The Best American Athlete Championship Belt

Bomani proclaims Bolt a better Olympian than Phelps (2:15)

Bomani Jones explains why he views Usain Bolt as a better Olympian than Michael Phelps. (2:15)

This has been a banner Olympics for the United States. Entering Tuesday's action, Team USA has won 14.4 percent of the gold medals awarded in Rio, which would be its highest percentage since the Los Angeles Games of 1984, and even that required a boycott by the Soviet Union, East Germany and several other countries. In addition to a few exciting surprises, the American athletes who were expected to star have delivered.

In fact, the most difficult thing to do when thinking about the American performances in Rio might be figuring out who stood out the most. In her first Olympics, gymnast Simone Biles blew away the competition, winning the women's vault competition by such a large margin that the silver medalist was closer to eighth place than she was to Biles. Swimmer Katie Ledecky, making her second trip to the Olympics, was so dominant in the 800-meter freestyle that she inspired memes. And of course, the legendary Michael Phelps finished his Olympic career by adding five gold medals to his record-setting career haul of 23.

Even getting past the Olympics, there's an interesting question to gnaw on: Who is the best American athlete right now? Is it one of those three? LeBron James? Serena Williams? Mike Trout? And what about in years past? Who would have held the title the longest?

As you now know, I'm here to answer those questions. I've gone through every year since 1912 and done my best to identify who held the Best American Athlete Championship Belt. I started in 1912 to honor Jim Thorpe, who was widely regarded as one of the best -- if not the best -- American athletes of the 20th century. Indeed, he will be our first titlist, although he won't hold it for very long.

I've put together pieces exploring this concept before for running backs, quarterbacks, football defenses and pitchers. The main difference between an annual award and a championship belt is that you have to outdo the person holding the belt to "win" the title. Like Ric Flair always said: To be the man, you've got to beat the man.

I applied a few rules/concepts in making my selections. Before you get angry, keep in mind that this is merely my list; you could approach this idea with a totally different set of criteria and come up with entirely different results. Here's what I thought about when making my picks:

  • We're making these selections as if they were being chosen at the end of each year. Hindsight -- except for one notable exception -- doesn't apply. I might mention future success (or lack thereof) in talking about a selection, but in terms of actually making a pick, I considered what each athlete had accomplished in the year in question. That means I can't look into the future, even if that includes part of a season. For example, if I wanted to pick Von Miller for 2015, I could only consider his performance during the 2015 regular season and not what he did in the Super Bowl, which took place in February 2016. With that in mind, awards balloting at the end of each season is very important for this piece. I also relied on three awards that previously chose to measure athletic performance across sports: The Associated Press' selections for Male and Female Athlete of the Year, Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year and the Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year.

  • I'm not including athletes whose performances were later found to be fueled by performance-enhancing drugs. Without this rule, this list would be dominated by appearances from Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong, with the likes of Marion Jones and Mark McGwire as feasible candidates. We all know that doesn't make sense or feel very appropriate in hindsight. I'll include athletes who had subsequent off-field incidents which didn't directly impact their on-field performance at the time, but I'm leaving out Bonds and Armstrong.

  • Athleticism must be combined with accomplishment. Being a freak athlete is great, but that isn't very useful unless you're actually winning things or being very productive at the highest level. Billy Hamilton is an amazing athlete, but Joey Votto is far better at the sport they play.

  • The most important thing is how well an athlete performed versus the other competition in their respective sports. We don't know how Michael Phelps would be at basketball or how Kevin Durant would do as a swimmer. What we do know is how much better Michael Phelps is than a typical swimmer, and how KD blows away the competition in the NBA. That's how we're measuring things here: relative dominance over the other people at your chosen path. With that in mind, it's awfully difficult to give an award to an athlete in a team sport if he or she doesn't win MVP and/or produce the best statistics. There will be exceptions if the MVP doesn't really stand out or if the athlete has some other mitigating factors (like playing a second sport at a high level), but we're looking for the best of the best here.

  • I'm leaning toward Olympians in Olympic years. It's extremely difficult for Olympians in less popular sports to really hold the belt for multiple years, if only because their performances in World Championships and other meets don't generate the same level of attention as typical team sports. With that in mind, given the enormous stage and scope of their performances, I'm pushing close races for the belt toward Olympians. In other cases, I'll lean toward the more prominent sport at the time.

  • I'm picking humans. Sorry, horses.

OK, let's go. In the interest of keeping this under 10,000 words, I'm going to produce shorter explanations for my selections between 1912 and 1945, offering longer discussions in the post-World War II era:

1912-13: Jim Thorpe, multiple

Thorpe is widely acknowledged as the finest prewar athlete of the century, although he was really a replacement-level baseball player.

1914-17: Ty Cobb, baseball

Cobb led the league in nearly every major category in 1914, and while there were no MVP votes between 1914 and 1922, his 34.4 bWAR leads all hitters over this four-year stretch.

1918-23: Babe Ruth, baseball

Ruth started this run as a hitting/pitching dual threat before eventually becoming a full-time hitter with legendary results. His 1923 season -- with a .393/.545/.764 line -- was worth 14.1 bWAR alone.

1924-25: Red Grange, football

Ruth might very well have held onto the belt for a decade, but Grange was a national sensation as a running back for Illinois in the days before the Heisman Trophy. It's fair to say he helped solidify football as a growing national concern.

1926-29: Babe Ruth, baseball

After a disappointing 1925 season, Ruth returned to his league-leading form in 1926 before whacking 60 home runs for the legendary Yankees team of 1927.

1930: Bobby Jones, golf

Jones won the closest thing to a single-year Grand Slam in golf history by winning the U.S. and British Opens along with the U.S. and British Amateur tournaments in one year. The Masters didn't yet exist, of course, because Jones was to design Augusta National three years later.

1931-32: Helene Madison, swimming

In 1931, Madison either set or already held the world records in the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyle races. She followed that up with three gold medals at the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

1933: Carl Hubbell, baseball

An above-average starter for the Giants, Hubbell manufactured the season of his life by going 23-12 with a 1.66 ERA, winning league MVP honors before shutting out the Senators twice in the 1933 World Series.

1934: Satchel Paige, baseball

Paige was still 14 years away from his debut in the major leagues, but in his age-27 season, he was a dominant 14-2 in the Negro Leagues before beating Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean several times in barnstorming games.

1935: Joe Louis, boxing

While Louis didn't win the heavyweight title until 1937, he was named AP Athlete of the Year on the back of an incredible year of fighting. Louis came into the year 12-0 and left it 23-0, winning 11 times while knocking out former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer.

1936: Jesse Owens, track and field

Owens first attracted attention at Ohio State in 1935, when he set three world records at one Big Ten meet, but he became a worldwide star after winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

1937-38: Joe Louis, boxing

After losing to Max Schmeling in September 1936, Louis rolled off seven consecutive wins before beating Jim Braddock for the heavyweight title in Comiskey Park in June 1937. He would get his revenge on Schmeling the following June.

1939-40: Joe DiMaggio, baseball

Already a fine outfielder, DiMaggio took the leap to superstardom in '39 by hitting .381 with 30 homers. He won his first MVP award in leading the Yankees to a World Series sweep of the Reds.

1941: tie between Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, baseball

I can't pick a winner in 1941, with DiMaggio hitting in 56 consecutive games while Williams batted .406 for the Red Sox. DiMaggio narrowly won the MVP race, but I think it's fair to make this our list's first tie.

1942: Frank Sinkwich, college football

With many athletes off to war, the AP Male Athlete of the Year was Sinkwich, who won the Heisman Trophy as a passing and running threat for Georgia.

1943: Patty Berg, golf

Berg was named AP Female Athlete of the Year while winning the Western Open, then considered a major.

1944: Frank Sinkwich, football

Now a professional, Sinkwich won the MVP award for his exploits with the Lions; he threw for 1,060 yards and ran for 563 more. He suffered a knee injury serving with the Marines after the season and wasn't the same player upon his return.

1945: Byron Nelson, golf

Nelson dominated about as much as any one golfer could in 1945, winning a staggering 18 tournaments, including a streak of 11 consecutive events.

1946: Ted Williams, baseball

After the 1942 season, Williams' career was interrupted by World War II, so it's only fair that he make his way back to the belt upon his return from the Marine Corps. With DiMaggio having a down season by his incredibly high standards (before winning MVP again in 1947), Williams posted a career-best 10.9 bWAR in 1946 with a .342/.497/.667 line. You can make a case that it was just one of a half-dozen seasons at an extremely high level for Williams, but it was the first of his two MVP seasons, with the other coming in 1949.

1947-49: Jackie Robinson, baseball

Robinson's athleticism was self-evident: He was incredible enough to break the color barrier. Robinson led the league in steals during his debut season with the Brooklyn Dodgers and repeated the feat two years later, when he posted a .342/.432/.528 line in 1949 and won NL MVP. Even ignoring the superhuman emotional and mental strength he showed off the field, Robinson was a supremely underrated player on it, the sort of high-OBP, hyper-efficient dynamo sabermetricians would fall in love with in examining the game with data years later. He probably should have won MVP at least once more, in 1951, when he led the league in bWAR.

1950: Babe Didrikson Zaharias, golf

There were several years and several sports in which Zaharias would have been a very justifiable selection for this award, most notably for her performance during the 1932 Olympics. In 1950, the first year of the LPGA Tour, Zaharias had a downright dominant campaign. She won all three majors, led the money list, and was named "Greatest Female Athlete of the First Half of the Century" by The Associated Press, which also awarded her Female Athlete of the Year honors for the fifth time.

1951: Dick Savitt, tennis

This was a year strangely without stars; the AP Male Athlete of the Year was Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier, while the Female Athlete of the Year was 16-year-old tennis player Maureen Connolly, who would have a better case for the title when she won a Grand Slam in 1953. The best candidate I can find is Savitt, who claimed both the Australian Open and Wimbledon as a 24-year-old before retiring from tennis the following year.

1952: Dick Button, figure skating

Button defended his gold medal from the 1948 Winter Games in St. Moritz by hitting the first triple loop in competition during the finals of the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, culminating a four-year run of dominance. The now legendary commentator won his second gold and combined it with his fifth consecutive victory in the World Championships before retiring and going to Harvard.

1953: Ben Hogan, golf

The aforementioned Maureen Connolly has a strong case here, but this is the best season in the career of one of golf's most famous practitioners. After failing to close out the Masters and U.S. Open with late leads in 1952, Hogan won the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year, a feat yet unmatched in golf history. Hogan was unable to play in the PGA Championship because its dates overlapped with the end of the Open, preventing him from attempting the calendar Grand Slam. He entered six tournaments that year and won five.

1954-55: Willie Mays, baseball

The Say Hey Kid had already made his name before 1954, winning Rookie of the Year in 1951 before spending much of 1952 and all of 1953 serving with the U.S. Army. He came back showing no rust, winning his first MVP award in 1954 after posting 10.6 bWAR and capping his season with "The Catch" in the 1954 World Series. Mays then led the National League again in bWAR the following year while hitting 51 home runs and stealing 24 bases in 28 tries.

1956-57: Mickey Mantle, baseball

Our belt didn't have to travel far, going from a center fielder in Manhattan to one in the Bronx. Mantle actually beat out Mays to lead the majors in bWAR in 1955, with 9.5 wins to Mays' 9.0, but the Oklahoman took his game to another level the following year. Mantle was worth 11.2 bWAR in 1956, as he hit .353 with 52 homers and took home each and every one of the 24 AL MVP first-place votes. Voters were loathe to pick repeat candidates back then, but Mantle's 11.3 bWAR the following year was enough to narrowly edge Ted Williams. Mantle's Yankees won the World Series in 1956 before losing in seven games to the Braves the following year.

1958-59: Jim Brown, football

After excelling as a football and lacrosse star at Syracuse (endearing himself to an adolescent Bill Belichick in the process), Brown won the NFL's MVP award in his rookie season of 1957. His line was impressive: 202 carries, 942 yards, 10 touchdowns. It was also the worst performance of his career. A year later, Brown's truly legendary run began. In 1958, Brown carried the ball 257 times for 1,527 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns, starting an eight-season stretch in which he averaged 1,421 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Outside of Spec Sanders, who ran for 1,432 yards for the 1947 New York Yankees (and none of that is a typo), nobody else in NFL history had come within 380 yards of Brown's new rushing record. By the time he retired in 1965, Brown had the three largest single-season rushing totals in league history.

1960: Wilt Chamberlain, basketball

See Bill Russell entry below.

1961-62: Bill Russell, basketball

Picking between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the early '60s is basically unfair, so I'm letting the people who were around at the time do the work for me. Chamberlain, who might have qualified based on his absurd dominance at Kansas in the late 1950s, won MVP in 1960, while Russell picked up the honor in each of the three ensuing seasons. This was in the middle of Boston's unprecedented stretch of eight consecutive titles, which wouldn't exactly have hurt Russell's rep. If you want to pick Russell all three years for his team's success -- or Chamberlain all three years because he didn't have as much around him -- I won't argue. If anything, the most difficult thing is finding a reason to take the belt off Russell after 1962 ...

1963: Sandy Koufax, baseball

... One of the greatest pitching seasons in the history of baseball might qualify, though. When I wrote about how Koufax held the pitching championship belt from 1963 to '66, I mentioned how he was an amazing pitcher in the right place (Dodger Stadium) at the right time (the low-scoring early 1960s). That takes some wind out of Koufax's numbers, but not much. In 1963, the Dodgers ace went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and 306 strikeouts against 58 walks in 311 innings. Translate that to Dodger Stadium in the run environment of 2014 (under the Neutralized Pitching section) and Koufax's line becomes a 24-11 season with a 1.94 ERA and 306 strikeouts against 60 walks. Not bad. Koufax was worth nearly 11 wins on his own in 1963.

1964-66: Muhammad Ali, boxing

While swimmer Don Schollander won four gold medals and set three world records at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Koufax continued his exploits on the mound, and Russell kept winning NBA titles, with all due respect, there is only one Ali. At 22, Ali emerged as a household name by upsetting heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in February 1964 in Miami Beach, stopping the previously undefeated Liston after six rounds. Ali then knocked out Liston in the rematch the following February and took down Floyd Patterson later that year before beating five opponents around the world in 1966. Ali was then stripped of the title in 1967 for refusing to enter the Army and spent the next 3½ years inactive.

1967-68: Wilt Chamberlain, basketball

Chamberlain finally broke through the Russell barrier in the 1967 playoffs, when his Sixers dropped 140 on the Celtics to clinch the Eastern Division finals and end Boston's streak of eight consecutive titles. The Sixers then beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals as Chamberlain claimed his first championship. It was his zenith as a player, too: Chamberlain won three consecutive MVP awards from 1966 to 1968, making his last All-NBA First Team appearance in '68 as well. Chamberlain was traded to the Lakers after 1968, and while he would eventually win a title in Los Angeles during the 1971-72 season, he wasn't regarded as the same caliber of player.

1969: Tom Seaver, baseball

With Chamberlain slipping in L.A., the title belt instead stayed East with the pitcher at the heart of one of the most stunning championships in sports history. The Miracle Mets improved by 27 wins from 1968 to 1969, going 100-62 before beating the favored Orioles in five games in the 1969 World Series. Seaver, their ace, went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA and won his first NL Cy Young Award while finishing as the MVP runner-up to Willie McCovey. Seaver was also named AP Male Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, which pushed him over the top for this belt.

1970: Willis Reed, basketball

This was a weird year. The AP Male Athlete of the Year was 43-year-old quarterback George Blanda; the Female Athlete of the Year was Taiwanese sprinter Chi Cheng. Bobby Orr, a Canadian, was just the second non-American Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year. Wide World of Sports named Willis Reed its athlete of the year, and he's a fair choice. Reed won his only regular-season MVP award during the 1969-70 season, even though he led the league in just one statistical category (defensive win shares). He added a Finals MVP for his role in the Knicks' seven-game victory over the Lakers, although he famously missed Game 6 with a thigh injury and had to grit his way through 27 minutes in Game 7. Reed takes the award mostly by default.

1971: Joe Frazier, boxing

Having filled the void in the heavyweight division after Ali was stripped of his title, Frazier won several heavyweight titles in 1970 and was 26-0 heading into the first Fight of the Century with a still-undefeated Ali in March 1971. Frazier won a unanimous decision over Ali to stake his claim to the lineal heavyweight title. It was Frazier's only fight of the year, but beating Ali was enough to earn him this belt, too. He would beat a pair of unheralded opponents in 1972 before losing the heavyweight belt to George Foreman in January 1973.

1972: Mark Spitz, swimming

Poor Billie Jean King chose the wrong year to have the season of her life, winning three majors while choosing to sit out the Australian Open. Even if she had pulled off the Grand Slam, though, it wouldn't have been enough to match Spitz's stunning Olympiad. The Indiana product had the most remarkable single Olympics of the pre-Michael Phelps era, winning all seven of the events he entered while setting seven world records in the process. He won more gold medals in swimming than any other country during the Munich Games.

1973: O.J. Simpson, football

Nobody could have known what Simpson would eventually do later in life, and while he later revealed himself to be an abhorrent human, his 1973 season was viewed at the time as one of the most impressive athletic feats of the era. He became the first back in league history to record over 2,000 rushing yards in one season, pulling that feat off in a 14-game campaign. Simpson averaged 143.1 rushing yards per game, 10 full yards per game ahead of Jim Brown's 1963 season in second place. If you understandably don't want to credit Simpson, a logical pick might instead be George Foreman, who knocked out Joe Frazier in 1973 to win the heavyweight title.

1974-75: Muhammad Ali, boxing

In 1974, Jimmy Connors was about as dominant a tennis player could be without winning the calendar Grand Slam; he won three majors and was denied entry to the French Open by virtue of his status in the debuting World Team Tennis league. Connors went 93-4 on the tour that year, winning 15 of the 22 tournaments he entered. His fiancée at the time, Chris Evert, might very well have been a prime candidate to claim the belt in 1975, given that she won two majors to go along with the Tour Finals.

Unfortunately for Connors, Ali had the most notable single year in boxing history in 1974. Ali won his rematch with Frazier in January before beating Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle nine months later to reclaim his heavyweight title. In succession, Ali beat one of the two men who had ever beaten him, Frazier, and then the only guy who had ever beaten Frazier, Foreman. Ali fought four times in 1975, culminating in his rubber-match victory over Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila.

1976: Bruce Jenner, decathlon

Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner, became a national hero after winning the gold medal in the decathlon, setting a world-record score in the process. In part because track and field in 1972 had been dominated by the Soviet Union, Jenner's victory in the decathlon over favored Soviet Leonid Litvinenko was enough to propel Jenner to household-name status. Jenner won AP Athlete of the Year over U.S. swimmer John Naber, who won four gold medals and set four world records in the process.

1977-78: Steve Cauthen, horse racing

OK, I will admit that I also wasn't expecting to see a jockey end up on this list. At the time, though, Cauthen was regarded as a world-class athlete and swept all of the notable athletic awards in 1977, winning AP Male Athlete of the Year, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year. He was a 17-year-old prodigy in his second year as a jockey with a credible claim to be the most successful jockey in the country. The following year, he would ride Affirmed to the Triple Crown, marking the last Triple Crown champ for 37 years. I think you could make a case for Nancy Lopez in 1978, given that she burst onto the LPGA scene and won both Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year, but how can I take the belt away from a Triple Crown winner?

1979: Earl Campbell, football

Campbell might also have had a claim on the title in 1978, when he was named MVP by the Pro Football Writers of America during a spectacular rookie season. The Oilers running back solidified his claim in 1979, however, by winning the more widely accepted MVP award distributed by The Associated Press. Campbell led the league in rushing yards (1,697) and touchdowns (19), leading the former Texas star to narrowly beat out Walter Payton as the league's top back. Campbell had an even more productive year in 1980, cutting his fumbles in half (eight to four) while rushing for 1,934 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he wasn't the MVP and there was a dominant performance looming in Lake Placid ...

1980: Eric Heiden, speedskating

... no, not that one. All of the major awards I'm referencing for this piece gave their 1980 award to the U.S. men's hockey team, which is understandable, if not very useful for these purposes. But the Americans' legendary win over the Russian team overshadowed the incredible efforts of Heiden, who swept the men's speedskating races at five different distances. Heiden set four Olympic records to go with a world record in the 10,000 meters. No other athlete in Winter Games history has won five gold medals during a single Olympiad.

1981: John McEnroe, tennis

While McEnroe won a staggering 27 titles in 1979 and became the world No. 1 for the first time in 1980, 1981 was the most successful year of his professional career. He conquered his biggest bugaboo as a singles player and won Wimbledon, ending Bjorn Borg's run of five consecutive titles at the All England Club. To that, McEnroe added his third straight US Open singles title, a win at the WCT Finals, his third Davis Cup championship and a pair of major victories as a doubles player. (McEnroe was technically born in Germany, but it was to American parents, and his father was a member of the United States Air Force.)

1982-83: Herschel Walker, football

McEnroe failed to win a Grand Slam in 1982, at which point the best American athlete wasn't even yet a professional. Walker started 1982 with a narrow loss to Dan Marino and Pittsburgh in the Sugar Bowl, a game in which he scored twice and was responsible for 137 of Georgia's 224 yards from scrimmage. The star running back followed up a remarkable 1981 campaign by winning the 1982 Heisman Trophy, rushing for 1,752 yards and scoring 17 touchdowns. A year later, after making his way to the USFL, Walker won the league's rushing title as a rookie by running for 1,812 yards and scoring 18 times. Nobody else was within 350 yards of Walker's total.

1984: Carl Lewis, track and field

Lewis entered four events in the Los Angeles Olympics and went 4-for-4, winning gold medals in the 100, 200, 4x100 relay and long jump -- just as Jesse Owens did 48 years earlier. I suppose you could discount his efforts some, given that the Soviet Union boycotted the '84 Games, but Lewis was such a freak athlete that the Cowboys and Bulls each selected him late in their respective amateur drafts that year.

1985: Bo Jackson, football

This is a fight between two freakishly athletic running backs. Do you choose Herschel Walker, given that he ran for a staggering 2,411 yards and scored 22 touchdowns during the final year of the USFL en route to winning league MVP? Or do you go for Bo instead, who won the Heisman Trophy while rushing for 1,786 yards and averaging 6.4 yards per carry in the SEC? I'm taking Jackson because -- perhaps unfairly -- Walker has already been featured on the list and because Jackson's baseball exploits warrant acknowledgement. In Bo's only full season with the Auburn baseball team, he hit .401 with 17 homers in 147 at-bats.

Jackson doesn't appear on this list after 1985 because his professional career in both sports was more a collection of highlights than any sort of massive production. Bo was an incredibly effective big-play back for the Raiders, averaging 5.4 yards per carry over his four-year NFL career, but he split time with Marcus Allen and never had a single 1,000-yard campaign. Jackson also barely contributed as a receiver, had some fumble issues and made only one Pro Bowl. And while he eventually rounded into a fine outfielder with the Royals, producing 3.5 bWAR in 1990, his struggles to control the strike zone and average efficiency (71 percent) as a baserunner made him more exciting than efficient. Jackson's best season in either sport came in 1990; had he stayed healthy, he might have eventually been productive enough to justify a return to the top of this list.

1986: Lawrence Taylor, football

Taylor's incredible athleticism was hardly new, given that he had revolutionized the role of pass-rusher since entering the league in 1981 and was in the middle of a streak of six consecutive first-team All-Pro appearances. While Taylor's Giants were shut out in the playoffs by one of the greatest defenses in NFL history -- the 1985 Bears -- Taylor responded with one of the greatest individual seasons in league history the following year. He became just the second player since the league officially started recording sacks to accrue more than 20 in a season, picking up 20.5, with 18.5 of those coming in eight games against the rest of the NFC East. The Giants went 14-2, and after the calendar flipped to 1987, Big Blue outscored the opposition 105-23 over three games en route to a Super Bowl XXI victory.

1987: Magic Johnson, basketball

Another player who it seems should have appeared on this list by now, Johnson had a credible case to claim this award as a rookie playing center in the 1980 NBA Finals, anticipating the small-ball movement by several decades. The 1986-87 season, surprisingly, brought Magic his first MVP trophy after seven seasons in the Association. Johnson led the league in assists per game, and while he was 10th in points per game, his scoring average spiked by a full five points per game from the previous season. The Lakers went 65-17 under Pat Riley in 1986-87 before beating the Celtics in six games in the NBA Finals, with Magic winning his third Finals MVP in the process.

1988-89: Mike Tyson, boxing

The devastating Tyson had already won three alphabet soup titles in 1987, but his first-round knockout of Michael Spinks in June 1988 gave him the lineal heavyweight championship and sent the previously undefeated Spinks into retirement. Tyson was at his peak in '88, fighting three times for a total of seven rounds while adding TKOs of Larry Holmes and Tony Tubbs to the Spinks knockout. The following year, he knocked out Frank Bruno and Carl Williams in a combined six rounds. Finishing the year 37-0 with 33 knockouts, Tyson was almost too athletic and devastating for the boxing world.

1990: Joe Montana, football

With Tyson's reign coming to a shocking end at the hands of Buster Douglas in February 1990, so too did his ownership of this entirely fictional belt. Michael Jordan had already become an NBA icon, having led the league in scoring for four consecutive seasons, but he had won only one MVP award at this point (in 1988) and was still regarded by some as a player who couldn't get it done in the postseason. (Did he ever turn it around?) In any case, the most obvious candidate was Montana, who won his fourth title in January 1990 and added a second consecutive MVP trophy for his exploits during the subsequent 1990 campaign. This was peak Montana to the point where your author, then 6 years old, was shocked to find out that the state of Montana was not actually named after the 49ers quarterback.

1991-93: Michael Jordan, basketball

Montana suffered a serious injury against the Giants in January 1991 and sat out most of the next two seasons before finishing his career with the Chiefs. Jordan was the obvious candidate to inherit the belt and grabbed it with both hands. The Bulls won their first title in June 1991 by beating the Lakers in five games, and Jordan was named Finals MVP. Jordan and the Bulls repeated both feats each of the next two seasons, with MJ being named regular-season MVP of both the 1990-91 and 1991-92 campaigns. He added a gold medal as a member of the Dream Team during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and perhaps even more impressively, his side won the famous Dream Team intrasquad scrimmage.

1994: Deion Sanders, baseball/football

Jordan retired from the NBA in October 1993 and spent 1994 struggling in minor league baseball. Watching one incredible athlete struggle to play baseball reinforced just how freakishly great Deion Sanders was. This wasn't his best year in the majors, but he generated 5.8 bWAR between 1992 and 1994 over 238 games for the Braves. More notably, of course, he had emerged as the best cornerback in football, as 1994 marked his third consecutive first-team All-Pro appearance as part of his debut season with the 49ers.

1995: Shaquille O'Neal, basketball

Sanders slipped a bit in 1995, playing nine games for the Cowboys without making it to the Pro Bowl. Jordan returned to basketball but played only 17 games before losing in the second round of the playoffs to the Magic. You could make a case for the smooth skills of David Robinson, who won league MVP, but Shaq was pure fury as a 22-year-old, leading the league in scoring for the first time while finishing second in the MVP voting. I mean, this was the same guy who was shattering backboards with dunks two years earlier. There are few big men in the history of the NBA who combined young Shaq's strength and athleticism.

1996: tie between Michael Jordan, basketball, and Michael Johnson, track and field

This is maybe the toughest decision on the entire list. Jordan returned to form during the 1995-96 season, winning his fourth MVP award while leading the Bulls to what probably holds up as the best season in NBA history. (Seventy-two wins and a title is better than 73 wins without one. Don't @ me. Please.) And yet, we know Jordan was an incredible player on an incredible team. What Michael Johnson did at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 was unprecedented. He set the world record for the 200-meter dash twice, improving on a 19.72-second mark which had stood for nearly 20 years by running 19.66, and then following that up with a truly stunning 19.32 mark. Johnson became the first athlete to win the 200 and 400 during the same Olympiad in Olympics history.

1997-98: Michael Jordan, basketball

Johnson lost the 150-meter catch distance race to Canada's Donovan Bailey in June 1997, but Jordan kept on ticking. He and the Bulls won NBA titles during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons, with Jordan winning Finals MVP both times. MJ added his fifth and final regular-season MVP award in 1998. I don't think this one is especially controversial.

1999-2002: Tiger Woods, golf

Jordan retired for the second time in January 1999 during the NBA lockout, and when he returned with the Wizards, he wasn't the same player. This works out well for our purposes, given that Woods was ascending during 1997 and 1998 before hitting his stride as a golfing phenom in 1999. After winning just one event (and losing a playoff in a second) in 1998, Woods won eight of the 21 tour events he entered in 1999, including the PGA Championship and the Tour Championship. The latter came as part of a six-tournament winning streak stretching across the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000.

Woods' 2000 season included 10 victories, three of which came in majors, with his 15-stroke victory in the U.S. Open the most dominant performance by Z-score in the modern history of the PGA Tour. Woods wasn't quite as transcendent the following two years, but he finished the Tiger Slam with the 2001 Masters and won Player of the Year for the third and fourth consecutive seasons. It wasn't until 2003 that Woods seriously declined and opened up the door for other candidates.

2003: Tim Duncan, basketball

Barry Bonds' remarkable performance in the early 2000s would have made him the likely winner during his 73-homer season in 2001 and one of the top candidates in 2003, but I'm ruling him out for clean/clear reasons. Lance Armstrong, likewise, was in the middle of his epic run in the Tour de France, but it doesn't feel right to reward him for his accomplishments given what we know now.

That leaves a very viable third candidate in Duncan, who was at his zenith. Duncan, then 26, won his second consecutive MVP award in 2003 while also beating the Nets in six games to claim his second NBA title. He was a force of nature against the Kobe-Shaq Lakers in the playoffs, averaging 28.0 points and 11.8 rebounds, including a 37-16 statement in the clinching Game 6. Duncan was great for a long time, of course, but this was the last time he would win league MVP. Serena Williams, who was in the middle of the first Serena Slam, would be a totally reasonable choice here as well.

2004: Michael Phelps, swimming

So let's get this out of the way now: Michael Phelps is the greatest American athlete of all time. He's the greatest Olympian of all time and it's not particularly close: Phelps has 23 gold medals and nobody else has more than nine. The idea that the number of events in swimming inflates Phelps' statistics doesn't really hold much muster. If it were that easy, why haven't any swimmers before or after Phelps come close to matching his totals? Ian Thorpe, the best swimmer in the world in the era immediately preceding Phelps, won five golds. Matt Biondi ended up with eight. Jenny Thompson, the most decorated Olympic female swimmer in history, also won eight. Spitz won nine. He might have won more had he kept swimming after the 1972 Olympics, but he didn't.

If Phelps was narrowly ahead of the competition -- if he had 10 or 11 gold medals -- maybe the inflation case would hold up. But 23 to nine is a landslide. Nobody else has won four gold medals in a single Olympics more than once. Phelps has done it four times. Nobody won eight medals in a boycott-free Olympics before Phelps. He did it twice, both in these 2004 Olympics and again in 2008. To the extent that we can compare athletes across different sports, Phelps has dominated swimming in a way that no other American athlete has dominated his or her sport at the highest level over a longer period of time. And if you're not picking Phelps because it's impossible to make those kinds of comparisons, you can't pick anybody else.

2005-06: Tiger Woods, golf

With Phelps winning a mere five golds at the 2005 World Championships, the title belt makes its way back to Woods, who returned to form after struggling with his swing and changing coaches between 2003 and 2004. Woods won six events -- including a pair of majors -- in 2005 and eight in 2006, including six consecutive tournaments to end his year. Woods took a two-month hiatus from the tour after the death of his father in 2006, so those eight wins came in just 15 tournament entries. He finished 2006 as the AP's Athlete of the Year for the fourth time; the only other athlete to achieve that is Lance Armstrong. I think you could make a case for Reggie Bush in 2005, but Woods was just too good.

2007: Randy Moss, football

Woods was about as good in 2007, but he was usurped by one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. The 2007 Patriots were a phenomenon, setting a record for the most points scored in a single season before it was eventually topped by the 2013 Broncos. (By standard score, which adjusts for scoring around the league, the '07 Pats come in as the fourth-best offense in league history. But DVOA, which adjusts for strength of schedule and the Patriots taking it easy in garbage time, has the Pats ahead of the 2013 Broncos.) Even with the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, which technically took place in 2008, the title belt has to go to somebody from this team.

The more difficult question is picking between Tom Brady and Randy Moss. You can make a case for Brady, given that he also simultaneously turned Wes Welker from a relatively anonymous Dolphins backup receiver into a superstar, but Moss was a force of nature in an entirely different way. They both set touchdown records, and Brady won MVP, but Moss was outrunning triple-teams and outjumping everyone in sight.

2008: Michael Phelps, swimming

Phelps won eight gold medals in Beijing, setting six world records and a seventh Olympic record during a meet noted for the prevalence of the LZR Racer swimsuit. This was the most successful single Olympiad for an athlete in the history of the modern competition, and if you just pretend it never happened, Phelps would still be the most decorated athlete in Olympics history.

2009-10: LeBron James, basketball

It seems like LeBron should have made an appearance by now, right? While nobody doubted LeBron's incredible, once-in-a-generation athleticism earlier in his career, the 2008-09 season marked the first time he was named NBA MVP, a feat he would repeat the following season. James probably deserved more consideration during the 2007-08 season, when he led the league in scoring. James posted a league-leading 20.3 win shares in 2008-09, resulting in a 21-win improvement for the Cavs. He would lead the league in that same category again the following season.

2011: Aaron Rodgers, football

With James scuffling ever so slightly during his first season in Miami, a natural opportunity arose for the best player in football. Rodgers began 2011 by claiming his first and only Super Bowl as part of a playoff run that included three road victories and a 108.2 passer rating from Green Bay's star quarterback. Buoyed by his success, Rodgers unleashed havoc upon the NFL the following year, leading the Packers to a 15-1 record while posting a ridiculous 45-6 touchdown-interception ratio. He finished the season with the best passer rating in league history, and while the Packers fell to the Giants in the playoffs, that wouldn't come into play until January 2012.

2012-13: LeBron James, basketball

Back to LeBron, who got things down with the Heat after that awkward -- if still excellent -- first season and finally won that elusive championship. He claimed both the regular-season and NBA Finals MVP awards during the 2011-12 campaign, and for good measure, he did it all again the following year. I probably don't need to tell you that LeBron James is a good athlete.

2014: Mike Trout, baseball

James and the Heat slipped a bit during LeBron's final season in Miami, with the Heat losing to the Spurs in five games in the 2014 NBA Finals before James made his return to Cleveland. Meanwhile, a 22-year-old Mike Trout finally won the MVP award he had probably deserved each of the past two seasons, leading all hitters in bWAR while posting a .287/.377/.561 line. I'm partial to his 10.8-bWAR season of 2013, when he emerged on the national radar with 30 homers and 49 bases. But when you're picking your favorite Mike Trout season, it's hard to go wrong.

2015: Serena Williams, tennis

Trout ceded the AL MVP award to Josh Donaldson, but really, this is more about what Serena did than what Trout failed to do. For the second time, Williams won three majors in a calendar year and completed a Serena Slam, only to come up short in the semifinals of the US Open. Williams won five tournaments, withdrawing from three because of injury, while finishing with a 53-3 record. She was the No. 1 women's tennis player all season, and in winning those five tournaments, she dropped exactly one set in the finals and 12 sets altogether. Serena was unreal in 2015.

2016: tie between Simone Biles, gymnastics, and Katie Ledecky, swimming

I tried. I agonized. I went back and forth, picking Biles, then Ledecky, then going back to Biles again. I ruled out Phelps, despite his stunning work in his fifth -- fifth -- Olympics, if only because he wasn't quite as dominant in victory as his two American teammates. It's that dominance which sets Biles and Ledecky apart. They're not just winning; they're lapping the field, almost literally in Ledecky's case.

There's nobody else in American sports who is dominating their competition at quite the same level in 2016. Serena was that dominant in 2015, but she has won two tournaments this year. Steph Curry is a viable candidate, but is he that much better than LeBron or Durant? Can you pick the incredible J.J. Watt when he hasn't yet come close to winning an NFL MVP award? Biles and Ledecky both just dominated the world at their chosen sports at the highest possible level as 19-year-olds. (Think about what you considered pressure when you were 19.) It's not hard to pick them. It's impossible to pick between them.