The debate over who would win in a game of one-on-one between Michael Jordan and LeBron James in their prime is so divisive it could split this country in two. There is no correct answer and it will never happen, but that doesn't stop people from talking about it. Even Michael Jordan himself weighed in recently, saying there was no way he'd lose to the King. It's part of what's fun about sports, imagining the greats from one era taking on legends from another and trying to predict the outcome.
But the MJ-LBJ matchup has been run into the ground. So that got us thinking: What other epic fantasy one-on-one match ups can be debated? Who are the two players from other major sports that we would pay any amount of money to see go to head to head? We think we came up with some good ones.
2006 Roger Federer vs. 1997 Pete Sampras
In 2001, a 19-year-old Roger Federer, complete with an oversized shirt and a swinging ponytail, defeated an aging Pete Sampras in the fourth round at Wimbledon. In an epic five-set victory, Federer ended Sampras's insane streak of 31 straight wins at Roland Garros and kept him from winning his 7th Wimbledon title.
Sampras retired a year later, robbing us of a chance to see a rematch between the future and current tennis legends. If we could have our way, we'd get the 1997 version of Sampras, who was ranked no. 1 in the world for the fifth straight year and already had 10 major titles under his belt, against the 2006 version of Roger Federer, who would go on to win three Grand Slam titles that year and reach the finals in 16 of the 17 tournaments he entered.
Sampras loved to serve and volley, but Federer is one of the best at returning serve. It's how he defeated Sampras in 2001, blasting passing shot after passing shot by Sampras as he charged the net after his serve. He neutralized Sampras' bread and butter.
Prediction: Federer in four. 2006 Fed was legitimately invincible.
Mike Tyson vs. Muhammad Ali
Back before he had tattoos on his face and an appetite for ears and children, Mike Tyson was one of the best pure punchers in the history of boxing. Although his career flourished amidst the neon glam of the late 1980s, "Iron Mike" was an old-school pugilist. He entered the ring wearing plain black trunks and only a white towel draped over his shoulders. His style was as Spartan as it was brutal.
In the other corner is Muhammad Ali, considered by many to be "The Greatest of All Time." The brash and charismatic Ali understood boxing's mental game better than anyone and used it to his advantage, trash-talking his opponents into frustration while he took them apart in the ring with fluid movements backed by snapping jabs and lightning-quick combinations.
They say styles make fights, and these contrasting heavyweight champions personify the best of both worlds. So, who would win?
The closest Ali ever came to facing someone like Tyson was in his three fights against Joe Frazier, who employed a similar always-coming-at-you slugging style. In his prime, Tyson was listed (generously) at 5-foot-11 and 218 pounds. Ali was 6-3, 215 when he fought Joe Frazer (5-11, 205) in March 1971. Frazier won a 15-round decision in that first brutal bout against Ali, which leads one to believe that Tyson would have the upper hand in this dream match-up. But Ali bested Frazier in their next two fights, so there's that.
Prediction: Ali would need to move and pepper Tyson from the outside. The so-called rope-a-dope strategy wouldn't work; Tyson was simply too accurate and too powerful. Tyson was a master at cutting off the ring and imposing his will against opponents. That being said, Tyson never faced anyone with Ali's pure boxing skills. We see Ali bouncing around the ring, keeping Tyson off him with his jab and landing enough "power" punches to win a 12-round decision. However, if Tyson could land that one punch to stun Ali, his penchant for being one of the sport's greatest finishers would end Ali's night with a knockout.
Barry Sanders vs. Dick Butkus
The shifty Barry Sanders was a pro at making people miss, and though his tenure as a member of the Detroit Lions was brief, it was spectacular. In 1997, Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards, the most of his career, while getting into the end zone 11 times. He averaged a ridiculous 128.3 yards per game, and it sometimes seemed like he couldn't be touched.
Chicago Bears legend Dick Butkus was just as fierce on the other side of the ball. He busted through offensive lines with such force that he could be in the backfield corralling running backs and quarterbacks before anyone knew what happened. But Sanders' speed and elusiveness was next-level. The running back had the advantage in the open field when going one-on-one against a defender, and despite Butkus's prowess for tackling everything in sight, Sanders and his fleet feet would leave him in the dust.
Prediction: Sanders jukes Butkus out of his cleats.
Randy Johnson vs. Babe Ruth
They say Babe Ruth fueled his stellar career with hot dogs and beer, but man, could that dude hit. And pitch. And do everything. The Sultan of Swat posted 12 seasons of 40 or more home runs, peaking at 60 in 1927. For his career, the Babe hit .342 with a slugging percentage of .690, all while looking slightly more in shape than your next door neighbor who comes home with a 12 pack of Pepsi each week.
If Randy Johnson's mean mug didn't put the fear of God into Ruth when he stepped up to the plate against the long-haired flamethrower, then his fastball certainly would. The man was a strikeout machine, posting a career average of 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. No matter how good a hitter Ruth was, he would not be able to catch up to what The Big Unit was tossing.
Prediction: Ruth goes down swinging on a 3-2 fastball.
LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan
Everyone in the world seems to have an opinion on what would happen if LeBron James played Michael Jordan one-on-one, so we figured we might as well throw our two cents in. We all know about MJ's skillset. He's a better jump shooter than LeBron and could score at will with any combination of drives, backdowns and jumpers.
But here's thing...so can LeBron. And here's another: LeBron stands 6-foot-8 and weighs 250 pounds, while MJ is two inches shorter and gives up over 30 pounds. What's to stop LeBron from backing down His Airness on every offensive possession, a move James has perfected in the second half of his career, and scoring at will? Jordan was a tenacious defender, but with James neutralizing his quick hands and penetrating stare by backing him in to the post, we've got to give the slight edge to The King.
Prediction: LeBron beats MJ, 15-13
Deion Sanders vs. Calvin Johnson
They don't call Calvin Johnson "Megatron" for no reason. At 6-5 and 236 pounds, he's one of the biggest and most physical receivers in the league, with long strides to help him speed past corners when he catches the ball. Matthew Stafford, his quarterback on the Detroit Lions, has been putting up jump balls for Johnson for years, sometimes into triple coverage, and Johnson still comes down with them. He outmuscles his opponents in a sport where rules favor the receiver. It's a deadly combination. In 2011, Johnson caught 96 balls for 1,681 yards and a ridiculous 16 touchdowns. He was unstoppable.
Enter Deion Sanders, the loud, flashy and uber-talented cornerback, who made his name with his "Prime Time" dance on his way to end zone after one of his nine career interception returns for a touchdown. Sanders would have his hands full with Johnson. Sanders was more physical than football historians give him credit for. He made the Pro Bowl eight times for his ability to completely take the wide receiver he was covering out of the game. He could sniff out the football and had phenomenal hands, ending his career with 53 interceptions. He was especially good at nabbing the ball with one hand, so even on plays in which he was initially beat, he could use his recovery speed and one-arm grabs to break up them up.
Could Sanders handle Johnson, probably the tallest and most physical receiver he'd ever had to guard? We think he could. It doesn't take much to break up a pass in the NFL, and Sanders could stick with Johnson with his superior speed.
Prediction: Neon Deion breaks up the pass, and the ball floats harmlessly to the ground.
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