Posted: Tuesday April 1, 2008 2:22PM; Updated: Tuesday April 8, 2008 12:45PM
Let's start a barroom argument. Who are the toughest athletes in sports? Well, hang on a second. How do you define tough? The ability to take and deliver a shot or ten? To play hurt and still play well? The utter refusal to give in to pressure, circumstance, or more physically imposing foe? To dominate one's opponents or even one's sport? How about the ability to overcome serious personal setbacks, such as a dire injury or illness, and return to the highest level of performance? How about sheer longevity in a punishing, demanding game?
We've considered all of those things while sorting through long lists of worthy candidates. Our Top 25 (in order, says us) contains some surprising choices. We've also put together a list of current notables in the four major pro sports and a photo gallery of the greatest old school toughs -- legends who are no longer active, surely to the relief of their beleaguered foes.
What makes him tough: Otherworldly talent, determination and focus that enables him to dominate his sport at 64 PGA wins and counting, including a recent streak of seven in a row. No one is better at sealing the deal when the heat is highest.
Defining moment: Winning by 11 strokes at Bay Hill in 2003 despite the ravages of food poisoning that made him greener than the winner's jacket at August and blowing chunks in the bushes between shots. He finished at 19 under. A mortal golfer would have been six under - as in feet.
Old school match: Jack Nicklaus, who had the same quiet intensity. closing kick and laser-like focus.
What makes him tough: Caginess and steadfast refusal to quit in the face of throat cancer (2001), hostile terrain and 40-below temperatures. He did the impossible in sled dog racing -- win the 1,000- mile Yukon Quest and 1,100-mile Iditarod within a month - not once, but in two straight years, most recently this year on frostbitten feet that hadn't fully healed after the Quest.
Defining moment: Held off four-time winner Jeff King in the 2008 Iditarod by eschewing sleep and sneaking out of their lodging while his pursuer dozed to grab an insurmountable 54-minute lead in the final grueling climb on the coast of the Bering Sea.
Old school match: Dick Mackey. Lance's father helped found the Iditarod and is the only musher to win the race in a photo finish (1978).
What makes him tough: You automatically qualify when people tab you as the world's best pound-for-pound mixed martial arts fighter. Silva is 6-0 in the UFC, and ranked No. 1 in pound-for-pound polls by Fight Magazine.
Defining moment: Knocking out Cincinnati's hometown hero Rich Franklin last October in Ultimate Fighting Championship 77.
Old school match: None. He's an original.
What makes him tough: Few NFL players get more out of their body than the 5-8 Colts safety, who hits with the force of a much larger man. At 27, he's in the prime of his career and brings presence on every play. "A lot of receivers know that when Bob is coming down, he's going to try to knock himself out -- or you out," says teammate Dwight Freeney.
Defining moment: His crushing first-quarter tackle of Bears running back Cedric Benson in Super Bowl XLI produced a fumble recovered by Freeney. Chicago had three three-and-outs and a fumbled snap on their next four possessions.
Old school match: Donnie Shell, the 5-11, 190 dynamo who controlled the middle of the field for the great Steelers defenses of the '70s.
What makes him tough: If he were merely a fighter, he'd be the NHL heavyweight champ. If he were merely a shutdown defenseman, he'd be the Northeast blackout of 2003. Chara trains like a madman. When as fit as possible, he runs as fast, hard and long as he can until he collapses. He thinks athletes merely push themselves to 80 percent of their capabilities. He wants to find the outer limits.
Defining moment: He's too valuable to waste much time with fisticuffs, but when he does throw a punch, look out. Early in 2005, he busted Montreal enforcer Raitis Ivanans' jaw with a single blow.
Old school match:. Given his Brobdingnagian stature (6' 9", 250), there's no hockey equivalent. You have to trawl the NBA, perhaps the 76ers' Luke Jackson of the late '60s or Charles Oakley of more recent vintage.
What makes him tough: At 5-9 and 185 pounds, he's a small guy who plays big. The Carolina wide receiver, 28, can beat slow corners with speed and speedy corners with power. In an SI poll last year, Smith was voted the most courageous receiver in football.
Defining moment: The entire 2005 season. Smith led the NFL in receptions (103) and receiving yards (1,563) and touchdowns (12) - a year after breaking his leg.
Old school match: Steve Largent, stellar 5-11, 1987-pound Seahawk of the '70s and '80s who was blessed with terrific hands and no fear of going over the middle.
What makes him tough: Pound for pound, the Nuggets guard at 155 is the toughest guy in the NBA and he never takes a game off. "I'm used to being banged up," says Iverson, 32. "You try to suck it up and not think about it. You just play off your adrenaline."
Defining moment: With the Bucks throwing bigger body after bigger body at him, Iverson finished with 44 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a 108-91 win in Game 7 the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, earning the Sixers a berth in the championship series for the first time in 18 years.
Old school match: Tiny Archibald, who also played much bigger than his 6-foot-1 frame.
What makes him tough: Well, he's the toughest heavyweight in the world, and maybe the greatest heavyweight in mixed martial arts. Emelianenko, 31, is 27-1-1 in MMA and is a 10-time Sambo tournament champion, including four World Combat Sambo Championships. Ruthless Russian strongman Vladimir Putin shows up on occasion to watch him.
Defining moment: After a left hook tore a gash above his eye, the bloody Darth Fedor still needed only one round to beat Matt Lindland, the 2000 Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling silver medalist, in the much-hyped "Clash of the Nations" last year in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Old school match: Joe Frazier, who also scared the bejesus out of opponents with his appetite for destruction.
What makes him tough: He's the best boxer alive at 39-0 with 25 KO and has beaten Ricky Hatton, Oscar De La Hoya and Carlos Baldomir. At 31, Mayweather owns six world boxing championships in five different weight classes.
Defining moment: With De La Hoya trying to use his larger frame to bully him into the ropes, Mayweather responded with torrid counterpunching and won their bout last May by split decision.
Old school match: Sugar Ray Robinson, the legend who was the pound-for-pound king of his era.
What makes her tough: The gritty Wellington, 31, won the 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in her Kona debut. She'sthe first British athlete to take the event. The month before, shedd made her Ironman pro debut and won in Korea. Stunningly, she's admitted that she never used a heart-rate monitor or had a V02 max test, both required parts of any tri-athlete's training manual.
Defining moment: At Kona, Wellington ran a 2:59:57 marathon for a 9:08:45 winning time. "If it was a sauna on the bike, it was an oven on the run," she says.
Old school match: Paula Newby-Fraser, the eight-time Queen of Kona.