Black-and-white photo of Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring in the ready position

Perfectten

The greatest moves in the history of sport, from Ali’s signature shuffle to McEnroe’s slicing serve

In sports, it’s rare that a full game gets burned into one’s memory, to be relived, celebrated and argued about for years to come. More often it’s a fleeting instance that you never forget—a shot, a catch, a serve, a juke, an unbelievable, beautiful, did-you-see-that?! move. 

With that in mind, here’s our celebration of the greatest moves in the history of sport. The styles vary, as do the sports represented, from football (both American and non-American) and tennis to skiing and golf. But what they all have in common are grace and style. Originality and ownership. Creativity and confidence. Not to mention success—whether in the form of a goal, an ace or a knockout.

Before we get started, a brief caveat: Greatest move doesn’t equal greatest player. No one’s going to argue that George Gervin was at the same level as Michael Jordan, but we would argue that Gervin’s signature finger roll had an elegance that no dunk could ever match. Disagree with our picks? We’d be surprised if you didn’t. Hit us back via @RalphLauren with your additions to the list.

1. The Ali Shuffle

Muhammad Ali was defined by what he did with his fists (and his mouth), but the Greatest of All Time’s trademark move involved his feet: No heavyweight before or since was as quick. The move, in which Ali would slide his feet back and forth so quickly he would appear to float, often preceded a devastating haymaker. As the man himself put it in the understatement of the century, “A split second, right after you do that shuffle, is a good punch.” Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee? Can’t have the sting without the float.

2. Pelé’s Bicycle Kick

Pelé once dismissed this electrifying method of scoring by saying, “I scored 1,283 goals and only two or three were bicycle kicks.” Maybe so, but it’s those two or three that everyone remembers. Pelé was a visionary player who made the beautiful game more beautiful, and while he could indeed score from anywhere, what defined him was the bicycle kick—performed upside down, suspended in midair, with his back to the goal. It seems unreal, unnecessary, impossible—until the ball hits the back of the net.

 

3. George Gervin’s Finger Roll

George “The Iceman” Gervin could dunk; he just chose not to. And lest you think the longtime San Antonio Spur’s signature move of rolling the ball over his fingertips for a layup was a gimmick (he was fond of dropping in the occasional finger roll from the free-throw line), Gervin averaged 26.2 points per game in the NBA, won four scoring titles and once scored 63 points in a game in which he sat out the fourth quarter.

 

4. John McEnroe’s Lefty Serve

John McEnroe will always be remembered for his temper, but while the ball was in play, the man was capable of near-impossible grace. He was a subtle tactician with a lefty slice serve that would leave opponents wondering how they got so far off the ad court before meekly returning the ball for an easy volley. In Johnny Mac’s heyday, tennis was as much about strategy as power, and his surgical serve made the 5'11", 165-pound Hall of Famer into a dominant force.

“The bicycle kick is not easy to do. I scored 1,283 goals and only two or three were bicycle kicks.”

5. Serena Williams’ Return of Serve

In Serena Williams’ heyday, however, it’s all about power—and no one wields it as beautifully as she does. And while her serve gets most of the attention (flashing 128.6 on the radar gun will do that), it’s her return of serve that best demonstrates the elegance of her game. Slamming the ball with a two-handed backhand or one-armed forehand, she gives the impression of complete command, strategically (and forcefully) placing the ball anywhere she wants to—typically, somewhere deep and unhittable.

Serena Williams returning a serve with a fierce look on her face
From baseline to net, Serena Williams dominates both with her talent and the force of her personality
While her serve gets most of the attention (flashing 128.6 on the radar gun will do that), it’s her return of serve that best demonstrates the elegance of her game.
Dick Fosbury captured at the moment his back is floating over the high jump pole
Dick Fosbury's eponymous “flop” revolutionized the high jump

6. The Fosbury Flop

A rare combination of grace, competitive advantage and naked radicalism, Dick Fosbury’s eponymous “flop” (too bad about the inelegant nickname) wasn’t just pretty to look at, it revolutionized the high jump. In the early days of the event, athletes leaped over the bar facing forward, using the upright straddle technique to clear the bar. As a high school student in the ’60s, Fosbury landed on a better way, and took his technique—which involved swooping over the bar headfirst, facing upward—all the way to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. There, he set the Olympic high-jump record and took home the gold—and just four years later, nearly all Olympic high jumpers were using the flop.

 

7. Sam Snead’s Swing

Sam Snead was a natural who hated being called a natural. But the Slammer wouldn’t have amassed 82 PGA Tour victories (still a record, by the way) if he didn’t painstakingly practice his artful, smooth swing. (He once estimated that he hit more than 2 million practice balls in his life.) His game combined power, distance and accuracy—he wouldn’t be one of the all-time greats if it didn’t—but was based on a swing so effortless observers might miss the violence it produced. But don’t take it from us. Here’s Ben Hogan, himself no slouch in the swing department: “Sam Snead doesn’t know a thing about hitting a golf ball. He just does it better than anyone else.”

8. Walter Payton’s Stutter Step

Walter Payton’s nickname may have been Sweetness, but his on-field motto was “Never die easy.” The key to his elusiveness was his incomparable stutter step. Payton stood upright, danced his way through traffic, high-stepped, changed pace, waited for a defender to commit to a direction and then went off the other way. In the rare instance you happened to catch him after that, he would stiff-arm you in the face and leap into the end zone, where he had an equally graceful follow-up move: modestly handing the ball to the ref and declining to celebrate.

Walter Payton with the football in motion, stepping around opponents in his way
Walter Payton's unpredictable stutter step made it impossible for opponents to follow a change of direction

9. Jean-Claude Killy’s Flying Start

Today, world champion skier Jean-Claude Killy is best known more for his lifestyle, his looks and a bruising article Hunter S. Thompson wrote about him called “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy.” But Killy was also a three-time Olympic gold medalist. His victories were jump-started by a swaggering starting-gate maneuver in which Killy would pull himself up in the air, sway back and propel himself forward, hitting the slope in motion before his opponents had moved a muscle. It was cocky and cool—and effective, helping him claim Alpine skiing’s triple crown (downhill, slalom, giant slalom) at the ’68 Winter Olympics.

 

10. Babe Didrikson Zaharias’ Javelin Throw

Babe Didrikson Zaharias set world records in hurdles, high jump, baseball throw and javelin—all in one day in 1932—before earning AP’s Female Athlete of the Year five times (and in 1950 she was AP’s “Woman Athlete of the Half Century”), largely for her dominance in golf. Which makes it borderline impossible to narrow down Zaharias’ career to just one sport, let alone one move. And yet, this throw—a muscular, determined hurl that finished with a one-legged hop—embodied what the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice (yes, the one Bill Simmons named his site after) meant when he wrote: “She is beyond all belief until you see her perform. Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen.”

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RANDY GOLDBERG is a brand consultant and writer based in New York. He cofounded the elusive menswear shopping event Pop Up Flea. Follow Randy on Instagram @randygoldberg.

  • Photograph by Lichfield
  • Photograph by J Pat Carter
  • Photograph by Rich Clarkson
  • Photograph by James V. Biever