The Most Important Sports Figures of 2008

The athletes and power brokers who are changing all the rules on and off the field.

The Speed Demon
Steve Nash

Thanks to point guard Steve Nash and his high-octane Phoenix Suns, the days of plodding, D-first basketball may finally be behind us. “He’s very unselfish, all about the team,” says Mavericks guard Jason Kidd. “He’s the best.” And with Shaq diesel adding fuel to the Suns’ fire, the scrappy Canadian may finally get his ring.

The Showboat
Floyd Mayweather

His estranged father contended for the welter­weight belt and now trains Oscar De La Hoya. One uncle was an IBO super featherweight champ, while another is his current trainer and a former two-division world champion. So it’s no wonder watching Junior—38-0, 24 KOs, holder of four titles in four weight classes—makes boxing aficionados daydream of an era when it truly was a sweet science. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to help the sport recover from its current standing eight count—but Mayweather’s mojo outside the ring just may be. From an HBO reality show to a stint on Dancing With the Stars, his brash grin and in-your-face charm are so infectious he makes some fans forget that he will knock you the hell out.

The Wild One
Bode Miller

The hard-partying bad boy of skiing has bounced back from his 2006 Olympic flame-out in a major way. After quitting the U.S. ski team to form the one-man “Team America,” he’s won the super-combined crown and leads the World Cup championship. Party, crash,
win: It’s just Bode being Bode.

The Master
Tiger Woods

In June 2007, when Tiger made the U.S. Open final pairing, NBC enjoyed a 36 percent increase in viewership over ’05, when Woods uncharacteristically missed the cut. In other words, for all but a few checker-panted white dudes who keep putters in their corner offices, Tiger is golf.

The Negotiator
Alex Rodriguez

Game plan: It was a simple strategy. Insert an escape clause in the richest contract in sports history. Watch the player have the season of his career. Let the offers pour in. Well, all except that last part.

Gamble: The plan’s mastermind, agent Scott Boras, misjudged the market, then refused to negotiate with the Yankees.The player who should eventually rip Barry Bonds’ home run crown from his outsize cranium was vilified as the second-least-liked player in the game.

Payoff: Faced with the prospect of being the richest Chicago Cub, Rodriguez made one of the boldest moves in baseball history: He sucked it up, bypassed Boras, and went to Hank Steinbrenner with hat in hand. In negotiating the biggest baseball deal ever, A-Rod changed the way the game is played off the field and, in the process, may have won back the Bronx faithful…at least until next fall.

The Groundbreaker
Danica Patrick

Faster pussycat: Sports that are truly coed are few and far between. And with a few exceptions, racing had been a man’s world…until Danica Patrick showed up. She came tantalizingly close to taking Indy as a rookie, and after a rough sophomore season, finished seventh last year, snagging her first three podiums. “I never thought of myself as a girl,” Patrick says. “I always thought of myself as a driver.”

Boys’ club: Still, she’s not just one of the guys. As she enters her fourth season, Patrick still faces the question that has dogged her since the beginning: Is she a celebrity or a racecar driver? Either way, she’s fast changing perceptions in a sport that could use it. And she looks pretty damn fine doing it.

The Martyr
Floyd Landis

Busted: Chalk one up for the Drug Police. Sure, there was Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, but when the Phonak rider was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after testing positive for synthetic testosterone, the drugs-in-sports issue was thrust into stunning relief, and the world of cycling was forced to confront once and for all the dirty secret that’s plagued the sport for years.

Strange legacy: Landis’ impassioned public defense was ultimately unsuccessful. As three-time Tour champ Greg LeMond allegedly told the cyclist during his trial, if he did indeed cheat and came clean about it, he “could be the one who will salvage the sport.” In the end, while his yellow jersey may be gone, Landis’ legacy is secure. Someone wins the Tour de France every year, but Floyd Landis provided an unforgettable glimpse into the seamy underbelly of sports.

Coach Hollywood
Pete Carroll

Why does the USC head coach, who since 2001 has led his team to two national titles, a 63-7 record, and five straight BCS bowl appearances, repeatedly spurn the attention of NFL teams? Because he’s the only game in town in the nation’s second-biggest media market. In other words, King Carroll stays put because he has the best job in all of football.

The Whistleblower
Jose Canseco

We can all agree that the former slugger is a world-class douchebag, but three years after publishing Juiced, Jose Canseco is looking to have the last laugh. In lifting the veil on bad behavior in the big leagues, he’s done more than anyone to bring reform to the game. Yet all the while he’s continued to preach the wonders of performance-enhancing drugs. Douchebag indeed.
The Savior
Sidney Crosby

Although hockey is technically still one of the “four major sports,” that title has been vestigial for years. So NHL bigwigs are hoping—well, more like feverishly praying—that Crosby can make the league relevant again. The 20-year-old Canadian (imagine that!) is a relentless skater with a nose for the goal—but he’s also the youngest team captain in NHL history, the league scoring leader, an MVP, and a Lester B. Pearson award holder as hockey’s most outstanding player. Despite his youth, Crosby  not only understands but appears to relish the enormous responsibility resting on his substantial shoulders.  If anyone can orchestrate the Miracle on Ice II, the kid they call the Next One is it.

The Future of Speed
Lewis Hamilton

To call Lewis Hamilton auto racing’s answer to Tiger Woods is to do him a disservice. In his debut season in Formula 1—despite racial taunts on the track and tabloid obsessions off of it—the 23-year-old Brit collected points and won races like no rookie in history. In 2008, look for Hamilton to win the first of many championships and earn more ink in Europe than Britney and Lindsay combined.

The Future of Offense
Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw

The Giants won zero Super Bowls with possible Hall of Famer Tiki Barber running the ball. With giant Giant Jacobs and human-size Giant Bradshaw in the backfield, they’re one for one—meaning the pair may have cemented the two-back system as the new NFL standard. “Every team would like to have what they have,” says ESPN analyst and former NFL back Merril Hoge. “When one ballcarrier doesn’t have to play every down, it affects both individual games and the long term.” Translation: Defenses are screwed.

The Pinup
Maria Sharapova

Sharapova’s leggy beauty may have made her the richest female athlete in the world, but she’s also won three Grand Slams. So while she’s yet to reach Roger Federer levels of dominance, when it comes to the business of sports, Maria is the one girl who’s shown she can play with the boys.

The Visionary
Dana White

When the current UFC president rounded up partners to buy the league back in 1993, it looked like a sure bust. Today, it enjoys $5 million gates and $60 million pay-per-view events. We pinned him down to find out why.

Maxim: How’d you know the UFC wouldn’t do an XFL-esque nosedive?
White: The original owners threw mismatched fighters together to duke it out. They wanted a one-time payday, but we saw a broader future.

M: Have you gotten there yet?
W: We’re the first new major sport to emerge in a long time, and we’ve changed the fight game forever. I love boxing, but we’re 1,000 times better than boxing. Our guys fight for pride. They’re pure. We have that over other sports.

M: Do you have your sights set on overtaking the major team sports?
W: Well, the NFL is a fucking monster. Yet no matter how many millions they pour into Europe, people won’t watch and learn the game. But everyone understands a fight. So as our visibility grows, we’ll start getting the kids who are going for basketball and football now.

The Franchise
David Beckham

The MLS paid Mr. Posh Spice a reported $250 million, hoping he could do what no one else—not Pelé, not a shirtless Brandi Chastain—has done: make soccer a viable pro sport in America. One tiny problem? The ex-England captain is no longer much of a soccer player. But he’s a heck of an underwear model.

The Outsider
Ricky Williams

He gave up an All-Pro career with the Dolphins to smoke weed, live in an ashram, and do yoga. Whether that made him a sensitive soul, a terri­ble teammate, or both, his well-aligned chakras couldn’t save him from bankruptcy. So he strapped on NFL pads again last year—only to suffer a shoulder injury and see his season go up in smoke.

Water Boy
Michael Phelps

The 22-year-old, sure to be the American face of this year’s Olympics in Beijing, is one of few athletes whose only real rival is himself. In 2001 a 15-year-old Phelps became the youngest American male ever to set a swimming world record (in the 200m butterfly). He exploded for a record eight medals (six gold, two bronze) at the 2004 Olympics, and recently unleashed a savage seven-gold-medal, five-world-record-setting ass-whipping at the 2007 FINA World Championships. In total Phelps has set world records 20 times—and he hasn’t just broken them; he’s annihilated them. Last year he bested his own 200m butterfly record by the greatest margin the sport had seen in 48 years. It was the fifth time he’d lowered the mark.

The Center of Attention
Yao Ming

The reason the Houston Rockets center is the most important player in the NBA (sorry, Scott Pollard) has less to do with his impressive performance—9.2 rebounds and 19 points per game while shooting more than 50 percent from the floor—than it does with his birthplace. China, as you may know, is chockablock with people—and a whole lot of those people love to watch their hometown boy play. A recent regular-season game featuring Yao’s Rockets vs. the Milwaukee Bucks and their seven-foot Chinese import, Yi Jianlian, was watched by an estimated 200 million Chinese viewers. By contrast, this year’s Super Bowl—the most-watched ever—was seen by a paltry 97.5 million Americans. The mind-boggling number of people who will spend money on all things Yao has even become known as the Yao Factor in marketing circles. Translation: He may single-handedly make the NBA the most popular sports league on Earth.