Ten-time NBA scoring leader. Olympics: Two gold medals (1984, 1992).

Let's be honest about Jordan and his legacy, which has endured long after he retired. I mean, put his silhouette on a shoe and you have a best-seller. We can start with the accomplishments (and there are many). The one thing I couldn't get past was that he was a perfect six-for-six in championships and Finals MVP awards won. Yes, he earned fewer league MVPs in the NBA than the Great One did in the NHL ... but those finals appearances, though! Coming through on the biggest stage. I mean, you watched Brady make plays when he had to in Super Bowl LIII, but he was not close to being the MVP of that game. Jordan, meanwhile, was dominating Finals right through championship No. 6. He averaged 33.6 points in his career Finals appearances, including an incredible 38 points in Game 5 in the 1997 Finals, while he was deathly ill with the flu. In the decisive game of the Finals a year later, he stole the ball from Karl Malone, then drained the winner over Bryon Russell in one of the best sequences in sports history.

Yes, as I mentioned above, Gretzky made all of those around him better -- but Jordan did, too. Obviously, Scottie Pippen is one of the best of all-time. And my friend Jeremy likes to point out Jordan never had a winning season without Pippen. Which is true. But everybody had their sidekick (like Mark Messier for Gretzky). What it really came down to for me was the fact that Gretzky's Oilers won a Cup without him, as I also mentioned above. And while the Bulls reached the conference finals without Jordan during his mid-career hiatus from the league, they didn't win. If the Bulls had won without him, or if the L.A. Kings had won a title with Gretzky, that would have tilted it. But with the evidence in front of me, I'm going with Jordan.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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