The Top 5 Iconic Sports Photos Of All Time

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Photography is special.

It’s able to express the unspeakable. Display an emotion without using any words. Capture the feeling, pain, anguish, excitement – you name it, all within the blink of an eye… or the push of a button.

This is especially true in sports. The ball being shot out of a player’s hands while the crowd has their jaws half open and others can barely look. Or someone like Lou Gehrig delivering his “Luckiest Man” speech with his face showing the brutal realization that he would only have two very short years to live after the Iron Horse announced his retirement that July day in 1941.

But whereas my former boss and friend Warner Wolf would come up with his “Let’s go to the videotape!” phrase, there’s something special about still images and photography. That split second can tell so much.

With this in mind, I decided to come up with my Top 5 Sports Photos of all time. Although I purposely went out of my way to try and separate the greatest photos from the greatest sports moments, sometimes it wasn’t possible – those single moments were some of the greatest sports moments we’ve ever seen.

Photo By: Focus On Sports / Getty Images

Super Bowl XLII. 2008. A New York Giants team that probably shouldn’t have even been there is playing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It looked like all hope was lost with the Giants when they were down 14-10 with less than 2 minutes left in the game.. A 3rd and 5 from their own 44-yard line meant that the Pats were going to come in strong and most likely lead to Giants quarterback Eli Manning throwing the ball away, getting sacked, throwing a pick, or fumbling. A completion, yet alone a significant one was hardly in the cards.

That is, unless you get a little help from your friends… or should I say equipment.

Yes that’s right, My #5 pick is David Tyree and the infamous helmet catch that he will forever be remembered for. The fact that Manning escaped heavy pressure – watch the videotape it’s wild how somehow got away, only to chuck the ball up AND For Tyree to fight off the Pats Rodney Harrison, catch the ball with two hands, only to have one hand knocked away and use his fricken helmet to cradle the ball with his other hand is unbelievably stupid how amazing this play and photo is.

The Giants of course would go on to defeat the undefeated Patriots and win their first Super Bowl since 1991 while Tyree will forever be known as having one of the greatest catches in football history.

David Tyree will always be known for his helmet catch during the Super Bowl. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Photo By: Heinz Kluetmeier / Sports Illustrated

We head on over to Lake Placid, New York for the 1980 winter Olympics where a bunch of college kids who had no business whatsoever not only completing with, but defeating the big, bad Russians gave this incredible photo afterwards.

This photo is truly great because it encompasses so many feelings. Exasperation, exhaustion, joy, tears, a “WTF did we just do?!” as well as a “How the F did we just do that?” all in one. Not to mention it answers Al Michael’s famous “Do You Believe In Miracles,” phrase with a simple, “Yes. Yes we do.”

The photo would end up being the only one ever on a Sports Illustrated cover that did not have any words or phrases on it.

It didn’t need any.

Photo By: Neil Leifer / Sports Illustrated

In 1965 Muhammad Ali faced Sonny Liston for the second time in three months after previously defeating him to capture the World Heavyweight title. However, in the rematch Ali knocked down Liston in less than 2 minutes.

Worried that people would have thought Liston threw the fight (there are still some rumors that he may have due to Liston’s alleged involvement with the mafia…) Ali is seen here SCREAMING at Liston “get up and fight, sucker!”

Just look at his ferociousness and fierceness. Heck, if I’m Liston there’s no way I’m getting back up either to an irate Ali like that. The picture truly shows just why Ali is the greatest. It’s so many emotions mixed into one, while the cigar smoke fills the background. It showed the determination and killer instinct mentality that Muhammad Ali had without a doubt.

Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston (Sports Illustrated / Neil Leifer)

Photo By: Walter Iooss

1988 Slam Dunk competition solidified Michael Jordan as being out of this world, literally. His Highness, His Airness, Air Jordan whatever you want to call it was on full display here when he levitated from the free throw line and absolutely crushed a slam dunk.

It’s Jordan at its best – showing off his confidence and unbelievable abilities, while doing a double clutch with his arm and sticking out his tongue. He legit looks like he’s riding an invisible escalator to the rim.

Also shout out to Jordan for realizing the importance of the Slam Dunk Competition and growing the game of basketball to the fans. Today’s players like LeBron James, couldn’t be bothered.

Michael Jordan flies in the Slam Dunk competition. (Walter Iooss)

Photo By: Frank Hurley / New York Daily News

Coming in on my top 5 best sports photos of all time is the one and only Willie Mays doing his behind the back basket catch without even knowing where the ball was.

Let’s set up the moment. Game 1 of the 1956 World Series between the Giants and the Cleveland Indians. Game is tied 2-2 in the 8th inning where all of a sudden the ball gets hit and Mays just starts sprinting. And unlike Aaron Rodgers laying a perfectly placed ball in a wide receiver’s hands, Mays had no idea where the ball was or where it was going to be. So he just extended his glove out… and what happened next is one of the most iconic photos ever.

The total distance of the ball is anywhere from 420 to 430 feet meaning that it would clear every ballpark in modern day baseball. It also showed just how difficult it was to hit a home run back then if you took it to the wrong part of the field.

Willie Mays “The Catch” (Frank Hurley / The New York Daily News)

And just to show how great of a ballplayer Mays was, after he catches the ball he instinctively turns around and chucks it to the infield to prevent the runner from tagging up. The Giants would later defeat the Indians that Game in extra innings before winning the entire World Series that year.


“The Catch,” as its known still resonates over 70 years later. The fact that young kids playing in the backyard know about it and Willy Mays can largely be traced back to this photo.

What I found extremely interesting when I put together my top 5 list was that I was only alive for ONE of these photos. Yet, they still resonated – hence the greatness of sports and those that are able to capture it to keep the moment alive forever.

(Honorable Mentions: Mark Sanchez and the Butt Fumble, Jerry West NBA logo, Y.A. Tittle breaking down on the field, a one-legged Kerri Strug completing her Olympic routine, Pete Rose in the air as he steals home)


Tweet me: @TheGunzShow

Written by Mike Gunzelman

Mike “Gunz” Gunzelman has been involved in the sports and media industry for over a decade. He’s also a risk taker - the first time he ever had sushi was from a Duane Reade in Penn Station in NYC.

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