Is Virat Kohli the GOAT? Or is it Messi? Or Serena Williams? We can’t tell you that, and we won’t even try. What we can tell you is how GOAT, or more accurately the acronym G.O.A.T., came to be associated with excellence, in sports and other fields.
The hashtag you see trending on social media all the time, often with a ram’s head icon, stands for Greatest of All Time. And its origins can be traced back to a sportsperson who has as strong a claim as any at the title.
That sportsperson was the great boxer and great activist Muhammad Ali.
‘I am the greatest’
Ali, as impressive a personality as he was a player, often referred to himself as the greatest. One of his more famous quotes is: “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I was really the greatest.”
When he was only 21 years old and still called Cassius Clay, he released a comedy album, ‘I Am The Greatest’. In 1964, this album was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Performance. Lyrics of ‘I Am The Greatest’ include: “This is the legend of Cassius Clay/ The most beautiful fighter in the world today”; “He is the greatest! Yes! I am the man this poem’s about/ I’ll be champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt”.
The album was to prove prophetic – six months after recording it, Clay won the world heavyweight championship. It was then that he embraced Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali was a champion, inside and outside the ring. (Photo: AP)
In the public glare as a black man, Ali proclaiming his greatness went beyond a sportsman’s boast, and left a lasting impact.
Later, in 1992, when he had retired from boxing and his health was failing, his wife Lonnie Ali (Yolanda Williams), who was also his business manager, created a firm called Greatest of All Time Inc (G.O.A.T Inc), to manage all the copyrights related to Ali for commercial purposes. In 2006, this firm was bought by entrepreneur Robert FX Sillerman. The rights to Ali’s name, photographs, archival videos, etc. were later acquired by Apollo Global Management, and in 2013 by Authentic Brands Group.
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How G.O.A.T became popular
The term’s popularity picked up with the 2000 album ‘G.O.A.T’ by rapper LL Cool J. The song’s lyrics go: “I’m the G.O.A.T/ The Greatest of All Time (coo-coo, coo, Cool J)/The Greatest of All Time (LL)”.
In 2016, Cool J told Rolling Stones, “Without Muhammad Ali, there would be no ‘Mama Said Knock You Out, and the term G.O.A.T. would have never been coined.”
In 2018, the term GOAT made it to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. In an interview with Boston.com that year, Peter Sokolowski, then editor at large of Merriam Webster, said that the first version the dictionary found of GOAT’s use online was in 1996, “on an Orlando Magic forum referencing Penny Hardaway”. Hardaway is a basketball player and coach. “The sentence is simply, ‘Penny is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). That’s the oldest quotation that we have of this word,” Sokolowski said.
In 2018, the dictionary noted, the usage of GOAT saw a sharp upswing thanks to the American football player Tom Brady.
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The role of Brady in popularising GOAT is also mentioned by The Athletic. In a 2022 article, the sports website cites Google Trends data to say that ‘Tom Brady GOAT’ was used in 2015, 2016, and most significantly in 2017, after his team the New England Patriots won the fifth Super Bowl title. On Brady’s 40th birthday in 2017, the Patriots brought five baby goats to practice – one for each title win.
The Athletic article also says that GOAT had soared on Google Trends in 2016 too, after swimmer Michael Phelps’ Olympic win.
Today, GOAT is used in all fields, with fans on social media regularly proclaiming their favourite singer, actor, stand-up comic to be the GOAT. However, popularity does not mean universality, and there is an interesting story involving another great, actor Meryl Streep.
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In 2021, during the filming of Don’t Look Up, Streep’s co-stars, Jonah Hill and Jennifer Lawrence, would refer to her as the G.O.AT, and the veteran actor assumed they meant the animal. Lawrence, in an appearance on The Late Show, said, “We just offhandedly call Meryl the G.O.A.T. We were doing a photoshoot and Meryl said, ‘That’s right, just tell the old goat where to go. I was like, ‘Meryl, you know that G.O.A.T means “greatest of all time.” We haven’t just been calling you goat!”