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Friday, June 20, 2008

Greatest Athlete Debate

After reading the Wall Street Journal article I saw linked today on the subject, I felt the need to weigh in with my super-duper high-speed opinion (because you care, dang nabbit). The WSJ, which is, in my opinion, an outstanding source for political writing and world events, obviously is quite lacking in the department of athletics.

A few things jumped out at me upon viewing the list and reading the reasoning behind it. One, I don't see any cyclists or triathletes. I don't think anyone pushes their body to the limits as much as they do. Two, I see a boxer on the list yet not one MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter. Wrong answer. And three, there's a baseball player on there. Eh? On the top ten athletes in the world?

First off, I disagree with a ranking of this type anyway. But it makes for good conversation so let's pick it apart and I will address each of my three complaints for the fun of it.

Roman Sebrle: I think a decathlete is a great choice, even if it's kind of a stupid sport to go into. I mean, these guys obviously have insane athletic ability and chose a sport to dedicate themselves to that will eventually take them....where, exactly? Oh yeah, the Olympics are great, but then what? Basically you would have to get a real job after that. Pssshaaw. Whatever.

Lebron James: Meh. Yes, basketball players must be great athletes. I know that. But is there any need for serious strength? Endurance, yes (both muscular and cardiovascular). But actual strength required is very little. Putting him as #2 is pretty weak.

Floyd Mayweather, jr.: A phenomenal athlete, to be sure. However, why a boxer and no MMA guys? A boxer trains one thing: boxing. This requires speed, strength, endurance, hand-eye coordination, and mobility on one's feet. MMA, by comparison, requires all of these, but on an entirely different level. One must be good at boxing, kick-boxing, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu jitsu if they have any hope whatsoever of competing at a decent level. Not to take away from Mayweather, but if he were to step into the ring with a top level MMA guy (take someone at his weight class like Urijah Faber or BJ Penn) and he would get worked over in a matter of a minute or two. There is no aspect of athletics that an MMA fighter can be lacking in to be good.

Ladainian Tomlinson: I think this guy should be higher than Lebron, because he has to execute athletic skill -- speed, coordination, power -- while men twice his size are trying to kill him. Awesome.

Roger Federer: I used to think tennis was gay. Then I competed at Wimbledon and won like five titles and gained a little respect for it. Still gay, but pretty cool, I guess.

Sidney Crosby: Another who should be higher than Lebron James. Hockey players must have incredible hand-eye coordination, stamina, strength, and pain tolerance. In terms of "toughness" I would argue these guys are as high as football players and fighters.

Liu Xiang: Sorry dude, jumping over little things in your path does not warrant top ten status. Maybe if people were trying to tackle you while you did it or something, but....no.

Jeremy Wariner: Does being really, really fast for 400 meters warrant "Greatest Athlete in the World" status? I've seen some dudes on the show COPS that were wicked fast for that long, but then they usually get hit by a car or fall off of a wall or something and break a leg. Unimpressive.

Ronaldo: Anyone who knows me knows I love to play soccer. And I believe that these are some of the greatest athletes in the world. However, two areas where they are greatly lacking (usually) is in upper-body strength and toughness. The whole "diving" issue -- i.e. faking an injury to get a call -- has become so out of hand it's hard for me to even watch the game. I think that they are tougher than they let on, but they need to start proving that to the world.

Alex Rodriguez: Again, seriously? Ok, does baseball require tremendous hand-eye coordination? Absolutely. Does it require power (albeit in short bursts)? Definitely. But what about speed? Not unless you are a base-stealer (rare). Endurance? Neither muscular or cardiovascular required to be "great" at America's pastime. Is anyone trying to hit you with the bat? No? Let me know when that happens and then we'll talk.

I would sooner put Tiger Woods on this list than a baseball player. Some people don't think of golfers as great athletes, but consider this: part of sports or athletics is the relationship of mind to body. In any sport, an athlete must face the "demons" in his own mind. Be they fear of being in front of people, fear of getting hit, fear of just plain losing, etc., every athlete must conquer and silence these demons to perform at his/her best. Where golf is different than other sports is that a golfer does not "react" to an opponent. This means that instead of relying on muscle memory and training to create a visceral, primal response, he or she must think their way through the action. All while under the watchful eye of everyone, and with only their own thoughts screaming in their head. Those who have not done it may think that makes it easier; not even by a mile. When a hockey player has a puck flying at him, or a fighter has a punch shooting at him, their brain and body react to this based on training. After thousands of hours spent in training, muscle memory takes over and creates an almost primal response without consciously being aware of it. A golfer has too much time for this, and is "reacting" to a completely stationary object. This window of time actually works against the golfer, as it provides all the opportunity in the world for those demons to creep in. That is why, when discussing the relation of mind and body, a golfer ranks as high as anyone.

My own opinion? Being a soldier who takes fitness development pretty serious (as it can be paramount to success in the job), I look for ways to condition myself in the most appropriate way. What I have found is that MMA fighters and the way they train is probably the most grueling as well as being the most intense type of training out there. No other sport requires every skill set that makes one an athlete developed at such a high level. I believe that cyclists and marathoners (triathletes, obviously) have MMA guys beat when it comes to endurance, no question about it. Yet they lack development in hand-eye coordination, lateral movement, brute strength, and the threat of being injured from an external source. No one is trying to punch you or kick you while you are running a marathon. Football players and hockey players would come closest in this category, but their work-period is rarely longer than one minute. Take a look at this video for an example of MMA-style conditioning (and this training doesn't even address the actual skill set development, which would also have to be undertaken).

Overall point, do I think that MMA fighters are the greatest athletes? No, because I don't think that you can compare realistically from sport to sport. It's tough enough to compare within the same sport (was Ronnie Lott better than Jerry Rice? Two different skill sets, but both were amazing), so going beyond those boundaries is next to impossible. I would just like to see MMA receive the respect it deserves. One, because these guys are tremendous athletes, and two (more importantly), this is absolutely superb training for military and law enforcement. Both the mind and skill sets needed transfer directly into high-intensity conflict careers and can not only bring a soldier or police officer to a higher level of operational ability, but can potentially save his or her life, or the life of someone they are trying to protect. Not necessarily because the soldier or officer will be engaging in a brawl, but the mental preparation developed from this training is exactly what one needs to stay calm under pressure.

Am I biased? Of course I am, but keep in mind, I just defended golf for crying out loud. No one defends golf when talking about athletics. But also remember that I am an aficionado of athletics in nearly every form, as it shows not just what the human body is capable of, but what the mind can drive the body to accomplish. No one rises to the top in any sport solely on athletic ability; they must also posses the mental attributes needed to drive them to a higher level, as well as fight out the demons which will most certainly convince you that you aren't strong enough, fast enough, or good enough to win. But doggone it, people still like you.


Kell said...



Mr. Twisted said...

All of that and all you could come up with was "baseball players rock"? Weak. Super lame.

Kell said...

I read this long well thought out post... and was able to translate it easily into... "My name is Mr. Twisted. I am a wuss. I can't hit a baseball. I can't throw a baseball. I am afraid of dirt. I only like one type of balls in and around my face. I can't catch a baseball. And I squeal when someone gets dirt on my socks. Therefore I will poke fun at a sport I can't do."

...But I was trying to not embarass you and just left it as "Baseball players rock." See... I am nice like that.