Britain’s Greatest-Ever Sportsman? Individual Sports – Part 2

Britain’s Greatest-Ever Sportsman?  Individual Sports – Part 2

We’re compiling our list of Britain’s Greatest-Ever Sportsmen. Having already discussed candidates from the major individual sports (click here), who of Britain’s lesser-known stars makes the shortlist?

 

“No machines, no pastimes, no animals… No thanks”

In researching this article I thought long and hard about including motor sports and parlour sports, as well as equestrian. The realisation that as much (if not more) skill and dedication goes into snooker, darts, horse/motor racing as any other sport puts their master craftsmen firmly on the sporting map for this writer. Let’s look at the candidates…

 

HORSE RACING

As mentioned, I’m willing to accept all sportsmen from all (ahem) fields. With that in mind, it’s impossible to look past 20 time Champion Jump Jockey Sir Tony McCoy. Another Northern Irishman, “AP” rode a record 4,358 winners (including a high of 289 in 2001-02), claiming his first Champion Jockey title -identifying the jockey who had ridden the most winners during a campaign season – in 1995/96 and going on to win it every year until his retirement in 2015. McCoy has won almost every big race there is to win. His most high-profile winners include the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, King George VI Chase and the 2010 Grand National. In National Hunt racing, no-one comes close. McCoy was knighted in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to horse racing. Rightly so.

On the flats, Lestor Piggott won all five British Classics on at least two occasions and was named British flat racing Champion Jockey a post-war record of 11 times (tied with Irishman Pat Eddery). He rode 4,493 career wins (135 more than McCoy). Piggott was undoubtedly one of the greatest jockeys of all time, but failed to dominate the sport in the manner of McCoy and tarnished his reputation with a conviction for tax evasion. He served 366 in prison and was stripped of his OBE.

 

FORMULA 1

On the same Sunday afternoon that Andy Murray sent tubs of strawberries and cream flying in SW18, Lewis Hamilton MBE triumphed at Silverstone to record his 4th British Grand Prix, finishing ahead of Nico Rosberg to cut his Mercedes teammate’s championship lead to just four points. If Hamilton goes on to pip Rosberg to the title it will be a British record-breaking 4th world title for the Mercedes driver.

In a rich history of successful British drivers, only Sir Jackie Stewart can match the titles he won in 2008 (McLaren), 2014 and 2015 (both Mercedes), but Hamilton’s 47 wins from 177 starts is unprecedented. This puts him 3rd on the all-time list and a 4th championship at the age of 31 would set Michael Schumacher’s world-record 7 titles firmly in his sights. Cynics will conclude that Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG Petronas car is unfairly superior to the remainder of the current crop (Rosberg-aside), but he’s earned his right to drive it from eye-catching performances in lesser beasts.

 

SNOOKER

It’s impossible to look past the “King of The Crucible” Stephen Hendry who won the World Snooker Championship there 7 times between 1990-1999. John Pulman and Fred Davis may have won more during the years before the first professional 147 break was recorded by Steve Davis in 1982, but hardly comparable standards of play. Nugget himself won 6 World Championships and spent 7 seasons as World No.1, a list that Hendry tops with 9 years atop the rankings, including 8 consecutive years as he dominated the 1990s.

Only Ronnie O’Sullivan holds more maximum breaks (13) and tournament centuries (824) than Hendry’s 11 and 775, but Rocket’s inability to convert regularly on the biggest stage places him behind The Golden Boy from Edinburgh. Ronnie is generally regarded to be the most-talented player to pick up a cue, but Hendry’s desire, work ethic, attitude and success is unparalleled.

“The best player ever to pick up a snooker cue”

– Ronnie O’Sullivan on Stephen Hendry

 

DARTS

When it comes to darts, no one comes close to Phil “The Power” Taylor. 214 professional tournaments wins. 83 major titles. 16 World Championships (14 x PDC, 2 x BDO). Unbeaten in 44 matches in winning eight consecutive World Championships from 1995 to 2002 and 14 consecutive finals from 1994 to 2007 (both records). Six-time PDC Player of the Year (2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012). Threw the first televised nine-dart finish. The only player to arrow two nine-dart finishes in one match. Highest three-dart average per match in the history of the game. Seven of the top ten PDC World Championship three-dart averages, including the TDA highest-ever recorded (111.21 in 2002) 51 times achieved 100+ match average in PDC World Darts Championship (next best is 13). £6,085,028 career prize money (in darts!!!). That’s an astonishing record of dominance, ’nuff said.

The suggestion that “any sport you can do whilst smoking a cigarette isn’t a sport”, doesn’t hold true for me. But despite his frankly ridiculous achievements, Taylor doesn’t automatically sail straight to the top of list. Like snooker, darts is hugely dominated by the UK and the Commonwealth. It’s not solely British-based, but it’s certainly not truly international.

 

DIVING (no, not Tom Daley…)

The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series has been held at iconic venues in 27 different countries across the world since it’s inception in 2009. One man has been dominant in that time, with 5 wins and 2 runner-up placings out of the seven tournaments completed to date (the 2016 event is currently underway). That man is Gary Hunt, a Brit pushing an extreme sports to new dimensions. Hardly a household name, the 32-year-old is the only Red Bull athlete who’s competed in all 50 World Series stops and he’s won half of them (25 event wins).

Recognised as the most progressive cliff diver in the World Series, Hunt also carries pedigree in the pool with gold (2015) and silver (2013) in the high diving World Championships as well as Commonwealth Games bronze in the 10 metre platform synchro.

 

More on this topic or subscribe for updates:

Individual Sports – Part 1

Team Sports [coming soon]

Olympians [coming soon]

 

 

Britain’s Greatest-Ever Sportsman? Individual Sports – Part 1

Britain’s Greatest-Ever Sportsman?  Individual Sports – Part 1

After a fortnight of British trailblazing, we ask who sits where in the list of all-time British sporting greats?

At exactly 5pm two Sundays ago as Andy Murray tossed his trusty Head Radical to the lush grass of Centre Court in celebrating his 2nd Wimbledon title, regular opinion-spouter Gary Linekar came out with something quite radical of his own on Twitter (where else?):

I immediately dismissed this as typical Linekar hyperbole (few have embraced the opportunity impose and influence on social media as much as England’s 3rd highest goal scorer), but attempting to define a more deserving recipient proved a more complex task than originally expected.

 

So how to define “the greatest”? 

I’d start by suggesting that the nominee would have to have spent a sizeable period of time at the very top of their sport. Despite winning 38 career titles, including three Grand Slams (US Open 2012, Wimbledon 2013 & 2016), as well as the London 2012 Olympic gold (men’s singles) and silver (mixed doubles) medals, 2015 Davis Cup with Team GB and amassing the 4th-highest prize money of all time, the shouty Scot has never achieved the pinnacle of become world No.1 in the ATP rankings.

That his career earnings of $49,471,297 puts him behind only sweaty Spaniard Rafael Nadal, smooth Swiss Roger Federer and superhuman Serb Novak Djokovic tells the story here. There’s every chance Murray could be considered the 4th best tennis player in history, he’s simply unfortunate to share an era with the three players who rank above him. He broke into the ATP top 10 in 2007 and first achieved No.2 spot just two years later, but he has never made it the very top of the ladder. His two BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards (2013 & 2015) will be scant consolation.

That said, Murray is the first British tennis player to win a grand slam tournament since Virginia Wade in 1977, and the first man since Bunny Austin in 1938. Murray is head and shoulders above the competition in the world’s premier racquet sport.

adidas Congratulate Andy Murray - SPOTY

 

Who from within British sport can be considered to have at one time been at the very top of their game? Let’s start with the hopefuls from individuals sports…

GOLF

The 145th Open Championship has just concluded at Royal Troon with Henrik Stenson becoming the first Swede to take the claret jug. Americans dominated the the top 20, but there were impressive placings for Brits too, with 5 finishing with the top 12. One of these was 27-year-old Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, a man who is already a four-time major champion, looking for his 2nd win at The Open. The man from Holywood, County Down has amassed 95 weeks at World No.1 in the Official World Golf Rankings and is one of three players to win three majors by the age of 25 (Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus being the others – impressive company). However, is Rory even considered Britain’s best-ever golfer, let alone best-ever sportsman?

“He is a leading contender to be Britain’s finest ever sportsman in an individual sport. He is the gold standard from which the rest of modern British golf has to be judged.”

– Former Walker Cup captain Peter McEvoy on Sir Nick Faldo

For much of the early 1990s Nick Faldo was considered the best golfer in the world. He may only have topped the world rankings for 2 weeks longer than McIlroy at 97 weeks (his rivalry with Greg Norman is well documented), but Faldo won 6 major championships (3 x The Open, 3 x Masters) between 1987-1996 and recorded 41 career titles to McIlroy’s current haul of 20. Faldo is the most successful Ryder Cup player ever, having won the most points of any player on either team (25) and having represented the European Team a record 11 times. McIlroy has pulled on the blue jumper 3 times, coming out victorious on each occasion and has been named PGA Player of the Year twice. His Mentor – who was knighted in 2009 – received this honour only once.

There’s not a lot to separate the two most decorated British golfers of the modern era. McIlroy’s age would suggest he will go on to surpass Faldo’s achievements (his first major title at The Open in 1987 came a day after his 30th birthday), but a budding rivalry with American Jordan Spieth and Australian Jason Day could mean his early domination of the sport is behind him.

 

CYCLING

Cycling is sport that has gripped the soul of the UK in recent years, from the streets (more on that later) to the track where Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins have led an impressive British medal collection. Sprinter Hoy is the most decorated track cyclist of all time with 19 golds (plus 9 silver & 9 bronze) across all major competitions. At the London 2012 Olympics he became the first British athlete to win three gold medals in a single Games since 1908. This haul crowned the likeable Scot as the most successful British Olympian ever with six golds, soon being dubbed “His Royal Hoyness” by the British tabloids. He had become an 11-time World Champion by the time he retired in 2013, before embarking on a career behind the wheel where he helped his team Algarve Pro Racing to a 17th-place finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016.

In Hoy’s slipstream is individual and team pursuit specialist Wiggins, whose four Olympic golds, 1 silver and 2 bronzes put him 2nd on the all-time list, despite deciding to miss the track events at London 2012 to concentrate on the road. Dominance on the track was followed up with a first-ever General Classification win on the Tour de France by a British rider as Wiggo held on to win by 3 minutes and 21 seconds in 2012. Just a month later he followed up with a gold in the Olympic time trial and was widely expected to retain his TDF title in 2013, but asserted that his focus for the season would be to ride in support of Team Sky team-mate and compatriot Chris Froome, who duly won. The Lancastrian – who was knighted in 2013 – returned to the track to set a new hour record with a distance of 54.526 km in 2015 and is part of Team GB as he aims to win an unprecedented eighth career medal when he heads to Rio later in the summer.

Joining him in Brazil is Kenya-born Brit Froome, who will be looking for his first Olympic Gold and enters the time trial and road race after winning his third Tour de France in four years (he was forced to retire from the race in 2014 but returned to place second in the Vuelta a España later in the year). Claiming the 2016 maillot jaune makes him the first rider since Miguel Indurain in the early 90s to win three or more renditions of La Grande Boucle and with gifts Team Sky their 4th win in 5 years, an astonishing achievement given the 109-year wait for victory in sport’s toughest test.

Also making headlines in France last month was Froome’s former Team Sky teammate Mark Cavendish. The Manxman registered his 30th win en Tour to put him second on the all-time list behind Belgian legend Eddy Merckx to cement his place as the best sprint-finisher in cycling history, before leaving Le Tour to prepare for the Olympics. Cav has also registered 15 individual stages on the Giro d’Italia and a further 3 on the Vuelta. He has topped the overall points classification on each of the Grand Tours and added a 4th World Championship gold in 2015 despite quitting the track in 2008 after a medal-free Beijing Games. He chases two golds with Team GB back in velodrome in Rio. With a record like that, who’d bet against him?

 

BOXING

It’s pretty well accepted that Britain has owned three world-class fighters of the modern era: heavyweight Lennox Lewis, featherweight Naseem Hamed and super-middleweight Joe Calzaghe. It can be no surprise that these three fighters are the lone British entries to the International Boxing Hall of Fame since lightweight Scot John Buchanen in the 1970s. Historically it was notoriously difficult to compare boxers from different weight classes, but since The Ring magazine introduced the definitive pound-for-pound rankings in 1989 only Lewis, Hamed, Calzaghe and light-welterweight Ricky Hatton have appeared in the top 10 from amongst the British ranks.

“The Italian Dragon” Calzaghe was rated as a top ten pound-for-pound boxer in three consecutive years between 2006-2008 with a 3rd place finish in 2008 the best on record from a British puncher. “The Hitman” Hatton reached No.4 in 2005 and “Prince” Naseem and Lennox “The Lion” made their best showings in 2000, placing 6th and 8th respectively. Welshman Calzaghe retired in February 2009 with an undefeated record of 46-0 (32 KO) as a reigning world champion and as the longest-reigning super-middleweight world champion in history. His case for being Britain’s greatest sportsman certainly packs a punch.

Credit too must go to Lewis – who won Olympic gold for Canada in 1988 – for knocking out pound-for-pound great Mike Tyson in 2002 and being the last man to unify the glamorous heavyweight division as undisputed champion. 

“He [Lewis] is, no doubt, the best heavyweight of all time. What he’s done clearly puts him on top of the heap.”

– Two-time world heavyweight champion and grill entrepreneur George Foreman

 

More on this topic or subscribe for updates:

Individual Sports – Part 2

Team Sports [coming soon]

Olympians [coming soon]