Whether you place Floyd Mayweather or Conor McGregor among the scariest athletes in recent memory may depend on how you define a “scary” athlete.
An intimidating player isn’t necessarily the same as a scary player. The prospect of guarding Michael Jordan may have been intimidating, frightening defenders into the realization that he was going to make it very, very difficult for them to do their job. But MJ wasn’t scary; he didn’t make you feel like he was going to physically assault you and then come for your family.
For example, if you were a running back lining up across from Ray Lewis, you’d have been inclined to wet your pants. These are bad men. They will hurt you. They will enjoy doing it.
Forget Mike Tyson as the comic figure he is now. Hell, forget the ear-gnawing Mike Tyson of the 90s. Remember, instead, the stocky pugilistic powerhouse who started his professional career 37-0. All but four of those 37 fights ended by knockout or TKO. A powerful, unpredictable fighter with some of the heaviest hands the sport has ever seen, Tyson was equally unpredictable outside the ring. They didn’t call him “the baddest man on the planet” for nothing.
Before Tyson truly lost his way, becoming lax in his training, undisciplined in his style, and indulgent in the drugs and sex his superstardom afforded him (and, well, before his 1991 rape arrest), opponents entered the ring knowing they were destined for destruction. And if you watch early Tyson footage, what’s truly frightening is that he largely hid behind his gloves and picked his spots to throw massive knockout punches. Thus, even if an opponent felt like he was making progress, his inevitable knockout was tapping him on the shoulder.
Some defenders don’t really want to tackle, certainly not as the game grinds on. Some enjoy laying a hard hit. A select few, like Lawrence Taylor, pursue the ball carrier like a lion chasing his pray. Taylor infamously snapped quarterback Joe Theisman’s leg like a toothpick, and he remains the only three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Like Tyson, LT was entirely out of control during his career with the New York Giants. He lived a rockstar lifestyle, snorting coke and bedding prostitutes. This isn’t to glorify those behaviors, but rather to indicate the frightening, unstable nature of the man. And as he was spending thousands of dollars per day on narcotics, he knew his work on the field couldn’t suffer…and it didn’t. His opponents, however? They suffered mightily. Consider this classic LT quote: “For me, crazy as it seems, there is a real relationship between wild, reckless abandon off the field and being that way on the field.”
Look, if you beat someone’s face in or force him to quit because he’s in too much pain for a living, you’re by definition a scary guy. Thus, anyone who steps into the octagon is rightfully fear-inducing.
In addition to looking, well, terrifying, Cain Velasquez established a reputation early in his career for being too damn scary to fight. Consider this: He made his UFC debut well ahead of when he should have developmentally because guys were too scared to fight him at regional shows. That’s right, Velasquez opponents would see his gameface and head for the exits.
His style and workrate are also terrifying. How do you beat a guy whose intensity you can’t match? Who fights in an aggressive, in-your-face “swarming” style, and who is one of the best conditioned fighters in history? He beat some of the best fighters in UFC history. He knocked out his opponent in 13 of his 16 bouts. Silva, Lesnar, dos Santos, he destroyed them all.