Professional athletes are frequently viewed as paragons of physical fitness, held in the highest of esteem for their commitment to rigorous training regimens and strict dietary guidelines while competing in games that in some cases last from three to four hours. It has been estimated that a professional soccer player will run anywhere from six to nine miles per match, and while other sports require considerably less end-to-end running, the amount of energy expended is so significant that anything short of peak fitness is very likely to have an adverse impact on performance.
Carey Price, the Montreal goaltender who won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player for the 2014-15 season, wore a heart-rate monitor that also tracked the number of calories burned during a game back in 2013, and the NHLer totaled well over 2,000 calories just while minding the net. Given the nature of professional sports today, it is always surprising when an athlete struggles to maintain an ideal weight, but there are countless examples of talented athletes finding themselves out of a roster spot due to being overweight.
In some cases, however, overweight athletes have been able to enjoy overwhelming professional success in spite of carrying what many doctors would consider an unhealthy amount of body mass. It is important to note, however, that any individual who is able to reach the highest level of their sport possesses considerable physical talents, and the girth of an overweight athlete often belies incredible strength, speed and agility. Vince Wilfork is a prime example, as the 6-2, 325-pound lineman has run the 40-yard dash faster than his former Patriot teammate Tom Brady (Wilfork posted a 5.08; Brady ran a 5.28), and has claimed that he is still able to dunk on a regulation basketball rim.
The athletes who appear on this list are representative of a variety of different sports, so their status as "overweight" should be viewed relative to the norm for their respective sport. An overweight soccer player, for example, is going to look remarkably fit standing next to an overweight football player. The following 15 overweight athletes have all enjoyed remarkable professional careers unencumbered by any apparent weight issues, and the majority of these athletes were ultimately enshrined in their particular sport’s hall of fame, and most of the rest have earned some of their sport’s highest possible honors.
15 Diego Maradona
Maradona, the legendary Argentine soccer player who led his country to victory in the 1986 World Cup, is perhaps as well known for his struggles with drug abuse and wildly fluctuating weight as for the infamous “hand of God.” Before the 1994 World Cup, Maradona tested positive for five different variants of ephedrine, a banned weight-loss drug that earned the Argentine his second major suspension in a span of three years. Maradona, whose weight gain was at least partially responsible for his diminishing skills, had dropped 26 pounds from his 5-5 frame while preparing for the ’94 World Cup.
14 Haystacks Calhoun
Billed as "the largest wrestler in the world" and said to weigh over 600 pounds, William “Haystacks” Calhoun more likely carried somewhere between 450 and 500 pounds on his 6-4 frame. One of the first true entertainers of professional wrestling, Haystacks was one of the most popular and recognizable characters during a time when television was still considered a new medium. With his tremendous size, Calhoun often fought handicap matches and eventually teamed with Tony Garea in 1973 to win the WWWF Tag Team Championship, the lone title belt of his career. The big man even enjoyed crossover success, appearing in several films, including 1962's Requiem for a Dream.
13 Fernando Valenzuela
A pudgy southpaw who inspired “Fernandomania” in the early 80s, Valenzuela was listed as 5-11 and 195 pounds during a 17-year playing career that should have landed him in the Baseball Hall of Fame if not for rampant overuse early in his pitching career. During his first six full seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Valenzuela made six All-Star teams, was named Rookie of the Year, won one Cy Young Award and two Silver Sluggers while winning 97 games, recording over 1,200 strikeouts and posting an ERA of 2.97. Unfortunately for the man known as El Toro, innings limits and pitch counts were not yet the norm, so he also averaged over 250 innings per season during that same span, and he was never quite the same after such a magical start to his career.
12 John Daly
Daly, a talented PGA pro known for his massive drives and his penchant for hard living, is a two-time major tournament champion. After winning the PGA Championship during his rookie season, Daly earned another major title by winning the British Open in 1995. Despite his early success, Daly's career has always been marred by struggles with alcoholism. The golfer's hard-charging lifestyle led to a significant weight gain that had him tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, but after an incident in which a passed-out drunk Daly was found outside a Hooters restaurant, the hefty PGA pro changed his behavior and underwent lap-band surgery to cut at least 100 pounds from his frame.
11 Reese Hoffa
The majority of shot putters are incredibly large human beings, but Hoffa is one of his sport’s very largest. At 5-11 and 324 pounds, Hoffa is exceptionally nimble while competing in a sport that requires him to spin within a circle that is just seven feet in diameter. A three-time Olympian, the American shot putter has two career world titles under his belt, earning gold medals at both the 2006 World Indoor Track Championships in Moscow and at the 2007 World Track Championships in Osaka.
10 Archie Moore
The man known as "The Mongoose” once held the Light Heavyweight Championship for nearly a decade, totaling an astonishing 219 fights that included 131 knockouts during a career that spanned four decades. A 1961 feature article in the New Yorker simultaneously described Moore as “Boxing’s Folk Hero” and “grievously overweight.” During his reign as Light Heavyweight Champion, Moore had to routinely lose up to 40 pounds just to make the upper limit of his weight class.
Calling himself “an explorer of food,” while admitting that “the things I like to eat are not becoming to a fighter," Moore’s habits were fascinating, particularly when it came to his “secret diet.” The diet, which Moore claimed he learned from observing Aboriginal Australians, consisted of chewing meat but not swallowing – thereby consuming only the juices and nothing else – along with drinking sauerkraut juice flavored with lemon juice. In spite of his regular struggles to make weight, Moore’s career earned him a place in Boxing's Hall of Fame, and he holds the distinction of being one of only two fighters to ever knock down Rocky Marciano.
9 Andre the Giant
The 7-4, 500-pound wrestling icon was known for having an outsized persona that matched his massive frame, and the stories of his dietary feats are almost as legendary as his accomplishments in the ring. Mike Graham once claimed to have seen Andre down an unfathomable 156 beers in a single sitting, a story that was verified by both Michael Hayes and Dusty Rhodes.
Tim White, a close friend, said that while this type of behavior was atypical for Andre, it was more than possible. According to White, “[Andre] could drink an airplane dry before it got to takeoff. He’d go into a restaurant and eat 12 steaks and 15 lobsters. He didn’t do that often, but if he felt like putting on a show and having some laughs, he’d go ahead and do that.”
8 Larry Allen
Allen certainly isn’t the largest man to ever play on the offensive line in the NFL, but the 6-3, 325-pounder is definitely one of the very best big men to put on a helmet and pads. A Hall of Famer who was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection, Allen was a major reason that Emmitt Smith was able to break the all-time NFL rushing record. Considered one of the best offensive lineman of all-time, Allen could bench over 700 pounds and once benched 225 pounds 43 times while at the Pro Bowl in 2006. As if his strength is not impressive enough, Allen also ran a 4.85-second 40-yard dash and posted a 30-inch vertical leap while still in college.
7 Kirby Puckett
One of the greatest hitters of his era, Puckett was a 10-time All-Star who retired with a career batting average of .318, six Gold Glove Awards and six Silver Slugger Awards. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Puckett often showed up to Spring Training as much as 40 pounds over his playing weight of 180, which is plenty hefty for a man who checked in at just 5-8.
Mitch Albom, a reporter with the Detroit Free Press who described watching Puckett play center field as akin to “watching a very mobile piggy bank,” once asked the Twins legend if he was concerned about having to lose so much weight before the start of the season. Puckett was completely unfazed, saying, "You shouldn't come to spring training at the right weight, or you might lose weight and be too thin by the time the season starts."
6 Jerome Bettis
Bettis, a 2015 Pro Football Hall of Famer, was not built anything like the prototypical NFL halfback. At 5-11 and 252 pounds, Bettis was built more like a fullback, but the bruising runner used his size to his advantage while rushing for over 13,000 yards during a career in which he earned six Pro Bowl selections. A legend in Pittsburgh, Bettis retired from football following the Steelers' 2005 Super Bowl victory, leaving the sport while ranking as fifth all-time among the career rushing yards leaders (he's since been passed by LaDainian Tomlinson).
5 Charles Barkley
Barkley earned his nickname, “The Round Mound of Rebound,” while still an overweight and undersized power forward at Auburn, so it is somewhat unfair that the label stuck for so long despite the fact that the 11-time All-Star worked himself into decent shape during his first few seasons in the NBA. Of course, when one of Auburn's assistants saw Barkley play in high school, he called Sonny Smith, then Auburn's head coach, to tell him, "Sonny, you're not going to believe this, but there's a fat guy here who can play like the wind."
There were a few eye-opening moments before Barkley became a much less rotund version of himself, however, including when Bobby Knight cut Barkley from the 1984 Olympic Team for being overweight. That summer, which was just before his rookie season in the NBA, the 6-6 Barkley weighed 285 pounds. Moses Malone, Barkley’s teammate during his early years with the Philadelphia 76ers, has been credited with helping “Sir Charles” adopt a routine that would allow him to stay fit and enjoy a lengthy pro career.
4 Reggie White
White may be the very best defensive player ever to play in the NFL, as the “Minister of Defense” made 13 Pro Bowls and was twice named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-5, 325-pound defensive end tallied 198 sacks during his Hall of Fame career, second only to Bruce Smith all-time. White’s teams enjoyed immense success as well, with the 1997 Green Bay Packers winning Super Bowl XXI, a game in which White recorded three sacks, a Super Bowl record.
3 Tony Gwynn
At the tail end of his career, it would be hard to tell just by looking that Gwynn was once a two-sport star at San Diego State before becoming one of baseball’s all-time greats. The portly outfielder with one of the sweetest swings the game will ever see, Gwynn led the league in batting average eight different times while being named to 15 All-Star teams.
Though he was listed at around 225 at the end of his pro career, it is believed that the actual number was significantly greater for the 5-11 Gwynn. Despite the favorable under-reporting, the Hall of Famer often made light of his weight, as he was fond of saying he had a “body by Betty Crocker."
2 Shaquille O’Neal
One of the most physically imposing big men to ever play the game, Shaq was able to consistently dominate basketball despite consistent increases in his weight throughout a 19-year NBA career. During the 1992-93 season, Shaq was listed at 7-1, and 294 pounds, and his combination of size and athleticism allowed him to immediately dominate the league. Over the years, many believed that Shaq’s weight was limiting him on the court, and Kobe Bryant was famously critical of Shaq’s lack of work ethic toward the end of their run with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kobe wasn’t the only one to notice, however, as ESPN’s Charley Rosen quoted an unnamed NBA coach during the 2002-03 season as saying, “These days, Shaq looks and moves like he weighs close to four-hundred pounds.” Of course, Shaq continued to dominate despite his weight gain, and he retired as one of the best big men to ever play in the NBA. One has to wonder, however, if Shaq could have extended his career or been even better than he was had he simply been more serious about training and preparation.
1 Babe Ruth
Considered by many to be baseball’s greatest player ever, Ruth’s numbers are impressive without even considering the context of the era in which he played. When he hit 54 home runs in 1920, the next best total came from George Sisler, who hit 19 that season. Even when evaluated using the most advanced metrics, Ruth still rates as best all-time, as his career OPS (1.164), wRC+ (197) and WAR (168.4) are all without equal. Listed as 6-2 and 215 pounds, Ruth was a particularly large man among his baseball peers, and his love of the nightlife led one of his Yankees teammates to say, “I don’t room with Ruth, I room with his suitcase.”