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The 20 Most Dominant Athletes Over The Last 20 Years

ESPN recently came out “The Dominant 20” list in honor of ESPN The Magazine’s 20th anniversary. The list goes over the 20 most dominant athletes over the last 20 years, and ESPN calls it “the definitive 20 for 20”. You can take a look and decide for yourself, but considering they have Tom Brady dead last on the list and have some noticeable omissions—like Michael Phelps—we know a more accurate representation of the most dominant athletes over the last 20 years can be made.


20. Kobe Bryant


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Despite winning a championship in 1998 and perhaps being the most dominant athlete of all-time, Michael Jordan doesn’t qualify for this list. But the man who modeled his game after MJ does qualify for the most dominant athletes over the last 20 years, and Kobe matched Jordan’s success about as well as you can expect of someone. Bryant had a three-peat with Shaquille O’Neal and company from 2000-2002, and he followed it up with back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. Not only was “The Black Mamba” a 11-time First Team All NBA player, but he was named to the All-Defensive First Team nine times.


19. Tim Duncan

Yup, being consistently great is dominant, and that’s exactly what Tim Duncan was throughout his 19-year NBA career with the Spurs. Duncan was a force offensively, defensively, as a rebounder, as a teammate, as a leader, and as a winner. Timmy is a five-time NBA champion, a three-time NBA Finals MVP, a two-time league MVP, a 15-time All-Star, and a 13-time All-NBA player. His first championship was in 1999, and his last was in 2014—with three scattered in between. Any discussion of the greatest basketball players of all-time must include Duncan somewhere on the list.


18. Novak Djokovic

Perhaps more than any other sport, there have been very dominant tennis players over the last 20 years, and Novak Djokovic is right up there among them. While he might not have the success of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer yet, Djokovic had one of the most dominant seasons of all-time by a tennis player when in 2011 he won three majors and went a combined 10-1 against Nadal and Federer. Djokovic also holds a slight career edge over both Federer and Nadal head-to-head, despite being behind them in major titles (12).


17. Clayton Kershaw

There have been some great ones, but simply hasn’t been a more dominant pitcher over the last 20 years than Clayton Kershaw, who has a sub-3.00 ERA every season in each of the last nine seasons since his rookie year. No starting pitcher that’s played in the last two decades really comes close to matching Kershaw’s 2.36 ERA, which ranks 24th all-time and is among players that played in the early 20th century. The only thing missing from Kershaw’s resume is consistent playoff success and a World Series title.


16. Lionel Messi


AP Photo/ Emilio Morenatti


Considered by many to be the greatest soccer player of all-time, Lionel Messi is undeniably one of the most dominant athletes over the last 20 years. At only 27, he broke the La Liga scoring record, and the great playmaker and goal-scorer continues to leave that record in the dust. Like some others on this list, Messi might get some criticism for not showing up in the biggest moments for his Argentinian national team, but he proved most people wrong when he put up a great effort in the 2014 World Cup and won the Golden Ball despite a loss to Germany in the final. And last October, Messi basically put Argentina on his back with a hat trick to lift them into the 2018 World Cup. The relatively small yet potent Messi has won five Ballon d’Or awards for the world’s best soccer player, which is tied for the most all-time.


15. Cristiano Ronaldo

In the tie for most all-time Ballon d’Or awards is Cristiano Ronaldo, who has won in each of the last two years to match Lionel Messi with five of them. Ronaldo is basically a force of nature and can do whatever is asked of him on the soccer field, and his goal-scoring prowess (he has the most ever in the European leagues and over 600 in his career) is not all that makes him great. Ronaldo has also had a ton of success in multiple leagues, and though he was injured in the final match, Portugal’s win in the UEFA Euro 2016 Final is a trademark win for his country in international play.


14. Jimmie Johnson

A seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Jimmie Johnson was basically the favorite anytime the #48 car took the track in his prime. Johnson’s 83 career wins ranks sixth all-time, and he was dominance personified from 2006-2010 when he won five-straight Cup Series championships. Only Jeff Gordon has more career wins in the modern era, but the titles for Johnson gives him the edge on our list—and he still has time to catch Gordon and his 93 career wins if he has a resurgence, as he apparently has no plans to retire anytime soon.


13. Mike Trout

In a decade or so, we might be talking about Mike Trout as not only the best baseball player of his generation, but also the best baseball player of all-time. In six full seasons in the majors, Trout has made the All-Star team six times, won two AL MVP awards, and has accumulated a WAR of 54.2—which, for comparison, is already better than David Ortiz’s career mark. At the plate and in the field, Trout is the most dangerous player in the game; if he decided to retire today at 26-years-old, the only thing missing from his resume would be a championship.


12. Peyton Manning


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The dominance of Peyton Manning is evident if you just take a look at the record books. Manning has a record five NFL MVP awards, the most regular season passing yards (71,940), the most regular season passing touchdowns (539), the most passing yards in a season (5,477) and the most passing touchdowns in a season (55). While his arm might not have been a huge part of the second title, Manning won Super Bowls with two different franchises, becoming the first and only starting quarterback in NFL history to accomplish the feat. And the catalyst in him moving from the Colts to the Broncos was a neck injury that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season. It looked like Manning might not ever play again, but one of the most dominant athletes of all-time wasn’t going to go out like that, and his spectacular return just adds to his legendary legacy.


11. Albert Pujols

It’s easy to forget just how dominant Pujols was last decade with St. Louis, but he earned the nickname “The Machine” for a reason. Despite not batting for a .300 average in a single season since 2010, Pujols still owns a .305 career average and has crushed 614 home runs since making in MLB debut in 2001. In 11 seasons with the Cardinals, the future Hall-of-Famer averaged over 40 homers a year and didn’t bat below .314 until his final season there—when he only hit .299. Plus, Pujols’ dominance gets a boost for winning two World Series (2006, 2011).


10. Rafael Nadal

While Roger Federer appears higher on our list, Rafael Nadal isn’t far behind—and it looks like he could surpass his long-time rival before their respective careers conclude. In head-to-head meetings, Nadal is 23-15 against Federer, including 9-3 in major tournaments; also, Nadal is five years younger at 31-years-old, and has a better all-time winning percentage that his adversary (.825% to .821%). Seeing two legends go at it over the years has been great, especially because they are so similar (same height and weight), but also very different (opposite hands, opposite backhand strokes).


9. LeBron James

From the moment LeBron James stepped into the NBA as an 18-year-old, he was among the league’s best players and has been near or at the top of the league ever since. Just last month, James became the first player in NBA history to have 30,000 points, 8,000 assists, and 8,000 rebounds in a career—an accomplishment that might not be reached anytime soon (James is also the only player in league history to average 27 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds per game in a career). LeBron is a four-time league MVP, a three-time NBA champion, a 13-time All-NBA player, a six-time All-Defensive player, and a two-time Oympic gold medalist. Because he was able to form superteams in today’s NBA en route to his three titles, LeBron gets downgraded slightly.


8. Barry Bonds

The alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs puts an asterisk on Barry Bonds’ success, but there’s no debating that he is one of the most dominant athletes of all-time. Bonds has the most home runs in the history of Major League Baseball (762) and the most home runs in a single season (73), and he might be the most feared hitter to ever step in the batter’s box. Bonds was so good, that teams would walk him at an unprecedented clip (he has the most walks and intentional walks in MLB history by a lot); in 2004, he was intentionally walked 120 times and had an on-base percentage of .609. Teams opting to face anyone but Bonds showed how dominant he was.


7. Serena Williams


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39 tells the entire story for Serena Williams’ dominance. She’s had 39 Grand Slam wins since 1999, winning 23 singles titles, 14 doubles titles (going a perfect 14-0 in doubles finals with her sister Venus Williams), and two mixed doubles titles. 2006 was the only year since 1999 she hasn’t won at least one major, so her career has been complete and non-stop dominance from the start. Williams also tied Steffi Graf’s record for consecutive weeks in the world No. 1 ranking (186).


6. Usain Bolt

The fastest man alive has a name that perfectly describes him as a runner, as Usain Bolt was truly a bolt on the track. The six-foot-five Jamaican didn’t even look like he was trying at times, you could basically chalk him up for a win whenever he lined up—no matter the stage, whether it be the Olympics or a world championship. Bolt took three gold medals in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Summer Olympics, and aside from a disqualification for a false start in 2008, he finished first in every world championship he participated in during that span. Bolt also holds the three fastest 100-meter times in history, and there’s a chance none of them are broken any time soon.


5. Roger Federer

Like someone we’ll meet later on this list, Roger Federer does not seem to be affected by Father Time. After a four-year period without a major from 2013-2016, Federer has won three of the last five majors. His 20 Grand Slam titles and eight Wimbledon titles are the most of all-time, and he holds countless other records and feats, including: 30 Grand Slam finals appearances, most consecutive weeks ranked as the No. 1 player in the world (237), and most weeks ranked as the No. 1 player in the world (307). That’s dominant.


4. Floyd Mayweather Jr.

It simply does not get much better or more dominant than a perfect record, and that’s what Floyd Mayweather Jr. did over the last 20 years, going a 38-0 (50-0 all-time). Mayweather won titles in five different weight classes, and he was basically untouchable and had unrivaled skill as a boxer—particularly defensively and mentally, which allowed him to continue his dominance as he aged. He also lived up to his nickname, as “Money” Mayweather drew people to the arena and through pay-per-view, making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.


3. Tiger Woods


AP Photo/Morry Gash


If Tiger Woods’ career was not derailed by personal issues, there’s no telling where he would be considered among the greatest athletes in history. Woods was only dominant for about half of the last two decades, as the Thanksgiving 2009 incident was the end of his unmatched run in the game of golf. In the ten years before the incident, Woods was must-watch television for any sports fan, and his major success speaks for itself: Masters (2001, 2002, 2005), U.S. Open (2000, 2002, 2008), Open Championship (1999, 2000, 2005, 2006), PGA Championship (2000, 2006, 2007).


2. Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps being left off of ESPN’s list is about as bad of an oversight imaginable for something like this. All Olympians have had some level of success by even participating in the games; but then there’s big-time success during the Olympics, like winning a gold medal or a medal in general—then there’s Michael Phelps, who has 23 gold medals and 28 medals total. Considering the second-place Olympian in all-time medals, Larisa Latynina, has nine golds and 18 total medals, Phelps basically defines dominance as a swimmer and as an Olympian.


1. Tom Brady


AP Photo/Gregory Payan


There have been many dominant athletes over the years, but out of everyone on this list, Tom Brady has been doing it the longest and is still at the very top of his game at 40 years old. Each of these 20 athletes make the ultimate commitment to their respective sports, but Brady might be unmatched in that regard—almost everything Brady does works towards his goal of being the best football player he can be, and it shows on the field every Sunday. The span of dominance for the Patriots quarterback will likely never be seen again: eight Super Bowl appearances, five Super Bowl victories, four Super Bowl MVPs, by far the most wins of all-time (223); and barring injury or a surprise retirement, Brady will also hit the most all-time touchdowns. Brady is the greatest athlete of all-time, and his dominance isn’t finished yet.


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