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The Top 10 Athlete Nicknames

What’s in a name? Nicknames have been around for thousands of years. Without attempting to make a deeply scientific claim about the psychology of nicknames – I assume the tradition of nicknames has a lot to do with possession and intimacy: ‘to name is to claim’ – which would explain why sports fans often come up with names for the players they love – or fear – most (this is why nicknames often reveal as much about the namer(s) as the named).

Some athletes love having one; others really can’t stand theirs. Fact is that only very few world class athletes’ escape getting a nickname. Athlete nicknames often are either a modified version of their given name (such as Becks, A-Rod and Shaq ) or picked for reasons such as physique, style or a particular (athletic) achievement, such as “The Golden Boy” and “The Refrigerator” .

10) “EL D10S”

Diego Armando Maradonna

Diego’s nickname finds its origin in the 1986 FIFA World Cup quarter final, Argentina vs. England June 22, 1986, one of THE most legendary games in the history of the sport. Immediately following the match, Maradonna claimed that a widely disputed goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”  (“un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios”). Video and photographic evidence clearly demonstrated that Maradonna had struck the ball with his hand. The “Hand of God” became instantaneous soccer history.

For those less familiar with what else happened during this particular match, just four minutes after the “Hand of God” goal, Diego Maradonna scored “The Goal of the Century”,  so called because it is often claimed to be the greatest individual goal of all time. (for a translation of the legendary commentary click here).

Dios means God and the 10 represents Maradonna’s number. Until this day fans worship Diego like a God in theMaradonian Church which was founded in 1998 in the city of Rosaria, Argentina and now counts over 150,000 members from more than 60 countries around the world. Other nicknames for Maradonna include: Pelusa, El Pibe de Oro, Barrilete Cósmico and El Diez (literally “The Ten”, which explains why no 10 is the only possible place on this list for Diego).

9) “THE HUMAN HIGHLIGHT FILM”

Dominique Wilkins

Very few athletes have earned their nickname quite like Dominique Wilkins. “The Human Highlight Film” has got to be one of the coolest nicknames in sport and it was perfect for Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins played 11 seasons of NBA basketball with the Atlanta Hawks and was a nine-time NBA All-Star. During this time he did things you wouldn’t believe until you watch them on film – twice – and than you still won’t believe them. Curious? Click here for a short highlight film of the “Human Highlight Film”.

Dominique Wilkins’ nickname was formed on the model of the “The Human Eraser” the late Marvin Webster, aka “Marvin the Magnificent”. Who played in the ABA and NBA between 1975 and 1987 and also resulted in “The Human Victory Cigar”, used for Stojko Vrankovic and Darko Milicic given to them because, at the time, they only seem to play when their team had a comfortable lead late in the game.

8) “PRIME TIME” / “NEON DEION”

Deion Sanders

Deion Sanders was a showman, he was extremely skilled, and athletic. His touchdown dances were flashy, but so was his mouth on more than one occasion. Watch here as “Prime Time” gets upset about the fact that he was placed #34 on the list of Top 100 NFL players and said that he should at least be in the top 10. I’m not sure if it will be much of a consolation, but at least he’s number 8 on this list.

Sanders will be remembered for being one of the most visible and outspoken football players to ever take the field due to his alter-ego; “I’m a businessman, and the product is me; Prime Time”.

The name Prime Time was given to Sanders by a friend and high school teammate. The two played basketball together during the prime time television hour, and Sanders’ athletic display during those games earned him the name. It summed up his goal: to be a prime time player – a famous, wealthy, and admired athlete. Playing both football and baseball, Sanders clearly achieved this goal and became the only man to play in both a Super Bowl (1995 and 1996) and a World Series (1992).

Deion was one of the few professional athletes to make a bid for rap success. Late 1994, Deion Sanders released Prime Time, a rap album on MC Hammer’s label Bust It Records, it featured the minor hit “Must Be The Money”.   A track called “Prime Time Keeps on Tickin” was also released as a single. The recordings didn’t make much impact but his name … is still awesome!

7) “PISTOL PETE”

Pete Maravich

Pete Maravich was called “Pistol Pete” as early as during his High School years. He shot faster than his shadow and had developed the habit of shooting the ball from his side, as if he were holding a revolver.

Pete Maravich was one of the greatest point guards in NBA History. He could score, pass and defend. Very few players were able to handle a basketball as good as Pete could. He brought magic to the game – even before “Magic” did.

Here are the Top 10 Plays of “Pistol Pete Maravich”. Want more Pistol? Here’s a great NBA.com post with 60 Cool Facts about Pete Maravich.

Aged 25 Pete Maravich told Pennsylvania reporter Andy Nuzzo: “I don’t want to play 10 years in the NBA and then die of a heart attack at 40”. Pete Maravich played in the NBA from 1970 until 1980 and died, suffering from a heart attack, on January 5, 1988 at age 40. Pistol Pete is number 7, also in this top 10.

6) “POCKET HERCULES”

Naim Süleymanoğlu

Nairn Süleymanoğlu, measures only 1.47 meters (approx. 4 feet 10 inches). Despite his size (or because of it) he is arguably the best weightlifter of all-time and the strongest man who has ever lived, pound-for-pound. He was the first weightlifter in history to win gold medals at three Olympics (1988, 1992 and 1996), celebrated seven World Championships and earned 46 world records. He is the second of only seven lifters to clean and jerk three times their bodyweight.

Hercules is a Roman mythological hero famous for his strength. Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek demigod Heracles. Ironically “Pocket Hercules” is also known under more than one name (all of them challenging to pronounce). He was born in Bulgaria as Naim Suleimanov and was of Bulgarian Turkish descent. In 1985 the Communist regime in Bulgaria forced its Turkish minority to adopt Bulgarian names. Naim Suleimanov was changed into Naum Shalamanov (Наум Шаламанов). However after defecting to Turkey in 1986, his name was changed once again – this time by his own choice – into a more Turkish Naim Süleymanoğlu.

“Pocket Hercules” showed the world that you do not need to be tall to be great!

5) “IRON MIKE” / THE BADDEST MAN ON THE PLANET”

Mike Tyson

In case you think I’m referring to Mr Mike Landrum, or Anthony Edward “Tony” Stark – I’m not! In this article the nickname “Iron” is attributed to the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, the man also known as The Baddest Man on the Planet”; Mr. Michael Gerard “Mike” Tyson.

Iron (Fe) is the most common chemical element in the whole planet Earth, but Tyson – at his prime – was definitely an extraordinary athlete. His nickname “Iron” was as simplistic as his style; black trunks, black shoes, complemented by an extreme overdose of power, aggression and intimidation. Tyson was definitely a remarkable and extra ordinary athlete, winning his first 19 professional fights on knockout (with twelve of them in the first round).

After watching “The Hangover” I’m just happy Tyson never decided to become a singer.

4) “AK-47”

Andrei Kirilenko

Andrei Kirilenko is a Russian-American professional basketball player currently playing for the Utah Jazz in the NBA. He’s married to Russian pop singer Masha “Marina” Lopatova, whose nickname is “MaLo”. Here’s  AK-47 in a music video his wife eh… shot.

Andrei Kirilenko was born in Russia and wears No. 47. The AK-47 is an assault riffle developed in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Kalashnikov. The number refers to the year 1947 when the riffle was introduced into service with the Soviet Army. The AK-47 is still one of the most widely used and popular assault rifles in the world because of its durability, low cost, and ease of use. Not sure if there’s a one to one match with Andrei’s global popularity, firing power, durability or cost…

Finally, here’s some personalized interior design advice from Philippe Starck especially for Andrei.

3) “DER KAISER”

Franz Beckenbauer

Asking “Who is Der Kaiser?” is like asking “Who is Keyser Soze?”. Franz Beckenbauer is a German soccer coach, manager, official and former player, nicknamed “Der Kaiser” (“The Emperor”) because of his elegant style, charisma and leadership. His first name “Franz” (reminiscent of the Austrian emperors), and his dominance on the pitch did the rest. He is generally regarded as the greatest German footballer of all time and one of the greatest and most decorated soccer players in the history of the game.

There are two versions of how and where the nickname originated. In the first Beckenbauer simply happened to pose for pictures in Vienna, Austria, right next to a bust of the former Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I. The association was easily made and stuck.

In the second version Beckenbauer fouled an opponent (Schalke 04’s Reinhard Libuda ) who himself had the nickname “König von Westfalen” (King of Westphalia). After the foul Beckenbauer took the ball into the opposite part of the field and started to juggle the ball, humiliating his opponent and taunting the upset Schalke ’04 crowd. Afterwards the media needed a name that would describe a person “above even a king” and doing so coined “Der Kaiser”.

Fittingly “Der Kaiser” currently resides in Austria in the “Kaisergebirge”(the imperial mountains) on an altitude of 1750 meters in an old house right next t the slopes.

2) “THE WIZARD OF OZ”

Ozzie Smith

In “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, a children’s novel written by L. Frank Baum in 1900, The wizard rules the Land of Oz and his fans believe he is the only man capable of solving their problems. This explains why Ozzie Smith deserves this name more than any other player. Ozzie Smith was elected in the Hall of Fame in 2002 and was arguably the best defensive player in the history of baseball. Solving problems was his specialty.

Smith’s nickname was first mentioned by the Yuma Daily Sun in a March 1981 feature article about “The Wizard of Oz”. After that he was simply known as “The Wizard”. Here’s a great video on MLB.com with Ozzie Smith talking about his career, including his legendary “Go Crazy Folks” home run and his famous back flip (good call from his PR guy).

Showing his sense of humor Ozzie Smith actually did play the part of Wizard in the 2001 St. Louis Municipal Opera production of “The Wizard of Oz”. This wizard was certainly not a fraud (unlike the one in the novel) and his capital was not called The Emerald City but Busch Stadium.

1) “THE MINISTER OF DEFENSE”

Reggie White

Reggie White was the greatest Defensive End and most religious athlete of all time. In addition to his football career, White became ordained Evangelical minister for the Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. This is why he was known as the ”Minister of Defense“.

When White was a free agent, after his seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Mike Holmgren – the Packers Head Coach at the time – left a message on Reggie’s phone: “Reggie, this is God. I want you to play at Green Bay”. Reggie smiled and the rest is history. Holmgren shares their story here. Reggie ‘brought the sack to the pack’ and the team won Super Bowl XXI!

Reggie White retired after the 2000 season with a then NFL record of 198 Sacks, a mark that has since been passed by Bruce Smith. “The Minister of Defense” is a Hall of Famer, Super Bowl champion, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and was voted the No. 2 pass rusher of all time. For more on Reggie click here. Packers QB Brett Favre said that White was “the best football player I ever played with or against.” Reggie White, the Minister of Defense  died December 26, 2004.

* Bonus Nickname – for those that can’t get enough

“NEVER NERVOUS PERVIS” / “OUT OF SERVICE PERVIS”

Pervis Ellison

Pervis Ellison is a former college and professional NBA Basketball player. While he was playing for the University of Louisville Ellison was nicknamed “Never Nervous Pervis“. Ellison was made the first overall pick in the 1989 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings. Unfortunately an injury kept him on the sidelines for 48 of 82 games of his rookie year, after which he was traded to the Washington Bullets. A Sacramento team mate, (Danny Ainge) had nicknamed him “Out of Service Pervis”.

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