Best Athletes of the 1970s

The Top Ten
1 Muhammad Ali Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer, activist, entertainer, poet, and philanthropist. Nicknamed The Greatest, he is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sporting figures of the 20th century, and... read more

No doubt, Ali is number one on other great lists listed on The Top 10s. Here are some amazing 1970s honors for Ali: 1974 was an amazing awards year for Ali. He was named the Hickok Belt Athlete of the Year, Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, Sugar Ray Robinson Fighter of the Year, BBC Sports Personality World Sports Star of the Year, and ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year, all for Ali knocking out Foreman.

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2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an American retired professional basketball player who played 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.
3 Mark Spitz Mark Andrew Spitz is an American former competitive swimmer, nine-time Olympic champion, and former world record-holder in seven events.

Why is Mark the best swimmer of this decade? Here are seven reasons:

1. 200-meter butterfly in 2:00.70
2. 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay in 3:26.42
3. 200-meter freestyle in 1:52.78
4. 100-meter butterfly in 54.27
5. 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay in 7:35.78
6. 100-meter freestyle in 51.22
7. 4 x 100-meter medley relay in 3:48.16

Seven world records, seven gold medals, and he later met Bob Hope.

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4 Richard Petty

NASCAR and Richard Petty go hand in hand. After dominating the 1960s, Petty delivered more of the same in the 1970s. In 1971, driving the Plymouth Road Runner (named after the famed Looney Tunes character), he won the Daytona 500. Two years later, he and Buddy Baker went at it in an unforgettable Daytona 500 shootout. Baker dropped out with an engine problem with six laps to go, giving Petty his fourth Daytona 500 win.

The next year, in what racing writers called the Daytona "450" due to the energy crisis, it was Petty all the way in a dominating performance. This victory was part of Petty's legacy as NASCAR's all-time greatest winner.

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5 Ken Dryden
6 Carlos Monzon

Now entering the ring: Carlos Monzon. In exactly 100 bouts, he won 87, and 59 of them came by knockout. Monzon was a treasure in boxing's golden era, long before HBO got into boxing. On November 7, 1970, he fought against Nino Benvenuti for the undisputed Middleweight Championship. The boxing world was in shock to see Monzon attacking Benvenuti. In Round 12, a right hand landed perfectly on Benvenuti's chin, and the title changed hands.

Monzon later beat Benvenuti in a return match on May 8, 1971. Eight years after his death (1995), Ring Magazine named him as one of the 100 hardest punchers of all time. Awesome stuff.

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7 Phil Esposito
8 Roger Staubach Roger Thomas Staubach, nicknamed Captain America and Captain Comeback, is a former American football quarterback in the National Football League.
9 Johan Cruyff Hendrik Johannes "Johan" Cruijff (25 April 1947 – 24 March 2016) was a Dutch professional football player and coach. As a player, he won the Ballon d'Or three times, in 1971, 1973, and 1974. Cruyff was a proponent of the football philosophy known as Total Football explored by Rinus Michels, and is... read more
10 Bjorn Borg

He arrived on the scene at the same time in his country that ABBA also arrived on the pop music scene. Borg's five straight Wimbledon titles were the stuff of tennis legend. At Wimbledon in 1976, he made tennis history by becoming the first Wimbledon champion without dropping a set. He easily beat the following stars: David Allan Lloyd, Marty Riessen, Colin Dibley, Brian Gottfried, Guillermo Vilas, Roscoe Tanner, and then the big one, Ilie Năstase, to begin a domination at Wimbledon. Here in America, the men's final that year wasn't live, but soon it would change just in time for Borg.

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The Contenders
11 Vasily Alekseyev

In my opinion, the best European athlete ever.

12 Nadia Comaneci
13 Teófilo Stevenson

Teofilo achieved something that no other boxer did in the Olympics: winning three consecutive heavyweight titles. This list focuses on his moments in the 1970s. In the 1972 edition, he defeated Ludwig Dendeys and Duane Bobick, the same fighter who defeated Larry Holmes to qualify for the Olympics. He then defeated Peter Hussing on his way to winning the gold. The trend continued in 1976, as he first defeated Mamadou Drame, then Pekka Ruokola, and finally future WBA Heavyweight champion John Tate and Mircea Simon, solidifying his status as an instant boxing legend.

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14 Bob McAdoo

The Los Angeles Clippers would not exist today had they not drafted this man, Bob McAdoo. In his five seasons, he was basketball in Buffalo, being named NBA Rookie of the Year in 1973. The scoring titles were a lot, but not as many as Michael Jordan achieved. However, three straight NBA scoring titles were still great for him. He stayed with a team that went from losing 61 games in 1973 to the brink of the NBA Finals in 1976. He even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated that year. He played in three straight NBA All-Star games as a Buffalo Brave and was the 1975 NBA MVP. Bob, a legend for all times.

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15 Franz Beckenbauer Franz Anton Beckenbauer (born 11 September 1945, died 7 January 2024) was a German professional footballer and manager. Early in his playing career, he was nicknamed "Der Kaiser" because of his elegant style, dominance, and leadership on the field. His first name "Franz" is reminiscent of the Austrian... read more

A lot of world-unknown athletes are included in this list. Franz should be in the top ten.

16 Martina Navratilova
17 Niki Lauda

Niki was a master on the Formula 1 circuit, winning two F1 championships, but it was 1976 that, in my mind, showed what this racing legend was all about. The German Grand Prix was a race that many thought was Lauda's last, as he suffered a massive crash and was given a 10 percent chance to live. He survived the accident and raced on with sheer heart, never surrendering.

The final race in Japan was a massive downpour. Lauda, in my book, may have made the right choice by not risking another massive accident and leaving the race early when visibility was bad. Lauda was truly one of the 1970s best.

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18 Chris Evert
19 Nikolai Andrianov
20 Jackie Stewart

Jackie was truly a legendary race car driver, with three Formula 1 championships and the distinction of being the first driver to be honored as Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1973, as well as the ABC Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year that same year. But more than the wins and the championships, he was a pioneer of safety in auto racing. He wanted to make sure that Formula 1 is the safest racing promotion in the world.

After his retirement from racing in 1973, Formula 1 improved slowly year by year. Today, thanks to Stewart, Formula 1 is now a worldwide racing spectacle.

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21 Larry Robinson
22 Yurik Vardanyan

A forgotten legend of the 1970s, unless you live in Russia. This man took weightlifting into the 1980s, breaking many records. But the biggest occurred on the biggest stage in sports, the 1980 Summer Olympics. He became the first light-heavyweight to lift 400 pounds successfully and won the gold. It was one of 21 gold medals he won in international competition. To this day, he remains a hero in his hometown of Armenia for his deeds in the sport of weightlifting.

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23 Olga Korbut

One of the greatest female gymnasts ever.

24 Rod Carew

On November 16, 1977, Carew was named American League MVP in a season for the ages. It was not how he did it, but that he did it in a season headlined by another team - the New York Yankees - for its daily, real-life soap opera. Carew's stats were out of this world that year. He hit .388, led the American League in hits (239), runs scored (128), and triples (16). He also had 100 RBIs and 23 stolen bases.

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25 Lasse Virén
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