How Patrick Mahomes compares to other sports legends at this stage of his career

Arun Srinivasan
·11 min read

The two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl produces some of the most hyperbolic takes you’ll find on the internet and the great beyond.

Patrick Mahomes has been compared to some of the greatest athletes of all time and many have suggested that his trajectory to become the best football player ever will be accelerated with a win against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

At 25, in his fourth season, Mahomes is the most accomplished young player in NFL history. Some have suggested he’s the most accomplished young professional athlete, ever.

How do some of the greatest of all time fare against Mahomes at the same stages of their careers? Let’s take a look.

Patrick Mahomes

Ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft, Mahomes was considered to be a polarizing prospect. His supporters argued that his unmatched arm strength and improvisational skills would translate well to the NFL. His naysayers argued that his penchant for throwing into traffic and not setting his feet when he threw would be capitalized upon by more intelligent, athletic NFL defenders. Those concerns have been rendered moot.

Mahomes essentially sat behind Alex Smith for the vast majority of the 2017 season, but showed enough to convince Kansas City he was the future of the franchise. When Mahomes took over as the starter in 2018, he threw for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, found a way to throw breaking balls with a football and put the league on notice en route to winning MVP. Were it not for a coin toss that went against the Chiefs in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, Mahomes and Co. could very well be searching for their third consecutive ring this Sunday.

Not to be dismayed, Mahomes returned for the 2019 season, threw 26 touchdowns versus five interceptions, suffered a dislocated kneecap, returned to action two weeks later and never looked back, stringing together three consecutive comeback victories in the playoffs against the Texans, Titans and 49ers to capture his first Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP.

Mahomes signed the richest contract in the history of North American sports prior to the 2020 campaign, a deal that could pay him up to $503 million. He then followed up with a 14-2 season, 38 touchdowns against six interceptions, and evoked a sense of inevitably any time he took the field. Sunday may be his coronation. It’s been one helluva of a four-year run. Is it the greatest start to a professional career?

Patrick Mahomes' early-career dominance holds up against living legends like Serena Williams and Wayne Gretzky. (Getty Images)
Patrick Mahomes' early-career dominance holds up against living legends across all sports. (Getty Images)

Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky’s professional career started outside of the NHL when he joined the now-defunct World Hockey Association’s Indianapolis Racers as a 17-year-old for the 1978-79 season. His tenure with the Racers was short-lived as the team was hemorrhaging money, and Gretzky’s $1.7-million contract, along with two others, were sold to Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington for an announced fee of $850,000.

Edmonton along with three other teams were amalgamated into the NHL after the WHA folded and protected Gretzky from the expansion draft. Gretzky then began his torrid start to this NHL career, tying Marcel Dionne for the scoring lead and winning his first of eight consecutive Hart Trophies. In his third NHL season, Gretzky scored an NHL-record 92 goals and finished with 212 points, a record that he’d best in 1985-86 after compiling 215 points.

Although the Oilers would come to define the 1980s, Gretzky’s teams didn’t fare particularly well in the playoffs through his first four years, failing to advance past the second round in his first three NHL seasons. The 1982 loss to the Los Angeles Kings stung particularly. In Game 3 of the five-game series, the Kings came back from a 5-0 deficit to defeat the Oilers 6-5 in overtime and went on to win the series. The following year, the Oilers finally advanced to the Stanley Cup final but were swept handily by the reigning New York Islanders, who captured their fourth consecutive title.

Gretzky would get his revenge against the Islanders a year later, finally lifting the Cup. His individual numbers are as eye-popping as it gets in any sport, but his team’s success fails to compare with how Mahomes’ Chiefs have dominated through his first three seasons as a starter.

Verdict: Tie. Mahomes’ individual numbers can’t compare to Gretzky’s, but he’s achieved more team success than the Great One did in his early years.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams won her first major 13 days before her 18th birthday, defeating top-seeded Martina Hingis 6-3, 7-6 at the 1999 U.S. Open, becoming the African-American woman to capture a Grand Slam title in the Open Era. It was a thoroughly dominant performance and though it would be disingenuous to say it represented a changing of the guard as Hingis held onto her world No. 1 status through 2000, Williams provided a glimpse of what was to come over the next two decades. En route to the final, Williams defeated a veritable murderer’s row of tennis greats, eliminating Kim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles and Lindsey Davenport before knocking off Hingis.

(A note on Seles: She’s arguably the greatest teenage prodigy ever but her career never returned to its apex after being stabbed by a deranged Steffi Graf fan on April 30, 1993, when she was just 19 years old and had already won eight Grand Slams. She had a good shot at becoming the greatest of all time across all sports and it has to be recognized here.)

Coming off the U.S. Open victory, 2000 proved to be a stellar season for Williams but unfortunately she couldn’t add to her Grand Slam total, notably losing to her sister Venus Williams at the Wimbledon semifinals, a tournament the elder Williams went on to win. It wasn’t totally fruitless for Serena, however, as she captured the Wimbledon’s doubles tournament with Venus, her third Grand Slam in doubles.

The following year also provided some of the same challenges for Williams, as she went without an individual Grand Slam title, finishing as the World No. 6 for the second consecutive year, with injuries holding her out of the French Open.

It was in 2002 when Williams consistently began to show that she was ready to take over as the World’s No. 1. After withdrawing from the Australian Open, Williams set her sights on the French Open where she would go on to defeat Venus for the first of what came to be known as the “Serena Slam.” Serena defeated Venus once again at Wimbledon, propelling her to the No. 1 spot, then defeated her sister at the U.S Open. Three Grand Slams in any calendar year is truly outstanding, and with a victory in the 2003 Australian Open, once again over Venus, Serena pulled off a career grand slam in the span of a year.

Tennis convention refuses to call it a Grand Slam because Williams didn’t win all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year of 2002. Time is fake, it absolutely counts, as Williams held the No. 1 ranking for a whopping 57 consecutive weeks during her first reign as the best women’s player alive.

Verdict: Williams, slightly. It depends on how you evaluate the criteria. Mahomes has a more consistent body of work, while Williams’ 2002 apex is higher than anything we’ve seen from Mahomes, yet — the equivalent would be a regular season MVP and a Super Bowl MVP in the same year.

LeBron James

LeBron James was an athletic marvel with world-class passing when he entered the league, and though he had next to no help, for the purpose of this exercise we’re docking him points for reaching the playoffs for the first time in his third year.

LeBron dragged the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals, with his Game 5 performance against the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference final still standing as one of the best in NBA history. San Antonio easily swept Cleveland in the Finals, however, and this heartwarming moment between James and Tim Duncan afterwards foreshadowed the next decade of basketball history.

As someone who loathed the way LeBron was treated by many before he won his first title, or how he was treated during his time with the Miami Heat, it pains me to say that a young LeBron’s relative lack of team success will be held against him in this exercise. But in surpassing the stratospheric expectations projected upon him and still dominating in 2021, we have to give it up for LeBron one more time.

Verdict: Mahomes.

Lionel Messi

During an August 2005 match against Juventus, Lionel Messi received a standing ovation from the Camp Nou crowd and though he was well known as football’s most promising prospect, this provided more than a glimpse of what was to come next. He dominated the game, prompting Juventus manager Fabio Capello to beg Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard to transfer Messi to his club 25 minutes into the game.

Messi had a wonderful start to his career, but it was cut short in 2006 when he suffered a torn hamstring against Chelsea in the Champions League, forcing him to watch from the sidelines as Barcelona — one of the greatest sides of all time — went on to win the tournament.

In 2006-07, a 20-year-old Messi continued to shine as a marquee talent with 14 goals in 26 games across all competitions, but Barcelona failed to replicate the same level of heightened success it reached the previous year. While Messi firmly established himself as the face of the club’s future in 2007-08, he posted 16 goals in 40 games across all competitions, which would pale in comparison to his next five seasons when he recored an absurd 271 goals, including his 2011-12 season where he scored an astonishing 73 goals in 60 contests.

Verdict: Mahomes, slightly. Messi’s global impact was already felt as a teenager, but he would only establish himself as the world’s best player by 2009, well into his career (although he was just 22). His detractors will also point to a lack of success at the World Cup, which is wildly unfair, considering he single-handedly took Argentina to the 2014 final.

Usain Bolt

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 09: Usain Bolt of Jamaica celebrates as he crosses the finish line to claim victory and win gold during the Men's 200m Final on Day 13 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 9, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Usain Bolt is the greatest athlete of all time and had the best start to a professional career one could possibly imagine. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Although he is the greatest 100m sprinter in the history of the sport, Usain Bolt originally featured as a 200m specialist. There are a few selective endpoints we could use to start Bolt’s career here, but since he only started focusing on the 100m in 2007, we’ll start there. Bolt always had a desire to run the 100m but was advised against it by coach Glen Mills. Mills promised Bolt he could run the 100m when he broke Jamaica’s national record for the 200m. Bolt complied with a dazzling 19.75 in the 200m, and the rest is history.

At the 2008 Jamaica Invitational, Bolt ran a stunning 9.76 in the 100m, and in his fifth professional 100m race at the Reebok Grand Prix in New York on May 31, 2008, Bolt ran a 9.72. It was just a sign of things to come.

Bolt made his mark on history at the 2008 Olympic Games, where he smashed the 100m world record in a dazzling 9.69, looking back at the rest of the field as he slowed toward the finish line in one of the most iconic sports moments of the century. He wasn’t done just yet, as Bolt smashed the 200m world record with a 19.30 time, and the still image of Bolt ahead of the rest of the competition with no one else in sight is truly remarkable. He then led Jamaica to another world record of 37.10 in the 4 x 100 relay, although this gold medal was retroactively revoked when Nesta Caster’s blood sample revealed a positive test for a banned substance.

By the end of the 2008 Games, Bolt had emerged as a global star. With due respect to the rest of track and field, Bolt became more popular than the sport itself at his peak.

At the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Bolt beat his own world record with a 9.58 time in the 100m, and beat his own world record in the 200m with a blistering 19.19 run. These are record that may stand the test of time, much like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak.

Verdict: Bolt. His prodigious and meteoric rise to the top of the sport is a truly singular, unique development, and his 2007-2009 run stands the test against anyone, in any sport, including Mahomes.

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