What makes an elite sportsman, well, elite? Iron will? A relentless work ethic? A deity-offered gift of unteachable and unassailable talent? All of the above, certainly.
But if you were to ask us what marks out the true lions of sport, we'd say it's the ability to perform one particular aspect of their discipline in a way that no one else can, to pull off moments where the will, the work and the talent combine to such stunning effect it redraws the parametres of their sport.
From Ali's unreadable shuffle to Cryuff's eponymous turn, these are the athletes who could do something no one else could—and cement their own immortality in the process.
1 | Ayrton Senna in the wet
Ayrton Senna was a thoughtful and thrilling driver who embodied the hard-charging halcyon days of Formula 1. And while his name may be synonymous with the blue skies and glamour of iconic courses like Monte Carlo, Senna was in his true element when tackling them when the track was wet.
Often cited as the greatest lap in F1 history, Senna's 1993 comeback at that great theatre of motorsport—Donnington—was the perfect demonstration of the Brazilian's inimitable blend of skill and steel, going as he did from fifth to first in one lap and 40 seconds.
2 | The Nadal forehand
A bruising antithesis who can be credited for a seismic physical shift in the way the modern game is played, Rafael Nadal's Toro Bravo style of tennis may have slowed as age and injury took hold, but that forehand will forever remain iconic.
In theory it shouldn't work: The drastic grip, the wildly open stance; the weight placed almost entirely on the back foot; the joint-wrecking lasso of the finish. But that's just theory. In reality it was and is a screaming banshee of a shot. A curving, spinning, lead-weighted nightmare that leaves opponents completely out of answers when it's on song, which, typically, it is.
3 | The Viv Richards six
Undeniably one of the smoothest operators to ever take to any pitch, field, court or, in this case, crease: Sir Viv Richards was a devastating batsman with a disdain for helmets, refusing to wear one during an illustrious career that saw him widely lauded as the most dangerous batsman of all time.
Bristling with a swagger and charm that infused every one of his actions, Richards struck the ball with an easy right-handed ferocity that made him a crowd's dream and a bowler's nemesis, particularly when he arched another six over the boundary with what appeared to be little more than a step and a flick of the wrists.
4 | The Zidane roulette
While his legacy might have been cruelly cemented in a searing moment of red mist against a sneaky Italian foe, Zidane's balletic approach to football made him one of the great sporting joys to witness. His famous 'roulette', where he would whip the ball past an opponent in a blur of 360 degree monk cut elegance, a particularly memorable and effective speciality.
The move itself is originally credited to the legendary Brazilian forward Garrincha, but Zidane made it his own. There's good reason why he's the only footballer to have an entire documentary focused on no one except him for the duration of a match.
5 | The Arnold Palmer drive
"What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive." said Arnold Palmer, the golfer nicknamed 'The King'. A man who looked like a movie star and played like one too... in the best way possible of course.
Renowned for his aggressive, athletic approach to hitting a golf ball, Palmer's drive was the most noted in the game. The 346 yarder that he struck at the 1960 US Open is a moment that still elicits hushed reverence from fans, players and experts of the game.
He also created his own drink, which is quite cool... and delicious.
6 | The Wilkinson spot kick
The man who birthed the OCD phenomenon of the pre-kick ritual, Jonny Wilkinson's genius lay in his laser-guided focus and cold ability when it came to kicking points, particularly when the ball was still and the stakes were high.
A self-proclaimed obsessive who would be sick with nerves before games, Wilkinson's prowess at the tee was such that he is the second highest international points scorer of all time, despite missing vast swathes of a still incredible career due to injury.
7 | The Ali shuffle
"It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up." But one quote attributed to the warrior and raconteur who introduced the world to the idea that a person can be sportsman and entertainment superstar at the same time.
Nothing defined Muhammed Ali's unquenchable thirst for power and panache more than the 'Ali shuffle', a piece of rapid fire footwork that was utilised as both a signature flair move to dazzle the crowd as well as a cock-sure smokescreen sprung on an opponent to taunt, bait and bewilder.
8 | The Cruyff Turn
A gossamer, velcro touch, shorts riding high. Eyes up and mullet swaying gently in the 1974 breeze, Johan Cruyff, like Messi, moves with the savant grace of the truly, in-their-bones-and-very-being talented. The ball skips from one foot to the other, back suddenly turned. The defender, Jan Olsson, sweet, innocent Swedish Jan Olsson. Jan Olsson with a family. Jan Olsson fishing in the lake in summer, happy, stands off with a lingering caution. But it's not enough.
Cruyff winds up a lithe, sinewy right leg, before launching the inside of his foot against the ball with a sort of gentle recklessness. A moment that is painted onto the Fresco of football history.
And then he's gone, a legend on the move. Poor, sweet, lovely Jan Olsson left stumbling into shadows, staring into the black abyss of a million YouTube compilations.
Long live the Cryuff turn.
9 | The Ronnie O'Sullivan Clear Up
Part of what makes him the most enticing spectacle in the game he has dominated - when he has cared to - for decades now is that you never know which Ronnie O'Sullivan is going to show up. Will we see the game's greatest natural talent wipe the floor with his opponent or will his mental intolerance to the game get the better of him? Will he be the 'Rocket' people adore or will he sit with a hankie over his head, desperate to be free of the torture of playing?
While the latter can be a distressing sight, O'Sullivan playing as beautifully as only he can elevates snooker to something beyond merely the geometric marvel most of his peers are capable of. When Ronnie truly plays - such as during his record-breaking 147 at the 1997 World Championship - snooker ceases to be a attritional game of fine margins and becomes a pulse-quickening, jaw-dropping sport of speed, panache and poetic instinct. Watching Ronnie pace around a table to a chorus of gasps and applause sinking ball after ball, you see a man who is so often at odds with the world suddenly operating as it were designed with only him in mind. The rest of us? We're not even in the same universe.
10 | The Bolt finish
Usain Bolt shouldn't really work as a sprinter. At 6'4" with spidery legs and a gangly frame, the fastest man to have ever lived's lack of immediate burst should rule him out over 10 seconds against the powerful, squat archetypes that he has faced over a dominant career... which makes the way he finishes races all the more remarkable.
Over the course of three Olympics that bore him nine gold medals, Bolt's sluggish starts became something of an odd blessing. His poor opponents scattering ahead while the big Jamaican's Large Hadron Collider whirled into record-breaking, atom-smashing action, the competition inevitably left grasping at dust by the time the white line is in sight.
From: Esquire UK