WHO IS THE G.O.A.T?
Our readers have made their choice
Don Bradman at Lord’s in 1930. The collar is high. The baggy green cap is in place. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled to the forearms as if he knows there’s work to be done. He’s clean-shaven. There’s a spring in his step.
What a sprightly young fellow he is. Astute. Patient. Intelligent. It’s a wonder he hasn’t tucked a pen and notebook into his top pocket.
He makes 254. Decent knock. The face of his bat has more than a few cherries on it. The middle has begun to cave in. So often has he found the sweet spot that the willow has splintered and cracked. The dent in the dead centre of his blade resembles a crater. Bat any longer and it may have formed a hole.
As time goes on, Bradman will regard this knock as the greatest of his life. In his autobiography, Farewell To Cricket, he writes of it: “Practically without exception, every ball went where it was intended.”
Two things here. Bradman has not rated his most numerically successful Test innings, his 334 at Leeds, as his greatest performance. That’s interesting when it comes to the GOAT debate. Winning streaks and dominance and whopping big numbers are only part of it. Greatness goes above and beyond all that. It needs magic. It needs magnetism. It needs feeling. It needs to be nearly too good to be true, moments of absolute perfection.
If the Greatest Of All Time is concerned only with runs accumulated or trophies piled up in the pool room or victory sequences, you’ll give it to Pakistan squash player Jahangir Khan. Five-hundred-and-fifty-five wins on the trot.
The most successful are not necessarily the greatest. In sport, in art, in life, geniuses fail. They have days when they should have stayed in bed. Matches when they can barely put one foot in front of the other. At their best, they elevate themselves, and everyone watching, to a higher place. But they can be ordinary, too. See Muhammad Ali losing to Chuck Werner, the failure that has inspired the Rocky Balboa movies. (Apollo Creed is Ali. Balboa is Werner.) See Bradman nicking one on to off stump from Eric Hollies for a duck that has been too ugly and untimely to be believed or conceived. Bradman has grinned and said of it: “Fancy doing a thing like that.”
Our poll on the people’s GOAT has been wildly enjoyable. I’ve pored through hours of footage. The romantic old black-and-white stuff and the blindingly colourful clips of the modern era, before settling on my own vote. I have read a thousand messages. I have scrolled through emails and tweets and texts and fallen in love with Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the American track-and-field Olympic gold medallist, turned golfer, who has sounded to me like Janis Joplin with a three-iron.
More than 6000 votes have produced a clear-cut top four: Bradman, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Ali. In an exercise designed to create argument, who can argue with that? The beauty of the exercise is that there’s no right or wrong. The frustration of the GOAT debate, too, is that there’s no right or wrong. When will we know, for sure and certain, the identity of the GOAT? We will never know, for sure and certain, the identity of the GOAT. How infuriating! How wonderful.
Notes from the Bradman footage. The balletic footwork. The poise. The powers of concentration. The patience. The meticulousness. The attention to detail. The ruthlessness. The composure. The tenacity. Those pitches have looked bloody treacherous. No covers back then. He’s needed a shovel and spade to adequately flatten the last Lord’s track he has stepped on. Grandstands have filled when he’s batting. They have emptied when he’s dismissed. A true national hero. The song. Our Don Bradman!
Now we ask you, was he any good? All those headlines. The morning edition of the Daily Press: Bradman Versus England. The evening edition of The Star: HE’S OUT. The kid with golf ball and water tank and stump down at Bowral. From there to here. The Test average of 99.94. His gentlemanly departure at The Oval, tucking his bat under his arm and toddling off. Bradman has attracted 33 per cent of the vote for the people’s GOAT. Certain athletes, and their accomplishments, will never die.
My vote? Ali. I’ve whittled it down to the same top four. I’ve thought, if they’re all in town tonight, if there’s a scheduling bungle and they’re all on at the same time, which ticket will I buy? Federer versus Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final? (Which he lost, by the way, but has still dripped with greatness). Or, Jordan and the Bulls in game seven of the 1998 NBA finals? Or, the MCG for Bradman’s 270 against England in 1937? Or, Ali versus Joe Frazier in 1975. The Thrilla in Manila. A rivalry and blood feud so intense and spiteful that Frazier has literally taken it to his grave. I’ve picked the Ali fight.
My favourite passage in sport, either live or on replay, is the final 33 seconds of round five of Ali’s Rumble In The Jungle against George Foreman. Ali does not win the fight in those 33 seconds. He does not put Foreman on his arse in those 33 seconds. But there’s something in those 33 seconds that gives me goosebumps.
Bradman’s footwork has been swift, but Ali’s is swifter. Bradman’s hands, and Jordan’s hands, and Federer’s hands, have been lightning fast, but Ali’s triple jabs are quicker still. A young Ali winning his Olympic gold at Rome in 1960 is something else; but these 33 seconds against Foreman … rope-a-dope ... fancy doing a thing like that.
Notes from the Ali footage. The frenzy against Sonny Liston. The bravery of boxing. Man-on-man. The danger. The explosiveness. The tactics. The power. The endurance. The punishment. The showmanship. That all you got, George? Show me something, George! The look of a stone-cold killer. The intent. The confidence. The swagger. The pain. The suffering. The hurt. The grace. The animalistic fight. The technique. The artistry. The chess.
The pummelling of Ernie Terrell, who has refused to call him Muhammad, taunting him with his “slave name” of Cassius. The goading of Terrell while Ali has pounded him for 15 rounds. He’s careful not to knock him out, wanting to hit him for all 15 rounds, shouting at him, what’s my name? Ali has been courageous, and more, by the nature of his sport, the most gladiatorial of them all. Ali, bomaye! Ali, bomaye! There may never have been an atmosphere like it.
He’s been the supreme showman. He’s represented black America when it’s needed representing. He’s gone far beyond sport. He’s lost nearly four prime years of his career for refusing to join the US army. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” may be the most powerful sporting quote. And this: “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”
His pre-bout quotes have flowed like tap water. Before the Rumble In The Jungle, he’s said: “I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale. Handcuffed lightning. Thrown thunder in jail. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
Ali has called the Thrilla in Manila “the closest thing to dying that I know”. It is the most spectacular sporting occasion I have read about. You have feared for a second, in round 14, that he he’s about to kill Frazier right there in the ring. Ali has been out on his feet before the final round … but Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Dutch, has thrown in the towel.
Ali has always shied away from replays of that fight, saying: “Why would I want to go back and see Hell?” The rivalry has been so intense that Frazier has celebrated Ali’s Parkinson’s disease, taking credit for it, calling it Joe Frazieritis and left hook-itis.
Their rift never mended. Ali tried to smoke the peace pipe, in their later years, but Frazier has refused to take a puff. At Frazier’s funeral, Ali stood and applauded him, long and loud.
He’s vowed to beat Sonny Liston and donate him to a zoo, the big smelly bear, and he’s done it to become the heavyweight champion of the world. His era of boxing has been sport at its most serious and wondrous.
His record is imperfect, but I do not care. Boxing is the most elemental and warrior-like of sports, carrying every emotion and requirement of the others … and then some. Life imitates boxing more than any other activity. When we’re down for the count, when we’re getting up off the canvas, when we’re on the ropes, when we have a few good men in our corner, when we’re going toe-to-toe … it’s all from boxing. The ultimate fight.
If you want to settle a score, you don’t tell your rival, I’ll get you over 18 holes of stroke play, mate. I’ll beat you in straight sets on clay. I’ll show you, buster, in a 100m sprint. Round up 20 others and we’ll sort this out over some soccer. Other sports pretend to be life and death. Boxing really is.
Bradman has the sleight of hand and deftness of touch. Ali has thunder in his fists. I have swooned at Bradman, and been electrified by Jordan’s documentary, and swooned at Federer from courtside seats. But I keep going back to Ali. The Rumble. The Thrilla. Nothing beats them. Nothing beats his role in them. He’s lost a few but you can’t beat greatness, even when you do. I think he’s the first among equals, second to none. The most indisputable fact, however, is this. I, and we all, could be wrong!
‘I murdered a rock, injured a stone ... I’m so mean I make medicine sick’ MUHAMMAD ALI