This year, Los Angeles was home to the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards. The 2018 event saw a star-studded gathering at the Beverly Hilton, honoring top athletes whose sportsmanship and achievements have made a massive impact both on and off the field. Comedian Joel McHale returned as host, cleverly weaving his own style of satirical comedy in between a night full of moving moments.
John Cena garnered one of the top honors of the evening as this year’s recipient of the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. Cena’s “Blockers” co-star, Ike Barinholtz, was on hand to deliver the accolade along with Laila Ali. Barinholtz welcomed the WWE champion to the stage with an endearing speech which celebrated Cena for leaving a legacy that reaches beyond the ring. The sports entertainer is widely known for his involvement with the Make-A-Wish Foundation; having granted over 500 wishes (and counting).
“It’s really something special [to be honored],” Cena told AXS just before the event. “To me, it’s not an individual achievement. I’m being honored tonight for a lot of work over a long period of time which I’m very proud to do but it does not happen without the WWE. I’m also being honored in a ‘sports’ situation and I’m a ‘sports entertainer’ so I’m especially proud of that. It’s just another great step for sports entertainment and WWE to be accepted. I’ve been around a long time. Just a few years ago, we wouldn’t even be invited to this party, so I’m very glad to be here. I’m very honored for the award, not only for myself but for my co-workers and for the company I love.”
It’s Cena’s “never say never” attitude that has earned him the praise of other greats, such as Sugar Ray Leonard. The former professional boxer was there to honor the Golden State Warriors as Sportsperson of the Year, along with former San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver, Jerry Rice. “I’ve been so blessed to have made an impact in boxing and to try to make that same impact outside the ring, for people, for kids, to give some type of inspiration, to let them know that you work hard, you believe, you could do almost anything,” Leonard shared with AXS prior to the show. “Don’t quit,” was the advice he offered. “You know, people tell you what you can’t become because they can’t become. But, you have to believe in yourself.”
Believing in yourself and owning who you are was a sentiment that echoed throughout the night as the women of Sports Illustrated took center stage. SI Swimsuit Models Haley Kalil, Raven Lyn, and Allie Ayers lauded the magazine for setting trends. “The way that MJ [Day] has taken this entire thing and made it about women’s empowerment. Made it strong, made it [about] owning yourself and not just about a men’s magazine. They’re making waves in so many ways and I am so proud to be a part of this family,” Ayers voiced to AXS.
On the heels of that, one of the most powerful moments of the night came from 2018’s Inspiration of the Year recipient, Rachael Denhollander. The former gymnast earned a standing ovation for her bravery, as she was one of the first women to go public with accusations of sexual assault made against former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford presented the award to Denhollander via video, making her first public statement since her testimony against Brett Kavanaugh in September.
The night concluded with Golden State Warriors owners, Joseph Lacob and Peter Gruber, who were on site to accept the Sportsperson of the Year Award. While the Golden State Warriors couldn’t be there, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant sent their regards on behalf of the team. “We know it’s rare to give a team this award. It definitely is a tremendous honor to represent ourselves, our teammates and the whole organization, so thank you very much,” they relayed via video.
Other highlights included 13-year-old swimmer, Leah Hayes, who was recognized as the SI Kids SportsKid of the Year. Milwaukee Brewers’ Christian Yelich honored Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams as Performer of the Year. James Carville was on hand to present Saints’ running back Alvin Kamara with the Breakout of the Year Award. And there was a special performance by rapper Jay Rock.
Tune in to the 2018 SI Sportsperson of the Year Show, airing on NBCSN at 9 p.m. ET, Dec. 13.
The 2018 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards are presented by Symetra, Retirement, Benefits and Life Insurance Partner; Official Sponsors include Citi, Official Credit Card and Mobile Banking partner; JBL, Official Sound partner; and Kaiser Permanente, Official Health Care partner.
The telecast is produced by Sports Illustrated and JASH, a Group Nine company. Executive producers of the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards show are Stephen Cannella, Robert Morton, Josh Oshinsky, and Ian Orefice.