Every sport has an athlete that is its undisputed ‘best ever’. Mostly, anyway. While many will argue, debate, and discuss who those athletes are, there are never more than a few names in the conversation. And even then, when overall domination is the topic, any disagreement is usually semantic.
For example, Babe Ruth was the best baseball player to ever live. Even by modern standards, his numbers are gawdy, gigantic, and inspiring. With the exception of Barry Bonds in 2001—when he had the steroidal content of a race horse inside his body—nobody has matched the type of seasons that Babe Ruth enjoyed in his prime. His career OPS+ is 207. OPS+ is a way of measuring a players value throughout different era’s of baseball. The standardized average is 100.
To give you an idea of how absurdly good 207 is, Johnny Bench has a career OPS+ of 126. Eddie Murray, 129. Tony Gwyn, 132. Each of those players were voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. And those were just random examples. Generally, a player who has an OPS+ of 120 or greater, is considered a strong Hall of Fame candidate. And in case you are wondering, Barry Bonds has a career OPS+ of 181. Almost has high as Ted Williams’ 190. In that ridiculous 2001 season, it was 259. In 2002, at age 37, he posted a 268.
Golf has Jack Nicklaus. Basketball Michael Jordan. Or Wilt Chamberlin. Hockey has Wayne Gretzky. Soccer, Pele.
But none of them, not even Babe Ruth, dominated thier respective sports quite like the greatest, most decorated and accomplished athlete in history.
He won: everything. Twice. At least.
Some perspective: Jack Nicklaus has 115 professional wins. 73 of those were PGA events. 18 of them were Major Championships. He won those 18 Majors in a span of 25 years, which is remarkable. For how dominant Tiger Woods has been over the last 15 years, Nicklaus was even more so. His long list of victories is impressive, and lengthy. And the accolades he receives today are well earned. However we can’t exactly compare golf and cycling. They are obviously different, but grasping some sort of comparable foundation is necessary when you consider what Eddy Merckx did.
As the above graph indicates, his cycling dominance is undisputed. There will never be another rider who will win as often, and in the variety of races, that Merckx was able to.
His career lasted 13 years. He won 525 races. 28 Classics. 11 Grand Tours.
He won Milan-San Remo 7 times. He is the only rider to win Yellow, Green and Polka Dot in the same Tour de France. In 1971 he won 45% of the races he entered. No other athlete in any other sport can claim that sort of dominance. No other athlete has been able to compete across the variety of disciplines—sprint, climb, time trial, one-day, multi-day—that Merckx did. Cyclists today are surgeons. They specialize in one sort of riding, and generally flail spectacularly, by professional standards, at the rest. Sprinters struggle up the mountains, while the climbers fear the isolation of a time trial. There are of course, exceptions, and those are the riders who win Grand Tours. But even they are not leading—or even riding—the Tour of Flanders or Liege-Bastogne-Liege and other one-day races. Eddy Merckx won the five major classics 19 times.
But when everyday sports fans discuss dominant athletes, Eddy Merckx is not a name that anybody talks about. In fact, the only cyclist any modern American sports fan knows is Lance Armstrong. Maybe Greg Lemond. Maybe Floyd Landis. But not Eddy Merckx. And not Bernard Hinault, or Fausto Coppi, or Eric Zabel. And why is that? Well, that’s easy: nobody cares. But they ought to. Especially in our dynasty-centric culture of sport and legend.
Americans loves sports dynasties. We give teams nicknames like Murderers Row, The Big Red Machine, or The Steel Curtain. But another name that belongs with—no, well ahead— of them is The Cannibal.