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Mirror, mirror on the wall...

"You Gotta Be Kidding!"
by Mickey Charles CEO, sportsnetwork.com

Southampton, PA (Sports Network) -- "Who's the greatest of them all?" It is the question that has consumed sports journalists and talk show hosts for months. It is also the same one that many of our better-known athletes are asking the reflection in the mirror each morning as they shave, trim or wash.

The pundits have done everything they can to establish a prototype of some sort, a barometer by which to measure athletic prowess, achievement and bragging rights to any such title. These self-styled reviewers who have unilaterally declared themselves, on an individual basis, as one of the cognoscenti, have as much right to that designation as do you or I...which is basically none.

Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks
Muhammad Ali (right) wins his third World Heavyweight Title against Leon Spinks in August 1978. However, is he the best athlete ever?
Muhammad Ali shouted to the world that he was the greatest and he probably was, at the time. The greatest fighter around. In my mind, he could have taken, Tyson, Holyfield and Lewis on successive nights. How he might have ranked against the street fighters of yesteryear... Dempsey, Tunney, Louis, Marciano...is another matter that we can argue about until the final count is heard somewhere in a musty smoke-filled gymnasium on the east side of New York. But he could not go to his right, deliver a smash at the net, field a hot grounder to third or run the 100 in under 10 seconds.

Are we to consider Alex Rodriguez the best and judge him by pure dollars or statistics as well? The numbers seem to indicate that he might be the best on a given day but will he take his team to the World Series? I do not think so unless he parts with some of his salary and purchases a couple of super boxes. Even if he leads the league in every category known to man and we throw in a few others just for good measure what does that make him other than possibly the best player, statistically, in baseball this season? And that has yet to be determined. When Derek Jeter leads the Yankees to yet another title, with stats that might not measure up to those of Rodriguez, how do we judge him?

The Lakers won the NBA championship last year and there were two solid reasons for their doing so - Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Kobe is too young to be considered the replacement for Michael Jordan so that NBA scenario has failed miserably. Oh, he is great enough but he is not Michael. Who is? Shaquille is unabashedly the best physical specimen to come along since the now departed Wilt Chamberlain. Towers of strength. When he and the child wonder stop bickering over nonsense their team will be positioned for another run at a title. That aside, Shaq is assuredly the dominating force in the NBA but is he the best athlete in the world? Likely the strongest and another ring to adorn those massive hands will not help him hit a golf ball straight down the fairway 300 yards, anchor the 400 relay or give Pete Sampras any cause for concern.

Jaromir Jagr is the man in the NHL these days. He can do as much on the ice as Nuryev was able to do on stage. He has more twists and turns than a Philadelphia soft pretzel. But no one has ventured forth to call him the best athlete in the world. It is the stigma of hockey. They skate, and they skate, and they skate. And, oh yes, they fight but we won't go there. This is a sport that is not even appreciated as major league by anyone other than its fans so why would the members of the fourth estate, or basic fans for that matter, give any regard or respect to a sport that has always been treated like a stepchild off the ice? Or to its premiere star?

Marshall Faulk is arguably the best that the NFL has to offer. And, like many who engage in giving and taking physical beatings on Sundays for the sheer hell and money of it, he can probably hold his own on the golf course and hit a few tennis balls down the line. Am I certain about that? Not really. Just an educated guess based on rumors around the locker room. A nominee for best athlete in the world? Not really.

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi fight it out on the clay and grass with bragging rights changing like the weather over Chicago. They are the Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe of today without the on-court antics?which I kind of miss. There are pretenders to the throne and usurpers rise up every now and then to unseat them from their lofty perch but all are eventually beaten back. Where does that place these two on the listing of candidates for the best athlete in the world? Squarely in the middle of center court. They are world-class athletes, no doubt about it. But they are tennis players.

Lennox Lewis is king of all he surveys at the moment and that is not much. He has the ability to pummel a man into submission and be left standing supreme over anyone that challenges him these days. Those challengers are not very formidable. Still, the currently recognized heavyweight champion of the world is in magnificent physical shape, defends against all who would question his title and defies others in his sport to step into the ring with him. The skeletal appearance of the sport is not his fault but it does bring into question just how good he is. For now, only the best at boxing, little else.

Glance over at auto racing and there is the irrepressible and somewhat mechanical Michael Schumacher. He does what we all do every day of our lives with the notable exceptions being that he does it five times faster in significantly less space with others of his sport surrounding him within inches at speeds reserved for planes heading down the runway for takeoff. Unlike others mentioned here he can literally be a footnote in history with one wrong turn of his wheel. The bravest and most daring of all? Quite possibly. An athlete as we would define one to be? I don't think so.

The men and women that grace track and field events, pushing their bodies to the limits of endurance in a myriad of events are led by Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson. They are stellar performers and can undoubtedly do some of the things that we find so amazing in other sports while the converse is undeniably not true about their contemporary brethren gracing other fields. These are men whose bodies should be bronzed for posterity and generations after them. They are in unbelievable shape and each adventure in a competitive meet is one focused on doing better than they did the last time. They do not have limits of success. Where does that place them off the track? As fantastic athletes but not the best in the world. Close but no cigar.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods is presented with his second green jacket by defending champion Vijay Singh of Fiji after the final day of the 2001 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club.
Which brings us to golf and Tiger Woods. He is, without question, the very best golfer in the world. He sets records and then breaks them. He has single-handedly raised the bar in this sport. He has forced others to play better than they ever thought they could. He rushes out in front of the pack and stays there. If he falls behind all others are playing with one eye on the fairway and green in front of them and another looking over their shoulders. Talk about past records in golf and the conversation flows to when he will break them. Mention Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and the only way to protect them is to take the stance that it was a different era, a different game, as it was with Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. Tiger is the best golfer on the planet. His accomplishments are without parallel and the galleries that follow him around the course... and the world... have others wondering if there are any fans left for them. He holds all the titles right now whether you want to call it Grand Slam or not (which, by the way, Arnold Palmer did not create - a sports writer did). That does not make him the best athlete in the world. Only the best golfer.

All of this now begs the question, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest athlete of them all?" Do you think that there is one? You gotta be kidding!