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Top 20 Sports Stars of the 21st Century

Tom Brady

As Lewis Hamilton stormed to his 7th and record-equalling F1 title this winter it got us thinking. As the end of the decade looms with a sense of uncertainty, we wanted to look back, identify and celebrate some incredible sporting individuals who have established themselves in the history books. Accolades, achievements, trophies and medals set the barometers here as well as their impact and association with the sport that they competed in.

The only rule we’ve set is that they must have turned professional in this century, ruling out the likes of Tiger Woods, Floyd Mayweather, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Brian O’Driscoll who competed professionally in the 1990s. That leaves us with a substantial 20 years of athletes to explore and we’ve narrowed it down to 20

Of course this will differ readers opinions and hopefully start a conversation over Christmas or in a pub (with your own household of course) so let us know who your top stars are. Some of our choices are still available to see in action before they retire, so browse through our hospitality packages and register your interest to secure a place at a major event in 2021.


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Where is Lewis Hamilton ranked among the best sport stars of the 21st century?
Where is Lewis Hamilton ranked among the best sport stars of the 21st century?
Where is Lewis Hamilton ranked among the best sport stars of the 21st century?


20th – Khabib Nurmagomedov: The undefeated UFC powerhouse defeated McGregor and many more before recently retiring, although a 2021 comeback could be on the cards.

19th – Valentino Rossi: Making his debut in 2000, Valentino Rossi has won 7 world championships since debuting in the major Motor GP classes in 2000.

18th – Teddy Riner: The Judo master has won 2 Olympic medals, 10 World Championships, 5 European Championships and went undefeated for an outrageous 10 years!

17th – Andres Iniesta: Scoring the winner in a World Cup final was the highlight of Iniesta’s incredible career. The midfield genius won 1 World Cup, 2 Euros, 4 Champions Leagues and 9 La Liga’s plus more.

16th – Rory McIlroy: For players that turned pro after 1999, Rory McIlroy has won 4 majors, the most alongside Brooks Koepka. It’s been 7 years since he won his last, so hopefully he can win another golf major in 2021.

15th – Ronda Rousey: The first UFC female fighter and champion, the first PPV headlining female athlete and an Olympic bronze medal in Judo, Ronda has defined an era for women and sport.

14th – Chris Froome: Chris has racked up 3 Tour de France victories and 2 Olympic Bronze medals on his way to becoming one of the best ever cyclists in the world.

13th – Eliud Kipchoge: The Kenyan holds the world record for the marathon. He beat the previous time by over a minute, posting 02:01:39 in Berlin in 2018. Can he defend his Olympic title in Tokyo next year?

12th – Novak Djokovic: Just 3 Grand Slams behind Nadal and Federer, Djokovic is the only player to achieve the ‘Big Titles Sweep’, winning all 4 slams, all 9 Masters titles and the Nitto ATP finals in one season.

11th – Jimmy Anderson: 600 wickets and counting Anderson is the all-time leading wicket-taker among fast bowlers. He’ll be chomping at the bit against India to add to his tally.

10th – Diana Taurasi: The ‘White Mamba’ has won 3 World Championships, 6 EuroLeague titles and 4 Gold medals, becoming the all-time WNBA scorer in the process.

9th – Rafael Nadal: With 20 Grand Slams to his name, is 2021 the year that he surpasses Federer to become the best ever? He’ll be eyeing up the French Open and Wimbledon to do so.

8th – Dan Carter: Top point scorer in international rugby, three time world player of the year and a MoM in the 2015 World Cup triumph.

7th – Lionel Messi: You should probably read below why he isn’t in the top 5…

6th – Usain Bolt: 8 gold medals and 2 active world records, the incredible Jamaican Usain Bolt is the most recognisable and much loved Olympian in the world.


5th Place – Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton sneaks into the top 5 for a whole host of reasons, but the brave decision to jump from an established McLaren team to an ambitious Mercedes project is one of the best gamble’s in sport. Having secured just one title in 2008 in his second season with McLaren, Hamilton hovered around the front of the grid without winning a second championship. Stick with a brilliant team that has the infrastructure to win titles or try and lead a team into a new era? Hamilton gambled.

Fast forward 8 years since making that move, the Stevenage born driver has won 6 more championships and has broke records that some never thought could be broken, set by the great Michael Schumacher. Watching his 14 year career to date, Hamilton has matured from a man that seemingly enjoyed the F1 lifestyle and attracted various headlines, to someone that has mellowed and used his voice and stature for greater causes in the world today. Some love him, others not so much, but there’s no doubting that he’s a superstar of the sport and arguably the best to have ever driven in F1. Lets hope he can create history in 2021, win at Silverstone and become the driver with the most world championships.

Key Stats:

Joint most F1 World Championships – 7

Most Race Wins – 95

Most Pole Positions – 98

Most Consecutive Points Finishes – 48 


4th Place – Lebron James

The King makes it into 4th place and whether you think Michael Jordan or Lebron James is the best player of all time, you can’t argue that he is a phenomenal athlete. Lebron was drafted as the number one pick in 2003 to Cleveland, his home town team and instantly became dominant in the league. After winning the Rookie of the Year, James continued to improve the Cleveland Cavaliers, turning them into a championship challenging team but ultimately never securing his and their first title.

Lebron decided to leave Cleveland to pursue his title dream, which was heavily criticised across the board but in the Miami Heat he found a squad more equipped to win. Since then he has won 4 championships in total, 2 with Miami, 1 on his return to Cleveland and the final with the LA Lakers last season.

James has had a rollercoaster career with many final losses against amazing teams but his ability to drag his teammates to new levels is reminiscent of Jordan. The championship win with Cleveland against the formidable Golden State Warriors in 2016 was one of the best finals performances the game has ever seen. There is no other NBA player in the last 20 years that could have elevated himself to that unstoppable level, driving Cleveland to an unprecedented achievement of coming back from 3-1 down to win 4-3 away in the final game. If he could win a couple of more titles with the Lakers then Lebron’s fight to topple Jordan as the undisputed best might just be conclusive.

Key Stats:

Most UEFA Champions League Goals – 130 

Most Goals for Real Madrid – 450

Most International Tournaments scored in – 10 

Fastest player to reach 50 goals in Serie A – 61 matches


3rd Place – Cristiano Ronaldo

Ok it had to be one of the two, but why Ronaldo? Firstly I think Messi is the most naturally gifted footballer and in his peak Barcelona years, he would be the first pick for any team in the world. Messi has more league titles, more Ballon d’Or’s, more team and individual awards with Barcelona than Cristiano. If you think Messi is the best and deserves to be on this list then it’s hard to argue with you.

But Ronaldo’s career path and evident transformation inspires me. His development under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United after signing from Sporting Lisbon was incredible, morphing from a soft and tricky winger, to a devastating goal scorer. He has scored more goals (748) than Messi (711) and has more champions league trophies, whilst winning the league multiple times in three countries. Also, a notable stat difference is the elusive international trophy that Ronaldo claimed with Portugal in Euro 2016. He appears to galvanise and elevate his international teammates, compared to Messi who was never able to bind a group of terrific players (especially in attack), amplified by 4 Copa America final defeats.

Both players have defined this era for football and will be fondly remembered when they finally hang up their boots for their dazzling performances and goals in major competitions around the world. If the beautiful game conjures up two more like Messi and Ronaldo in the next twenty years then maybe VAR won’t be the number one talking point after all…

Key Stats:

NBA MVP’s – 4 

All NBA First Team Appearances – 13

NBA Championships – 4 

All time points scorers – 3rd


2nd Place – Tom Brady

Tom Brady, the Californian born quarterback has had an incredibly long and successful NFL career. After being picked 199th in the 2000 draft by the New England Patriots, the ‘steal of the century’ has gone on to be the most successful ever NFL player in history, winning his first championship in 2001 and his 6th in 2018.

There are hundreds and hundreds of stats to prove why Tom is the best ever NFL player but his longevity is remarkable in a sport known for major injuries and short careers. The 43 year old is still playing, still winning games and still competing at the highest level, having secured a one year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers preceded by a 20 year spell of dominance at the New England Patriots. In a sport where there are 32 teams, a play-off system where one loss equals elimination and a format that encourages the worst performing teams to improve through a weighted draft structure, having 6 titles and 9 final appearances for one team is staggering.

Although heavily denied, the one scar on Tom’s CV is ‘Deflategate’ where he and the Patriots were accused of deflating the balls they used to their advantage on offence in 2015. Having been suspended for four games in 2016, Brady and the Patriots used the scandal as motivation that bought a renewed sense of togetherness, resulting in his 5th NFL Championship  that silenced a lot of criticism. A man I truly admire, Tom was extremely close to climbing on to the top pedestal, but when someone else has stood on that pedestal 23 times, it’s too hard to ignore.

Key Stats:

Most Superbowl victories by a player – 6

Most Regular Season games won by a quarterback – 226

Oldest QB to win a Superbowl – 41 years and 6 months

Most Play-Off Appearances by a player – 41


1st Place – Michael Phelps

The Olympic GOAT. The Flying Fish. However you want to describe swimming legend Michael Phelps, the man from Baltimore has had a truly insane 20 years. Qualifying for the 2000 Summer Olympics aged just 15 and breaking world records aged 16, Phelps has dominated the pool like no other. His very long torso and short legs were crucial as his natural body shape propelled him to competitive action against adults very quickly. 16 years later he owns a staggering 28 Olympic medals (23 of those gold) which easily gives Phelps the title of the most decorated Olympian of all time, 10 more than gymnast Larisa Latynina between 1956-1964. Phelps won medals in freestyle, individual medley and relays across four Olympic games and has broke world records 39 times in his career.

Astonishing stats for someone destined for success so early, but ultimately that can come at a price which has become more apparent over the last couple of years. Encouragingly like others athletes, Michael Phelps has opened up about his fight against depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety recently and how intense periods before and after the Olympics can take it’s toll on an athlete’s mental health.

I can’t look past the dominance and medal count compared to anyone else in history to determine the best sports star of the 21st century to date. Michael Phelps is the number one sports star of the 21st century.

Michael Phelps

Key Stats:

Olympic GOAT


Live Sport in 2021

There are so many exciting events set to happen in 2021 and it will be fascinating to see who emerges across the world of sport in the next twenty years.

I have certainly missed the anticipation and buzz that attending a live sporting generates. All of us at Engage are excited to give you the best viewing experience possible for the incredible set of sporting fixtures next year. Please do not hesitate to call us on 0207 048 4848 to enquire about any of our hospitality events or you can register your interest on a specific event page. If you can’t see an event you would like to attend then call us or register your interest and we’ll be able to find the perfect solution for you.

Who are you kicking out of this top 5?