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A Blessed Generation: The Greatest Era of Modern Sport

Usually I like to target a question as the topic of my blog posts but I think it is far too one sided of an argument; this is unequivocally the greatest generation for athleticism and sporting ability.

This is in no small part down to the incredible impact of sports science improving physical capabilities and recovery to ensure greatness is sustained to older ages – see Tom Brady or Zlatan Ibrahimovic – but also down to the monetary investments. Back in the days of Bobby Charlton etc most players were amateur or semi pro whereas in all sports nowadays the competition is so much more intense it raises the level of individuals.

It seems like a controversial statement, certainly most pundits on TV refer to the ‘Greatest’ of their respective times as Montanas or Maradonas but I think it is merely childhood nostalgia. The level of talent and skill in sport these days is so much higher that the individuals who stand out are that much more impressive. You’d have to fancy Anthony Davis to get close to the numbers Wilt Chamberlain put up and if Cristiano Ronaldo played for the sides Pele did in that era, it would dwarf his goal total.

To make my point clearer, I’ll try to prove my case, sport by sport:

American Football

I only really need to say two words: Tom Brady. He isn’t the most athletic football player, in fact no one would ever argue that. You only need to look at his combine footage; there’s probably few people who have looked less like a football player than Tom Brady. He’s not even the most gifted/talented Quarterback of all time. The consensus is that his rival Aaron Rodgers is the most talented Quarterback to ever play the game and if that’s in doubt look at the throw he made to Jared Cook against the cowboys or his entire tape from the Giants playoff game this year.

Tom Brady has won a record 5 Superbowl rings and a record 4 Superbowl MVPs aged 39. He did so by overturning a deficit of 28-3 (biggest comeback in Superbowl history); throwing the most attempts ever in the big game [62] with a record number of completions [43] and the most yards [466] all without his main target Rob Gronkowski on the field.

Quarterbacks aside and you have Odell Beckham Jnr on an inconsistent team breaking the pace record for receptions and yards in his first 3 seasons whilst making video game catches in game and warm ups.

Ezekiel nearly breaking the rookie record for rushing yards behind a historically great offensive line.

And on the other side of the ball as well, you’ve got Von Miller, JJ Watt and Khalil Mack operating outside of the LOB and so whilst teams (with the exception of the Patriots) are weaker/spread more evenly, the talent pool is better than we have ever seen.

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Basketball

I will start this by categorically stating that Michael Jordan is and will remain (for the foreseeable future) the GOAT for basketball; DEFINITELY not for baseball! That doesn’t stop me however from saying that LeBron James appears to be the most naturally talented and physically impressive. Potentially only Shaq and Wilt have been more physically dominant in the NBA; certainly there’s not much that can be done to stop him when he drives to the rim. Not to mention the fact that he’s been to 7 straight finals, won three rings and basically dictates who represents the East for the NBA finals.

Some could argue there was more competition in previous years and certainly I’d agree that Jordan had a more difficult time of it with the bad boy Pistons and the Celtics. And very few rivalries can usurp the historic battles of Magic and Bird.

However, what the NBA lacks in rivalries it makes up for in its modern day story lines. Lebron James’ infamous Decision to leave Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach in pursuit of rings only to reverse that and bring a title home for the first in Cavalier history; done so by reversing a 3-1 down position against the all time best season record Warriors team.

This season as well. Kevin Durant so desperate to finally receive some jewelry that he left his team and brother-in-arms to join the fierce rivals who knocked them off in the conference finals of last year. In response, Russell Westbrook becomes only the second player to ever average and triple-double whilst breaking Oscar Robertson’s 56 year long record achieved in a era of many more possessions due to the pace of the game. Even more incredibly, he’s not yet a clearcut winner of the MVP award due to a superhuman effort by long-term friend James Harden who’s recorded 21 triple doubles of his own.

Scarier still is the abilities of Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid – all under the age of 25 – looking to usher in a new era of supremely talented big men.

The NBA is in the best position it’s ever been both with talent and the growth in its publicity and, with the youth currently in the league, and the incoming draft prospects it doesn’t look to be slowing down.

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Fighting Sports

Boxing has been dying slowly in recent years. The Heavyweight division – the division that most fans truly care about if we’re honest – has not been at a high standard for a number of years. All credit to the Klitschkos, who have been talented and disciplined top level fighters, but they have been in few fights since the Lennox Lewis days. Certainly there hasn’t been the competition there was in the 70s with Ali, Frazier and Foreman. Even Mike Tyson had Evander Holyfield. Anthony Joshua certainly has the look about him of restoring some faith in boxing – as does Katie Taylor in the women’s sport – but in all reality I’m referring to the UFC more for this category.

In the last 5 or so years the UFC has grown exponentially. Martial Arts has always been popular as a form/genre of film with people like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris making fame and fortune in film in the 80s. However, even with veterans like Anderson Silva and George St Pierre it was a relatively small sport in terms of popularity consisting of loyal and hardcore fans.

With the dominant emergence of Ronda Rousey, following her moderate successes in Judo, the eyes of fans began to be drawn to this electric sport that was delivering more exciting finishes than the constant point decisions being dished out in boxing. As Rousey consistently defeated opponents at a lightning pace and starred on the big screen; the polarising figure of Connor Mcgregor emerged who took the sport up another notch. A loud mouth personality who bagged up his swagger with devastating results inside the octagon – just ask Jose Aldo – and ran head first into fights rather than dance around them blaming contracts; a thinly veiled dig at Mayweather. As boxing continues to be dictated by promoters, the UFC always gives its fans the fights that are demanded and as it continues to rise and the money paid to its fighters increase, the talent on show will only further improve as in other sports and so it is an exciting time to get interested in the sport!!

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Football

Quite simply because of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, players who many try to separate as one better than the other, but who continue to drive each other to be better. The dominance of these two stars is so incredible that their combined (and consecutive – Kaka being the last winner in 2007) 9 Ballon D’ors means that other wordly talents like Zlatan Ibrahimovic have never even had a sniff of it. These two talents who play at two of the biggest clubs in the world have won all of the top club competitions and compete at such a high level that 40 goals a season is considered a down year for either. Other goalscorers who previously would have been heralded – i.e. Lewandoski and Aguero to name a few – pale in comparison.

Two very different styles of player; Ronaldo an athletically and physically gifted player who has worked tirelessly throughout his life to hone and perfect his skills; and Lionel Messi who is quite simply the most naturally gifted footballer to ever grace this Earth. He’ll never wow you with step-overs yet somehow will glide through a throng of 4-5 players with his deceptively fast pace. They play different positions, in different team systems and with completely different game styles but they both dominate their sport and so rather than truly compare them, we can only appreciate their greatness because they will be missed dearly when they leave the game. When all is said and done, whichever order you have them ranked, they are the two greatest footballers of all time and it’s not even remotely close.

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Golf

I don’t follow golf or have much of an interest in the sport – so I will keep it brief – but as one of the richest and most popular sports I feel obliged to include it in the discussion. It may well not have been clarified clearly already but I consider this generation/era to be the noughties and teens as that is the era of sports I have grown up watching. As a result, Tiger Woods at his peak falls into this category. As an ‘athlete’ he transcended the sport in ways similar to Michael Jordan. He topped the earnings for sports stars in endorsements every single year and drew so many fans to the sport because of his ability, killer instinct and star quality that only a select few possess. His legacy has been tarnished as personal issues and back injuries have relegated him to a sad footnote in golf these days but few can question Tiger from his peak.

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Olympics

As I mentioned earlier, the science, technology and money poured into sports improves every year enabling people to become faster fitter and stronger. Athletes that were once amateurs competing for various reasons but never for income are now elite level, full time professionals and it’s the same for the Olympics. As a result, records continue to tumble as we squeeze every single bit of performance out of the human body [and – in the role of devil’s advocate – the use of performance enhancing drugs helps] to create history. In years past, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis have long been celebrated as Olympic Gods for their superhuman attempts and rightly so; particularly in the circumstances and pressures Owens faced.

But, as times are measured by computers to remove human error and scientifically wetsuits/spikes are worn, times are inevitably shaved but the feats of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps still borderline on the superhuman. They continue to break records, dominating across 3-4 Olympics for over a decade – often against younger athletes in peak condition – yet still demolish the fields.

Both recognised as the Greatest of all time in their respective sports – ones that only draw money from endorsements yet face some of the most grueling training – to stay at the top of such physically dependent sports for such longevity is testament to their work ethic and ability and as with so many of the names mentioned in this; we may not see anything like them for a long time.

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Tennis

Tennis is a sport renowned for its famous rivalries; Navratilova and Chris Evert [Steffi Graf also featuring], Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe and Sampras and Agassi etc.

Sampras was widely considered one of the greatest of all time in his day; Pistol Pete spent a total of 286 weeks at the top of the sports rankings and so its no surprise he won 4/5 grand slam matches against Agassi. In fact his 14 Grand Slams record stood for a long time until a certain Roger Federer appeared on the scene.

Similarly in the 70s and 80s, Borg and McEenroe spent a decade going at each others throats or at least certainly McEnroe was! They split their total head to heads but McEnroe’s killer instinct gave him a 3-1 lead in Grand Slam Finals (Borg won more Opens in total though with 11 titles to McEnroe’s 7).

Likewise in the women’s game the saga of Navratilova and Chris Evert went on for over a decade in which between 1981 and 1985 they won 21 of 24 consecutive grand slams – with Steffi Graf being one of two other players to win (a superstar in her own right with 22 singles titles). They spent a combined 592 weeks at the top of the rankings and competed head to head 90 times!

However, our generation boasts the greatest tennis players in both the men’s and women’s games.

Serena Williams has no rivalry like the ones mentioned above because quite simply there are no rivals to her! She brings both brawn and beauty to the game that makes her dominate in ways even Navratilova failed to do. A fiery competitor – born from the harsh streets of Compton – growing up competing against Venus (a fantastic player on her own accord); Serena has gone on to win 23 singles titles, 14 doubles and 2 mixed doubles. She has also spent 316 weeks at number one (186 consecutive weeks at one stage – a record tied with Graf) despite the fact she has missed tennis for personal and health reasons such as the scary blood clot she developed a few years ago.

And in the men’s game, both on the statistics and the eye test, Roger Federer is the greatest male tennis player we’ve ever seen. Surviving through the slog of the Roddick rivalry to develop one of the all time greats with Rafael Nadal not to mention the likes of Djokovic and Murray also competing at the top of the sport. Federer has won 18 singles titles which ranks 1st all time in the men’s open era. No matter his foe, he has remained non-compromising; mixing his lethal serve and volley with the graceful yet merciless winners that leave his rivals stood still. Federer is a polar opposite to Serena but no less impressive; whilst she dominated all who may try to resist her reign, Federer has simply outlasted his.

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Quite simply put; In all of today’s major sports we are seeing some of the greatest athletes/stars to ever grace their games. Records fall left, right and centre as fans and pundits alike continue to be left in awe.

If further convincing is still required then look no further than the story-lines coming out of sport these days. As Hollywood continues to lose its imagination – more on that later – the world of sport continues to live out our fantasies:

  • Leicester, at 5000/1 odds before the start of the season, went on a historic campaign to win England’s top flight division.
  • Japan defeated former world champions South Africa in the most recent Rugby World Cup scoring a try in the remaining seconds of a thrilling encounter
  • LeBron James returned home to Cleveland, a team he spurned for Championships, to deliver them their first title in franchise history
  • Chicago Cubs ended their 108 year long drought to win the World Series
  • Patriots won their second Superbowl in 3 years – 2 years removed from undrafted free agent Malcolm Butler’s game winning goal line interception – coming back from 28-3 in the 4th quarter giving them a 1% chance of winning.
  • Miracle at Medinah

With the pool of ability on display and the stories that they generate there is no doubt in my mind that our generation has been privileged with the greatest era of sports in history; and with the accessibility/availability to watch them compete at every turn we should count our blessings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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