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Usain Bolt is down to his last, blazing curtain call

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Muhammad Ali stood alone on many fronts, but Joe Frazier, George Foreman and a few others still stood toe-to-toe with him in the ring. Jack Nicklaus contended with Arnold Palmer on the front end of his career and Tom Watson on the back end.

Usain Bolt? Nobody has been a match for him, on or off the track.

The man who reshaped the record book and saved his sport is saying goodbye. His sprints through the 100m and Jamaica’s 4x100m relay at the world championships, which begin Friday, are expected to produce golds yet again, and leave track with this difficult question: Who can possibly take his place?

“You would have to have someone who’s dominating, and no one’s doing that,” said Michael Johnson, the former world-record holder at 200m and 400m and perhaps the sport’s brightest star in the 1990s. “You’d have to have someone who has that something special like he has, in terms of personality and presence. You’re not going to have that.”

Though he will not retire undefeated, Bolt stands in the rarest of company: an athlete who was never beaten when the stakes were greatest. And with a showman’s flair as transcendent as his raw speed — Chicken McNuggets for dinner, his fabled “To di World” pose for dessert and dancing away at nightclubs till dawn — he hoisted his entire, troubled sport upon his shoulders and made it watchable and relevant.

Since his era of dominance began in 2008, Bolt went undefeated at the Olympics — 9 for 9 — in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m. (One of those medals was stripped because of doping by a teammate on the 2008 relay team.)

He has set, and re-set, the world records in all three events. His marks of 19.30, then 19.19, at 200m, were once thought virtually impossible. He set a goal of breaking 19 seconds in Rio last summer, and when he came up short, it became clear the barrier will be safe for years.

At the world championships, Bolt’s only “loss” came in 2011, when he was disqualified for a false start in the 100m. Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake won the title that year, as well as the Jamaican national championships at 100m 200m leading to the London Olympics. Heading back to London five years later, Blake is an afterthought.

And Bolt’s mastery of this sport remains unchallenged.

“I’ll be sad to see someone like him go,” said America’s Justin Gatlin, Bolt’s longest and sturdiest challenger, who has been disingenuously portrayed as the brooding bad boy set against Bolt’s carefree party guy. “He’s such a big figure in our sport. Not only is he a big figure, but the kind of guy who always will be a competitor when he steps onto the line.”

Though it’s tricky to compare dominance in track to that in any other sport, there’s an element of Nicklaus in Bolt’s dominance. Impressive as his 18 major championships are, Nicklaus’ 19 second-place finishes and 73 top-10s spoke to his ability to get into the mix in most of the majors over the quarter-century while he was collecting titles. Nicklaus had to fend off Palmer, Watson, Johnny Miller and a dozen other legitimate contenders at every event. Bolt hasn’t faced anything like that.

Yet they shared this important similarity: Often, the contests were over before they even began. Or, as Tom Weiskopf once said: “Jack knew he was going to beat you. You knew Jack was going to beat you. And Jack knew that you knew that he was going to beat you.”

At the worlds two years ago, Gatlin had Bolt beaten in the 100m but leaned in at the finish line a microsecond too early. Bolt passed him and won by .01. The American all but admitted he psyched himself out.

Speaking to the pressure of racing someone such as Bolt, the Scottish sports historian and former Olympic coach Tom McNab compared sprinting to running in a tunnel.

“And once you become aware of what’s happening outside your tunnel, you’re in trouble,” he said.

In boxing, Ali wasn’t necessarily unbeatable, but he was incomparable as both a sharp-witted showman and an athlete with a social conscience, using his platform to preach tolerance and oppose war.

Bolt hasn’t sought that sort of impact, at least not yet, but it’s hard to overstate the mark he made on his troubled sport and, thus, the Olympics, which have long featured athletics as the must-see event of the final two weeks.

Over years and decades, the showcase sport of the Olympics has devolved into a sordid litany of doping scandals. The latest concerns widespread corruption and cheating in Russia, and heading into Rio, it undermined not only the sport and its managers, but the Olympics and their leaders’ willingness to deal with it.

But when Bolt sauntered onto the track, flashed a peace sign and blew a kiss to the crowd, all was forgotten. Not just for the 9, or 19, seconds while he was running, but for the entire evening and beyond. He made track, and thus, the Olympics, eminently watchable.

He’ll do it one more time on a smaller stage – track’s world championships – but a stage with plenty of symbolic meaning.

When he headed to London for the Olympics in 2012, Bolt held all the records, but was portrayed as vulnerable, following the false start, a long list of nagging injuries and his losses to Blake.

By the time he left, he had pretty much anointed himself as the greatest. Four years later, he said that was precisely his goal: “To be among Ali and Pele,” he said.

He’s on that list, but when the lights go out after the relays Aug. 11 – 10 days before his 31st birthday – it will be time to say goodbye.

“Once he’s gone,” McNab says, “there’s no major personality that would make any significant impact at the world level.”

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MORE: Bolt barely wins last race before worlds

Simone Biles routing field, edging note card at U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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BOSTON — Simone Biles leads the field by a whopping 3.1 points halfway through the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She beat the number at the bottom of the note card in her locker at the World Champions Centre in Texas by a much smaller margin.

No matter the perspective, Biles was more dominant on Friday night than during most of the Rio Olympic cycle. In just her second meet in two years. Nine months after returning to training after a 14-month break.

Biles tallied the highest score on every apparatus in the field and the world’s highest all-around score since Rio — 60.1 points. The second-highest score since Rio? Biles’ 58.7 from her comeback meet at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago.

“At Classics, I was still easing back into everything and kind of feeling the surroundings and getting used to competing again,” Biles, 21, said on the fifth anniversary of her first U.S. all-around title. “I feel like today I really embraced it.”

NATIONALS: Scores | TV/Stream Schedule

In the last Olympic cycle, Biles averaged a 1.94-point lead after the first day of nationals.

She rolls into the final day of competition Sunday, looking to become the first woman to win five U.S. all-around titles and the first non-teen to win since 1971. And send another message ahead of October’s world championships.

Morgan Hurd, who won the 2017 World all-around title in Biles’ absence, is in a distant second after four clean routines. The margin between Biles and Hurd is greater than the margin between Hurd and the eighth-place gymnast.

Asked to put her 60-pointer in perspective, Biles brought up the note card.

“I think it says 60 at the bottom,” said Biles, who hit 62.366 in Rio under a different scoring system.

Biles hit 60 points in a practice meet at her gym right before she left for the U.S. Classic. Her new coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, encouraged Biles to keep the visual reminder placed in her locker leading up to nationals.

“I wanted to show her that she could reach that score,” Laurent Landi said. “It’s not a big deal. If she does normal, she can be there.”

But nobody else can. Biles had 25.4 total points in difficulty on Friday. The next-highest gymnast (Hurd) had 22.7.

Biles essentially began the meet with a 2.7-point head start. She then was judged to have better overall execution than everybody else, even though she had the disadvantage of performing harder routines.

“She’s just mentally there,” said Riley McCusker, who led Biles going into the last rotation at the U.S. Classic and is in third place here. “She can take that time off and [be] physically there, too.”

BILES ROUTINES: Balance Beam | Floor Exercise | Uneven Bars | Vault 1 | Vault 2

Biles’ flaw in her comeback meet three weeks ago was the uneven bars. She fell trying a more difficult routine than in Rio.

On Friday, Biles nailed her bars set, receiving applause from Laurent Landi, who coached Madison Kocian to a bars silver in Rio.

Biles has never won a national title on bars. At the Olympics, she had the highest scores in the all-around on beam, floor and vault and the seventh-highest score on bars.

“She needs to go through more mental belief that she [belongs] at this level on the bars,” said Laurent Landi, a 40-year-old former French gymnast.

Landi insisted Biles was not at her best Friday. He noted her two overcooked tumbling passes on floor that cost her six tenths for going out of bounds. Imperfect landings on other events. He dismissed Biles’ lead and said he already has plans for upgraded routines before worlds, next year and possibly in the Olympic year.

“Sometimes when it’s difficult in the gym, we, my wife and I, try just to remind her who she’s trying to beat,” he said. “It’s herself.”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?

Laurie Hernandez faces big decisions before comeback

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BOSTON — Laurie Hernandez still hopes to compete in 2019, but she must find a coach and a gym first. And transition from conditioning to regular gymnastics training.

“Kind of dipping my toe in the water,” she said Friday at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, where she is strictly a spectator.

Hernandez hasn’t competed since earning team gold and balance beam silver in Rio. Other than Simone Biles, she is the only member of the Final Five openly expressing a desire to return to elite competition next year.

“Because I’m still passionate about it,” she said. “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always loved it, and I still do. It’s still really important to me.”

Hernandez said she has been on gymnastics equipment every so often but not consistently. She has said hello to new U.S. high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster.

She hopes to pick Aly Raisman‘s brain about coming back. Raisman took almost a year off after the 2012 London Games, then trained for a full year before returning to competition in March 2015.

Unlike Raisman, Hernandez said there is no unfinished business from the Olympics that motivates her.

“I know what I’m getting myself into,” Hernandez said. “It’s kind of like curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back. Being 16, being so curious, not really knowing what I’m walking into, that was such an interesting experience [in Rio].”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?