With all the moaning and groaning on social media about whether 2016 was the worst year for humankind in terms of celebrities and public icons who died, the world of sports was no different. We lost showstoppers, entertainers and ball-hoofers who went on to change their respective sports forever.
This list may be shorter than the parchment roll with the name of the year’s retirees, but make no mistake about it, the significance of this one is no less than the other’s, considering that five names mentioned here are, or were, considered the best to have played their sport at one point of time.
Headlining this list, possibly the biggest casualty of 2016, is a man who was once described as the most famous person in the world.
Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016)
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. may not have one of the most famous people of his generation, but the converted Muhammad Ali was. Often placed in elite company such as Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, Michael Jackson, Albert Einstein, it is safe to say that Ali’s influence went way beyond the ring.
An Olympic champion by the time he was 18, Ali turned pro soon after and took the boxing world by storm when he upset Sonny Liston four years later, wresting the heavyweight title from him.
Ali was and probably will be the most famous sportsperson the world will ever see for various reasons: the most influential outside the ring (Civil Disobedience movement, non-participation in the Vietnam War, icon of the Counter-Culture movement, racial integration and political poetry), the most iconic sports photograph ever (Ali towering over Liston after knocking him out in a rematch in 1965) and the most heard quote ever (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”).
His fights, legendary as they were – the Thriller in Manila, the Rumble in the Jungle – eventually took a toll on the man as he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, three years after he had given up the sport.
The Louisville Lip, as he was also known, was a legend, and will always be, simply because he believed his words could have the same devastating effects as his right hooks.
Johan Cryuff (25 April, 1947 – 24 March, 2016)
“In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender.”
– Johan Cryuff on Total Football
Ask any aspiring footballer from the six continents that do play the beautiful game to name one school of football and they are likely to respond with the words “Total Football” or the derived “tiki-taka.”
Both credit part of their origins to Johan Cryuff, who along with Ajax and Netherlands coach Rinus Michels was the most famous exponent of the philosophy that led to Dutch football considered the most eye-pleasing of them all in the 70’s.
And then there’s this. The Swede Jan Olsson had no idea what hit him and thus the Cryuff Turn was born.
Winning every trophy imaginable with Ajax and then Barcelona, Cryuff’s Netherlands narrowly missed out on a World Cup title in 1974, but left an indelible mark on international teams with their all-out style of play, as he was awarded the Golden Ball.
Cryuff wasn’t finished, though. He would come back to manage Ajax and one of the best Barcelona teams ever from 1988 to 1996, winning the La Liga title on four straight occasions, one European Cup, one UEFA Cup Winners Cup and one UEFA Super Cup.
The forward not only influenced the Dutch national team, but also the all-conquering Spanish side that won three straight international trophies between 2008 and 2012.
Carlos Alberto (July 17, 1944 – October 25, 2016)
“The emotion, of course, when I scored that goal was incredible, but after the game, and still today, I realise how beautiful and how important that goal was because everybody is still talking about it.”
Carlos Alberto’s goal was the fourth in a 4-1 thrashing of Italy in the 1970 World Cup final. Forty six years after it was scored, the defender’s goal is still considered the best in a World Cup, beating more illustrious strikers such as Diego Maradona, Pele, Dennis Bergkamp and the aforementioned Cryuff.
Alberto was captain of that legendary 1970 team, considered by some as the best to have won world football’s biggest prize, the right-back’s goal in the final just a measure of how good the team were.
O Capitão, the Captain, was indeed such a figure of authority that he could reprimand even Pelé, who he captained both at club and international level. Alberto set the template for the modern full-back, and as goals go, Alberto’s is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon.
Arnold Palmer (September 10, 1929 – September 25, 2016)
When the great pro Gene Littler was asked at the 1954 US Amateur about a slender, wiry young lad, cracking the dimpled-ball with all his might on the practice tee, Littler replied, “That’s Arnold Palmer. He’s going to be a great player some day. When he hits the ball, the earth shakes.”
Palmer would win that tournament and turn pro. Nicknamed “The King”, the man from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, would go on to be the game’s genuine superstar as television audiences were just picking up and would help in changing golf’s perception from an elite-man’s game to a sport loved and accessed by the middle and the lower classes.
He would win seven major Championships, including four Masters wins in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964. The trio of Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were very dominant in the ‘60s and would popularise the sport, elevating it to the levels that it enjoys today.
Martin Crowe (22 September, 1962 – 3 March, 2016)
Kane Williamson might be in a mad dash to rewrite all of New Zealand’s batting records, but before him it was a certain Martin David Crowe who was the country’s cricketing idol. A dashing right-hand bat, Crowe debuted against New Zealand’s Antipodean rivals at the age of 19.
In 1991, Crowe made a match-saving 299 against the touring Sri Lankans, which would be the highest Test score by a New Zealander for almost two decades until Brendon McCullum finally became the nation’s first triple centurion with his 302 against India.
McCullum would emulate Crowe’s radical captaincy, as the latter was the first international skipper to opt for a big hitter, Mark Greatbatch, in the 1992 World Cup, long before the Sri Lankans did it in 1996. He also entrusted Dipak Patel, the off-spinner with the opening over in what was a highly unconventional move at the time.
After retiring, Crowe was an innovator, working on a new exciting format of the game, Cricket Max, now defunct but a precursor to the Modern T20 as it had teams playing two innings of 10 overs each. He was also a cricket writer and a fine commentator, and was also roped in as the CEO of IPL franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Hanif Mohammad (21 December, 1934 – 11 August, 2016)
From one batsman unlucky enough to get out on 299 to another dismissed just one run short of half a thousand runs. The original “Little Master”, Hanif Mohammad, holds the second highest first-class score till this day for his 499, scored in 1959 for Karachi against Bawahalpur.
Mohammad became the first Pakistani to hit a triple ton in Tests, scoring 337 to save the match against a formidable West Indies team in Barbados. At 970 minutes, it still holds the record for the longest Test innings ever, 58 years after it had been so patiently sculpted.
Born into a family of cricketers, four of the five Mohammad brothers played Tests for Pakistan including Hanif, who played in his nation’s first ever Test match. Post retirement, Hanif co-founded and edited the eminent cricketing magazine The Cricketer Pakistan for a period of about 20 years.
Gordie Howe (March 31, 1928 – June 10, 2016)
Ice Hockey may not be a popular sport in this part of the world, but Howe is easily one of the most recognizable faces of the game alongside Wayne Gretzky. Howe played the game for a staggering 32 seasons, till he retired at 52, setting multiple records along the way.
Nicknamed “Mr Hockey”, Howe possessed great strength and is considered by some to be the best all-round player of the game. Howe’s record in the National Hockey League is remarkable, finishing in the top five scorers for 20 straight seasons.
A 23-time NHL All-Star, he is also famous for inventing the “Gordie Howe hat-trick”: the Howe Hatty as it is known otherwise involves a player scoring, assisting and picking up a fight in the same game.
Most incredibly, Howe returned to the NHL, signing a one-game contract with the Detroit Vipers, playing one shift at the age of 69. Howe became the only player in the history of the game to have played it across six decades.
Dave Mirra (April 4, 1974 – February 4, 2016)
For those of us watching sports on Indian television in the ‘90s, the X-games were different from the rest, extreme sports combined with athletic ability, innovation and dangerous stunts all in one fun-filled show.
Some competitors would go on to be incredibly famous: Tony Hawk, the pro-skater who has a whole series of video games named after him, snowboarder Shaun White (also a two-time Winter Olympic gold medallist) and BMX (bicycle motocross stunt riding) racer Dave Mirra.
Mirra’s 24 medals in X-games stood as a record until it was broken by skater Bob Burnquist in 2013. His tally of 14 golds is the highest in X-games history. Post-BMX retirement, Mirra also took up triathlon, rallying and boxing as sports.
Mirra apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 42 and remains one of extreme sport’s iconic figures.