Anyone born in the late seventies has been witness to some of the greatest sportspeople the planet has ever seen.
Names like Ali, Jordan, Gretzky, Messi, Bolt, Woods, Federer – they are names that just roll off the tongue in the conversation of who was the greatest ever.
There have been countless articles and polls on the topic and it has been analysed to death, yet there is still no real consensus.
The biggest question is how can you establish one clear metric that stands above all others to gain clarity on this question? Is it the titles won? Is it the years played at the top level? Is it the individual awards or records? Each one of these has merit but are open to a variety of factors most notably time.
Tom Brady for example has seven Super Bowl rings, more than any other player by miles and more than any single franchise, impressive. It has taken 10 attempts in 23 years in the NFL to achieve it.
On the surface this is phenomenal but others have won more in less time: Bill Russell won 11 Championships in 13 years with the Celtics, and other have won a lot more: Michael Phelps 23 gold medals, an Olympic record that may never be broken.
However there is one quality above all others that is very hard to quantify: influence. It stands to reason that all those deemed great have accomplished amazing things but how influential were they?
The dictionary says that influence is “to affect or change someone or something in an indirect but usually important way.” So I take that to mean who has made the most change in their chosen sport to either the people around them or their sport entirely.
So let’s go back to Tom as an example. I will go on the record as saying I love what Tom Brady has accomplished, not just his rings but how he has gone about it.
Leaving a franchise and going to another and the same year winning a Super Bowl is no easy feat, yet he did it. No other QB has done that. What makes him influential though is he took a struggling team and turned them around very quickly.
He took a want-a-way star in Antonio Brown, had faith in him and had his faith repaid. And who can forget how Rob Gronkowski came back and played for him. This was not just on the field but the front office as well. This takes a man of great influence.
He may not have changed the way the game has played but his impact on the teams he is with is profound. I am sure New England would agree now.
Many will say Muhammad Ali is the GOAT and in a boxing sense he was. In his time he challenged the boxing establishment, stood up to promoters and gave people the fights they wanted to see.
Unfortunately his legacy out of the ring did not last and boxing is still a sport ruled by promoters and more acronyms than an alphabet soup.
The sport has declined in stature because of this and a far cry from its hey day. Did Ali change boxing or the way people box, not really but he did shape our consciousness towards the sport and brought it prominence. But is this influential?
This is a big topic granted and requires robust debate. For context my shortlist is based on who I believe has been influential in shaping their sport in the modern era, not just how they played.
The reason I say modern is there is a plethora of players who have shaped a sport in its formative years but it takes someone truly inspirational to change something very well established.
First up Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Sure he was one a couple of titles and will more than likely score an insane amount of three pointers and create a record that may never be broken. But before him can you see anyone who changed the game to such an extent that the way it is played has fundamentally changed.
I know people will say Michael Jordan, or LeBron James or Kareem Abdul Jabbar -and they have certainly had a massive impact. But have any of these changed defensive patterns so significantly or changed the way young players come through the system?
For Jordan, a little as the double and triple team defence became employed more often to the lead scorer – and who can forget the way the Pistons dominated him. But that was fleeting and the game was still effectively the same after he retired.
Three point shots are now a staple, look at poor Ben Simmons, he is a fantastic player but gets ripped as he does not attempt the long ball even though he is scoring as well and creating a heap of assists. Ten years ago he would be considered elite.
Next is Jonah Lomu who was also highly influential in the way he went about playing the game. The first truly big man to play on the wing in rugby union. No one has come close since. It was not about the fact that he steamrolled everything in his path, poor old Mike Catt, but his defensive plays and the way he changed the winger from someone who just chased the long kick and hoped to be faster than the opposing winger.
He made the game more expansive and his influence is still being felt today. Backs went from averaging mid 80 kg to now being over 100 (scrum and flyhalves excepted) as they needed to be able to compete physically with such blockbusting players. The ball is now spread wider quicker to capitalise on the size of the wingers. You could argue David Campese also had a big impact but not as much as Jonah’s.
Lastly is Tony Hawk. Can you remember what skateboarding was like before Tony? He took the sport to another stratosphere and made it commercially viable and hugely popular.
Before Tony came along with his insane bag of tricks it was seen as a nice pastime. It had its competitions and a cult following, but Tony made it mainstream. Can you believe he pulled off a 900 at 48?
The list is not meant to be about how powerful they are in getting things their way, that is not influence. Just because you are great at something and people do what you say is not influence.
Those above are humble people who have set a new standard for their chosen sport. People will naturally defer to great players such as Tiger Woods, Lionel Messi, Roger Federer, Ronaldo, LeBron and so on but have they really changed their game?
Their influence on the field is exceptional, they can make plays or win a game out of nowhere and get their teammates to reach new levels. But ultimately they are just very good at their job. They my bring the crowds and will go down as the best their sport has seen but have they really influenced the sport.
Looking at the above names you won’t see a huge amount of personal glory, but it is hard to argue that any of them have not had a huge influence in the way their chosen sport was played. That is real influence and quintessentially what makes a great sportsperson.