By definition, to be the greatest, you have to be greater than everyone else who is great. Of course, you first have to be great to even be in the conversation, and then you have to have what it takes to best all of the other great ones who might otherwise be challengers for that lofty title.
Muhammad Ali died last week after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 74.
Gordie Howe died a couple of days ago after a similar long battle with the after effects of a stroke at the age of 88.
That those two men were great at what they did was unquestionable. One could say that each of them could have a claim as the greatest of all time at their sport. Ali certainly anointed himself as “The Greatest” when he burst onto the scene in boxing and then proceeded to pretty much (notice the use of the word “pretty”) live up to such standards with a boxing career and a life that was simply extraordinary in its level of his contributions to the world’s culture and to his effect on other peoples’ lives. Howe was given the name of “Mr. Hockey” over all other hockey players, which pretty much speaks for itself.
There is an exercise I like to do, which may seem weird to some, but it is something that I think is important to do and to assess from time to time. I like to try to identify who I think (and who the world might think) is the greatest, most accomplished, most important, and yet the oldest person on earth who fits that criteria. Greatest is subjective of course, but there are usually enough polls ranking the people in various fields, including their historical significance, that can help to establish some form of objective list that qualifies people in their various fields as to their positions on that “greatest” list.
But, for my exercise, it is also critically important to honor the OLDEST person in that category of worldwide greatness to be able to then try to assess and identify the oldest, most accomplished, “greatest” person on earth. It’s not a current, who’s the best right now list. It is a LIFETIME achievement “award.” The longer you live, the more points you pick up. But you also have to have been GREAT during your lifetime to be considered for this list. It is for being GREAT and for living to be OLD enough to be rewarded late in your life for living a life so accomplished that it needs to be recognized and celebrated (hopefully while that person is still alive).
A few years ago, there was someone who absolutely fit that category. It was Nelson Mandela, who had reached the age of 94 and who was arguably the most accomplished, most recognized person in the world for what he had done to help end South Africa’s apartheid. World leaders throughout the planet all knew that when they were in Mandela’s presence, they were next to a man who would go down in history as being one of the most important people of that century. They build museums and statues for people of the magnitude of Nelson Mandela. They write about people like Nelson Mandela in the history books and because of who he was and what he did, he will be remembered forever. Mandela was 94. At the time of his death, he was the oldest, greatest person on the planet.
Another person who was in that oldest and “greatest” category (although he was a sports figure) was basketball coach John Wooden. He coached his UCLA men’s basketball team to ten NCAA championships in a span of twelve years between 1963 and 1975. But he also became almost as celebrated for his “Pyramid of Success” formula for achievement and self improvement, for his grandfatherly wisdom and for his famous quotes as a man of extraordinary human values. He lived to be 100. His life was one of greatness under anybody’s definition.
Which leads us to Gordie Howe and Muhammad Ali.
First, Howe may have been called Mr. Hockey, but he is or was not the greatest hockey player of all time. That title was taken from him by Wayne Gretzky. But this exercise of identifying the oldest, greatest can still apply to someone who was ONE of the greatest of all time at their profession or sport, IF they were top two or three of all time and IF they live to be old enough to be celebrated as that legendary figure who happens to still be alive. Gordie Howe was certainly one of the top three hockey players ever and he qualifies as being that legendary figure.
Howe certainly was in the conversation as being one of the oldest, greatest sports figures in the world he had been living in up to the time of his death. As such, he will also be remembered for as long as people in his sport of hockey can talk about their great, legendary figures. There is a statue of him. There should be a museum for him. A man of his stature deserves a major hockey award named after him (The Gordie Howe Career Achievement Award?). What we lost the other day was one of the greatest of all time.
Muhammad Ali started out as a boxer named Cassius Clay. He won an Olympic gold medal as an 18 year old and a few years later he was defeating the (at that time) most feared heavyweight boxer in the world, Sonny Liston, to become the champion of the world. Famous for his flashy wit, he proclaimed himself to be “the greatest” and then proceeded to live up to it.
He fought many “famous fights,” perhaps more than any other boxer. He fought at a time when there was a triumvirate of great people (including Joe Frazier and George Foreman) as his peers and he was able to beat both of them in their prime.
As great as Ali was as a fighter, was even greater as a worldwide ambassador. He visited Africa and other impoverished areas of the world and used his celebrity to help the plight of those less fortunate than him. He always saw himself as the people’s champion and he made sure that each person that he met was treated well. He was instantly recognizable everywhere in the world that he appeared. Even though he started out calling himself the greatest, it turned out that the rest of the people recognized him with that description as well. It is what the consensus of the people think that really matters. It turns out that the life Ali lived AFTER he stopped boxing is what led to him ultimately being called “the greatest.”
Ali died at 74, but his level of “greatness” may have exceeded everyone else in the world at the time of his death. Sports Illustrated named him as the greatest athlete of the 20th Century. He too will be remembered forever as one of the legendary figures of all time. Did he qualify as the oldest, greatest person on the planet, even as a 74 year old? Whatever the case, we lost a truly amazing athlete and person this past week. He may well have been the “greatest person on the planet.”
To further talk about this subject which fascinates me, the degree of greatness factor must be strongly considered with the age of that great person. Examples of some of the pros and cons of the argument might include:
– George Washington was probably the “greatest person” on the planet when he was alive. History would sure seem to back that up. At the time, the concept of “old” was different then.
– Babe Ruth nails the greatness, accomplishments, memorability and historical factor, but he only lived to be in his 50’s.
– Jackie Robinson had the same effects as Babe Ruth but also died in his 50’s.
– Martin Luther King Jr. – same as above, him dying young as a result of assassination. Similar to Gandhi, actually.
– Abraham Lincoln – same greatness factor as King and also died young from assassination.
– Bob Hope – nailed all of the greatness criteria in an entertainment based field, AND lived to be 100. Was his contribution to history as great as Mandela?
– Arnold Palmer was great in a lot of ways but was not one of the top five golfers of all time (top ten maybe). He is 85 now. He is a legendary type sports figure, but is “only” a golfer. How important are sports?
– Pele would be in greatest soccer player of all time category. He is up there in age near his 80’s. His worldwide popularity would rank closely with Ali. Soccer is a worldwide game.
Mozart/Beethoven – Greatness for all time part, check. Both died young, but their impact in history is absolute.
Willie Mays – one of greatest baseball players of all time. Still alive, in his 80’s now. Greatness factor is solid.
Jack Nicklaus – Greatness for all time, check. Grow older gracefully, and we might talk about him with real oldest/greatest reverence in about 20 more years.
Vin Scully – Greatest baseball announcer of all time. Sheer greatness in his contributions. 89 years old. How significant is a baseball announcer?
Paul McCartney/Bob Dylan – Greatest of all time at what they did, check. Historical significance, check. These two might enter this conversation in another decade or so. Also might include Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon.
Al Pacino/Robert DeNiro/Dustin Hoffman/Meryl Streep – great actors who are near legendary.
Barack Obama/Tiger Woods – They will be talked about in glowing terms in this type of conversation in another 40 or so years.
These are just a few of the names that fit into the categories I am talking about. I guess it turns out that a lot of people who live “great” lives end up dying young.
Muhammad Ali is gone now. He MIGHT have been the exact person I am describing in this piece. I wonder today, who is now the person who is the greatest, older person on the planet.
People usually start talking about the persons who achieved this “oldest/greatest” factor right at the time of their deaths. I like thinking about such things while the people are still around. Whoever is talked about in this conversation should be appreciated while they are still alive. Let’s talk about this subject NOW.