When Patrick Mahomes rallied Kansas City to a win in Super Bowl LIV, he capped off a playoff run that saw the Chiefs erase double-digit deficits in every victory. K.C. was down 24-0 in its playoff opener; three weeks later, Mahomes was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Some compare him to Brett Favre, which is a great comp. I mean, he’s like a Brett Favre who doesn’t throw interceptions, but in that class. Actually, better than Favre was through three NFL seasons. Mahomes is the kind of guy who, if he’s playing in a game, you have to stop and watch him. He is the most exciting individual in the NFL. But what about on a grander scale?
With Mahomes’ magic top of mind, I’ve been asked to rank the most exciting athletes in the world of sports today.
So, here’s the thing. My editors asked for 10. I gave them 14, because I’m an overachiever. (Or because it was too hard to settle on just 10.) But some of our international friends might notice sports like cricket and rugby aren’t represented here. Mostly because I’m not going to front like I watch those sports regularly. But I would encourage you to reach out on Twitter or IG and educate me, and we could include representatives from those sports on this list in 2021. But don’t be mad. I wasn’t even allowed to add two of my favorite athletes — Jordan Wiseley and Orange Cassidy — because my editors said “The Challenge” and pro wrestling aren’t true competition sports, or whatever. I couldn’t even include Alex Honnold because the athletes listed below compete against other human beings, not mountains.
Without further ado, here’s my list of the most exciting athletes to watch in 2020:
14) Katie Ledecky (Swimming)
Swimming is my favorite sport in the Summer Olympics. Can’t wait for it. And the most dominant swimmer going today is Ledecky. She’s amazing. But here is why I don’t have her higher on this list: She’s not a sprinter. She’s in these long-distance races where, slowly but surely, she just boat races the competition. It’s still amazing. I’ll watch. But for a list like this — the most exciting athletes — I’m going to have her right here in this spot.
13) Alex Morgan (Soccer)
Huge fan of the USWNT. Love it. And Morgan has long been my favorite player. I remember when she first broke through on the national scene, as a member of the runner-up squad in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Been following her career ever since, as she’s gone from the youngest USWNT member to one of the veterans. But she doesn’t place higher on this list because the team is so dominant. And I always love when my international friends try to rib me about U.S. soccer being down. I’m like, “We win the World Cup nearly every time.”
12) Deontay Wilder (Boxing)
This is a total boomer statement, but I’m old enough to remember Mike Tyson as a boxer and not a celebrity who has his own cartoon and makes cameos on movies like “The Hangover” and whatnot. I’d love to go back to a time when America had a dominant heavyweight boxing champion like Tyson. Maybe that can be Wilder. Manny Pacquiao thinks so, as he recently compared Wilder to Tyson, in terms of raw power. Wilder’s hampered by an overall lack of competition, as much of his career has been a snoozefest of early knockouts. And I mean snoozefest compared to what boxing used to be. Though the rematch with Tyson Fury on Saturday should be quite interesting. The first fight, which ended in a draw, was highly entertaining.
11) Elena Delle Donne (Basketball)
This one is tough, because I’ve watched Sue Bird since the early 2000s and she’s still out there dominating. But I’m going with Delle Donne at this point, as she just recently led the Washington Mystics to the WNBA title. And can we talk for a moment about how much success the Washington sports teams have had in recent years? I mean, not you, Redskins. But everyone else. And for the Mystics, it’s Delle Donne who never misses from the field — like ever. Deadly from three-point range. And she serves up more double-doubles than In-N-Out Burger. And I’m sorry if you don’t get that last reference. But it’s apt.
10) Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal (Tennis)
I’m not much of a tennis guy, but when these two matched up in the French Open and Wimbledon semifinals last year, you bet your ass I woke up early to watch. Just kidding, I have small children. Every freaking day is getting up early — and not to watch high-level athletic competition. I will tell you, though: If I hadn’t had a toddler sitting on my chest early in either morning, I would have for sure got up to watch these two do battle. It’s one of the best rivalries in sports, as they have faced off 40 times over the years, with Rafa owning a 24-16 advantage.
9) Alexander Ovechkin (Hockey)
Back to Washington sports! I’m sure a lot of puckheads will point out that Connor McDavid is the best player in the NHL today. That’s very true. But on this here list of individuals, we’re talkin’ excitement. Can’t take your eyes off ’em. And for me, on the ice, it’s Ovechkin. He just scored a hat trick against my L.A. Kings recently and I’m not even going to pretend to be mad about it. He’s about to become the eighth player in NHL history to score 700 goals — and there is a growing sentiment that he’s going to catch Wayne Gretzky’s all-time mark of 894 goals, and that I will be mad about. But I’ll still be watching.
8) Conor McGregor (MMA)
I might need to move him higher up the list, because he’s one of the few guys on here that I’ve actually paid money to see on television. Well, I hit bars that show his fights, but I still go out of my way to watch him. I even caught that horrific boxing exhibition he put on with Floyd Mayweather. He doesn’t seem like the nicest human being in the world, and maybe it’s the wrestling fan in me, but I buy in whenever McGregor fights. Because he has the skill to be one of the most incredible fighters in the world and you want to see what he can do. But you also don’t mind if he gets knocked silly. It’s really win-win. Well, outside of that debacle with Mayweather.
7) Lionel Messi (Soccer)
You know when you go to a Super Bowl party and there’s some dude who says this is the first football game he’s watched all season? That’s kind of the way I am with futbol. I’m a front-runner. I love USWNT. I will watch both World Cups. And I love the Champions League. But Messi is the most exciting guy in both the Men’s World Cup and the Champions League. The guy has eight goals in Champions League play — that’s crazy. That’s the best of the best. It’s like Joe Montana sporting a sparkling 11:0 TD-to-INT ratio in his four Super Bowl appearances. (Somebody is probably going to tell me how dumb that analogy is, but I’m good with it.)
6) Simone Biles (Gymnastics)
Swimming is my favorite sport of the Summer Olympics, but gymnastics is a very close second. I can’t wait to see what Biles has in store for Tokyo this year. As my colleague, Brooke Cersosimo, pointed out: Simone could fall during a competition and still be considered the best in the world. She already secured four gold medals and a bronze in the 2016 Games, and she’s a lock for more this year. Whether she falls or not. And I know you might be all, “Hey, you docked some other athletes because of the lack of live, head-to-head competition,” which is partly true. But in gymnastics, you are kind of competing against yourself to achieve perfection. So don’t judge me. Even though I’m judging all of these great athletes.
5) Serena Williams (Tennis)
The best player in her sport — EVER. Nobody disputes that. And much like Biles, Serena’s more in competition with herself than her actual on-court competitors. Because she’s still better than everyone. But she currently has 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one behind all-time leader Margaret Smith Court. The chase for No. 24 is quite compelling. And when she makes her next Slam finals, it’s going to be a delightful and intense viewing, with history looming.
4) Patrick Mahomes (Football)
Look, I’m a fan of the Chicago Bears. And even I can’t be mad at Mahomes. I should be, but I can’t. I mean, it’s not his fault the Bears chose Mitchell Trubisky over the guy who’s won the league MVP and Super Bowl MVP in his first two seasons as a starter. I can’t hold it against him. So I will continue cheering every no-look pass he throws out there on the field. Well, until the Chiefs start winning too much and we all grow to resent him. But even then, it will still be very exciting.
3) Mike Trout (Baseball)
I know, I know: “I would love to see him in the playoffs” is a common refrain. And maybe that can happen if the Astros are done cheating. But let’s be perfectly frank here: Trout is the best player in baseball. Nobody disputes this. But we might be watching the best player in baseball history. That is not my opinion, it’s based on advanced metrics. And it seems like every year, when somebody has a career season, the question pops up: Has [INSERT CAREER-YEAR PLAYER HERE] passed Mike Trout? Spoiler alert: Nobody has. Instead, Trout just goes out there and wins another MVP award. This year should be even more exciting, though, as the Angels have greatly improved Trout’s supporting cast. I’m telling you: You’re probably going to get your wish of seeing the game’s best player in the postseason.
2) Tiger Woods (Golf)
Woods has seemingly been a part of my life for its entirety. Even when I was an Orange County high schooler, everyone knew who Tiger was. He was a local celebrity who dominated golf like never before. Then had his hard times, and it seemed like he would never get another chance to get back on top. But then last year’s Masters happened. And even if you are one of those guys who typically likes to do the “Masters Nap” (which I’ve never understood), you were glued to the TV watching Tiger once again win the green jacket. Every tournament he’s in now is big news. Hell, I walked around Riviera this past weekend just trying to get a glimpse of Tiger. And his gallery is like a Blink-182 concert, with a bunch of dudes in their 40s walking around in TravisMathew gear — as well as kids who are too young to remember him when he was truly great. But they are there, and it is exhilarating.
1) Playoff LeBron James (Basketball)
When I was putting this list together, I had Giannis Antetokounmpo as my NBA guy. Mostly because I own a pair of his Nikes. But then I saw Zion Williamson do this. And I’m like, maybe Zion should be there. And then, one of my editors said “Playoff LeBron” and I’m like, “Yes! Playoff LeBron!!” I’ve really enjoyed King James this season, as he’s made it a personal mission to destroy load management. But then tragedy struck the sports world in January, and LeBron has taken on a new role since. I don’t want to seem melodramatic in saying LeBron is going to be carrying the weight of an entire city on his shoulders. For one thing, he’s done that before. But I really believe he’s going to have the weight of the basketball world on his shoulders in this year’s playoffs, because Kobe was truly a legendary figure in the world of sports. He touched athletes across the spectrum, from golf to tennis to the NFL. All of it. This is a huge challenge for LeBron, and it is going to be thrilling as the world cheers him on.
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.