Whether you call it futbol or soccer, it is unarguably the world’s most popular sport. And the man known as its greatest all-time player is Edson Arantes do Nascimento. I can hear the collective “Huh?” reverberating from a great many of you. Who the hell is that? Well, you better know him as Pele. From the time he set foot on the International soccer scene, Pele was destined to be a superstar. And many around the world recognize him as the greatest footballer of all-time. After all, at the tender age of seventeen, Pele rose from the Brazilian slums to lead Brazil to World Cup victory, scoring a hat trick in the semi-final game. After the ’58 World Cup victory, he continued to star for the Brazilian National team as they again won the World Cup in ’62 and ’70. He first started playing for league football club Santos at the tender age of 15 and joined the Brazil National team at the age of 16. In addition to the 3 world Cup titles, Pele led FC Santos to 2 Inter-Continental Cups. After the ’58 World Cup win, the young Pele became the face of team Brazil. And the Brazilian team rode their new show pony to many victories including a 1964 dominating 5 to 1 beat down of the mighty team from England in which Pele scored 4 goals. With Pele leading the way, Brazil was no longer considered a mongrel among nations. Pele is even recognized with breaking the color barrier in international soccer as the game’s first black star. Prior to his arrival on the World competition scene international teams consisted of white players. This allegedly even caused young Pele to question teammates as to whether Brazil was only place in the world with black people. In 1958, with Pele, Brazil was the first multi-racial side to win the World Cup There are those who would question Pele’s legitimate claim to being the greatest player of all-times. They put forth the names of Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi as legitimate challengers. Many of his fellow Brazilians would even argue that countryman Garrincha was a more accomplished player. They argue that he was solely responsible for the ’62 world cup victory after Pele went down with an injury. That Pele was only better at self-promotion than Garrincha. But not one of these players has the lifetime of achievements in the game that Pele does. Besides the 3 World Cups and 2 Inter-Continental Cups, Pele also came out of retirement from FC Santos to join the fledgling NASL New York Cosmos team in 1975 and led them to the 1977 NASL championship in his third and final season. He is credited with raising interest in the U.S. for the game and bringing legitimacy to the league. Even in his 70’s, Pele is still a global icon and the number one ambassador for the sport. Among the numerous awards and acknowledgments bestowed on Pele were the ’99 FIFA co-Player of the Century, the ’99 World player of the Century by IFFHS, the ’99 Athlete of the Century by IOC, the ’99 France Footbll Ballon d’Or winners choice for Football Player of the Century, and the ’99 TIME 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. He received the 2013 FIFA Ballon d’Or Prix d’ Honneur in recognition of his career and achievements as a global icon of football. Pele scored 1281 goals in 1363 games including unofficial friendlies and tour games. He was Brazil’s all-time leading scorer with 77 goals in 91 games. Per the IFFHS, Pele was the most successful league goal-scorer in the world with 541 goals. He holds Guinness World record for most career goals in football. In 1970, Pele signed a record $120, 000 shoe deal with Puma. In the ’70’s, Pele was 2nd most recognized brand name in Europe behind only Coca-Cola. Now 73, Pele endorsement deals generate $25 million in revenue. On Oct. 1, 1977, Pele closed out his playing career in an exhibition match between his teams FC Santos and the New York Cosmos in front of a sellout crowd at Giants Stadium. It was televised in the U.S. on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and worldwide. The great Muhammad Ali was among those in attendance. Pele played the 1st half for the Cosmos and the 2nd half for Santos. Pele scored his final goal during the game on a direct free kick and the Cosmos won 2 to 1. For all of the above and much more, Pele is recognized as the greatest footballer of all-times.
They were two totally unrelated entities on the verge of becoming two of the greatest pop culture icons ever in their respective fields. But the meeting that was never supposed to happen almost never did. Instead, the last minute photo shoot bringing the lads from Liverpool together with the Louisville Lip produced some of the most memorable, off the wall photos ever taken of this collective bunch of soon to be world renown superstars. But as I stated previously, this historic meeting wasn’t supposed to happen. The Beatles were just wrapping up their first trip across pond, a nine day whirlwind tour that had them performing in front of a record television audience on the Ed Sullivan Show. In addition, they played live concerts at the Washington, D.C. Coliseum and at New York’s Carnegie Hall. They had then headed for Miami to make another appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Beatlemania was beginning to explode worldwide as their music was dominating the U.S. charts and airwaves. At the same time, young Cassius Clay was putting the finishing touches on his training as he prepared to take on heavyweight champ Sonny Liston. After their second appearance on Ed Sullivan, the Fab Four were enjoying a few extra days in the South Florida sunshine before heading back to England. With the big title fight a week away, both fighters were putting the final touches on their preparation. However, it was champ Liston, not upstart Clay, whom the lads wanted to meet. Remember, at the time, the loudmouth from Louisville was a 7 to 1 underdog. Most, including the Beatles, expected him to lose. As John Lennon allegedly said, “We have no interest in meeting that bigmouth who is going to get beat. But it seems that champ Liston had no desire to meet with them. In fact, it was said that he’d been in the audience for their latest performance and said he had not been impressed. So, at the last moment, one of the band’s handlers hastily arranged a last minute meeting and photo shoot with the upstart challenger instead. Even then, it still almost didn’t happen. When Clay was late to arrive, the angry lads threatened to walk. But their handlers were able to keep them there until the Louisville Lip arrived. “Hey Beatles, we should go on the road together and make some money,” Clay supposedly shouted upon his arrival. The rest is pop culture history, and produced some fantastic photos that are still memorable for capturing the improvisational collaboration of two all-time greats, each in the infancy of their rise to super-stardom. One experience that the two would later mutually but separately share is that both would take hits to their popularity at its early heights for their religious choices. Ali for embracing Islam and the Beatles for their submergence into Eastern philosophy. And though they ended up hitting it off and enjoying each others company during the photo shoot, Ringo later claimed that he still lost his money by betting on Liston to win.
In addition to being the greatest boxer of all-times and a world-wide celebrity, Muhammad Ali also took on the role of husband and father. He was married four times. He was married to first wife Sonji Roi shortly after his shocking upset win over heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964.. The marriage broke up in 1966 over Sonji’s refusal to adapt to Ali’s Muslim ways. They had no children. Ali then married Belinda Boyd in 1967. She was also known by the Muslim name “Kalilah.” They had four children. The oldest, Maryum, was born in 1968. She was followed by twin sisters Jamillah and Rasheeda in 1970. Their youngest was son Muhammad Ali, Jr., born in 1972. Their marriage broke up in 1977 after the public exposure of his affair with model Veronica Porsche. Ali and Veronica had two daughters. Hana was born in 1976. Youngest daughter Laila was born in 1977. Their marriage broke up in 1986. He then married fourth wife Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams in 1986 and they remained together until Ali’s passing earlier this year. They adopted a son Assad Amin. Two extramarital affairs while married to Belinda produced two more daughters. Miya was conceived with Patricia Harvell and Khaliiah with Wanda Bolton. A paternity test showed Ali to have fathered a tenth child with Barbara Mensah, a woman who Ali met in Houston back in 1967. Kiiursti Mensah was born in 1981. Though neither of Ali’s sons followed their father into the family business, his youngest daughter, Laila, did. I wrote about her successful career, including her bout against Ali rival Joe Frazier’s daughter, in a previous post. (You can check it out in the archived posts.) Shortly after Ali’s death however, an article revealed that Ali’s grandson, Nico Ali Walsh, is attempting to follow in grandfather’s footsteps by pursuing an amateur boxing career. His mother, is one of Ali’s twin daughters, Rasheeda. Rasheeda Ali Walsh is an author and activist. Interestingly, it was a then four year old Nico who inspired his mother to write a children’s book on Parkinson’s. After a visit with his grandfather he asked his mother why his grandfather was shaking. Another daughter, Hana, also co-wrote a book with her father. All of Ali’s kids have described him, through their personal experiences, as a loving and doting father and grandfather. Shortly after Ali’s death, there were numerous tabloid style reports claiming that many members of the family were feuding with his widow, Lonnie, over the champ’s estate. However, intertwined with all those reports of turmoil was an article reporting and displaying photos of numerous members of the family, Lonnie, Laila, and mom Rasheeda among them, getting together to root on Nico at his latest boxing match. I’m sure the spirit of champ was there as well.
It has not been a good year for the legendary greats of the sports world. Having lost boxing’s greatest, Muhammad Ali, and hockey’s greatest, Gordie Howe, now we have lost golf legend Arnold Palmer. Arnold Palmer may have been the only athlete to rival Ali in popularity with the public outside of fans of his chosen sport. As well as his garnering the attention from heads of state and royalty alike. I can already here some out there saying wait a minute. You already wrote a post on golf’s all-time greatest player and chose Jack Nicklaus. You’re absolutely right. And I still stand by that choice. The record book clearly shows Nicklaus as the all-time greatest player in golf. But Arnold Palmer’s greatness goes far beyond his tremendous lifetime of accomplishments on the golf course. After all, fans and fellow players alike don’t call him “The King” for nothing. And like any good king, Arnold Palmer led his fellow players to a better way of life. His popularity and in demand presence inside and outside the ropes paved the way to bigger prize money and more world-wide exposure for everyone in the game. His arrival perfectly coinciding with the golden age of television was a mutually beneficial partnership. Arnold was perfectly at home in front of the camera, and the camera and its audience adored the ruggedly handsome swashbuckler who employed a go for broke, high risk, win at all costs attitude. And this king had an army. Men, women, and children of all ages enlisted in Arnie’s Army. The men wanted to be him and the women wanted to be with him. Legions of fans everywhere followed their king in to battle, their hearts rising and falling with his wins and loses, but always remaining loyal and keeping the faith. And Arnold always returned their love and loyalty two fold. He would always patiently remain after every round of golf until every fan got the autograph or photograph that they desired.And he made sure, and encouraged others,to take the time to make each autograph legible instead of merely scribbling carelessly like so many do. Bobby Clampett, a highly accomplished amateur and professional golfer in his own right, tells a great story that demonstrates this. As a twelve year old kid, he attended a tournament at Pebble Beach to watch Palmer play. After the event, having no ride home, he approached Arnold Palmer and said he needed a ride home. The superstar golfer looked down at this kid then put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “Sure kid, no problem.” That was Arnold Palmer. A superstar and regular guy all at once, who never forgot where he came from and who put him there. Being loved by the camera and totally at ease in front of it, Arnold Palmer could have easily transitioned into the movies as other athletes have done. But Arnold’s second love after golf became aviation. His interest and fascination led to the purchase of his own aircraft and eventually to his pilot’s license. While still playing golf at the highest level, he also achieved certification in numerous aircraft. One highly accomplished pilot said that if Palmer had concentrated on aviation instead of golf, he has no doubt Arnold would have been recognized as one of the greatest pilots in aviation history. And he used those piloting skills as an asset to his golf career and outside business interests. His charitable and philanthropic endeavors over his entire adult life were also legendary. He gave as good, if not much, much more than he got. With all the above being said, Arnold Palmer is easily, in my book, the greatest sports celebrity and sports personality of all-times. And while Jack Nicklaus remains the greatest, most decorated golfer of all-time, I believe Arnold Palmer is easily among the top ten, if not higher. And I would feel remiss if I didn’t highlight some of his accomplishments before closing this piece. Arnold Palmer achieved 92 pro wins world-wide during his career. He won 7 majors and 5 Senior majors. In fact, the Senior tour was mostly an afterthought in most golf fans’ minds until Arnold Palmer joined. He won the Vardon trophy, given for low score avg., 4 times. He was the first player to win the trifecta of the U.S. Amateur, U.s. Open, and U.S. Senior Open. He is still the most accomplished U.S. Ryder Cup player with a record of 22-8-2, and having played on 6 winning Ryder Cup teams. He also won 2 Open Championships in 1961 and 1962. Before his first appearance in 1960, very few American golfers participated in the great event across the pond. Arnold Palmer’s accomplishments there made it a must attend event with American players. He along with Nicklaus and South African Gary Player made up the “Big Three,” a made for television series to show off their golf skills and competitive rivalry. He was awarded the SI Sportsman of the Year in 1960, the first golfer ever to receive the honor. He was the first golfer awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, and the 2nd golfer awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2009. He was given the PGA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998, and was elected to the World Golf HOF in 1974. He also participated in an unprecedented 50 consecutive Masters tournaments from 1955 to 2004. He teamed up with rival Jack Nicklaus to form the PGA and was co-founder of the Golf Channel. So, for all of the above and so much more, Arnold Palmer was not only a legendary golfer but the greatest sports celebrity of all-time. In a final tribute, as the memorial service befitting of this king ended, his aircraft flew overhead before climbing until it was out of sight. All hail to the King! RIP Arnold Palmer.
For any regular reader of my blog I apologize for the extended period between posts. Unfortunately, an accident while on vacation, and subsequent surgery, has consumed the time since my last post. It is my intention to post a new Acknowledging The All-Time Greats soon providing Hurricane Mathew doesn’t knock out the electricity for a prolonged period. Thanks for your patience and understanding.