Today's edition of "Things Were Better When I Was Your Age" is brought to you by the weekend death of Muhammad Ali. His passing gave me reason to check out his classic fights on YouTube and it got me thinking that somehow we are "de-volving" when it comes to sports. While track athletes are setting new records and high-tech swimsuits and pool design are speeding up swimmers, many of today's athletes just aren't "better" than their predecessors.
Consider that Ali last held the heavyweight title in 1979. Jack Nicklaus won his last major in 1986. Hank Aaron hit his last home run in 1976. Willie Mays caught his last fly ball in 1973. Ted Williams homered in his final at-bat in 1960. Michael Jordan's last game was in 2003. The final Magic Johnson-Larry Bird matchup in the NBA Finals was in 1987. Wayne Gretzky scored his final goal in 1999. Jerry Rice caught his final reception in 2004. Jim Brown's last carry was 1965. Lawrence Taylor's last quarterback sack was in 1993. Johnny Unitas' final pass was completed in 1973. Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
We have gone an entire generation since we could honestly call someone "The Greatest" in any of the major sports. Barry Bonds broke records--but cheated to do it. Brett Favre and Peyton Manning broke records--but did they come to define how the modern quarterback position is played? And did they call all their own plays? Are we really going to argue that Kobe Bryant or LeBron James is a greater player than Jordan, Magic or Bird?
Facing real boxers revealed the Mike Tyson had neither the skills nor the personal fortitude to be considered an all-time great. Muhammad Ali fought four of the greatest boxing matches in the history of the sport--three against Joe Frazier and one against George Foreman. You watch those fights and compare them to what passes for boxing today--or any Rhonda Rousey "fight" and you tell me which is better.
Of course, this reality doesn't stop the modern hype machine from trying to prop up today's athletes as legitimate contenders for "greatest ever". Unfortunately, as those of us who watched Ali, Nicklaus, Bird, Gretzky and Brown play get older and leave the conversation--the more likely those who were truly "The Greatest" will be replaced by the "Really Good With Great Marketing" in the pantheon of sports. Just remember, higher, faster, farther doesn't always mean "better".