Now That the Dust Has Settled, Is LeBron James The Best Athlete In The World?

2 titles, 2 MVPS, 2 Finals MVPS, 1 Gold Medal…in the last 12 months. It’s in play.

2 titles, 2 MVPS, 2 Finals MVPS, 1 Gold Medal…in the last 12 months. It’s in play.

Photo: NBAE/Getty Images | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

That Lebron James is the best basketball player in the world isn’t really in question anymore. After winning his second straight (deep breath). . .NBA Championship. . . and Finals MVP. . . and regular season MVP. . . and first-team all defense, the only debate now is where he ranks among the all-time greats. As the ESPN/ABC crew made clear after the Heat’s latest championship, Michael Jordan’s “GOAT” crown is in play. Sure, LeBron has a ways to go, but he’s only 28-years-old, he already has four MVP awards, he’s exorcized his “choking” demons, he can play any position on the floor (at an elite level, no less), and as Magic Johnson put it, he’s now the league’s smartest player. Haters gonna hate, but the ball don’t lie.

But how does King James stack up against athletes in other sports? Isn’t he at least in any conversation about the best athletes in the world? Well, yeah. Anyone who’s watched him knows that. While statistical comparisons don’t work when comparing athletes across different sports, we still have our eyes, and based on the eye test, LeBron is right up there. 

Let’s look at the candidates, and for the sake of simplicity (and sanity) let’s restrict this to male athletes (although, as Bill Simmons has pointed out, if we could somehow get LeBron and Serena Williams to breed. . . Holy shit!). Last year Esquire came up with a formula to determine the best athlete in the world and it’s. . . let’s just say it’s flawed, factoring in criminal activity, charitable giving, YouTube hits, etc. Not exactly indicators of actual athletic prowess. Even so, LeBron ranked third, behind tennis star Roger Federer and boxer Manny Pacquiao. Since that list came out, LeBron has added another title, another MVP, and an Olympic Gold Medal. Meanwhile, Federer is now only the third-ranked player in the world in his own sport, and Pacquiao has lost his last two fights, ceding the unofficial title of “World’s Best Pound-for-Pound Fighter” to Floyd Mayweather. In other words, even within their respective sports, these two aren’t necessarily on top. Federer is arguably, even probably, the best tennis player ever, but in June 2013 he’s fighting with Novak Djokavic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal for best player in the game. Pacquiao can’t even really make that claim. 

What about other sports? The world’s best football (American football, thank you very much) is Adrian Peterson. Or it’s Aaron Rodgers. Or maybe it’s Calvin Johnson or J.J. Watt. In basketball, there is no debate. In baseball, who the hell knows. The best pitcher is Clayton Kershaw, or Justin Verlander, or Adam Wainwright, or whoever threw a complete game shut-out last night. Even so, all they do is pitch. The best hitter is Miguel Cabrera (it is), but is he the athlete that Mike Trout is? Joe Mauer is one of the game’s best hitters, and was the nation’s best quarterback prospect as a high school senior. Is he in the discussion? Compared to LeBron? You could have made an argument for Tiger Woods before he had a really shitty Thanksgiving a few years ago. Now he’s battling with young guns like Rory McIlroy and old rivals like Phil Mickelson. Sidney Crosby is by most accounts the best hockey player in the world…when he’s healthy. The fact that he’s watching the Stanley Cup Finals from home indicates he’s not really in James’ league.

The world’s reigning champion decathlete traditionally lays claim to the title of “World’s Best Athlete,” which puts American Ashton Eaton in the conversation. He set the world record in 2012 Olympic Trials, before winning gold at the games themselves. But as Kenny Powers put it, “I play real sports. Not trying to be the best at exercising. Fuck this guy.” So let’s rule out the specialists. The mountain climbers, triathletes, sprinters, and swimmers. Sorry Usain Bolt! Sorry Michael Phelps! Sorry Ashton Eaton!

Then there’s Lionel Messi. If you were to take a global poll, he might well come out on top. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and he’s the world’s best player (though Cristiano Ronaldo is a worthy number two). In fact, Messi’s already being called the best player ever, better than Pele, better than Maradona, and he’s only 25! He’s won the last four Ballon d’Or awards for the world’s best player, he’s won Spanish League titles, European titles, he’s set numerous records. He’s a freak. He’s also 5’7″ and about 150 pounds. If we we’re discussing the best pound-for-pound athletes in the world, Messi would take the crown in a walk. LeBron, though, is listed at 6’8″, 260 lbs (and probably bigger), with a 44-inch vertical and freakish speed and power. He, too, is a freak. He’s also a beast.

At this point, both Messi and James remain in their primes. They both reign at the pinnacles of their respective sports. They couldn’t be much more physically different, but they each possess a degree of body control, court/field awareness and clutch performance that put them on a plane above all others. That’s an opinion, mind you. There’s no way to settle this kind of debate with any scientific certainty (sorry, Esquire). But at the very least it’s a fun barroom debate. Right now its Leo vs. LeBron, and while we’ll never really know who would take this imaginary title, that doesn’t mean we can’t argue about it.

Check out MLB Oddballs and our interview with Tyrone Sprong