The essence of sport is pitting teams or individuals against each other to see which is best.
Watching the best go head-to-head for supremacy makes for dramatic, not-to-be-missed theater. It is why we watch. In this era of 24/7 coverage, many battles are much talked about – then fail to measure up. But when a rivalry lives up to the hype, it makes for some of the most memorable moments in sports history. Here are the dozen best individual rivalries of all time.
Ali – Frazier. These two heavyweights formed the greatest boxing rivalry ever. They met three times: twice at Madison Square Garden and once in the Philippines. Their first fight, in 1971, was perhaps the most anticipated in boxing history. Their last – The Thrilla in Manila – may have been the best. Prize fighting was still valid in the 1970s, and the Muhammed Ali – Joe Frazier trilogy was heavyweight boxing at its best. Smokin’ Joe won their first bout, then The Greatest took the final two.
Magic – Bird. It started in college, when Earvin Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans met the Indiana State Sycamores and Larry Bird in the 1979 NCAA championship game, still the most-watched contest in college hoops’ history. The clash continued into the NBA, where Bird’s Boston Celtics met Magic Johnson and his Los Angeles Lakers in three Finals. The Lakers won two of the three. Close friends and fierce rivals, Bird and Johnson each won three NBA MVP awards. Larry Legend claimed the honor in 1984, 1985 and 1986. The Magic Man won it in 1987, 1989 and 1990.
Navratilova – Evert. The best rivalry in the history of women’s tennis pitted Martina Navratilova against Chris Evert. They faced each other 80 times over 15 years, including 14 Grand Slam finals. Martina won ten, and holds the all-time advantage, with 43 victories to Chrissie’s 37. The two legends shed some well-deserved light on women’s tennis, paving the way for Steffi Graf and the Williams sisters.
Williams – DiMaggio. The centerpieces of the Red Sox and Yankees, respectively, had the greatest summer of their rivalry in 1941. Ted Williams batted .406 and Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games – both feats that will never be accomplished again. DiMaggio played in New York, where the media-savvy centerfielder carefully crafted his image. The Yankee Clipper won nine World Series with the Yankees and was a three-time AL MVP. Williams toiled for mediocre Red Sox teams and had an adversarial relationship with the press. Teddy Ballgame won batting’s Triple Crown in both 1942 and 1947, yet was not voted MVP in either year. Williams played in one World Series and was named 1946 AL MVP.
Arnie – Jack. Arnold Palmer was the most popular player of his generation and Jack Nicklaus is the game’s GOAT. This rivalry brought golf to the mainstream. They finished 1-2 in four different majors. Arnie came from seven back in Sunday’s final round to claim the 1960 U.S. Open. Nicklaus returned the favor three years later, winning his first major in a playoff over Palmer at the 1963 U.S. Open. They were at their best at Augusta, as The King and the Golden Bear have ten Masters titles between them.
Petty – Pearson. With 200 career victories, Richard Petty is the winningest driver in NASCAR history. David Pearson is second, with 105. The pair finished 1-2 in 63 races between August 1963 and June 1977, with Pearson winning 33. Petty and Pearson raced 550 times, with Petty ahead, 289-261. Known as The King. Petty won seven championships. Pearson – The Silver Fox – claimed three.
Fisher – Spassky. At the height of the Cold War, American Bobby Fisher became the first person from outside the Soviet Union to earn the right to challenge for the world chess championship, held by Russia’s Boris Spassky. Fisher won, then did not play competitive chess for two decades. He came out of retirement to challenge Spassky in 1992 – and won again.
Woody – Bo. An assistant to Woody Hayes for six seasons at Ohio State, Bo Schembechler became head coach at Michigan in 1968. What ensued is the Ten Year War – a decade-long battle between the Buckeyes and Wolverines. Perhaps the greatest rivalry in college sports, one of the two schools won the Big Ten title in every season Woody and Bo faced each other. Four times in the first five years of their rivalry, the two teams were both ranked in the top five coming into the game. Ohio State and Michigan shared the conference title six times between 1968 and 1978, with Schembechler holding a 5-4-1 edge over his former mentor in head-to-head matchups.
Affirmed – Alydar. Between June 1977 and August 1978, these two thoroughbreds met ten times. Affirmed won seven, including all three Triple Crown races in 1978. Alydar took the Great American, the Champagne, and the Travers Stakes. In the 1978 Triple Crown events, the two colts raced nearly four miles with about two combined lengths separating them in the three races.
Federer – Nadal. The two most decorated players in men’s tennis history have played 38 times, with Nadal leading 23-15. Federer has won 20 Grand Slam singles titles, including eight at Wimbledon. Both are records. Rafa has captured 17 singles titles, including a record 11 French Opens. The rivals have met in 24 tournament finals, including nine Grand Slams.
Russell – Chamberlain. Wilt was the greatest talent the game of basketball had ever seen. He went head-to-head with the consummate team player – Bill Russell — 142 times during their decade-long rivalry. Russ’s Boston Celtics won 85 while the Big Dipper, who was with the Warriors, 76ers and Lakers during that time, won 57. The clash of these two titans was the greatest man-to-man confrontation of the 1960s. Russell won nine NBA championships to Chamberlain’s one.
Kobayashi – Chestnut. After six straight victories at the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest, Takeru Kobayashi saw his reign end in 2007. That year, American Joey Chestnut dethroned the Tsunami, then went on to win eight in a row. On July 4, 2018, Chestnut broke the world record when he devoured 74 franks. It was his 11th title in the past 12 years.