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Posnanski: Ranking the most dominant individual performances in history

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In the afterglow of Katie Ledecky's jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring 80m freestyle performance, the idea here is to pick the most dominant performances in American sports history. A few caveats:


  • We are choosing only American performances out of expedience. It would be even more fun if we could open this up and choose Usain Bolt's 100-meter race in Beijing or Ville Ritola's staggering 10,000-meter run in 1924, Paris, when he set the world record and won by an unbelievable 22 seconds – roughly a half lap. There's Daniel Komen's back-to-back four minute miles when he set the world record in the 2 mile – never done before or since.

  • But bringing in the entire world would give us an even greater chance of missing a bunch of stuff. I expect to miss plenty as is. I did a similar list a few years ago, and someone brought up Kapil Dev's absolutely ridiculous cricket performance at Turbridge Wells in 1983. I suspect there are numerous Kapil Dev performances around the world that I'm thoroughly unaware of and it would take months, perhaps years, to uncover them all.

And we have an Olympics to cover. So, for now, we keep it America-centric.


  • The idea is to choose the most dominant SINGLE individual performances – one game, one event, one tournament – and not multiple events. Obviously Michael Phelps' eight gold medals in Beijing would be on the list if we were dealing with multiple events. Same with Eric Heiden's speed skating performance in 1980. Tom Brady or Peyton Manning's best season might be on there if we were including full seasons.

  • We are only considering performances at sports' supreme events – the Olympics, a major championship, the Finals, the World Series, etc. Sure, we can talk about Mike Powell's long jump record, one that might not be broken for 50 years, or we can talk about Sandy Koufax's regular season perfect game or Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game, but it's different performing on the biggest stage. So we focus our attention there.

And here we go:


10. Don Larsen, perfect game, 1956 World Series.


Larsen was a famously mediocre pitcher when he took the mound for the 1956 World Series. He went 3-21 in his second full year in the majors and he was promptly trained to the Yankees who used him as a sort of Swiss Army knife pitcher, sometimes starting, sometimes relieving. The Yankees manager Casey Stengel started Larsen in Game 2 of the series, and he was a disaster. The Yankees him a 6-0 lead in the second inning. Larsen promptly fell apart and had to be pulled before the end of inning.


"The New York Yankees sent erratic Don Larsen out," the United Press wrote leading up to the game. "Manager Casey Stengel still 'strapped' for pitching is giving Larsen a second chance to redeem himself."


Larsen then threw the only perfect game in World Series history. The Brooklyn Dodgers were all but helpless against him. Larsen struck out the first two Dodgers he faced and he finished it off with a strikeout of Dale Mitchell, at which point catcher Yogi Berra ran out and jumped into his arms.


9. Vince Young, 2006 Rose Bowl


Choosing individual performances in football is all but impossible. No great run is accomplished without a series of unnoticed blocks. No great pass is achieved without protection and route running and the throw and the catch and all that.


Still, when watching that Rose Bowl it often seemed like Vince Young was, essentially, taking on powerhouse Southern California all by himself. The numbers speak -- Young had 467 yards of total offense (267 yards passing, 200 yards rushing). He scored three touchdowns and threw for three more. He scored what is perhaps the most famous touchdown in college football history, his nine-yard dash toward the right sideline on fourth down.


8. George Foreman knocks out Joe Frazier


Joe Frazier was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world and he had just beaten Muhammad Ali in what was billed as The Fight of the Century. George Foreman was an undefeated contender who many were not taking too seriously. Frazier entered the fight as a 7-2 favorite.


"If I hit him a good punch," Foreman said, "then he goes. The end is near for Joe Frazier."


Truer words were rarely spoken. Foreman hit Frazier with several good punches – he knocked Frazier down six times. "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" announcer Howard Cosell yelled after the first one. The sixth happened midway through the second round, and referee Arthur Mercante mercifully stopped the fight.


7. Carli Lloyd hat trick in World Cup Final


Players in soccer, like football, rely so much on each other that it's difficult to isolate individual performances. But Lloyd's three-goal performance against Japan in the 2015 World Cup seems pretty distinctive.


She scored the first just three minutes in, essentially breaking Japan's spirit. She rushed in from the top of the box, took a pass from Megan Rapinoe and blasted her shot past Japan's Ayumi Kaihori. That was one.


Two minutes later, the ball bounced dangerously in front of the net after a scramble. Lloyd stepped in and put it away. That was two.


And the third goal is the one everyone will remember, her long kick from midfield after she had looked up and realized that Kaihori had come out too far from her goal. The ball sailed over a retreating Kaihori's head and that was the third goal.



6. LeBron James, Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals.


OK, this is probably just a personal choice being a Clevelander – when talking NBA Finals you could always choose Bill Russell's 40-rebound game in Game 7 of the 1962 Finals or Magic Johnson's absurd performance replacing an injured Kareem Abdul Jabbar in 1980 or Michael Jordan's flu game in 1997 (38 points though he was so sick many thought he wouldn't play at all) or Larry Bird's domination of Game 6 in 1986 or ... Isiah Thomas ... James Worthy ... Walt Frazier...


Heck, to be fair to James, this might not even have been HIS most dominating Finals performance. He's had some spectacular games both for Cleveland and Miami. His Game 5 was pretty special.


But Game 6 was the game I think he was at his very best. The Warriors were up three 3-2 and were emotionally charged after losing Game 5 at home. Draymond Green, who had missed Game 5 for a suspension, was back and fired up. Steph Curry, the league MVP, seemed ready to have the breakout game that would end the series.


And James just played such a perfect basketball game, such a total basketball game, that, well, I suspect it has never been equaled. He scored 41 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished 11 assists, blocked three shots, made four steals and had just one turnover. He made outside shots. He made inside shots. He defended with fury. I don't think you can play basketball better than that.


5. Bob Mathias, 1952 Decathlon


In 1948, Mathias won the decathlon gold even though he was unsure of the exact rules. "Coach probably taught me out of a manual," he would say late in his life. In London that year, he was so unsure of how to throw a shot put that he almost fouled out of the competition right there. He was so uncomfortable with high jumping that he almost failed to clear a height (in the end, on pure athleticism, he still won the high jump in the end). And, even despite this, as mentioned, he STILL won gold in '48.


Four years later, Mathias fully understood the decathlon. And he put on a performance that will never be matched.


He finished second in the 100-meters and 110-meter hurdles behind his teammate Milt Campbell (who would go on to win the decathlon four years later).


And he won the shot put by my almost five feet – again this was the event he almost fouled out of in London. He was first in the 400 meters, first in the discus throw (by more than three feet), and first in the javelin throw (by more than five feet). It was the most extraordinary performance of all-around skill ever displayed at the decathlon.


When they totaled it all up, Mathias won the decathlon by a staggering 912 points.


4. Katie Ledecky, 2016 Olympics, 800m freestyle.


Well, here's the inspiration for the list. Ledecky has the 13 fastest times in the history of the 800m freestyle, which is ridiculous in itself. People all over the world train for this event. People all over the world are swimming very fast – Friday's second place finisher, Great Britain's musically named Jazz Carlin, swam the 800m in 8:16.17. That would have been good enough to win every single Olympics until 2008. That would have been world record up to 2008.


In this race, it placed her second – 11.48 seconds behind Ledecky.


You got the sense that everything Ledecky has worked for in her life, everything, was for this moment. Yes, of course, Ledecky has been doing amazing things for a long time now and in multiple events. Her 400m world record at these Olympics was plenty awe-inspiring too. Her gutsy 200m victory was probably the most emotional of her still young career.


But the 800m race is her show. There was almost zero chance she would lose. So the only person she was racing, really, was herself. She wanted to not only beat her world record, she wanted to smash it. And she did by almost two full seconds.


It's a strange feeling watching someone swim so far ahead of everyone else. Ledecky swims at such a fast pace, she was more than a full body length ahead after the first 100 meters. She swims to her own rhythm. No one else in the world can keep its beat.



3. Tiger Woods, 2000 U.S. Open


You could put a lot of Tiger Woods performances up here. There are a couple of British Opens you could put here. Of course, you could put his staggering 1997 Masters performance, when he introduced himself to the world and won by 12.


But from a pure golf perspective, for pure golfing dominance, no one ever played like Tiger Woods did at Pebble Beach that year. The course was brutally difficult – only one player in the entire field shot under par. One.


That one person was Tiger Woods. And he was TWELVE under par. For the rest of the world, Pebble Beach was almost impossible. For Tiger Woods it was EASY. He was playing a different game.


2. Bob Beamon, long jump, 1968 Olympics


Beamon almost missed the final in Mexico City – well, that might be a slight exaggeration. But it is true that in the qualifying round he fouled on his first two jumps and so a third foul would have ended his Olympics. He changed his approach and played it safe on his third jump, got his qualifying jump, and headed to the finals.


Beamon was the best long jumper in the world at the time so he was favored to win. But no one expected what he did, jumping 8.9 meters or 29 feet 2 /12 inches. He broke previous world record by almost two feet. He won the gold medal over East German's Klaus Beer by MORE than two feet.


"You have destroyed this event," the defending long jump champions Lynn Davies told him.


1. Secretariat, Belmont, 1973


It's probably not right to put a horse at the top of this list, but let's be honest: When you think of dominating American sports performances, the image is of Secretariat. The image is of jockey Ron Turcotte looking back and seeing all those horses a million miles behind him. The image is of the announcer Chic Anderson growling "he's moving like a tremendous machine!"


The extraordinary thing is that Secretariat was basically running for something we will never fully understand. He was all but guaranteed to win the Belmont. He was such a dominant horse that year that only three other horses even entered against him in that Belmont. Secretariat won the race by 31 lengths and so no other horses were pushing him. Turcotte was not pushing him either.


Still, Secretariat ran.


So what made Secretariat run so fast? His 2:24 Belmont time is not only the record, no horse has approached it. When American Pharoah finally won the Triple Crown in 2015, he ran it in 2:26 and change – meaning he would have finished some 12 or 13 lengths behind Secretariat. The amazing Seattle Slew won the Belmont by four lengths to finish off the Triple Crown in 1977. By time, he would have finished 25 lengths behind Secretariat.


"I have goals," Ledecky said before she raced in the 800m freestyle, and afterward she admitted that her spectacular swim met those goals. One wonders if Secretariat met his goals.




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