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The Greatest (Most Successful) Athletes of All-Time

The Greatest (Most Successful) Athletes of All-Time

The 5 Greatest Sporting Athletes Ever: The GOAT debate continues!

Who are the most successful athletes ever?

How would you measure the success of an athlete? Awards? Influence on their sport? Maybe even their achievements outside of sport in wider society? 

The awards they receive throughout their career certainly is a big part of their perceived success. Some athletes aren’t happy with just getting awards. They will strive to enhance the reputation of their sport, as well as their influences on society and the fight for equality. 

The five athletes I’m about to discuss are the athletes I believe have been the most successful. I must also stress this is no particular order and I’m sure everyone will have their own opinion.

Josh Stedman stokes the fires of the GOAT debate with his Top 5 most successful sportsmen and women.

Are these the greatest athletes that ever lived?

Tiger Woods, posing in the trophy position after hitting another amazing shot no doubt.

Tiger Woods - GOAT of Golf, GOAT of ALL athletes?

Tiger Woods (Golf)

A controversial start to the list but despite his rather public flaws, Tiger Woods dominated golf for a long period. Tiger was a sporting icon and is still an instantly recognisable face, even if it is not always for the right reasons.

Tiger Wood’s Early Career

Woods’ talent was there from a young age. On TV show Good Morning America, Woods showed off his talent to the nation. Whilst at University, Woods won various amateur U.S. golf titles before turning pro in 1996. Golfing glory was soon to follow.

Aged 21, Woods won the US Masters at Augusta in 1997, with a record score of 270. Not only was he the youngest person to earn the title, but he was also the first African American. The following years saw Woods pick up four U.S. PGA titles, three U.S. Open wins, three Open Championship wins, and three U.S. Masters wins. 


In 2009, Woods's career came to a grinding halt due to marriage infidelity reaching the media. Woods denied all allegations at the start of the rumours but as more people’s names were announced and more evidence was on show, Woods admitted the private life issues he was facing. Tiger stepped back from golf to focus on himself and his family. 

Despite returning to golf in 2010, Woods continued to have issues on and off the green. A back injury led to his fourth back operation and another break from golf. More personal issues arose for Woods. In 2017, Tiger had to receive professional help for managing taking medication and pleaded guilty to a reckless driving charge.

The story of Tiger Wood’s 2019 Master victory

Tiger’s Return to glory

In 2019, Woods struck again. After 11 years of ups and downs, mainly downs, Tiger won his fifth Masters title, completing a movie styled comeback. The then President, Donald Trump, awarded Woods the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Woods’ comeback from the low points he went through is inspirational to everyone suffering in life. This, coupled with his dominance of the golfing world before his hiatus makes Woods one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Serena Williams (Tennis)

Serena Williams is the greatest female athlete of all time and is up there with the greatest athletes of all time. Williams has used her status in tennis to further the female tennis game and stand for equal rights for women in society.

Serena On-Court

Serena has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, along with several Olympic gold medals and doubles titles. Her first title came in 1999 and, she would complete the grand slam in 2003. Williams had a hiatus from the sport due to injury.

In 2008, she returned to winning ways and reclaimed her number 1 spot by 2009. Since then, she has dominated the female game.

Williams is known for her competitive nature and her champion attitude. Often Williams's on-court behaviour has been questioned after outbursts that have led to fines and run-ins with the tennis authorities. This hasn't stopped Williams from pursuing equality for female tennis players.

Serenea Off-Court

Williams has always been vocal about the need for equality in not just tennis but in broader society. During Serena’s 2018 U.S. Open final she claimed that an umpire showed a different level of tolerance than a male player would receive. Williams was penalised for an outburst during the game and the WTA denied any sexism stating:

"The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women."

The incidents sparked a debate in the sporting world, with people split over the comments by Serena. BBC tennis presenter Sue Barker said:

"I've sat courtside watching the men ranting at umpires and they haven't been given a violation." 

Williams is one of the only female athletes to appear on the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes. Nike signed a deal with the tennis superstar in 2003 and she has been a lead athlete for Nike ever since. Other noticeable endorsements include Gatorade, Pepsi and Beats by Dre.

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Tom Brady (NFL)

At the young age of 43, Brady recently secured his seventh Superbowl ring. The win now means he has more Superbowl wins than any franchise in the NFL. Brady has also now won a Superbowl in each of the past three decades. The crazy thing is, he doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon

Tom Brady’s Early Career

Brady was a sixth-round draft pick for the New England Patriots in the 2000 draft. As a sixth-round draft, no one would have expected Brady to have the career he has had.

Brady was able to break into the starting QB role in his second season due to an injury to Drew Bledsoe. Once he stepped into the starting spot, Brady never looked back and took control of the team.

In this first season, Brady helped the Patriots to a win in Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams, a game in which Brady won the MVP award. This Super Bowl win was the first of Brady’s seven rings.

In 2007, Brady was a leading force in the near-undefeated season but they lost to the New York Giants at Super Bowl XLII. The following season Brady picked up a knee injury. Many thought this may be the end of Brady, after several operations and rehabilitation that meant he missed the whole season.

Despite the injury, the Patriots stuck with their starman. Brady led the team to yet another Super Bowl in 2011. Though, the Giants were again there to stop a dream comeback from injury.

Ring Number 5 for Brady

In 2016, he surpassed his QB idol, Joe Montana, for Super Bowl wins. Brady’s fifth Superbowl ring came with his fourth Super Bowl MVP but the season was remembered for off-pitch drama.

The “Deflategate” came around after the 2014 season but reemerged in 2015. It was discovered Brady was aware of ball-tampering by the Patriots. 

The records kept coming for Brady despite reaching the age of 40. In 2017, Brady threw an NFL-high 4,577 yards during a 13-3 season for the Patriots. Super Bowl LIII was the moment Brady became the record Super Bowl-winning player. A rare quiet came still saw Brady push New England to the win, and his sixth Super Bowl triumph.

Pastures New

Questions were beginning to be asked about Brady and whether he was at the end of his career. Brady announced in 2020, he would be leaving the Patriots and would be joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Super Bowl 7 for Brady

Under the guidance of Brady, Tampa Bay reached their first playoffs for 13 years. Tampa Bay went on to win the Super Bowl, and Brady claimed his seventh ring. He became only the fourth QB to win the Super Bowl with two different teams.

It doesn’t look like Brady will be finished just yet either. Many see him as one the greatest ever in the NFL, and, he is an American icon. For all of this, he makes my list of greatest ever athletes and is certainly the greatest quarterback of all time.

What a career Tom Brady has had (so far!). Known for his relentless drive and quest for perfection, Brady has changed the way people approach pre-workout nutrition, and in general, the way athletes look after their bodies. A true inspiration for all aspiring sportspeople.

Lionel Messi (Football)

Early Years of Messi

Now the Greatest player in Barcelona history, Messi joined his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys at the age of 6 years old. During the six years at their youth clubs, Messi scored almost 500 goals - a sign of things to come.

Messi joined Spanish giants, Barcelona, at 13 years old. Barca famously paid for Messi’s growth hormone treatment, something that hampered a move to River Plate. 

In October 2004 at 17 years old, Messi made his competitive debut for Barcelona as a substitute. It is reported Messi was promoted to the first-team after several requests were made by other first-team players.

Just under a year later, Messi made his senior debut for Argentina against Hungary in a friendly. Messi was sent off within a few minutes after his introduction following a clash with a defender. Messi has gone on to captain Barca and Argentina, in a career that has seen record numbers of individual and team rewards.

Messi's Major Moments

Anyone that can remember the 2009 Champions League Final will tell you about the star quality of Messi in that match. Just one of many games which he took control of and etched his name in history as a result.

In 2022 he added the World Cup to his trophy cabinet. Also the player of the tournament in Qatar, this was the final piece in a jaw-dropping career for Messi.

Leo Messi’s Major Awards and Career Achievements

When it comes to sporting achievements, Messi ranks as high as any other athlete. Below is a list of his major trophies and accolades:

  • 1 x FIFA World Cup + Player of the tournament

  • The Best FIFA Men’s Player x6

  • Ballon d’Or x6

  • UEFA Best Player in Europe x2

  • Golden Boot Winner x5

  • UEFA Champions League Winner x4

  • FIFA Club World Cup Championship Winner x3

  • La Liga x10, UEFA SuperCup Winner x3

  • Copa del Ray x6

  • Spanish Super Cup x8

  • Spanish League Cup Winner x1

  • Olympic Gold Medal x1

  • Under-20 World Cup Champion x1

  • World Cup Runner-up x1

  • FIFA World Cup Player of the Tournament x1

  • Copa America Player of the Tournament x1

  • Top Scorer x19 (various comps)

  • Barcelona Player of the Year x10

IIt was thought Messi would bring back glory to Argentina like his idol, Diego Maradona, who won the World Cup in 1986.

And now he has delivered that glory back to Argentina.

Messi will go down as one of the best players to grace the hallowed turf. A footballing genius who, to many, is seen as a player blessed by God.

He is also one of the richest footballers of all time, with only his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo earning more!

Michael Jordan (Basketball)

When you think about basketball, who is the first player that comes into your head?

This man has often been voted the greatest NBA player of all time and, to me, he is the greatest athlete of all time.

Even before the release of the hit Netflix show, The Last Dance, people knew he was a pure athlete, the show just amplified that and showed us why Michael Jordan is the greatest.

Jordan’s Early Days

As a sophomore in college, Jordan was named the College Player of the Year by The Sporting News, an award he won as a junior.

Once his junior year was up, the Chicago Bulls drafted Jordan as a third pick in the 1984 NBA draft. The Bull’s decision paid off straight away.

Their season results improved to 11 more wins than the season prior. Jordan was named the NBA Rookie of the Year with an average 28 points-per-game, 6.5 rebounds-per-game and 5.9 assists-per-game.

The year after Jordan would make his NBA All-Star debut for the Eastern All-Star team. The game was overshadowed by controversy due to the apparent issues between Jordan and Isiah Thomas.

After establishing himself as a franchise player and seeing the roster around him improve, Jordan and the Bulls started aiming for the Championship. In 1991, the Bulls won their first NBA title, losing only two games during the season.

In the following two seasons, the Bulls won the NBA with Jordan picking up the NBA finals MVP in all three title-winning seasons. After the three title wins, rumours of gambling issues came into the limelight. The rumours weren’t able to dampen the bright lights of his hero status.

Eager for a new challenge, Jordan moved to baseball, another sport he excelled in during his younger life.

Jordan wasn’t able to make the MLB but instead played in the Class AA Southern League. Baseball was in a wage battle at the time leading Jordan to announce simply to the NBA world: “I’m Back.”

Jordan - “I’m Back.”

Jordan returned to the Bulls, wearing number 45 rather than his famed 23. He would later return to number 23 after a steady return to the court.

The Bulls at this time had Scottie Pippen and Denis Rodman to accompany Jordan. MJ was able to lead the Bulls to yet another three-peat from 1996-1998.

The winning shot in the third title win with 6.6 seconds left in the game remains one the most iconic pictures in sporting history, and confirmed Jordan’s status as the most clutch player in the history of the NBA.

One final return to the sport with Washington Wizards in 2000 saw Jordan take ownership and be the team executive.

Jordan returned to the court in 2001 on a two-year contract. After the short spell on the court, Jordan returned to his ownership role to watch youngsters like Kobe Bryant take his mantle.


As soon as Jordan arrived in the NBA, Nike snapped up the chance to sign the highly-rated youngster to their brand.

Jordan signed with Nike in 1984 and launched the now worldwide Air Jordan Brand. Shoes were the main selling point at the start but, they have since ventured into basketball clothing, streetwear and even other sports. Nike Air Jordan is a brand that has spread across five decades and crosses the boundaries of different sports with ease.

Jordan commits big amounts of money to various charities and community programmes across America. Overall, Jordan has donated multi-millions since starting his career.

His dedication to improving the lives of others has propelled him into a permanent superstar.

Probably the NBA’s Greatest ever player, we will never see the likes of MJ again.

Wayne Gretzky (Ice Hockey)

Many words have been used to describe Wayne Gretzky, every superlative possible. He is known simply as The Great One.

Gretzky to many is the greatest hockey player of all time, his achievements and career show just why.

Gretzky’s Early Years

Gretzky learned to skate on a rink built by his father Walter, leading to his well-known quote “it is not god-given, it is Wally-given,” a nod to his father’s input in his early years.

After spending years perfecting his game at a young age, Gretzky joined a team four years his senior at the age of 6-years old.

After impressing for many years as a teenager, it was during this time he started wearing the famed ‘99’ jersey that is synonymous with Gretzky’s name.

Pro Career of ‘The Kid’

After a brief spell with the former WHA franchise Indianapolis Racers before they folded, Gretzky joined the Edmonton Oilers.

It was here the NHL legend made his greatness known. During this time, Gretzky won four Stanley Cups and made a habit of scoring 400 goals per season, which set a precedent for NHL dominance.

Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 but wasn’t able to win another Stanley Cup in his career. Despite this Gretzky managed to surprise Gordie Howe’s all-time point and goal-scoring records in the NHL, cementing himself as the greatest to grace the ice.

Gretzky’s Achievements 

Gretzky holds various records in Hockey that look near impossible for anyone to break. When Gretzky retired in 1999, he held or shared 61 National Hockey League (NHL) records. This included 40 regular-season records, 15 playoff records and 6 All-Star records.

Arguably the achievement that showed Gretzky’s greatness the best was the decision by every franchise in the league to retire the 99 jerseys as a sign of respect.

Lewis Hamilton (F1)

Many thought that racing drivers after the great Michael Schumacher would struggle to make a real impact on the sport but Lewis Hamilton has taken sporting achievement in F1 to another level. Although many people believe Jim Clark is the best driver ever, Hamilton is certainly laying claim to that crown.

Struggling in the early days

F1 is a notoriously hard sport to break into. Even from younger years you need some money behind you to succeed and further your career.

This can often hold people back and prevent talent from emerging. Hamilton, to his own admission, fell into this category but Lewis and his father, Anthony, battled their way through the youth ranks to reach F1.

Hamilton impressed throughout his youth career in karting and quickly became a racing prodigy. In 1998 after winning the Super Series and British Championship for a second time, McLaren signed Hamilton onto their development scheme. The contract included the option for Hamilton to eventually drive for McLaren in F1 when the time came.

New guy on the block

Lewis got his chance at the top level in 2007 for McLaren. In his debut season he showed his talents, breaking records throughout the season and ruffling a few feathers along the way.

His teammate at the time was two-time champion, Fernando Alonso, who had various run-ins with Hamilton, leading to Alonso leaving at the end of Hamilton’s first season.

The young Brit astonished spectators and pundits in his first season and managed to mount a genuine title challenge in his first season.

Hamilton also equalled the record for most wins in a debut season but this was just a sign of things to come.

First World Title and Mercedes Domination

In only his second season, Hamilton won his first World Championship and at the time became the youngest ever World Champion. After his first title, Hamilton struggled to win another title with McLaren as Red Bull emerged as the leading force in F1.

In the final few years, Hamilton's relationship with McLaren soured and for the 2013 season he joined Mercedes. In his second season with Mercedes, Hamilton won his second World Championship beating teammate Nico Rosberg.

This is where his dominance in F1 began. Since 2014 Hamilton has been involved in a title battle each season, winning a further 5 World Championships and equalling Schumacher's record number of titles. 

With Mercedes Hamilton broke the record for most F1 World Championships. This record will sit nicely with his record amount of race wins, pole positions and most wins from pole position. He is now amongst the greatest F1 drivers ever, and certainly one of the most successful sportspeople in history.

Roger Federer (Tennis)

Regarded by many as the greatest male tennis player of all time, the silky Swiss player has been ever-present in the game for almost 20 years. Apart from 2016-17 when Roger Federer was injured, he has been ranked in the top 10 since 2002.

2003 - 2010 Dominance for Federer

These years were a prime time for Federer’s success, reaching 18 out of 19 possible Grand Slam finals between 2005-2010. This was something that was unseen before Roger and cemented him as a true legend of the game.

During these years, Federer won 6 Wimbledon trophies, including 5 in a row from 2003-2007. He excelled in other tournaments across the tennis calendar, winning double-figure trophies in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Number 8 at Wimbledon for Roger

Despite his big rivalry with Rafael Nadal and now Novak Djokovic, Federer has created a legacy at Wimbledon with the amount of titles he has won. Federer set the record for number of Wimbledon titles in 2017 by winning his 8th championship.

Roger still manages to draw in the crowds at Wimbledon as fans still wish for a glimpse of the great man before his playing games come to an end.

Federer’s Records

The highlight of Roger’s record list includes winning 20 Grand Slam singles titles and holding the world no.1 position for 310 weeks, which included 237 weeks consecutively. Astonishing.

In August 2022, Roger Federer retired from tennis for good, find out why Roger Federer is so good at Tennis and why we were so lucky to witness this great of all sports in action.

Others who didn’t make the GOAT cut

I want to give an honourable mention to some athletes who may make your list or other peoples lists. Michael Schumacher (F1), Pele (football), Cristiano Ronaldo (football), Muhammed Ali (boxing), Wladimir Klitschko (boxing), Usain Bolt (athletics), Michael Phelps (swimming), Phil Taylor (darts) and now of course, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in tennis, who are still playing.

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