Why We Love the Great G.O.A.T. Debate

Behind Every Achilles, Ali, and King James Lies a Fallible Human, Whose Foibles Are Often as Memorable as Their Achievements

USC professor Oliver Mayer muses on why we care about the “Greatest of All Time” title, tracing legendary characters from Greek mythology to current superstar athletes like LeBron James (above). Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

There is something about the spirit of our time that fuels seemingly constant discussions around the title “The Greatest of All Time” (aka The G.O.A.T.). Who started it, and why do we love this debate so?

One answer takes us back to the boxing and wrestling rings of the mid-20th century.

Muhammad Ali famously declared, “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.” But he was not the first to make this proclamation. Gorgeous George, the flamboyant 1940s and ’50s professional wrestler, commanded a king’s ransom from fans who came to see him lose.

Gorgeous George advised Ali, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So, keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.”

After Ali upset Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship in 1964, the boast became his de facto trademark. Over two decades, fans paid to cheer on Ali in title fight after title fight—even as Joe Frazier, Kenny Norton, and George Foreman exacted their pound of flesh—and whether he won or lost, well or badly, the moniker of “The Greatest” somehow stuck, even to this day.

Today, “The Greatest” has become “G.O.A.T.” Rapper LL Cool J coined the acronym in its eponymous 2000 album, which debuted at the top of the U.S. Billboard 200.

Ever since, the crown of all-time greatness has been the topic of the zeitgeist—particularly among elite athletes comparing themselves (always favorably) with those who came before.

Today, amidst a growing crowd of G.O.A.T.s of one kind or another, flaunting Olympic gold medals, Super Bowl championships, and golf tour green jackets, LeBron James most emphatically claims the crown—even wearing one occasionally (his nickname has been King James for 20 years now). Despite protests from Michael Jordan and fans, LeBron might very well be the NBA’s greatest of all time, with a host of metrics to back up the claim. And LeBron himself has said, on multiple occasions, that he believes he is the best athlete to have played the game. But does a self-coronation make it so? Uneasy lies the head that not only wears the crown but feels the need to remind us all.

And yet, it always has been thus. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles was the G.O.A.T.—not simply for his prowess on the battlefield, but for selling an image of himself as unbeatable. In the 10th year of the Trojan War, Achilles publicly tested the G.O.A.T. appellation. He sat out the fight in a combination fit of pique and lesson to his fellow Greeks, as if to say, “Just try winning this thing without me.” They couldn’t, and he obtained living legend status when they paid him public obeisance in return for killing Hector and winning the war.

Greatness is momentary, even for the G.O.A.T.s of the world. And the fact that greatness is momentary is precisely why it should be appreciated in all its forms.

But the gods were not amused, and the telltale Achilles’ heel may have been more than the tendon at the ankle where the god Apollo struck him with an arrow. Achilles’ death was comeuppance for his self-conscious moodiness and blowhard self-love.

As Gorgeous George knew only too well, G.O.A.T.s are often not fan favorites. There is a special schadenfreude for those who fly too near the sun. The concept of hubris—the deadly cocktail of overconfidence and arrogance—finds its way into tragedies, then and now.

Hippolytus, in the famous play by Euripides, is an elite athlete, renowned not only for his hunting prowess but his extreme physical beauty. Not surprisingly, he is also a bit infamous for being a prig, self-righteous and aloof. Cultishly, he aligns himself with the virgin huntress goddess Artemis, placing him at odds with Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. Using his smug superiority against him, she causes a series of events leading to his ignominious death, literally crushing his beautiful body under the wheels of his own chariot.

I thought a lot about that Euripides play while watching the late Kobe Bryant during the mid-2000s—the hard years that followed his first three world championships with the Lakers, and included massive off-court problems, most notably a sexual assault case.

Fans, journalists, and more than a few peers seemed to be wishing him the worst, celebrating him slipping on the banana peel of hubris and being crushed under the wheel of his own design.

Yet Kobe found a way back to all-time greatness—not just on the basketball court, where his play never faltered, but in family life, public esteem, and even in Hollywood, winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2018. How did he do it?

By humbling himself, privately and publicly—with his wife, who stayed married to him, and with his acceptance of vitriol from the press and fans alike. The marriage held, and eventually the championships returned to Los Angeles, highlighted by the Lakers beating their hated rivals the Boston Celtics.

The losses along the way humanized Kobe and made his triumphs less godlike and more human. Indeed, this is something we look for in heroes, and G.O.A.T.s—the ability to turn difficulty, even tragedy, into learning and progress. We see it in Simone Biles’ 2020 Olympic Games struggles, or in Serena Williams’ late-career struggles with injuries and returns to form, or the mental health challenges of Naomi Osaka or Michael Phelps.

Why? Because we want to see ourselves in them, since we and the G.O.A.T.s are all—presumably—human. I’d like to believe that each of us has at least one moment’s greatness, an instant of superhuman strength, unexpected courage, grit, or determination, matched only by the luck of that once-in-a-lifetime set of space/time circumstances falling into place in a precise moment of Zen.

When LeBron and Tom Brady declare themselves the greatest of all time, they separate themselves not only from Michael Jordan or Joe Montana but from us. There should be a separation, of course. They are great in their chosen fields in ways that we can only dream about. But they are living and breathing and losing alongside us, their fellow humans, even as they argue the case for their all-time winning immortality.

When I hear G.O.A.T. talk, I’m reminded of Greek mythology, yes, but also of Peter Pan. By refusing to admit loss, you never really grow up. Time never passes. You are the greatest now, and forever.

But the world doesn’t really work like that.

Greatness is momentary, even for the G.O.A.T.s of the world. And the fact that greatness is momentary is precisely why it should be appreciated in all its forms.

Rather than crowns or self-proclamations and the cults that they engender, perhaps another all-time great human, the children’s TV host Fred Rogers, provides the truest metric of greatness for us all: “Being the best loser takes talent, just as being the best winner does.”

If there is a postscript, it’s that the gods of sport are fickle, to say the least. Being a self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. did not spare LeBron’s Lakers from being swept this postseason by the Denver Nuggets (who in Nikola Jokić have their own G.O.A.T. candidate). Failure and loss are part of living a human life, and despite the huckstering and hyperbole, G.O.A.T.s are human.

Watching LeBron’s postgame press conference after the Lakers defeat, what he said revealed less than the gestural power of his immense human frame over the course of the Q&A: at first combative and clipped, then gradually relaxing his shoulders as he reminisced about his team and family, even finding a way to smile. Hopefully G.O.A.T.s-to-be in all sports will take notice: This was greatness on display.


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