Despite being 50 years old, Phil Mickelson proved he can still run with the youngsters over the weekend, taming the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island to win the PGA Championship. That got us wondering who is the best athlete to compete after turning 40.
While there is a very obvious Buckeye who has excelled in his sport after turning 40, we figured it’d be too easy to pick Jack Nicklaus. We also have excluded Tom Brady from this question because who really wants to side with a Michigan Man? Brett especially doesn’t want to have to argue in favor of Tom Brady after what the Patriots did to the Bills with Brady at quarterback for nearly two decades.
Today’s question: Best 40+ athlete to compete all-time?
We’d love to hear your choices. Either respond to us on Twitter at @Landgrant33 or leave your choice in the comments.
Brett’s pick: Randy Couture
There have been plenty of athletes to excel after turning 40 years, but the one that was most impressive to me is UFC fighter Randy Couture. When someone mentions UFC, Couture will always be thought of as one of the pioneers of the organization, and he was able to do some of his best work in the octagon after he turned 40 years old.
After being a three-time alternate for the United States Olympic wrestling team, Couture moved onto mixed martial arts and the UFC. After finding success at heavyweight, Couture switched to light heavyweight, beating UFC legend Chuck Liddell for the belt a few weeks before turning 40.
Couture would follow the win over Liddell up with a title defense against another UFC legend, Tito Ortiz. After the Ortiz fight, Couture would drop the belt to Vitor Belfort, win the title back from Belfort, and then lose the title to Chuck Liddell before again falling to Liddell in the rubber match between the legends.
After his second loss to Liddell, Couture and UFC were stuck in a contract dispute that lasted a year. Upon his return to the octagon, Couture moved back up to heavyweight, where he would be taking on then-champion Tim Sylvia. As if a fight for the title wasn’t interesting enough, Couture was giving up over 40 pounds to Sylvia, who was also more than half a foot taller than Couture.
UFC 68 was not only held in Columbus in conjunction with the Arnold Classic, it was the first UFC event to be held in Ohio. The 19,079 fans that packed Nationwide Arena, which was the biggest crowd for an MMA event in the United States at the time, saw Couture defy the odds and control Sylvia for five rounds to win the heavyweight title for a third time.
In his next fight, many again were wondering if Couture could compete against a younger opponent. The next challenger for Couture was Gabriel Gonzaga, who was coming off a devastating head-kick knockout of MMA star Mirko Cro Cop. Even though Couture broke his arm blocking a kick from Gonzaga, he was able to defend the title.
Time finally caught up a bit to Couture a year later, as he wasn’t able to defeat Brock Lesnar, who had burst onto the MMA scene after becoming a star in the WWE. Couture would go on to fight five more times in the UFC before retiring at the age of 47 in 2011, winning three of those fights.
While it’s impressive for any athlete to excel after turning 40 years old, I think doing it in the UFC is even tougher. Not only are you going up against fighters who are younger, faster, and stronger, you also have to be prepared for numerous types of fighting styles. Currently most of the UFC champions are in their 30s, it’s almost unheard for someone at the age of 43 to win the title, like Couture did in 2007.
Meredith’s pick: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
No, 50 is not old, but imagining athletes who are still able to compete at a championship level at age 50 is nonetheless mind blowing. While Phil Mickelson’s achievement of winning the PGA Championship at this ripe old age is cool, there are other athletes who continued to be impressive into the sunset of their very lengthy careers.
For starters, there are so many golfers! It’s a lifetime sport, after all. And a lot of baseball players. There’s a reason we don’t see longevity in football the way we do in other sports, and why those football players we do see are often the likes of punters and kickers. We’re not talking about Tom Brady here, but it is beyond impressive that he has been able to play a generally injury-free career for so long (with the exception of his knee injury in 2008).
One sport where the pickings are a little slimmer (though no less impressive) is basketball. Of course, we could see LeBron James playing well into his 40s and even with his son in the NBA, but alas, James is only 36.
In terms of this particular assignment, I’m going to have to go with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. While I desperately wanted to say Vince Carter (since I have watched much more of his career than Kareem’s), there’s no denying the longevity and continued level of championship play from the elder basketball star. Seriously, his major accomplishments are too long to list in this column, but here’s a summary.
We have to go way back to get to the start of the all-star center’s career, when he was part of three-straight national titles at UCLA under famed head coach John Wooden. Abdul-Jabbar was a three-time NCAA Champion from 1967-69 and three-time National College Player of the Year during the same period.
After being selected with the first-overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969 draft, Abdul-Jabbar set out on what would become one of the most storied careers in the history of the NBA. He brought home his first championship with Milwaukee in 1971 before heading to the Los Angeles Lakers and winning FIVE more — his last two coming after the age of 40 (sure, Bill Russell won 11 but he retired in his mid-30s, so he doesn’t count for the purposes of this discussion). Abdul-Jabbar was a six-time NBA Most Valuable Player and 19-time All-Star over the course of his 21-year career. He retired in 1989 at the age of 42 as the NBA’s all-time scoring leader with 38,387 points.
For starters, it makes sense that Abdul-Jabbar ended his career as the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, since he literally outlasted everyone else while playing at a high level the entire time. Karl Malone retired at 40, and is second-place all-time.
There’s also the fact Abdul-Jabbar played in college, which sets him apart in many ways from the NBA stars we knew in the early-to-mid-2000s. If he keeps up with his average, LeBron will surpass Abdul-Jabbar before the former is 40, but we have to acknowledge that he had additional years to accomplish the feat.
One of the other things that was so impressive about Abdul-Jabbar’s career was his ability to be outstanding at all levels of play. It’s akin to Charles Woodson, who was Ohio’s Mr. Football in 1994, a Heisman Trophy winner and went on to be a nine-time Pro Bowler. It’s also something Tom Brady can’t claim.