Toughest Athletes in Sports History
One of the most admirable traits of any athlete is toughness. This characteristic can be displayed physically (fighting through pain or injury) or mentally (fighting through adversity), and those who display it in abundance often go down in history as some of the most respected athletes in their chosen sports.
Many athletes have, in one way or another, shown incredible toughness during their careers. These men and women are legendary figures, and all of them, at one time or another, went to amazing lengths many would not even consider to accomplish great things.
They are the toughest athletes who ever lived.
Jim Abbott, Baseball
It’s tough enough to be a professional athlete. Now, imagine doing that after being born missing a limb. This was the case with Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand, yet refused to be limited on the field. In addition to developing his skills as a left-handed pitcher, he taught himself how to work around his disability on defense.
Abbott earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he won the Golden Spikes Award (given to America’s top college baseball player) in 1987. After his college days were over, Abbott carved out a 10-year professional career with four different teams. He finished third in voting for the American League Cy Young Award following the 1991 season (when he went 18-11 with a 2.89 ERA), and he pitched a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993.
Wayne Shelford, Rugby
Wayne Shelford helped lead New Zealand’s legendary All Blacks rugby team from 1986 to 1990. He began a four-year stint as the team’s captain in 1987, and the squad went undefeated in that stretch, with the lone quasi-blemish being a 1988 tie against Australia.
Shelford’s spot on this list is assured, though, based largely on one game. The All Blacks faced France in a 1986 game so violent it would go down in history as, “the Battle of Nantes.” A ruck resulted in several grotesque injuries, including a ripped scrotum and a blow that knocked four of Shelford’s teeth out.
Incredibly, he returned to the game after a trainer stitched up the rupture, but he was knocked out by a concussion later on in the contest.
According to a 2002 BBC Sport article, Shelford has no memory of the game. However, those who saw him play that day never again doubted just how tough the New Zealand captain was.
Kurt Angle, Wrestling
Before he spent 20 years as a professional wrestler (mostly with World Wrestling Entertainment and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling), Angle was an amateur wrestling juggernaut. He was a three-time All-American collegiate wrestler for Clarion University, where he won a pair of national titles.
Angle then went out for the 1996 Olympic team, but suffered several severe neck injuries during qualifying. He fractured two vertebrae and herniated two discs, and even though he made the team, he was still in immense pain during the games. That pain, though, wasn’t enough to keep Angle from winning six matches in a row, and he ultimately wound up at the top of the podium with a gold medal around the same neck he had injured less than a year earlier.
Serena Williams, Tennis
There are a few reasons Serena Williams could make this list. She’s arguably the most dominant tennis player of all time, with 23 major singles titles, 14 major doubles titles, and four Olympic gold medals to her credit. However, the main reason she’s here is pretty simple: She won a major, at age 35, while pregnant.
She defeated her sister, Venus, in the finals of the 2017 Australian Open. The win was her eighth title in that event and her 23rd major, which broke Steffi Graf’s previous career record. Less than three months later, she revealed that she was 20 weeks pregnant, and the timing of the announcement meant that she was playing in the Australian Open about five weeks after her daughter, Alexis, was conceived.
By any measure, Serena Williams is one of the most elite athletes of the 21st century. She’s won everything there is to win in tennis (in some cases, multiple times), and when she retires, it will be with accolades that may never be repeated by anyone else in her sport. Winning a major while carrying another human being inside of her speaks volumes about not just her talent, but her physical and mental toughness as well.
Gordie Howe, Hockey
Gordie Howe is recognized as one of hockey’s first international superstars. He played a total of 32 seasons across the National Hockey League and World Hockey Association, and did not retire from the game until after his 52nd birthday.
To this day, the man known as “Mr. Hockey” holds an assortment of career records that are unlikely to ever be approached.
Perhaps his greatest distinction, though, is the unofficial term, “the Gordie Howe hat trick.” While conventional hat tricks are comprised of a trio of goals, this term epitomizes when a player scores a goal, adds an assist, and participates in a fight during the course of a single game.
Howe wasn’t necessarily known as a fighter, but his physical style of play and his intimidating presence on the ice (even into his 50s) made him a towering figure in the sport, one whose toughness was never questioned.
Alexis Arguello, Boxing
Many boxing purists declare the sport to be the “sweet science.” Well, there was nothing sweet about Alexis Arguello, one of the most powerful punchers in his weight classes for parts of four decades.
In the ring, Arguello was a terror, often engaging in bloody spectacles he rarely lost. He won 77 of his 85 career fights, with 62 wins coming by way of knockout.
His battles with fellow legend Aaron Pryor were filled with extended salvos of power punches and are still regarded as two of the best fights of the 1980s.
Outside the ring, Arguello's backstory was filled with adversity. He grew up in extreme poverty, and his father attempted suicide when he was 5.
Furthermore, the future champion ran away from home at the age of 9 to work at a Nicaraguan dairy farm.
His first professional fight came when he was just 16 years old, and when he stepped into the ring for his first title match against then-WBA featherweight champion Ernesto Marcel in 1974, Arguello had yet to celebrate his 22nd birthday.
Chuck Bednarik, Football
Chuck Bednarik was one of the last full-time, two-way players in the National Football League. Drafted first overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1949, he wasted no time in making an impact on both sides of the ball at center and linebacker.
Bednarik’s skills were never questioned, and neither was his toughness. Before joining the Eagles, he spent four years with the U.S. Air Force, and flew on 30 combat missions during World War II.
On the football field, Bednarik absorbed tremendous contact in both of his roles, and also dished out plenty of punishment.
One of his most famous hits knocked New York Giants running back Frank Gifford out of action for more than a year, and Bednarik spent plenty of time before his death in 2015 criticizing more current NFL players he found less tough than he was. Given the tenacity he showed during his Hall of Fame career, few could measure up.
Terry Butcher, Soccer
Terry Butcher captained the English national soccer team during the 1980s and appeared in 77 games for the squad. He was a key member of three different World Cup teams, and the 1990 unit made it to the semifinals before falling to eventual champion West Germany.
Butcher, however, is best known for his actions during a qualifier for that World Cup. In that game, England faced Sweden, and Butcher suffered a gash in his forehead shortly after the contest started. Stitches were hastily inserted, but by the end of the game, Butcher’s face was a crimson mask, and his white jersey was soaked with blood.
His efforts helped England salvage a draw, and he remained a pivotal figure the next year, when the squad made its deep run on the biggest stage possible.
Roberto Clemente, Baseball
American society went through an upheaval in the 1960s and early-1970s, and perhaps no major sports figure was at the center of it more than Roberto Clemente.
Clemente was an outstanding outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates with ample skills at the plate and one of the best arms ever possessed by an MLB outfielder.
A black native of Puerto Rico, Clemente was an easy target for racist behavior. The Pittsburgh press insisted on calling him Bobby, and he was often quoted in broken English by writers who were in no hurry to welcome a man they perceived as an outsider.
However, Clemente rose above the situation he was in, and tallied an even 3,000 hits in his career.
Unfortunately, Clemente met an early end as a result of a plane crash. He was attempting to deliver supplies to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua, and the overloaded plane crashed into the ocean.
Brett Favre, Football
The stories of Brett Favre’s talent, toughness and longevity are abundant. A nine-time Pro Bowler, Favre threw and completed the most passes in NFL history, and is second on the all-time passing touchdowns list with 502. The story that puts him on this list, though, is one of him playing one of the best games of his career just 24 hours after learning of the death of his father.
Irv Favre passed away on Dec. 21, 2003, after suffering a heart attack while driving. The next day, his son took the field for the Green Bay Packers, who were playing on Monday Night Football against the Oakland Raiders. The quarterback proceeded to throw for 399 yards and four touchdowns, and the Packers rolled to a 41-7 victory.
Those numbers would be fine examples of Favre’s greatness without any external circumstances. Given everything he was dealing with that night, his performance was nothing short of extraordinary.
Terry Fox, Basketball/Distance Running
Immortalized by the “30 for 30” film “Into the Wind,” Terry Fox was a Canadian athlete who played basketball at Simon Fraser University. In 1977, Fox was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. As a result, his right leg was amputated, and he wore an artificial leg for the rest of his life.
After his surgery, Fox took up running, even with a gait that required much more pressure on his good leg due to the design of his artificial limb. Inspired by the strides made in cancer research, Fox concocted a plan to run across Canada and raise money for the cause.
Fox’s trek began in April 1980, and over the next few months, he raised $1.7 million for cancer research.
However, he was forced to end his journey in September, just outside the city of Thunder Bay. His cancer had returned and spread to his lungs.
He passed away the following June.
Lou Gehrig, Baseball
Lou Gehrig is one of the best players in the history of Major League Baseball. He hit behind Babe Ruth in the famed “Murderer’s Row” lineup sported by the New York Yankees in the 1920s, and among other impressive totals, he retired with a lifetime batting average of .340 and 1,995 runs batted in (still good for sixth on the all-time list). His streak of 2,130 consecutive games played was a record for 56 years, until it was surpassed by fellow Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr.
Unfortunately, Gehrig may be best known for the disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) that killed him and bears his name. Much is made of his retirement in 1939, and the speech he gave at Yankee Stadium. However, what often gets lost is his 1938 season. That was his last full year, and he hit .295, with 29 home runs, 114 runs batted in, and 115 runs scored. By his own admission, Gehrig began feeling the effects of ALS midway through the year, yet he still posted numbers that would constitute a banner year for many sluggers.
Gehrig wasn’t in the typical decline most athletes see in their late 30s. He was dying, yet remained a stalwart of a Yankees team that swept the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. For that, he makes the list.
Ben Hogan, Golf
It may seem strange to put a golfer on a “toughest athletes” list. Unless you’re playing on a tour that has adopted rules from “Happy Gilmore,” golf is not a contact sport, and it’s easy to assume physical toughness isn’t a requirement to be successful on a golf course.
In many cases, though, that couldn’t be further from the truth, and the biggest example of that is the case of Ben Hogan. Hogan won nine major championships and was the leading money winner on the PGA Tour five times, but the true measure of his toughness came in 1949, when he survived a car crash that left him with several broken bones and threatened his career.
Hogan spent nearly two months in the hospital, but returned to professional golf in 1950. Three years later, he won three of his nine majors in the same season, and many speculate the only reason he didn’t win four was because that year’s PGA Championship overlapped with the British Open. As hard as it is to believe, Hogan may have been better after his accident than before it.
Roy Keane, Soccer
One of the most successful European soccer players in history, Roy Keane played professionally from 1989 through 2006. The midfielder was best known as the captain of Manchester United from 1997 to 2005, and during his stint with the club, Man U won seven Premier League championships and the 1999 UEFA Champions League.
Keane is on this list due to his aggressive, team-first style of play. The role of a captain is to put the team first and to sacrifice individual glories for the betterment of the unit. In Man U’s run to the 1999 Champions League title, they overcame a 2-0 deficit to Juventus, with Keane (usually not a scorer) putting in the first goal.
Man U manager Sir Alex Ferguson commended the effort, calling it, “the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field.”
Niki Lauda, Auto Racing
Some may see a race car driver as a puzzling addition to this list. Driving a car may not seem as physically taxing as sports like football, hockey, or rugby, but it takes serious mental toughness to compete at the highest level of the sport, and that’s assuming all goes well.
All did not go well for Austria's Niki Lauda at the 1976 German Grand Prix. During the second lap of the race, Lauda’s Ferrari burst into flames following a crash, and the 1975 world champion suffered from smoke inhalation and serious burns. He also lost most of his right ear and had to undergo reconstructive surgery to replace his eyelids.
Remarkably, Lauda was back behind the wheel of his Formula One car just six weeks later. He even contended for that year’s world championship (ultimately won by his main rival, James Hunt) won the title in both 1977 and 1984.
Mario Lemieux, Hockey
Great things were expected from the man known as Super Mario from a very young age. The Canadian was the first overall pick in the 1984 NHL draft, and even while playing in an era dominated by Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux is considered one of the best to ever lace up a pair of skates.
His accomplishments could have been even great if not for a number of physical ailments that kept him off the ice for sustained periods of time. Most notably, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma during the 1992-93 season, a year when he could have conceivably broken several of Gretzky’s scoring records. While he returned later that season, he missed the 1994-95 season due to fatigue resulting from his treatments.
Not only did Lemieux come back from that spell, though, he one-upped himself several years later, when he returned to the NHL in 2000 after retiring three years earlier. He scored 76 points in 43 games during the 2000-01 season and added 91 more in 67 games during the 2002-03 campaign before retiring for good in 2006. Lemieux still holds a number of NHL records, and he now serves as the principal owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Mickey Mantle, Baseball
Mickey Mantle was one of the most beloved baseball players of the 20th century. Despite dealing with the pressure of replacing the great Joe DiMaggio in center field, Mantle won over the Yankees faithful by showing prodigious power from both sides of the plate. His tape-measure home runs made him a hero to many, and following a career that included sweeping the American League Triple Crown categories in 1956, he was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.
However, he played his career in constant, excruciating pain. While some of it resulted from an incident in the 1951 World Series (where he tripped over a drain pipe in right field when attempting to get out of DiMaggio’s way as the pair chased a fly ball), he had chronic leg injuries dating back to his high school days.
After his death in 1995, the New York Yankees honored him in their stadium’s Monument Park, with a plaque that called him “a magnificent Yankee who left a legacy of unequaled courage.” As great as he was, it’s easy to wonder how much better he would have been had his legs not betrayed him.
Jack Newton, Golf
In the 1970s and early-1980s, Australian Jack Newton was one of the top golfers on the planet. He won 12 professional tournaments, and his most notable achievement on golf’s biggest stage came in the 1975 British Open, where he took Tom Watson to an 18-hole playoff and lost by just one shot.
Unfortunately, an accident in 1983 threatened Newton’s life. He walked into a spinning airplane propeller and suffered life-threatening injuries. Newton survived a coma, but lost his right eye and right arm, and his professional career was over.
However, Newton remains a public figure. He has served as a commentator and golf writer, as well as the head of the Jack Newton Golf Foundation.
Newton also taught himself to play the sport one-handed. According to a Golf Digest article published in 2008, at one time he could score in the mid-80s with that stance, which is still better than most two-handed recreational players.
Jackie Robinson, Baseball
Any list of human beings, let alone athletes, that have shown unparalleled grit and toughness has to include the breaker of baseball’s color barrier. When Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, his presence served as a signal that times, and traditions, were changing.
Of course, the move did not mean that those within the game were receptive to change. Some within the Dodger organization did not like the idea of playing with a black teammate. The St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike. Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter “spiked” him on the bases, resulting in a huge gash, and Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman shouted racist epithets from the dugout.
While Robinson may not have been the most talented African-American baseball player at the time (some concede that honor to Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige), many have remarked that he was the only player who could have handled such a backlash. Robinson didn’t just survive in that environment. He thrived, hitting .311 over a 10-year career before being inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962.
Curt Schilling, Baseball
Recent events have turned Curt Schilling into one of the most polarizing former athletes in America. However, during his playing career, he was the epitome of a “big-game pitcher.” He went 11-2 in his postseason career, with a 2.23 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP, and was part of three World Series-winning teams.
His inclusion on this list, though, largely stems from one game. In 2004, with the American League Championship Series hanging in the balance, Schilling went to the mound for the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 against the New York Yankees. He did so despite a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle, and the blood coming from the sutures used to stabilize it was visible through his sock during the game.
Despite the injury, Schilling held the Yankees at bay for seven innings, yielding just one run in a game Boston won 4-2. This tied the series at three, and the Red Sox went on to win not just the ALCS, but their first World Series since 1918. Regardless of what has happened since his retirement, Schilling must be given his due as one of the toughest pitchers of his or any era, one who thrived when the lights were the brightest.
Monica Seles, Tennis
Of all the entries on this list, Seles is probably the most challenging to write about. She emerged as one of tennis’s top stars in the early-1990s, when she won eight majors between 1990 and 1993. In doing so, she supplanted the great Steffi Graf as the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world.
This, unfortunately, led to the events of April 30, 1993. While playing a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, Seles was stabbed by Günter Parche, a deranged fan of Graf. Seles survived, but was sidelined from competitive tennis for more than two years during what should have been the prime of her career.
Seles returned to the court in the summer of 1995, and incredibly, less than a year after the comeback, she found herself in the final of another major championship. In January 1996, she defeated Anke Huber to win her fourth Australian Open (and ninth overall major). While that proved to be her last such victory, she competed at a world-class level for several more years, most notably winning a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympic Games.
Ted Williams, Baseball
By any measure, Ted Williams is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. His constant focus on the art of swinging a bat is the stuff of legend, and he retired with lofty career statistics (.344 average, 521 home runs, and a career on-base percentage of .482).
Those numbers, however, could have been conceivably higher had it not been for a pair of wars that called for his service in the United States Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. He missed three full seasons from 1943 through 1945 due to World War II, and he also missed nearly all of the 1952 and 1953 campaigns due to the Korean War.
His assignments were far from the ceremonial positions some players served in. He was a pilot during the conflicts, and in Korea, Williams served as the wingman for future astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn.
If not for the two wars, Williams may have threatened Babe Ruth’s then-record total of 714 career home runs. Instead, he settled for two Gold Stars, three Bronze Stars, and an Air Medal.
Jack Youngblood, Football
This story is pretty familiar to most serious football fans. In Super Bowl XIV, Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Jack Youngblood suited up and played despite suffering a broken leg just a few weeks earlier in the playoffs against the Dallas Cowboys. The Rams lost the game, but that’s almost a footnote considering the extraordinary pain tolerance shown by the eventual Hall of Famer.
This wasn’t a one-time showing of toughness, either. Youngblood set a Rams record by playing in 201 straight games from 1971 to 1984, and underwent emergency surgery in the 1981 offseason to remove a blood clot the size of a hot dog. He made the Pro Bowl every year from 1973 to 1979, and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2001.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Track and Field, Golf
Babe Didrikson Zaharias embodied the term “natural athlete,” as she performed at a world-class level in multiple sports. After winning gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin in the 1932 Olympic Games (plus a silver in the high jump), she turned her attention to golf, where she dominated the LPGA Tour and even competed against men several times.
That success, though, isn’t why she’s on this list. Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953, and after undergoing surgery, she was forced to compete with a colostomy bag. That didn’t stop her from winning the 1954 Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average in the golf season, nor from taking that year’s U.S. Women’s Open (her 10th major championship).
The cancer returned in 1955, and while it eventually claimed her life a year later, Zaharias went out fighting. In a fitting conclusion to her athletic career, she won the last two tournaments she played.