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Mark Allen: The GOAT who did what Michael Jordan did

 

Yes, I know what I’m doing. I’m comparing someone to Michael Jordan, and in doing so I’m committing the most sinful act that a sports fan could, right? I understand that a lot of you are reading this angrily, only here to rage at the random sportswriter with no ball knowledge that chose to ruin your day with this seemingly ludicrous headline.

Just hear me out though, because for starters, Mark Allen never played basketball.

I mean I’m sure he’s shot a few hoops over the course of his lifetime, but he’s never been remotely close to the NBA. Still, I will stand by my assertion, because the dominance of Michael Jordan is historical, seemingly untouchable, and so we must recognize and celebrate this elite level of performance when we see it elsewhere.

So, who is Mark Allen?

Mark Allen is quite literally the Greatest Athlete of All Time. No, really, this isn’t any unofficial label offered through casual fan discussions and the like. This was a title awarded to the great man after ESPN conducted a massive poll of its users in 2012.

But how did he get there? Born in Glendale, California in January 1958, Mark Allen grew up training as a swimmer. Reaching college age he attended UC San Diego, and in his time as a collegiate athlete Allen was even named an ‘All American’ swimmer. These high standards were simply not enough though, and in Allen’s own words he was “a very mediocre swimmer, and I knew I was never going to be one of the best at it.”

Fortunately for him, on one chilly morning in February 1982, a 24 year old Mark Allen sat before the Wide World of Sports programming to hear about something called the Ironman. For those of you that don’t know what the Ironman is, it is considered one of the most difficult one-day sports, including a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a marathon run to finish.

An unmatched test of endurance, Allen learned that finishing the race wasn’t enough – you had to do it in 17 hours to earn the title of ‘Ironman’. This shocking fact stuck with Allen for weeks, but soon his disbelief was replaced by an unfettered determination. He had to become an Ironman.

10 months later the annual Ironman Championship in Kona, Hawaii was under way, and speeding through the first moments of the swim was Mark Allen himself. Competing with only a few months’ training was an achievement in and of itself, but as Allen heaved his body from the water he rose to the monumental news that he’d been on the tail of the leader throughout. The leader in question was a man named Dave Scott who had been setting the standard in endurance racing at the time. Pushing himself harder Allen was able to catch up to Scott during the cycling leg of the race, and actually had a small chat with him. Allen describes the moment saying, “I pulled up next to him and I go ‘Hey Dave, when we’re done with the bike ride, you wanna go for a run?’ And he looks at me like I was an idiot, right.”

Not too long after their conversation Allen’s bike broke down and that was the end of his first race. A first race that he thought would be his only. Yet, in this seemingly trivial encounter Allen’s dream was born. “I’d just been tailing the best guy in the world for several hours, so I thought maybe, just maybe, if I’m smart with my training, if I take time to gain experience, that someday I could become a champion of this amazing race myself.”

 

 




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SUCCESSFUL EARLY DAYS

Now that you’re fully acquainted with Mark Allen, back to the Michael Jordan comparison, because their narratives mimic one another beyond just the achievements. Both athletes started their professional careers in the early 80’s, very quickly showcasing their competitive prowess as newcomers to the sport.

Even though the entire basketball world knew of Michael Jordan before he joined the NBA, he impressed beyond the lofty expectations, scoring the most points in the league in his rookie season. By his third season he was statistically dominating the league, having the highest points per game, the highest box +/- score, and the highest win share rating. Still, these successful early days never saw Jordan and the Bulls past the first round of the playoffs, leaving the NBA Championship well out of reach.  

Unlike with Jordan, when Mark Allen jumped into the water in Kona for the 1982 Ironman Championship, he was relatively unknown. No expectations from the world, Allen made waves in his impressive debut race by outperforming numerous veterans of the sport (until his bike’s mechanical failure ended the race for him). Determined to become a champion after a brilliant first attempt, Allen showed he was the real deal as he competed in 5 of the next 6 Ironman Championships, never finishing lower than 5th. Much like Jordan, Mark Allen’s entrance into the world of Endurance Athletics hinted at the emergence of a superstar, but the final pieces hadn’t come together just yet.


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THE DETROIT PISTONS / DAVE SCOTT ROADBLOCK

3 seasons, 3 First Round Playoff exits for MJ. By the 87/88 season he was one of the best players in the league, winning his first regular season MVP, and leading the bulls to Eastern Conference Playoff Semis. Here began one of the most famous sporting rivalries in history.

In that series they faced the ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons, a team known for their aggressive game, and what later became known as their ‘Jordan rules’ tactic that involved targeting the shooting guard. That first encounter ended 4-1 in favor of the Pistons, ending Jordan’s furthest playoff run till that point.

Next season, same matchup, except this time it was the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls went 2-1 up and an NBA Finals dream was born, but the team collapsed, losing their next 3 games and a Finals berth. To rub salt in their wounds the Pistons then won the Finals, taking home the Championship for the first time in franchise history. Next year, same round, same situation. One step closer, as Jordan’s Bulls took the Pistons to Game 7, but not close enough, as once again the Pistons beat not only them, but also the Trail Blazers to win a second Championship on the bounce.

The ‘Bad Boy’ Piston of Mark Allen’s life was Dave Scott. Yes, the same Dave Scott from his first race. As mentioned earlier, Allen competed in 5 of the 6 Ironman World Championships after his 1982 debut, always excelling but falling short of victory. Dave Scott competed in 4 of those 6 Championships and won every single one of them. So, almost every time Mark Allen completed this arduous challenge, there was one man he saw sitting atop the podium, and this was a man he’d competed fiercely with as a novice.

This rivalry truly solidified itself by the ‘86 World Championship (WC). At the time Dave Scott’s previous race brought the WC record down to below 9 hours, an unthinkable feat given it had been over 11 hours just 5 years prior. Mark Allen himself was starting to gain experience having achieved a podium finish within his first 3 attempts at the race. The ’86 WC saw Mark Allen break Scott’s world record timing, indicating the steep progress he’d made, but even so he could not taste gold, because Scott also broke the record and beat Allen to top spot. It was a historic race exemplifying a historic rivalry. The ’87 WC did not see the record beat once again, but a familiar visual of Scott at 1st and Allen at 2nd had repeated itself.

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ACHIEVING GOAT STATUS

After 3 years of successive losses, Jordan’s Bulls met the Pistons again in the ’91 Eastern Conference Finals. Two series wins away from a three-peat, this seemingly immovable force was swept away completely by Jordan’s team. A 4-0 victory in the series signaled a shift in the tide, one that came to fruition as the Bulls went on to win their first NBA Championship in franchise history right after.  

Thus ended the Pistons phase, and began a streak that we will likely never see again. That was Michael Jordan’s first NBA Finals appearance, and in it he earned his first Finals MVP. What followed is what the farmers call kidding, because the world saw the birth of a GOAT. The ’91 Championship and Finals MVP double was followed by two more Championship and Finals MVP Doubles, as Jordan and the Bulls achieved what their biggest opponent could not – a Three-peat. A Championship three-peat is rare, but a Finals MVP three-peat is near impossible. Only Magic Johnson had even won 3 Finals MVP’s at that point, and Jordan did it in consecutive years.

As if that were enough. Because post retiring for a season and a half due to personal reasons, Jordan came back in his first full season since ‘93 to restart that same elite cycle. 2 years away from the Finals, the Bulls were dragged back to them by Jordan in ’96 where he won his 4th Championship and Finals MVP double. Everybody must’ve thought he can’t possible do it again, but what does Jordan love more than proving everyone wrong. Two more Championships followed in ’97 and ’98, and with them two more Finals MVP’s.

Between the ’91 and ’98 seasons Michael Jordan played 6 full seasons. In 4 of those 6 seasons he won the regular season MVP. In all of those 6 seasons he won the NBA Championship. And in those 6 NBA Finals he was the Most Valuable Player each and every single time. That is what only a GOAT can do. That is dominance like no one had seen before.

But guess what, Michael Jordan cemented this legacy in 1998. Mark Allen on the other hand raced in his last Ironman World Championship in 1995, achieving almost exactly what Jordan did, just 3 years prior.

Mark’s GOAT story starts at the 1989 Ironman World Championships. Labelled the ‘Iron War’, this battle between Allen and Scott is considered one of the greatest races to have ever been raced. Finding each other at the start of the swim the two raced neck and neck for almost the entirety of the Ironman, competing beside each other in complete silence for over 8 hours.

“I’d seen 6 times that I did not know how to pace this race” Mark remembers, “He [Scott] had won the race 6 times coming into it, he clearly knew how to pace it. So, in 89 I stayed with him the entire way on the swim, I stayed with him on the bike ride, I shadowed him the whole way. He was setting a pace that was absolutely blistering, but it was clear that neither of us was able to do anything to break the other.”

Then came mile 24 of 26.2 in the marathon leg of the Ironman. Allen burst forward – as much as one can at the end of an 8 hour endurance race – and Scott was left with no response. Mark ended the race exactly 59 seconds before Scott, an almost negligible difference in a race that can take 17 hours. Dave Scott beat the World Championship record that he himself set by 18m24s, and still fell short to Allen. Both athletes pushed the limit bringing true sporting excellence to the fore, inscribing this race into the history of endurance athletics.

Much like Jordan’s victory over the Pistons, a baton had been passed. In both situations the turning of the tide was the last time these competitors faced each other, with Jordan/Allen taking over the mantle of GOAT in the years that followed.

Between the years 1988-1990 Allen took part in 21 separate Triathlons, and won every single time. To achieve this inhuman streak Allen defeated each of the top 50 Triathletes in the world across different races, truly establishing himself at the elite tier.

Even this unbelievable achievement isn’t why I compared Allen to MJ. After his first win in 1989, Allen took part in each of the next 4 Championships, winning each and every one. 5 consecutive years at the World Championships, 5 gold medals around his neck.

Like Jordan, Allen chose to take a break from dominating the Championship in ’94 only to return in ’95 for his last hurrah. At this stage he had 5 consecutive victories. No other endurance athlete came close to this achievement. Bar Dave Scott, of course, who did it against Allen in the latter’s early career. In his last WC race ever, Allen did what he’d been doing for the last half decade and took his streak up to 6 – reaching a milestone his fiercest competitor was never able to. A milestone we will likely never see reached again, because as I said before, this is GOAT behaviour.

Allen ended his endurance racing career with 6 Ironman World Championships in his last 6 attempts, victory in the inaugural ITU Triathlon World Championships in Avignon, 10 victories at the Nice International Championships,

Beyond this, he won the inaugural ITU Triathlon World Championship, he won the Nice International Championships 10 times, was voted into both the ITU and USAT Halls of Fame, was named ‘The World's Fittest Man‘ by the 1997 Triathletes magazine, and of course, was named The Greatest Athlete of All Time by ESPN in 2012.

And so, this is the story of one of the most unbelievable sporting achievements that has largely gone under the radar.

This is the story of Mark Allen, a true legend of his sport whose achievements should forever be celebrated.

Michael Jordan is likely the most unanimously accepted GOAT in any sport, and if you don't believe me, this is what comes up when you search 'GOAT' on Google.

 

Michael Jordan is likely the most unanimously accepted GOAT in any sport, and if you don't believe me, this is what comes up when you search 'GOAT' on Google.