So, this is an attempt to come up with my 14 most dominant performances in sports history. The idea — thought up by my friend Tommy Tomlinson* — began with the simple question: Was Tiger Woods’ amazing performance at Pebble Beach in 2000 more impressive than Rory McIlroy’s amazing performance at the U.S. Open this year? This led to the question: What are the most dominating performances ever?
*If you want to read the single saddest story you will read this year, well, here you go.
There were a couple of issues with putting together the list. First: What does dominant mean? I mean, if it’s simply the best performances ever, then it can get pretty boring. Most strikeouts. Lowest score. Most yards. Etc. These are easy enough to just look up in the record books.
Tyson made short work of Spinks in '88, but he didn't make this list. (Manny Millan/SI)
So I think we want to go with something entirely subjective. This is all art, no science. Most of my lists have some basis, some anchor in reality. Not this one. It’s all about how dominance feels to me. Mike Tyson’s 1988 knockout of Michael Spinks in 90 seconds, for instance, was impossibly dominant. Spinks looked so scared that if offered the option to lay down in the middle of the ring before the fight even started, I’m sure he would have taken it. But it’s not on my list. Why? It’s hard to put into words, but it seems to me that it’s because Spinks was simply not a worthy opponent. We have to try to find the difference between dominance and mismatches, and it’s not an easy line to see. I don’t want this list to be Alabama beating the San Francisco School of Mimes 98-0.
Second, we needed some guidelines. So here’s what we decided: We would keep this to individuals. At first, I wanted to include teams so I could put the Bears’ Super Bowl victory on the list (though the Patriots that year might have been the Michael Spinks of football), or Nebraska’s win over Florida in the ’96 Fiesta Bowl. That can be another list. And I wanted this to be about singular performances. Edwin Moses dominated hurdles for years, but that’s not a single performance. Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam in 1988, and dominated in an overpowering way. Barry Bonds, no matter the reasons, was the most dominant athlete I’ve ever seen from 2000 to 2004 — so bleepin’ dominant that teams simply gave up and walked him 120 times in a single season. But again, Moses, Graf, Bonds, that kind of dominance, I think, is also a different list. The idea is who can dominate one game, one tournament, one match.
For now, it’s this: My impression of the 14 most dominant individual performances in sports history.
Unranked: Rory McIlroy shoots 16-under at the U.S. Open
This the performance that sparked the whole idea … and we probably should let it age a little bit before trying to rank it. McIlroy was remarkable, though. The thing that amazed me was how relentless he was. He hit just about every fairway. He hit just about every green. He was putting for birdies and tapping in for pars. He had turned the U.S. Open into the Traveler’s Insurance of golf. He had taken the scary out of life.*
*And while talking about remarkable performances, I should mention Yani Tseng’s 10-shot victory at the LPGA Championship. That was her fourth major championship, and she’s only 22 — to compare: Tiger Woods had one major at 22. Jack Nicklaus had one major at 22. Annika Sorenstam had zero. And the thing is, she seems to be putting some distance between herself and the field — she won each of her first five tournaments by a shot. This year, though, she won in Thailand by 5, at the State Farm Classic by three, this LPGA Championship by 10, and she won three other international tournaments by an average of five shots.
I don’t know the golf swing well enough to break it down, obviously, but the thing about McIlroy that blows the mind is his balance. His swing is so balanced, it looks like he’s doing it from a leather recliner. It looks like you could turn a firehose on him and he would swing just as well. There are golf swings out there that look beautiful to the untrained eye — Fred Couples’ swing, Ernie Els’ swing, these things are like performance art. McIlroy’s swing looks good like that, but it also looks more automatic somehow. Or maybe that’s just because everything he hit all weekend seemed to land in the middle of the fairway.
Congressional played very easy for a U.S. Open. The weather conditions were ideal for scoring. Still, there was rough, and it was the U.S. Open, and McIlroy had just blown a major championship at Augusta. For him to come out and lead wire-to-wire, blow away the best golfers in the world (minus one Tiger), it was pretty breathtaking.
No. 14: Bobby Fischer at the 1963-64 U.S. Chess Championship
Well, I needed at least one obscure one. Fischer went a perfect 11-0 at the U.S. Chess Championship. It never happened before, hasn’t happened since and probably won’t ever happen again. In fact, a perfect score had not happened at ANY major chess tournament in more
Fischer's perfection will likely never be matched. (AP)
than 40 years, and has only happened once since. See, chess isn’t like that. The best players in the world draw all the time. A draw is a natural state of things when two great players go at it. To give you an example, in the famous Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky world championship match of 1972 — which Fischer won — they played 21 matches, and drew 11 of them.
Fischer going a perfect 11-0 might be something like a soccer team going through a World Cup without a single loss or draw. In the chess community, at least as I understand it, Fischer’s perfect score is viewed as the pinnacle of his genius. It was later that he turned into a madman.
No. 13: John McEnroe wins the 1984 Wimbledon Final
I love John McEnroe now. I think he might be the best color commentator in sports (a different list). But I could not stand him as a player. It wasn’t because he was obnoxious; I actually found his “You cannot be serious” act to be kind of entertaining. It wasn’t his style of play … how could you not love the artful way McEnroe played tennis?
So why? Here’s my answer: I have absolutely no idea. I’ve said this before: I don’t think like and dislike in sports always fits logic. There’s something visceral about the games. I liked Ivan Lendl for some reason. I didn’t like Jimmy Connors for some reason. I liked Magic for some reason. I didn’t like Bird for some reason. I had a poster on my wall of Al Oliver for some reason. I did not like Steve Garvey for some reason. Who the heck knows?
Anyway, I think McEnroe in 1984 played the most elegant tennis of anyone I ever saw. I mean, Federer was elegant, too — but there was power in his game. There was little power in McEnroe’s game. It was serve and volley, touch and feel, drop volleys and backhand slices and the stuff that makes tennis players uncontrollably shout: “Genius!” In the final of Wimbledon that year, he beat Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, and the four games he actually lost seemed like charity.
I sometimes wonder how the games of tennis players from that era and before would translate to today — I don’t mean how good would John McEnroe be if he grew up in today’s world. I’m sure he would be great. I mean what would happen if you plucked John McEnroe off the court in 1984, dropped him on Centre Court in 2011 with the same racket, same shoes, same everything. Would he just find himself going: “Holy cow, how hard are these guys hitting the ball?” Would he feel like utterly and completely overwhelmed (“What is this Internets thing?”) Would he just get bombed off the court by like the 80th-best player in the world?
I don’t know. I’m sure at first it would be like that. But McEnroe was such a brilliant tennis player at the time, I can’t help but think that he would adjust. It would take time. He would have to steal someone’s racket. He would have to get a few matches under his belt. But watching him in 1984, I just think he’d figure something out.
No. 12: Bo Jackson on Monday Night in 1987
There are, of course, dozens and dozens of great running performances that could be on this list. Jim Brown dominated just about every game he played. Marion Motley dominated. O.J. Simpson dominated. Earl Campbell dominated. Eric Dickerson dominated. Barry Sanders dominated. Emmitt Smith dominated. Chris Johnson dominates. It’s hard to imagine a more dominant performance than Gale Sayers in the mud. It’s hard to imagine a more dominant runner than Herschel Walker as a freshman at Georgia.
But for a single performance, I’ll take Bo Jackson on a Monday night against Seattle in 1987. His raw numbers were impressive enough — 221 yards rushing on only 18 carries, one catch for a touchdown, three touchdowns total. But it was the runs themselves that boggled the mind — two have lived on for almost 25 years.* There was his 91-yard pitch-and-run, which is still as startling a run as I’ve ever seen — startling in the sense that it looked like just a normal play and then suddenly Bo was just gone, like he was in fast-forward speed and every one else was at regular speed. And the other run was one in which he just ran over Brian Bosworth, this at a time when the Boz was in the argument for toughest man in America.
*Can you even BELIEVE that Bo Jackson’s Monday Night was almost 25 years ago?
Bo would not give up baseball — I’ve written before about the amazing things he could do — and so he never played a full NFL season. For me, that adds to just how good he was on that one Monday Night. There was something mythical about the whole thing, as if we got to watch Satchel Paige pitch in the Negro Leagues or Connie Hawkins play on the New York playgrounds.
No. 11: Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl
Tommie Frazier made the greatest run I didn’t see in that ’95 Fiesta Bowl against Florida. You remember the run. He ran the option right, faked the pitch, gained a few yards and then ran into defenders. I looked down at my play-by-play sheet to mark down how many yards he had gained. And then I heard the crowd going crazy. I looked up: Frazier was running into the end zone. It wasn’t until later than I saw him break or run through four tacklers on the way to the end zone.
He ran for 199 yards, scored two touchdowns and threw for another in Nebraska’s 62-24 destruction of Florida. Again, there are others who have put up more impressive numbers. But the setting made for something special: That was No. 1 vs. No. 2 in a bowl game. The national championship was on the line. And, in my memory, Florida was pretty heavily favored. I think this is because Florida was a flashy passing team while Nebraska was a grinding power team. Florida seemed futuristic. Nebraska seemed stodgy and outdated.
And Nebraska so thoroughly crushed Florida — led by Frazier’s running, a couple of key passes and decision making — that it left me with a thought I have carried with me ever since: We don’t really KNOW what team is best until they play. We can guess. We can predict. We can analyze. We can rank. But reality is complicated. And something amazing can happen when you’re looking to write something down.
No. 10: George Brett in Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS
Mark Whiten once hit four homers and drove in 12 runs in a game. Reggie Jackson hit three homers in a World Series game, and Babe Ruth did it twice. Hideki Matsui once got five hits, scored five runs and drove in five in an ALCS game against Boston. And so on.
But for single-handed domination, I’ll take George Brett in 1985. You might know the circumstances. The Royals trailed Toronto two games to none in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. But that does not begin to describe the moment. The Royals seemed destined for always being almost good enough. In 1976, ’77 and ’78 they had lost to the Yankees in the ALCS. Brett himself had been a monster in those series. He hit .375 combined in the three series, slugged .768. He hit three homers in a game against Catfish Hunter — a game the Royals lost, which probably sums things up well.
The Royals finally beat the Yankees in 1980 — Brett providing the titanic blow against Goose Gossage in the clincher — and then lost to the Phillies in six. That was the World Series where Brett battled hemorrhoids, but he still hit .375 and slugged .679. Anyway, that World Series kind of ended things for the Royals. They did make the playoffs in 1981 and 1984, but they were not the same team, they were swept in both, Brett hit lousy, the window seemed to be closed. The 1985 Royals were a terrible offensive team. They finished 13th in the league in runs scored, and the only thing that kept them from finishing dead last in runs scored was a 99-loss Texas team that often batted an 859-year old Cliff Johnson cleanup*.
*Actually Johnson was only 37; he just seemed 859.
Brett propelled the Royals to an improbable championship in '85. (Manny Millan/SI)
That Royals team had no business making the playoffs in 1985 — they were 42-42 after 84 games and they seemed to be overachieving at that. But they had a couple of things going for them. One, of course, they had George Brett, who put up one of his most amazing seasons (.335/.436/.585 — led the league in slugging) despite being intentionally walked 31 times, the most in the league since Ted Williams almost 20 years earlier.
Two, they had pitching. Bret Saberhagen at 21 won the Cy Young Award. Charlie Liebrandt at 28 was almost as good. Danny Jackson at 23 and Mark Gubicza at 22 has pretty strong years. Dan Quisenberry had his last great year in the pen. Now, that pitching — good as it is — should not have been enough to get the Royals into the playoffs. But the division was weak, Brett hit about .400 for June, July and August, and the Royals snuck into the playoffs with 91 wins.
Point is: There might have been a sense — there SHOULD have been a sense — that the Royals were not going to get this chance again. I mean, nobody knew that they would not make the playoffs for 25-plus years and that they would become the worst team in baseball and so on. But the core was creaking. Time was passing. Brett, who always had a heightened awareness of the moment, turned to his teammates before Game 3 of the Toronto series and said: “Climb on my back.”
First inning, Brett came up with Willie Wilson on base. Then, Wilson wasn’t — he was caught stealing. Brett homered anyway. That made it 1-0.
Third inning, Brett made perhaps the best defensive play of his life. Damaso Garcia on third, one out, Brett fielded Lloyd Moseby’s ground ball, found an angle, and threw Garcia out at the plate. That kept it 1-0.
Fourth inning, Brett led off. He crushed a ball off the top of the wall, inches away from his second home run. He tagged up and went to third on Hal McRae’s fly ball. He tagged up and scored on Frank White’s fly ball. That’s how it was for the Royals in 1985 — Brett scored runs on outs. That made it 2-0.
The Blue Jays had enough of that small-ball garbage in the fifth. Ernie Whitt singled. Jesse Barfield homered. Damaso Garcia doubled. Lloyd Moseby singled. Rance Mulliniks homered. That’s five runs, thank you very much, have a nice day, be sure to tip the wait staff.
The Royals did get a run in the bottom of the inning — on a rare Jim Sundberg homer, no less. That still made it 5-3, and two runs for those Royals was like Mt. Fuji.
Then, sixth inning, Brett came up with Wilson on first. This time Wilson stayed at first. And Brett homered. That made it 5-5.
Eighth inning, Brett led off with a single. He went to second on a bunt. He went to third on a ground ball to short … a fairly daring and risky baserunning maneuver. He scored on Steve Balboni’s single. And that was the game-winner. Brett also caught the final out, a foul pop by Moseby.
All in all: Brett went four-for-four, two homers, four runs, three RBIs, great baserunning and a breathtaking defensive play, all after PROMISING he would do it. The Royals would still need plenty of heroics, a bit of luck, a pretty famous umpire mistake and a Cardinals meltdown to win the only World Series in team history. But were it not for Brett’s “climb on my back” game, none of it would have happened.
No. 9: Steve Young in Super Bowl XXIX
It’s impossible to pick just one quarterback performance out of the dozens, but I’ll take Young’s six touchdown passes against San Diego in the Super Bowl. Here’s why: All week — like at every Super Bowl — there was so much hype, so much talk, so much analysis. How would San Diego throw Young off his game? How would the Chargers control Jerry Rice? What blitz packages would they use? What surprise coverages would they unveil? There was so much talk that, as I’ve written before, I thought that maybe San Diego really did have this grand plan in mind to slow down what, at that time, seemed like the most unstoppable offense in memory.
On the third play of the game, Young threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice. That’s a pretty powerful version of domination. That’s: “OK, we know what we’re going to do. You know what we’re going to do. Everybody knows what we’re going to do. And we’re STILL going to do it.” Of course, Young threw five more touchdown passes before the day was done. And it looked SO easy.
Young from 1992 to 1997 led the league in completion percentage five times, in yards per attempt four times, in yards per game twice, in touchdowns three times and in quarterback rating five times. He also ran for about 2,000 yards total. Football fans constantly talk about who is the greatest quarterback ever. Young’s name tends to be forgotten … probably because he won only that one Super Bowl. But at his peak, he really was something special. He belongs in the conversation.
No. 8: Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game
He was 20 years old when he threw what I still believe is the most dominant nine-inning game in the history of baseball. Obviously, people will disagree with this — Wood did not throw a perfect game, which probably seems like a prerequisite for the most dominant game ever. But I want to make the case for Wood.
The year: 1998. It was a May day game at Wrigley Field. There were only 15,758 in the stands, though I suspect there are more who claim to have been there. The Bulls were playing Charlotte in the playoffs that night, so that was the focus of the city. Meanwhile, the Cubs were playing the Astros, who would go on to win 102 games and the National League Central. The Astros had two future Hall of Famers — Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio – in the lineup, and they were in their prime. It should be noted that the Astros also had Jack Howell hitting cleanup for reasons that are not entirely clear.*
*Though, coincidentally, the Kansas City Royals continue to hit Jeff Francoeur cleanup though he is batting .214 and slugging less than .300 since May 12.
Wood allowed just one hit in his '98 masterpiece. (AP)
Wood had a shaky warm-up session in the bullpen. He said he felt terrible. But he also felt GLAD that he felt terrible — “If I’m good in the pen,” he told reporters later, “I’m shaky out there.” When he came out, he wasn’t sharp. But he was throwing SO hard that it didn’t matter. The gun clocked him at 100 mph. Astros manager Larry Dierker, trying to come up with a comparison that made sense, compared his fastball to Nolan Ryan’s (“By the time the ball left his hand, it was in the mitt,” he said). In the first inning, he struck out Biggio swinging, struck out Derek Bell swinging and then struck out Jeff Bagwell looking.
“You can’t get too much better than that,” Bagwell said afterward.
Dave Clark put the first ball in play with two outs in the second inning — a routine fly ball to center. And in the top of the third Houston’s Ricky Gutierrez hit a ground ball just past the glove of Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie. After the game, Orie would wonder if he could have made the play. He was a little bit fooled by the ball. He thinks he might even have touched it with his glove. That was the only hit that Wood would allow. Shane Reynolds bunted him over. Biggio did manage to ground out weakly to end the third inning.
In the fourth, Derek Bell blooped a fly ball to right.
In the sixth, Brad Ausmus grounded out to second.
In the ninth, Craig Biggio grounded out to short.
I bring those up because those are the only balls that anyone hit in fair territory for the rest of the game. The final total of outs:
Wood did hit Biggio with a pitch, which was more or less unavoidable in those days. Biggio was plunked 106 times from 1995 through ’98. But Wood didn’t walk anybody. He struck out Bagwell three times, struck out Bell three times, struck out Moises Alou three times. He threw 122 pitches, 84 of them for strikes. And he was 20 years old.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Cubs announcer Ron Santo would tell anyone who would listen. The Ryan comparisons were everywhere. Billy Williams compared Wood to Koufax. Jim Riggleman called it the best game he’d ever seen pitched, and Mark Grace said this: “You might never see another game like this the rest of your life.” But as incredible as the game seemed at the moment — and I was lucky enough that I happened to watch it from beginning to end on television — it seems even more remarkable now. There are limits to how dominant a pitcher can be on any given day. He relies on his fielders. His performance is affected by the umpire.
But that day in Chicago, Wood pushed the boundaries. He had an inning when he struck out the side looking. He had an inning when he struck out the side swinging. The Astros — and it’s significant that this happened against a really good team — were so overwhelmed that they could not even put the ball in play. Roger Clemens struck out 20 in a game twice. Koufax struck out 14 in his perfect game, Randy Johnson struck out 13 in his. Nolan Ryan struck out 16 in one of his seven no-hitters. And then, of course, there was Harvey Haddix’s 12 perfect innings, Carl Hubbell’s 18 innings of shutout ball, some of Pedro Martinez’s best work. And, more than anything, there was Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series.
But I will still say: No pitcher has ever been as dominant as Kerry Wood was one afternoon in Chicago.
No. 7: George Foreman knocks out Joe Frazier in 2
Joe Frazier was the prohibitive favorite when he fought George Foreman in 1973. People forget this. Frazier was heavyweight champion. He was undefeated. He had just beaten Muhammad Ali — knocked him down in the Fight of the Century. It’s not right to say that nobody thought Foreman could win. Some did. But Frazier was the betting choice.
And Foreman obliterated him. This was the fight that led Howard Cosell to famously shout: “Down goes Frazier!” Joe Frazier went down six times. Six. The second knockdown was so ferocious that Frazier could barely stand up straight for the rest of the fight. Frazier’s heart kept getting him back to his feet. Foreman’s pinpoint bombs kept sending him back to the canvas. I asked a boxing expert once if George Foreman is the greatest puncher in the history of boxing. He said that others may have hit HARDER than Foreman, but nobody ever combined power and precision like Foreman at his best. He hit hard and he didn’t miss.
Foreman fought Frazier again in 1976, though they were both very different men in the second fight — both had lost a little something of themselves in savage battles with Ali. Frazier tried a different strategy the second time, and it seemed to baffle Foreman for a while. George still knocked him out in the fifth round.
No. 6: Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash in Beijing
I originally had Jesse Owens in 1936 in this spot … and I still think Owens’ OVERALL performance, considering the circumstances, considering where the world was, considering the four gold medals, considering all of it, yeah, that’s the most dominant Olympic performance ever (with Michaels Phelps’ eight golds high on the list).
But the idea is a single event. You could argue that an entire Olympic performance is no different from a four-day golf tournament, and that’s a viable argument: I’ll happily read your list later. But my feeling is that Owens winning the 100, the 200, the long jump and anchoring the relay was against four different groups of competitors. Four events, I say.
The Usain Bolt 100 in Beijing is the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen in sports. One of my heroes, writer Bill Bryson, wrote a classic line about heading a soccer ball for the first time: “I have never felt anything so startlingly not like I expected it to feel.” In a way, Bolt running the 100 could not really surprise you. I mean, you have a bunch of the fastest men in the world. They’re running 100 meters. One will run faster than everyone else, even if it is only by a thousandth of a second. What could really surprise you? It’s not like in the middle of the race, an alien, a clown and Paula Poundstone are going to show up in the middle of the track and dance the Macarena. It’s going to match your expectations, more or less.
Only this one was startlingly not like I expected it to look. Because to see someone run that fast up close, to see him visibly slow down before the end and still smash the world record, to hear a stadium overcome by wonder, well, it’s not quite a feeling that you can anticipate. It’s funny: There’s a wall between the spectator and the athlete. We all understand this. They’re playing. We’re watching. They’re performing. We’re clapping. They’re in their moment. We’re in our moment.
But in Bolt’s 100-meter the walls came crashing down. Sure, it was still him doing the running. But to see someone run that fast, to see someone leave behind the fastest men in the world, to see someone utterly shatter our sense of time and space, well, you can’t help but feel like somehow you’re a part of it. Or anyway, that’s how I felt. Bolt’s more impressive run from a track and field perspective actually might have been the 200, when he barely beat Michael Johnson’s seemingly unbreakable record. And for that matter, I was there when Michael Johnson set that record in Atlanta, and it ranks as one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.
But I’d say that Bolt in the 100 in Beijing was to me the most dominant of them all. If he had started the race, disappeared at the gun, and reappeared at the finish line 1/10th of a second later, I’m not sure it would have been any more stunning to watch.
No. 5: Tiger Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open
In many ways, this was the most dominant performance I’ve ever seen in any sport. But, for reasons I explain below, I rank Tiger Woods at Augusta even higher.
From a golf perspective, Woods at Pebble Beach was the pinnacle. He was 12-under par. Nobody else was ANY under par. The golf course was impossible to score on, except for Tiger Woods at his height. McIlroy himself has said that Woods’ performance at Pebble trumped his own, and I think he’s right. But, again, this list is more art than science. And so, I rank this No. 5.
No. 4: Wilt scores 100
The date: March 2, 1962 The place: Hershey, Pa. The stats: Wilt made 36 of 63 shots — yes, he took SIXTY THREE SHOTS. And he made 28 of 32 free throws, this from a notoriously dreadful free-throw shooter. He scored 31 in the fourth quarter.
Here’s a thought that I hadn’t considered before: You know how corporate and media-savvy the NBA is now. I mean, they basically turned the slam dunk competition into a Kia commercial. They helped turn their best players into worldwide stars — Bird, Magic, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, etc. They let cameras into the huddles, they have coaches interviewed between quarters, they work everything around television. I mean, they know hype.
And the single most dominant individual performance — the single most legendary performance — happened on a Tuesday in Hershey, Pa. I mean, there is NO WAY that David Stern would stand for that. He’d have helicoptered in personally, stopped the game, and resumed it in Las Vegas.
No. 3: Joe Louis knocks out Max Schmeling
In 1936, when the air was charged and war seemed inevitable, Max Schmeling destroyed the young Joe Louis. The story went that Schmeling had studied Louis’ weaknesses — the big one being a dropping of the left hand after every jab — and had figured out how to take down the seemingly unbeatable Bomber. Schmeling knocked down Louis twice, the final time in the 12th and decisive round. In those days, sports (and especially boxing) were often viewed as perfect little representations of the real world, and the takeaway seemed to be that America, too, was young and powerful looking but with defining flaws that made them easy enough to take out if you just studied them closely enough.
Not long after that, Louis knocked out Jim Braddock to win the heavyweight championship — and setting off fury in Germany because Schmeling had not gotten the chance to knock out Braddock first. Schmeling was much celebrated in Germany and was called the REAL heavyweight champion of the world. In Naziism, propaganda was about as important as military training, and Schmeling was the perfect symbol for the propaganda — big, strong, powerful and unfairly overlooked.
Louis put Schmeling on the ropes at Yankee Stadium in '38. (Bettmann/Corbis)
Then, Louis announced that he would fight Schmeling for the heavyweight title. It was among the most politically charged sporting events in the history of the world. The fight was in June of 1938 in Yankee Stadium, and the intense pressure on Joe Louis to win not only for himself but for his country was as overwhelming as anything an American athlete has faced — especially when you consider Louis as a black man in a still divided America. When you hear any athlete today talk about pressure, um, no, THAT was pressure.
Schmeling was not, in fact, the person that the Nazi party tried to make him. He had a Jewish manager. He was not a member of the Nazi party. But by the time the fight began, he had been called the German Superman so many times that he could not avoid being the symbol. Fans threw garbage at him as he approached the ring. Louis came out in the first round and unleashed a furious barrage of punches. People ringside would remember Schmeling shouting out in pain (he would later claim it was a kidney punch). A few seconds later, Louis knocked Schmeling down with a vicious right hook. Then he knocked Schmeling down again. Then, he knocked Schmeling down again … and Schmeling’s cornerman threw a towel into the ring. Before the towel even hit the canvas, the fight was over.
The fight lasted two minutes and four seconds.
No. 2: Tiger Woods at Augusta, 1997
As mentioned above, I think Tiger was even more dominant at the U.S. Open when you just compare him to the conditions and other golfers and so on. So why is this one higher on the list?
Well, it’s subjective, of course, but here’s my thinking: At the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods simply and powerfully stated that he was the best golfer in the world and probably the best golfer ever. Nobody had ever played a major championship at THAT much higher a level than everyone else. And if that’s the definition of dominance — and it certainly can be the definition — then the Pebble Beach victory was the most dominant.
But I think Augusta said something else. Remember, Augusta was Tiger’s first major championship as a professional. He had won three U.S. Amateurs, and his future was limitless. The hype was intense (Tiger Woods had been named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year BEFORE Augusta ’97) and nobody quite knew what Tiger could do.
And then, he turned Augusta National into a putt-putt course. He shot 18-under. He won by 12. It was so overwhelming that it changed the way the entire world looked at golf. Augusta National — which is so opposed to change that, as the joke goes, they still accept Confederate money at the gift shop — made dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle alterations to the course (the invented verb to describe making these changes was to “Tigerproof.”) Championship courses all over America added length and tricked things up a bit.
In other words, I think Tiger at Augusta transcended the sport. More: It brought the sport to the brink. As good as Rory McIlroy was last week, as good as Woods was at Pebble Beach, I don’t think the reaction was: “He has made our sport obsolete.” But that was the feeling after Augusta. As good as Tiger Woods has become — the highest peak in the history of golf, in my opinion — after Augusta, the possibilities were EVEN HIGHER. When somebody asked Colin Montgomerie that week if Tiger could be caught, Montgomerie’s classic response was: “Have you been on holiday?” There yet may be a better golfer than Tiger Woods. But I don’t think we’ll ever see a golfer stretch the boundaries of possibility like Tiger did in 1997 at Augusta.
No. 1: Secretariat at the Belmont
One thing that’s easy to forget: Only five horses ran in the Belmont Stakes in 1973. Secretariat had been so amazing that few wanted to even enter their horse in the race. The Triple Crown was considered a certainty — Secretariat went off as a 1-10 favorite, which is absurd.
Still, the people who were there will tell you … they’ve never seen anything like it. What is dominance? All 14 choices on this list could have been different — it could have Larsen’s perfect game, Doug Williams’ Super Bowl, Nadal over Federer at the French, Jack Nicklaus at Augusta in 1972, Michael Jordan’s shrug game, Steffi Graf at the 1989 Australian Open, Derrick Thomas’ seven-sack game, on and on and on — and it would have been just as viable, maybe more so. Dominance is not so easily defined. It is how something strikes you.
And Secretariat winning at the Belmont, it seems to me, is the perfect visual representation of dominance. It wasn’t just that Secretariat won the race by 31 lengths. It wasn’t just that he refused to slow down, moving — in Chic Anderson’s legendary phrase — like a “tremendous machine.” What is dominance? Maybe it is Secretariat, at the height of his powers, pulling away from the pack and then, because he could, pulling away even more and then, for the thrill of the moment, pulling away still.