38 Most Successful Athletes of the 21st Century

May 8, 2018 by Grant Suneson

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Every professional athlete’s ultimate goal each season is to bring home the championship. Some players work tirelessly every year of their career but are never able to raise a trophy. Others, meanwhile, are able to rise above the competition and win multiple titles over the course of their career.

Since the turn of the century, sports fans have been lucky enough to witness several great dynasties and the generational talents that drive them. Players like Sidney Crosby, LeBron James, and Tom Brady have taken their team to the top of their sport again and again. Others, like Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and Jimmie Johnson, have established their place as some of the most dominant individual athletes of all time.

Many sports fans believe that championships are the ultimate measure of excellence in athletics. To these people, anyone who retires without a ring can never be considered truly great, regardless of their career stats. Dan Marino was one of the most effective quarterbacks in NFL history, putting up impressive numbers for years, but he never won a Super Bowl and his legacy suffers for it. LeBron James and Michael Jordan are compared ad nauseum, and many fans give Jordan the edge because he has six championships to James’ three.

There are some players who have won multiple titles by being on the right team at the right time. However, for athletes like Crosby, James, Brady, and many others, there is no doubt that their individual excellence is the reason they hold multiple championship rings. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed some of the athletes that fall into this latter category, considering winners in a number of major sports to determine the most successful athletes of the 21st century.

Click here to see the most successful athletes of the 21st Century.

Since the year 2000, there have been many changes to the sports world. Massive TV contracts with national channels made it possible for sports fans, coast to coast and across the world, to catch more sporting events than ever before. The reach of sports became even greater with the advent of online streaming. Now, practically any sport can be viewed from any part of the globe. This increased exposure both raised the scrutiny on athletes and allowed their triumphs to reach a wider audience.

Many of the players on this list began to dominate their sports in the 1990s or even the 1980s and continued their dominance and success into the 2000s. Tim Duncan won his first of five NBA championships in 1999. Tiger Woods burst onto the golf scene in 1997, winning his first Masters Tournament less than a year after turning professional.

In order to determine the most successful athletes of the 21st century, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the careers of top athletes from popular sports across the world. Athletes in team sports were only considered if they won multiple championships since the year 2000. Athletes in individual sports were considered if they won multiple major championships, either as a professional or an Olympian.

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1. Abby Wambach
> Sport: Soccer
> Championships: 2x gold medal, 1x World Cup
> Team or country: United States Women’s National Team
> Career length: 2001-2015
> Other accomplishments: 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year

No soccer player — male or female — has ever scored more goals in international competitions than Abby Wambach. The U.S. forward helped her team win two Olympic gold medals and one FIFA World Cup.

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2. Adam Vinatieri
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 4x Super Bowl
> Team or country: New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts
> Career length: 1996-present
> Other accomplishments: 3x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro

Kickers are often overlooked on the football field, but Adam Vinatieri has played a crucial role in four Super Bowl wins. He was the kicker for the first three New England Patriots Super Bowl championships, including in 2002, when he hit the game-winning, 48-yard field goal as time expired. He later helped Peyton Manning win his first Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.

Source: Scott Halleran / Getty Images

3. Annika Sorenstam
> Sport: Golf
> Championships: 10x Major champion
> Team or country: Sweden
> Career length: 1994-2008
> Other accomplishments: 72 tour wins

Annika Sorenstam dominated women’s golf for almost her entire career. She won 10 major championships and was named the LPGA Tour Player of the Year eight times.

Source: Jed Jacobsohn / Allsport / Getty Images

4. Bob Burnquist
> Sport: Skateboarding
> Championships: 14x X Games gold medal
> Team or country: Brazil
> Career length: 1995-2017
> Other accomplishments: 30 total X Games medals

Bob Burnquist is a Brazilian-born pioneer who helped make skateboarding an international sensation. Burnquist, who competed at the first ever X Games, won 30 medals, including 14 golds.

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5. Buster Posey
> Sport: Baseball
> Championships: 3x World Series
> Team or country: San Francisco Giants
> Career length: 2009-present
> Other accomplishments: 5x All-Star, 1x Gold Glove, 1x MVP

Buster Posey’s MLB career got off to a dream start. The San Francisco Giants catcher was named Rookie of the Year the same year he won his first World Series in 2010. Two years later, he won National League MVP and another championship. He added a third ring in 2014.

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6. Cristiano Ronaldo
> Sport: Soccer
> Championships: 4x UEFA Champions league, 5x national league
> Team or country: Manchester United, Real Madrid
> Career length: 2002-present
> Other accomplishments: 5 Ballons d’Or

Cristiano Ronaldo will certainly go down as one of the most prolific goal scorers in soccer history. The Portuguese striker has scored more goals than anyone else in the history of Europe’s top leagues, leading Manchester United and Real Madrid to numerous national and continental championships.

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7. David Ortiz
> Sport: Baseball
> Championships: 3x World Series
> Team or country: Boston Red Sox
> Career length: 1997-2016
> Other accomplishments: 10x All-Star

David Ortiz helped break an 86-year-old curse on the Boston Red Sox and established himself as one of the most beloved athletes in Boston sports history. The powerful slugger won World Series with the Sox in 2004, 2007, and 2013.

Source: Tom Hauck / Allsport / Getty Images

8. Derek Fisher
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 5x NBA Championship
> Team or country: Los Angeles Lakers
> Career length: 1996-2014
> Other accomplishments: n/a

Derek Fisher was a significant contributor to all five Los Angeles Lakers championships in the 21st century. He played point guard for the Lakers in 13 of his 18 NBA seasons.

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9. Dwyane Wade
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 3x NBA Championship, 1x gold medal
> Team or country: Miami Heat
> Career length: 2003-present
> Other accomplishments: 12x All-Star, 2x All-NBA

Dwyane Wade has cemented his legacy as the greatest player in Miami Heat history by helping the franchise win three championships. Wade is also the Heat’s all-time leader in scoring, minutes played, steals, and assists.

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10. Evgeni Malkin
> Sport: Hockey
> Championships: 3x Stanley Cup
> Team or country: Pittsburgh Penguins
> Career length: 2006-present
> Other accomplishments: 3x All-Star, 1x Hart Trophy

Though Sidney Crosby gets most of the attention on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin is an outstanding player in his own right. Malkin helped the Pens win three Stanley Cups and picked up a Hart Trophy in 2012 as the most valuable player in the NHL.

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11. Floyd Mayweather
> Sport: Boxing
> Championships: 9x world champion, 22x world title defense
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 1996-2017
> Other accomplishments: 50-0 record, 3x Fighter of the Year

Floyd Mayweather amassed an amazing 50-0 record as a professional boxer, claiming championships in five different weight classes. He defended his world titles 22 times. After his August 2017 fight with Conor McGregor, it is estimated that Mayweather has made over $1 billion in his career.

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12. Georges St. Pierre
> Sport: MMA
> Championships: 2x champion, 9x title defense
> Team or country: Canada
> Career length: 2002-present
> Other accomplishments: 26-2 lifetime record

Georges St. Pierre’s UFC career record of 26-2 includes two championships and nine successful defenses of those titles. Unfortunately, the future of the Canadian fighter’s career is now uncertain. He recently announced he is battling colitis and it is unclear if he will fight again.

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13. Jimmie Johnson
> Sport: NASCAR
> Championships: 7x NASCAR Cup Series
> Team or country: Hendrick Motorsports
> Career length: 2001-present
> Other accomplishments: 83 races won

Jimmie Johnson had a streak of dominance unprecedented in NASCAR history. Johnson won seven championships in 11 years, including five straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series from 2006-2010.

Source: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

14. Jonathan Toews
> Sport: Hockey
> Championships: 3x Stanley Cup, 2x gold medal
> Team or country: Chicago Blackhawks
> Career length: 2007-present
> Other accomplishments: 1x All-Star

Jonathan Toews had one of the most remarkable stretches in hockey starting in 2010. In the span of six years, he won three Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals with team Canada.

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15. Kobe Bryant
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 5x NBA Champion, 2x gold medal
> Team or country: Los Angeles Lakers
> Career length: 1996-2016
> Other accomplishments: 18x All-Star, 11x All-NBA, 1x MVP

Kobe Bryant helped continue the Los Angeles Lakers’ victorious ways, winning three straight titles in the early 2000s and two more in 2009 and 2010.

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16. LeBron James
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 3x NBA Champion, 2x gold medal
> Team or country: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat
> Career length: 2003-present
> Other accomplishments: 14x All-Star, 11x All-NBA, 4x MVP

LeBron James won two NBA Championships in Miami with the Heat before returning to his original team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and winning a championship there in 2016. He also holds two Olympic gold medals and four NBA MVP awards.

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17. Lindsey Jacobellis
> Sport: Snowboarding
> Championships: 10x X Games gold medal
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 2001-present
> Other accomplishments: 12 total X Games medals

Lindsey Jacobellis consistently shreds the competition at the X Games. The snowboarder has 10 gold medals at the competition.

Source: Alex Caparros / Getty Images

18. Lionel Messi
> Sport: Soccer
> Championships: 4x UEFA Champions league, 9x domestic league
> Team or country: Barcelona
> Career length: 2003-present
> Other accomplishments: 5 Ballons d’Or

Lionel Messi has dominated world soccer in the past decade, winning five Ballon d’Or awards as the world’s best player. He’s guided Barcelona to nine Spanish championships and four UEFA Champions League titles.

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19. Madison Bumgarner
> Sport: Baseball
> Championships: 3x World Series
> Team or country: San Francisco Giants
> Career length: 2009-present
> Other accomplishments: 4x All-Star

Pitcher Madison Bumgarner takes his game to the next level in the World Series. Bumgarner has never lost a start in the World Series, going 4-0 in the three Fall Classics in which he pitched. He was named the 2014 World Series MVP.

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20. Manu Ginobili
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 4x NBA Champion, 1x gold medal
> Team or country: San Antonio Spurs
> Career length: 2002-present
> Other accomplishments: 2x All-Star

As one of the best bench players in NBA history, Manu Ginobili helped the San Antonio Spurs win four of the franchise’s five titles. He also won an Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2004.

Source: Matthias Hangst / Getty Images

21. Marit Bjørgen
> Sport: Olympic skiing
> Championships: 8x gold medal
> Team or country: Norway
> Career length: 2002-present
> Other accomplishments: 15 total medals in five Olympics

Though she may not be a household name, Marit Bjørgen has established herself as one of the greatest Olympic athletes ever. The Norwegian skier has won 15 medals, eight of which are gold, during five Olympics.

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22. Martin Brodeur
> Sport: Hockey
> Championships: 3x Stanley Cup, 2x gold medal
> Team or country: New Jersey Devils
> Career length: 1991-2015
> Other accomplishments: 7x All-Star, 4x Vezina Trophy

Martin Brodeur was the centerpiece of the New Jersey Devils dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Brodeur played goalie for three Stanley Cup championship teams, won four Vezina Trophies as the NHL’s best goalie, and took home two Olympic gold medals for team Canada.

Source: Adam Pretty / Getty Images

23. Michael Phelps
> Sport: Olympic swimming
> Championships: 23x gold medal
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 2000-2016
> Other accomplishments: 28 total medals in five Olympics

American swimmer Michael Phelps is by far the most decorated Olympian of all time. He’s won 28 medals, 23 of them gold, at five different Olympic games.

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24. Novak Djokovic
> Sport: Tennis
> Championships: 12x Grand slam
> Team or country: Serbia
> Career length: 2003-present
> Other accomplishments: 223 weeks as #1

In 2016, Novak Djokovic became the first man in nearly five decades to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once. He’s won a total of 12 majors in his life.

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25. Peyton Manning
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 2x Super Bowl
> Team or country: Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos
> Career length: 1998-2015
> Other accomplishments: 14x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro, 5x MVP

Peyton Manning more than lived up to the hype of being a top overall pick in the NFL Draft. Manning won five MVP awards and two Super Bowls, one with the Indianapolis Colts and the other with the Denver Broncos.

Source: Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

26. Rafael Nadal
> Sport: Tennis
> Championships: 16x Grand Slam, 1x gold medal
> Team or country: Spain
> Career length: 2001-present
> Other accomplishments: 173 weeks as #1

Rafael Nadal is the King of Clay, winning 10 French Open championships, which are played on a clay surface. Despite facing stiff competition from Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Nadal holds 16 Grand Slam titles. He’s won each of the four Grand Slam tournaments at least once, and he took home the Olympic gold medal in 2008.

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27. Ray Lewis
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 2x Super Bowl
> Team or country: Baltimore Ravens
> Career length: 1996-2012
> Other accomplishments: 13x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro, 2x Defensive Player of the Year

Ray Lewis established himself as one of the most fearsome defensive players in NFL history, winning two Super Bowls and two Defensive Player of the Year awards as a member of the Baltimore Ravens.

Source: Rick Stewart / Getty Images

28. Richard Seymour
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 3x Super Bowl
> Team or country: New England Patriots
> Career length: 2001-2012
> Other accomplishments: 7x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro

Richard Seymour became a linchpin of the New England Patriots defense as the team won three titles in four years. He was an All-Pro pass rusher during two of those years.

Source: Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

29. Roger Federer
> Sport: Tennis
> Championships: 20x Grand Slam
> Team or country: Switzerland
> Career length: 1998-present
> Other accomplishments: 308 weeks as #1

Roger Federer has staked his claim as the greatest male tennis player of all time. He has won 20 Grand Slam titles and spent over 300 weeks ranked as the No. 1 player in the world — and counting. He is the only man to accomplish either feat.

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30. Serena Williams
> Sport: Tennis
> Championships: 23x Grand Slam, 1x gold medal
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 1997-present
> Other accomplishments: 319 weeks as #1

Serena Williams sits just one title behind Margaret Court for the most singles Grand Slam titles in tennis history, winning all four major tournaments at least three times.

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31. Shaquille O’Neal
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 4x NBA Champion, 1x gold medal
> Team or country: Los Angeles Lakers
> Career length: 1992-2011
> Other accomplishments: 15x All-Star, 8x All-NBA, 1x MVP

As one of the most dominant centers in NBA history, Shaquille O’Neal helped three Los Angeles Lakers teams win a ring before winning another with the Miami Heat.

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32. Shaun White
> Sport: Skateboarding, snowboarding
> Championships: 15x X Games gold medal, 3x Olympic gold medal
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 2000-present
> Other accomplishments: 23 total X Games medals

Shaun White is one of the most successful two-sport athletes of all time. White is a skateboarding and snowboarding legend, having won 23 X Games medals, 15 of them gold, as well as three Olympic golds for halfpipe snowboarding.

Source: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

33. Sidney Crosby
> Sport: Hockey
> Championships: 3x Stanley Cup, 2x gold medal
> Team or country: Pittsburgh Penguins
> Career length: 2005-present
> Other accomplishments: 7x All-Star, 2x Hart Trophy

After entering the NHL as one of the most exciting prospects ever, Sidney Crosby has managed to live up to the hype. Crosby won three Stanley Cups before his 30th birthday and his Pittsburgh Penguins seem poised to keep winning.

Source: Stephen Munday / Allsport / Getty Images

34. Tiger Woods
> Sport: Golf
> Championships: 14x Major champion
> Team or country: United States
> Career length: 1996-present
> Other accomplishments: 79 career tour wins

Tiger Woods enjoyed a decade of pro golf dominance starting in 1997, winning 14 majors. He hasn’t won a major since 2008, but he’s attempting to return to his top form after years of injuries.

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35. Tim Duncan
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 5x NBA Champion
> Team or country: San Antonio Spurs
> Career length: 1997-2016
> Other accomplishments: 15x All-Star, 10x All-NBA, 2x MVP

After being drafted first overall in 1997, Tim Duncan proved his worth almost immediately, winning his first of five NBA championships in 1999.

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36. Tom Brady
> Sport: Football
> Championships: 5x Super Bowl
> Team or country: New England Patriots
> Career length: 2000-present
> Other accomplishments: 13x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro, 3x MVP

Tom Brady has taken the New England Patriots to eight championships, winning five of them — more than any other quarterback in the Super Bowl era.

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37. Tony Parker
> Sport: Basketball
> Championships: 4x NBA Champion
> Team or country: San Antonio Spurs
> Career length: 2001-present
> Other accomplishments: 6x All-Star

After starting in the NBA as a teenager, Tony Parker became one of the league’s top point guards, winning four championships and one finals MVP award.

Source: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

38. Usain Bolt
> Sport: Olympic running
> Championships: 8x gold medal
> Team or country: Jamaica
> Career length: 2004-2016
> Other accomplishments: 8 total medals in four Olympics

Usain Bolt has proven time and time again that he is the fastest man on earth. The Jamaican sprinter competed in four Olympics and won gold in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay three times. One of his relay gold medals was stripped after a teammate was caught doping.