Now, we enter an entirely new era for African-American athletes and their relationship with the country. The 1960’s saw more change and substantial progress in society and In the mindset of the Black community than it did during the five decades preceding it. Here’s part two of Legendary African-American Athletes Decade by Decade.
1. The 1960’s: Muhammad Ali
This is the easiest and toughest decision on the list. On and off the court, Bill Russell was a champion. Winning nine championships with the Boston Celtics and becoming the first African American head coach in the major professional sporting league, Russell would be second to no one if this was any other decade.
In Major League Baseball, Willie May’s and Hank Aaron’s careers continue to shine, as a new crop of talent sprung up in Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson and Ernie Banks. But there could be only one athlete for this decade.
In the ring, Muhammad Ali went 29-0 and became, at the time, the youngest heavyweight champion at 22 years and 39 days. The combination of blinding speed, quick jabs pinpointed at the head and endurance made him impossible to beat for anyone unlucky enough to face him.
Out of the ring, Ali’s unabashed faithfulness to the African American community and his Islamic faith set the template for the modern African American athlete. And the fact that his final fight in the decade was in March of 1967, before losing three and a half years for refusing induction into the Vietnam War illustrates even more how great the man was inside and outside the ring.
2. The 1970’s: “Mean” Joe Greene
As the stars of the 1960’s reach, the end of their careers, a new crop of Black talent wanted to make their marks in the 70’s. It was tempting to make Ali the athlete of the 1970’s as well. The fact is that Ali’s most remembered fights happened in the 70’s, but Ali was at the top of his game in the 1960’s. He was faster than any heavyweight and did not have to rely on the “rope-a-dope” technique to beat his toughest opponents.
Instead, we return to the gridiron for the first time since Fritz Pollard and take a look at the anchor to the most dominant defense the league has ever seen. When Joe Greene was drafted out of the University of North Texas in the first round, it was a head-scratching decision for the rest of the league. But throughout the 1970’s, Pittsburgh always paid close attention to African American players playing at smaller, less glamorous university. This led the team to pick up players like John Stallworth from Alabama A&M University, Donnie Shell from South Carolina State and many others who became a part of the Steeler’s dynasty.
But at the beginning, there was “Mean” Joe. Joe began his career with the first of eight All-Pro selections in 1969, before entering the 1970’s. In the decade, he would win two Defensive Player of the Year awards, lead the famous “Steel Curtain” defense to four Super Bowl Championships in six years (1974-75. and 78-79) and was named the starting defensive tackle for both the All-Decade team and the 1994 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Then he decided to show his softer side at the decade’s end with the now famous Coke ad, turning “Mean” Joe back to Joe Greene. Just don’t ask any offensive linemen!
3. The 1980’s: Mike Tyson
Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Florence Griffith Joyner and Carl Lewis are the Mt. Rushmore of honorable mentions for the 1980’s could stand up to the Mt. Rushmore in any decade. However, what puts “Iron” Mike in front of these four, very deserving athletes is that he never lost. Tyson had a level of dominance that the boxing world had never seen. Remember when Ronda Rousey spent about two years winning in the first and second round? Imagine that for five years.
Granted, Tyson opened up the 1990’s by coming out on the losing end of the Biggest upset in boxing history, falling to Buster Douglass in Tokyo. That does not change what he did the 1980’s when he became the youngest heavyweight champion at 20 years old. By the end of the decade, Tyson had won all 37 of his fights, knocking out all but four of his opponents. If Sugar Ray Robinson is the pound for pound greatest and Ali is the greatest, then Tyson was the most dominant heavyweight of the modern era.
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