Tug of war, what-if all-star teams with LeBron James, Aaron Judge, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi and more

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The opening ceremonies of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo would have begun this week. Instead, because of the coronavirus pandemic, they are postponed until 2021.

One sport that won't be at the Olympics: tug of war. It once was. That's right: When legendary American athlete Jim Thorpe traveled to Stockholm for the 1912 Games, he did so with an American team of tug-of-warriors.

The 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, were the last time tug of war was an Olympic sport. England's teams, often filled with police officers, were the dominant force in, winning three gold medals in the five Olympics where it was an event.

Tug of war federations did apply for inclusion in the Tokyo Games, but the sport didn't make it. So, since this summer marks 100 years since your favorite elementary school field day event was held high as an Olympic event, we decided to see what star power could do for tug of war. With the help of six ESPN writers, we drafted eight-person, all-star tug-of-war squads with these rules:

  • Active players/coaches from any country. 8 players per side.
  • 1 has to be a woman.
  • 1 of the male participants has to be under 150 pounds.
  • 1 male has to be under 5-foot-7.
  • No more than two team members from the same sport.
  • No professional strongmen.

"A good team consists of individuals who want to work together," said Shelby Richardson, the president of the United States Tug of War Association. "You have to be in sync ... You don't have to be best friends with each other, but you do need to respect each other."

Most contemporary tug of war competitions are divided into male and female divisions and weight classes. Our teams are coed, and even with world-class athletes, a tug of war isn't easy.

"It takes a lot of time and practice to get eight people to be on the same page at all times in a match," said Dave Kruse, a tug of war coach and athlete, and our team judge. "Every part of your body hurts, but at the end of the day, it is an amazing feeling to win."

The teams

Coach: Tory Barron, ESPN Daily writer

Draft picks

Barron's team strategy: On the morning of the draft, I felt good. I had identified all the prime prospects and was teetering comfortably on the dangerously thin line between confidence and hubris. Then I got word that I had landed the No. 1 overall draft position, and something strange happened. All my plans to select LeBron James, Brock Lesnar and Aaron Donald suddenly felt obsolete. I became consumed with acquiring the ultimate sleeper pick: NFL free-agent DE Jadeveon Clowney. Blame it on a recent re-air of the 2013 Outback Bowl, but I was a woman possessed. I knew I had to risk it all to secure a man who haters will say is washed up in his own sport. Clowney became the centerpiece of my roster. His size, strength and speed are those of a veritable tug-of-war god. Tell me who's moving that man when he anchors down? Nobody. From there, it became about intangibles. I needed fierce competitors who would bring an insatiable work ethic -- one that my franchise player has been rumored to lack. Cue Serena Williams. I also needed athletes who wouldn't back down from anybody. Cue Steven Adams, Jon Jones and Yasiel Puig. Oh, and Saquon Barkley's quads were made to do tug of war battle. Change my mind.

Strongest/toughest player: Did I mention Clowney is 6-foot-5, weighs close to 300 pounds, has huge hands and runs a 4.5 40-yard dash? I'm riding with my No. 1 pick as the strongest player on our roster. If anyone still has their doubts, they can meet us on the tug (that's shorthand for tug of war) field. Our other most valuable asset has to be Serena. The 23-time Grand Slam champion brings a champion's mentality. Imagine having to line up against her on the rope. She'll have you looking like you're Maria Sharapova at the US Open. She's also extremely agile and sure-footed, necessities for any elite tug athlete.

Potential weak link: T.J. Dillashaw. Filling a roster spot with a guy currently serving a two-year drug ban imposed by the UFC was a risky move. While I'm confident he's seen the error of his ways, and the positive locker room environment we have here will bring out the best in the former UFC bantamweight champion, it's hard to know if he will ever return to his former glory.


Expert's take: From a weight, strength and conditioning standpoint, this is a very strong team. That being said, the pull itself had better last just a few seconds. There are some tall people on this team, and the longer on the rope, the more they'll start to hurt.

Coach: Joon Lee, MLB writer

Draft picks

Lee's team strategy: Is it dumb to say that I wanted to pick strong people? I'll admit I spent a lot of time trying to think of someone who fulfilled the size restrictions, which is how I picked Manny Pacquiao. Aside from Pacquiao and Nunes, I went with size. The skill sets of defensive linemen Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt transfer naturally over to tug of war, and given the lack of basketball players on some of the other teams, I think the height and strength combination from Draymond Green and Andre Drummond is underrated.

Strongest/toughest player: Have you seen Aaron Donald work out?

Potential weak link: Draymond is my wild card. He could easily serve as the team glue that pushes this team over the top, or he could end up somehow kicking one of the opponents in the groin and eliminating the entire team.


Expert's take: What is good about this team is that its members are close together in size and talents. But football linemen and track stars are built for short bursts, and this team, too, needs to win quickly.

Coach: Ryan McGee, senior writer, college football and auto racing

Draft picks

McGee's team strategy: We have size. We have experience. But most of all, we have toughness. Chara is built like Thor and has played in the NHL for a quarter century. Ibaka was forced to flee a civil war as a child and became an NBA champion. Bull rider Chase Outlaw once had every bone in his face broken by a bull, but came back only 75 days later with 68 screws, 11 titanium plates and four pieces of mesh in his face. Meanwhile, Diana Taurasi is ... well, hell y'all, she's just Diana Taurasi. She might be the toughest player on the team. What I'm saying is that if we don't win the tug, we are definitely winning the fight in the parking lot after. Actually, we're winning both.

Strongest/toughest player: Yeah, I see the "race car drivers aren't athletes!" crowd out there rolling their eyes at my Newman selection. But not only is the NASCAR veteran built like a tugboat, Newman is a Purdue engineer who will no doubt be able to work up some angles and leverage points to give us an edge in the sand pit. If you recall, it was Newman who damn near tore down the frontstretch wall at the finish of February's Daytona 500, upside down, on fire, and leaving everyone to report the inevitability of his death. Then, less than 48 hours later he strolled out of the hospital holding his daughters' hands like they were leaving a Chuck E. Cheese. So, yeah, I like his chances of surviving a rope pull vs. some stick-and-ball athletes.

Potential weak link: Pieter-Steph du Toit. Keeping in mind that "weak" is a laughable term here, the 6-7, 265-pound reigning Men's World Rugby Player of the Year is still recovering from a March injury that was so severe it's only been seen 43 times in the history of recorded medicine. He nearly had the leg amputated. But, in the true spirit of this team, his recovery is already well ahead of what was expected. Then again, what else did you expect from a multigenerational rugby player, the grandson of a man whose nickname was "Spiere," which is Afrikaans for "Muscles."


Expert's take: He is right about winning the parking lot fight. Because of their build and endurance levels, hockey and rugby players would be good on the rope. They just don't have the all-around talent of some of the other teams.

Coach: Tyler Erzberger, esports writer

Draft picks

Erzberger's team strategy: I feel like I checkmated the rest of my colleagues with my first three picks. Lesnar, LeBron and Stanton are three of the most athletically gifted humans on planet Earth and lead my squad of champions. Seriously, let's just throw LeBron and Lesnar out there by themselves, and I think they still finish in the upper half of all the teams selected. Behind my golden trio, I wanted to add some more beef to anchor my ranks, which is why I grabbed two of best and nastiest offensive linemen in the NFL. Dutch Olympic heptathlete Dafne Schippers might be a relative unknown, but she's one of the fittest athletes, male or female, in this entire draft, and she's my ace in the hole alongside "Mighty Mouse" Demetrious Johnson, one of the greatest MMA fighters in history. For my final pick, I had to pick up Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen. Don't let his career as a pro video game player fool you, he's got the strength (and brains) to round out my championship lineup.

Strongest/toughest player: Schippers and Johnson are both underrated stars on my team, but I have to go with my No. 1 pick in Lesnar. The man is an absolute tank of a human, a former NCAA amateur wrestling champion, a former UFC heavyweight champion and WWE superstar. He's played football, hurled helpless opponents like laundry in front of millions and can do it all. No one wants to look down from the other side of that rope and see Lesnar's laughing face looking back at them.

Potential weak link: Lesnar, LeBron and Stanton are all A-list athletes, and I honestly think that could be my greatest weakness. Who is the leader of this team? Lesnar is my top choice, but there's no way LeBron is playing second fiddle to anyone in an athletic competition.


Expert's take: They have brute strength and LeBron, but the athletes' strengths don't match up to be good on the rope, especially against the other teams.

Coach: Greg Wyshynski, NHL writer

Draft picks

Wyshynski's team strategy: We're about size. With their listed weights, the Browns and Strowman combine for over 1,000 pounds of power. Can't win the war if you can't move the rope. Messi and Crosby don't just bring star power, but lower-body strength: Messi's legs and Crosby's ... well, the technical term is "hockey butt."Volkanovski has boasted in the past that he's the best "pound-for-pound fighter" in UFC, so who am I to argue? My hidden MVP is Carter (5-9, 256 pounds). I knew I wanted an Olympian on the team. Carter was a perfect fit. Carter, the first female U.S. shot putter to win gold since the women's competition began in 1948, has the lower-body strength and arm strength to lead this team to victory.

Strongest/toughest player: Strowman, which might sound weird considering he was the "Mr. Irrelevant" of my draft class. But a shrewd draftologist must not only control the board but understand their opponents. We had gone through about 46 picks with only one wrestler taken -- Lesnar -- so I knew I could stash Strowman. The genius behind this pick? It tap-danced around one of the draft's rules: "no professional strongmen." Strowman was an amateur strongman before he became a WWE star known for tipping over ambulances and other vehicles.

Potential weak link: You might be assuming Crosby is the weakest link, but he's got incredible lower-body strength and he'll practice tug of war until he knows the event better than the rope does. But we're worried about Messi, who was our under-5-foot-7 choice.


Expert's take: There is a lot of team here. Every athlete is massive, but besides Messi and Crosby, who have the size and fitness, they are so big that their cardio wouldn't be there. They're strong, but wouldn't last long.

Coach: Dave Wilson, college football writer

Draft picks

Wilson's team strategy: We're all about that base -- setting up shop and daring you to move us out. Cambage, who famously told defenders to "get in the weight room," brings the intimidation. She's a foot taller than Scott, but he also weighs 203 pounds. Our skinny mini, Froome, is a climber who's won four Tours de France with those legs. Henry, Trout and Howard are huge, powerful athletes. We all have those. But frankly, we couldn't believe the sumo wrestler Sh, the greatest yokozuna (it even means "horizontal rope!") ever, was still on the board. And, of course, Jerry from "Cheer" is the best hype man in the biz.

Strongest player: It's gotta be Scott, physically and mentally. He was a Louisiana state powerlifting champ and can bench 425 pounds and squat 625. He was supposed to be too small to play in college, but had more than 1,000 yards his senior year at Louisiana Tech. He was too short for the NFL, but had 156 all-purpose yards and 3 TDs in one game with the Eagles against the Giants last year. The man just doesn't give up, which is what I look for in a tugger-of-war (tug-of-warrior?) Obviously, he's the heart and soul of the squad.

Potential weak link: Froome suffered some pretty gruesome injuries last year, including a fractured femur and elbow, but says he's fully recovered. We trust he's back in the saddle on the bike. But is he ready for the cutthroat world of tug of war?


Expert's take: This team has very good athletes at every slot. Especially Cambage, Trout and Henry have good height and strength. Compared to the others, they might not have enough talent overall to win.

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