It’s a common fact, although some will deny it, that most people favor their own nation, or even continent, sometimes to the extreme. America for example, awards Oscar, Grammy and Emmy trophies to mainly Americans, yet they claim that these are international awards.
One would expect this to only apply in the entertainment industry, however this is also the case in the sporting world. For example, Football, which is, without a doubt, the most popular international sport, completely gets ignored by the US, due to America’s lack of achievements (this also applies to Rugby, Cricket, Formula 1 and many other international sports).
Football giants such as Diego Maradona, George Best, Zinedine Zidane, Michel Platini and Lev Yashin, might be famous worldwide, but they are widely unknown in the US. Likewise, American football is only known mainly in America (hence the name!), the vast majority of the players are American, yet they are known in the US, as “world champions.” The same could also be said for baseball, even when other nations beat the US, for example during the Olympics (Japan, Korea, and Cuba beat the US regularly), yet American national champions are still known as world champions… slightly ironic!
Of course, there are many American global greats such as Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Michael Jordan, Jim Thorpe, Rocky Marciano, Andre Agassi, Muhammad Ali, Pete Sampras, Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Larry Bird, Lance Armstrong, Oscar De La Hoya, Greg Louganis, just to name few, but one does wonder when he sees names (mainly in the American media) such as Tom Brady, Reggie Bush, Jerry Rice, Derek Jeter and many more, being labelled as “the best in the world” if that really is a valid title. How can you be the best in the entire world, when you are competing in a sport that is predominantly played by one nation?
Here is an unbiased list of 15 global and worldwide sporting legends that you won’t hear about in the US, even though they have all been true world champions.
Note – there are already many lists about all time great legends from soccer, rugby, cricket and F1, so for the purpose of this list, these sports have been excluded. Special thanks to Katie the “Ainglish,” without her help, this list wouldn’t be half as good.
A Soviet legend of athletics, who dominated the world of hammer throwing during the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. Unlike many hammer throwers, Sedykh threw off three turns rather than four. He felt three turns were sufficient, as he threw nearly the same distances with four turns in practice. He won gold medals at the 1976 and 1980 Summer Olympics, as well as taking first place at the 1986 Goodwill Games and the 1991 World Championships in Athletics. He also won three gold medals at the European games.
He couldn’t defend his title at the Olympics of Los Angeles, in 1984, because the Soviet Union boycotted the American Olympic Games. He would have probably added another gold medal to his impressive collection, since he was by far the best in the world during the Olympics of 1984. He still holds the world record, which is the longest current world record from any event of the athletics for men, a world record which he set back in the summer of 1986. He broke the world record a total six times.
There’s no doubt that if this guy was an American, his name would be in every American fighting magazine and he would be as famous as “Iron” Mike Tyson was. Mike is a true living legend of kickboxing, who has delivered some of the most impressive knock-outs in the history of any combat sport, which is the reason why he got the nickname, “Iron Mike.” Zambidis is a professional Greek kick boxer and martial artist. He is a 15 time World Champion with an impressive record of 148 wins (85 KO victories) in 165 fights. He has won every world title there is, including W.O.K.A, W.I.P.U, W.K.B.F, K-1 World Max world titles, among others. He is considered by many analysts as one of the greatest pound for pound kick boxers who ever lived.
Regla Torres Herrera is for women’s volleyball what Soviet Aleksandr Savin or the American Karch Kiraly are for men’s volleyball, one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all time. Standing at 1.91m in her socks, Regla Torres Herrera was a towering presence on the volleyball court for the Cuban national team. One of the most dominant middle hitters and blockers ever, she guided her team to a hat-trick of Olympic gold medals between 1992 and 2000 as well as World Championship trophies in 1994 and 1998. During the 1992 Olympic Games she became the youngest ever gold medalist in volleyball, after helping Cuba defeat the Unified Team 3-1 as a 17 year-old. The International Volleyball Federation named Torres the best female player of the 20th century.
A dominant figure in the world of javelin, Zelezný had the right genes for javelin throwing and that showed from a really young age. After winning bronze at the World Championships in 1987 and silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he started dominating the sport from the early 1990s. Zelezný claimed Olympic gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000, and three World Championships titles in 1993, 1995 and 2001, setting five world records in the process, and was voted IAAF Athlete of the Year in 2000. He is the only athlete to throw more than 94 meters with the new type of javelin, something he achieved five times.
David Douillet is a retired French judoka and politician. He is considered the most decorated judoka in history and, at the Olympics of 2000 in Sydney, he became the heavyweight fighter with the most international titles. With six major international titles (2 Olympic titles, 4 world titles), he passed the Japanese Yasuhiro Yamashita (1 Olympic title, 4 world titles) who won his titles in the 1970s. He won a total 11 medals in the major competitions, 3 at the Olympics, 4 in the world championships and 4 in the European championships.
The biggest problem during his career was his multiple injuries which finally forced him to retire at the age of 31, after his victory in the Olympic tournament in Sydney. It’s possible that he could have won more titles, if he didn’t have to deal with so many injuries during his career.
Her name is synonymous with dominance and victory. She won 18 Olympic medals, more than any other competitor in any sport, and was responsible for establishing the Soviet Union as the dominant force in gymnastics. She also holds the record for most individual medals (14 outside of team events) in Olympic history. Few athletes have dominated a sport to the extent of gymnast Larissa. During that period, the graceful Soviet star displayed her class at three different Olympic Games. She’s the only female athlete to win nine Olympic gold medals to this day, and it’s a safe bet to say that Larissa will be the female athlete with the most gold and total medals for a very long time.
Born on 17 December, 1938, in Opunake, New Zealand, Peter Snell is one of the best middle-distance runners of all time. He became the first man since 1920 to win gold medals at both the 800m and 1500m at the same Olympics. Four years earlier he had won his first gold, in the 800 metres at the Rome Olympics. At the absolute height of his career, Snell stunned New Zealand and the athletics world as he decided to quit and pursue other goals in life. When he ended his career, in 1965, as a 26-year-old man, Snell was a triple Olympic champion, a double gold medal winner at the Commonwealth Games, and he had set multiple world records, most notably at the 800m and 1000m. Peter Snell, is a giant of athletics and a legend in New Zealand.
Kato is one of the most successful gymnasts ever at the Olympics, with his 8 gold medals and 12 overall. Also, he has won more Olympic gold medals than any other male gymnast and more Olympic gold medals than any Asian athlete in the history of any sport.
He is his country’s most decorated sportsman and a member of the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. As of 2011, Sawao Kato is one of only nine people ever in the history of the Olympic Games to have won at least eight Olympic gold medals, with legends such as Michael Phelps (14), Larisa Latynina (9), Carl Lewis (9), Mark Spitz (9), Paavo Nurmi (9), Birgit Fischer (8), Bjørn Dæhlie (8) and Jenny Thompson (8) being the other athletes of this elite group.
No matter what you say about the Welsh Dragon, it will never be enough. Joe is simply one of the greatest boxers of all time, and the greatest super middleweight boxer who ever lived. Joseph William Calzaghe, is a Welsh former professional boxer. He is the former WBO, WBC, WBA, IBF, The Ring and British super middleweight champion, and The Ring light heavyweight champion. Calzaghe is the longest-reigning world champion in the last 30 years, having held the WBO super middleweight title for over eleven years, until he relinquished the title to concentrate on fighting at light heavyweight. He retired in February 2009, with an undefeated record, becoming one of the very few legends (with others being giants of the sport such as Rocky Marciano and Laszlo Papp) to retire as an undefeated world champion. He’s also one of the few boxers in history who won every major belt there is, including The Ring’s magazine belt in two different divisions. During his impressive career Joe Calzaghe did beat many other great boxers such as Roy Jones and Bernard Hopkins in the US, in front of a hostile American crowd, undefeated champions at the moment like Jeff Lacy, in a must-watch fight, where Joe won all 12 rounds and gave Lacy a boxing lesson; he also won against an undefeated (at the moment) world champion Mikkel Kessler and Chris Eubank. Calzaghe retired as a champion with a perfect record of 46 wins (32 KO’s) and no losses. Most analysts agree that he belongs in the elite pantheon of the sport and he’s arguably the greatest British boxer of all time.
The Frenchman is the modern day “Napoleon” for France, and how couldn’t he be, with all the records and achievements that this man has set already; there’s no doubt that he definitely deserves to be in here. He has won the world championship a record eight times in a row and also holds several other WRC records. For one to realize how dominant Loeb is, and how he took the sport to another level, one would have only to check the numbers. The record for the most victories in the history of the sport was 26, held by another legend, Carlos Zainz, while the record for the most world championships won, was 4, held by Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen, but all this was before Loeb’s era. With a total 8 world championships, 67 victories, 808 stage wins, 103 podiums (first and only in history with over 100) and 1281 points, Sébastien could claim the title of the greatest driver-athlete of all time, from any auto and motor sport. The scariest part of all though is that he’s still active and hungry for more titles.
Pyrros is the greatest weightlifter of all time, according to the International Federation of Weightlifting, which gave him that honor back in 2005, and named him the world’s ambassador for the sport in 2011. Dimas did a lot to earn such honors during his career, of course; he won a record four medals at the Olympics and he became a six times World Champion. In terms of pound for pound strength, he has no equal. His Olympic runs have not been surpassed to this day. His legacy in his homeland of Greece, as well as worldwide, is undeniable. He won a total 16 medals in the major competitions, with 12 being gold; 3 consecutive gold at the Olympics of Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney, 6 gold in the world championships and 3 gold in the European games. He used to break the world record regularly, a fact which forced the media to joke about his habit and hobby of breaking the world record so often.
At the Olympics of 2004, in his homeland Athens, he tried to become the first weightlifter in the history of the sport to win 4 gold medals in 4 different Olympic Games. Coming off his multiple injuries and three surgeries on his knees which had forced him to an early retirement for nearly 3 years, most analysts wouldn’t give him a slim chance to make it even in the finals of the tournament. Most saw his participation at the Olympics of Athens, as an honorary competition, as his last stand in front of his people and didn’t have any expectations from him to win a medal, or even to be competitive at his age, and with his injuries. But the Greek Lion, as they used to call him, had a different opinion and was going to shock the world one more time. With his wrist taped, Pyrros took the weightlifting platform and lifted among the best of a new generation of warriors. In the end it all came down to one last lift, one last feat of strength. Pyrros would attempt a weight that would put him in the gold medal position.
With the crowd in silence, Dimas heaved the weight from the ground to his chest and stood up with it. It was clear by the look on his face he was hurting. The weight was too much, and his confidence that was always there in other Olympic games was gone. Dimas attempted to push the weight from his chest to over his head but his battle-worn arms gave out and he dropped the weight. Dimas fell to his back in a half roll and laid there with his hands over his face. To many in the crowd it was like watching a god fall from grace. In his homeland Athens, Greece, the modern Heracles had finally lost. He was hurt, in pain and he would not make further history with another Gold medal; Dimas stood up, took off his weightlifting shoes and left them on the platform signaling he was done with weightlifting. He had left all he had there, just like another great Greek had done against the Romans thousands of years ago, Pyrrhus of Epirus, the man that Pyrros Dimas took his name from.
“I love the pole vault because it is a professor’s sport. One must not only run and jump, but one must think. Which pole to use, which height to jump, which strategy to use. I love it because the results are immediate and the strongest is the winner. Everyone knows it. In everyday life that is difficult to prove.” – Sergey Bubka
Serhiy Nazarovych is a retired Ukrainian pole vaulter. Repeatedly voted as the world’s best athlete, he represented the Soviet Union until its collapse, in 1991. Bubka won 6 gold medals in 6 consecutive IAAF World Championships, more than any athlete from any event, in the history of Athletics world championships, an Olympic gold, a European gold, 4 gold in the world Indoor championships and broke the world record for men’s pole vaulting 35 times (17 outdoor and 18 indoor records). He was the first to clear 6.0 meters and the only person to clear 6.10 meters (20 ft). He still holds the current outdoor world record of 6.14 meters (20 feet 13⁄4 inches), set on 31 July 1994 in Sestriere, Italy, and the current indoor world record of 6.15 meters, set on 21 February 1993 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Bubka has received many international honors for his achievements and contributions to the world of sports, such as Prince of Asturias Award in Sports, in 1991, Sportsman of the Year for 1997 by the newspaper L’Équipe, UNESCO Champion for Sport in 2003, and in 2005 he received the Panathlon international Flambeau d’Or for his contribution to the development and promotion of sports. Bubka is today a member of the ‘Champions for Peace’ club, a group of 54 famous elite athletes committed to serving peace in the world through sport, created by Peace and Sport, a Monaco-based international organization.
Here’s another case of an athlete who had the bad luck to be born in the wrong country, in the wrong time. Papp became the first man in history to win three successive gold medals at the Olympics of 1948, 1952 and 1956, something that only Felix Savon and Teofilo Stevenson succeeded after him; he also won gold in two European championships in Oslo and Milan. After three Olympic gold medals there was little left for Papp to achieve in the amateurs. He had gathered an unbelievable record of 306 official victories, only three losses and six draws. Papp was interested in fighting as a professional and, even though it was against the principles of the Communist society, the officials gave him their blessing as a contribution for all the success Papp had brought to his homeland. Papp was getting older and running out of time, but he still got his chance to fight for the European title in 1965, which he won by knocking out Danish champion Chris Christensen in eight rounds. Papp won the rematch faster than that, twice, and defended his title successfully for a total five times. A victory over Sugar Ray Robinson’s former challenger, Ralph “Tiger” Jones, proved that Papp was to be taken seriously in the pro level as well, even at his old age.
Papp already had a contract fighting for the world title in the United States, and he was willing to travel there, but the Hungarian officials prevented it. They announced that it was time for the 39 year-old Papp to end his career and to come back to his homeland and retire. The loyal man that Papp was, he did that and finished his professional career being undefeated in 29 fights, with 27 victories and two draws.
Papp was inducted into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame, in 2001. In 1989, WBC President José Sulaimán, gave Papp an award for ‘Best amateur and professional boxer of all time’ and granted him honorary champion status of the World Boxing Council. Papp was known as a quiet, honest man who never bragged about himself but did his talking inside the ring. In there, his fists told a story that will never be forgotten from the minds of the boxing fans, at least the true boxing fans outside the US, where boxing is a sport and not a battlefield of financial, racial and political games of boxing promoters, boxing fans and media.
Probably he deserves the #1 spot of this list, but I was afraid that I would be accused of personal and national favoritism, considering my previous list of the 15 most influential Greeks. Even though he’s the absolute number 1 in my personal list of athletes, I will give him the second spot and just list the facts and numbers about the athlete Yannis Kouros, and you may be the judge.
According to the facts and record books (Guinness included) the legendary Greek ultra-marathon runner holds more world records than any athlete in the history of any popular sport with 134 world records. It’s recorded officially that he’s the man who has run the most hours, days, weeks, months, years and miles than any other man in the history of mankind. New York Times – among other international papers and magazines – covered the NY 6-day race back in 1984, where Kouros broke 16 World Records and left the whole world speechless.
He’s the athlete with the most records in the Guinness Book of World Records (31) from any sport, he has won 71 ultra marathons in every continent, more than anyone in history and he holds, to this day, all the world records in the following races: 1) 100 miles Road, 2) 100 km Track, 3) 1000 km Road, 4) 1000 miles Road, 5) 12h Road, 6) 12h Track, 7) 24h Road, 8) 24h Track, 9) 48h Road, 10) 48h Track, 11) 6 days Track and 12) 6 days Road.
Some selected titles or expressions that Y. Kouros has been called by the world Press: “Ultra-marathon God,” “King of the road,” “Emperor of Ultra-running,” “Golden Greek,” “Bionic Kouros,” “Miracle Man,” “Superhuman,” “Poet in Motion,” “Fearless,” “Incomparable,” “The Greatest,” “Greek Streak,” “Super Kouros,” “Relentless,” “Amazing Yiannis,” and “Speed Kouros.”
Kouros has also written over 1,000 poems, several of which appear in his book Symblegmata (Clusters) and the book The Six-Day Run of the Century.
Probably the most famous athlete in the US, from the 15 in the list, but I still feel like it’s not enough for an athlete of his status, the little respect and recognition he enjoys in the US, from the hardcore fans of wrestling mainly. Karelin holds a Ph.D. in Physical Education. Nicknamed the “Russian Bear,” “Alexander the Great,” and “The Experiment,” he went undefeated in international competition for 13 years (spanning from 1987 to 2000). After going so many years undefeated in international competition, and six years without giving up a point, thanks to his injuries and broken ribs only 5 months before the Olympics, he suffered an upset loss to Rulon Gardner in the gold-medal match at the Sydney Olympics. A healthy Karelin had earlier beaten Gardner easily, in 1997.
He is universally considered to be the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time and many agree that he might be the greatest athlete of all time from any combat or fighting sport. Karelin was over 6’5 tall (1,96cm) and weighed 130 kg (286 lb). During his incredible career he won 4 medals at the Olympics, gold at the Olympics of 1988, 1992, 1996 and a silver at his last Olympics of 2000; he also won 9 world titles in 9 participations and 12 European titles in 12 participations. His dominance on the highest level of competition is unmatched by any other athlete from any other combat sport. Karelin was famous for his reverse body lift, the “Karelin Lift,” where facing the opponent who was lying flat on the mat to keep from being thrown, Karelin hoisted his opponents into the air and slammed them violently to the mat. This devastatingly effective maneuver, when properly executed, awarded Karelin 5 points per throw, the maximum awarded in Greco-Roman wrestling. The throw had long been in use by lighter wrestlers but not by heavyweights since the technique required immense strength. Karelin’s ability to perform this throw against elite opponents weighing as much as 130 kg was amazing to audiences as well as other participants and observers of the sport. FILA (International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles) named Karelin as the greatest wrestler ever, as soon as Karelin retired from the sport back in 2000.