Biggest rivalries in sports history

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Biggest rivalries in sports history

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Amlan Majumdar


An action movie is only as good at its antagonist. In a similar vein, it is the opponent and the challenges he throws that define the magnitude of a rivalry.

Nearly every sporting legend has had a sparring partner, who has challenged and pushed him to scale the peaks. Roger Federer recently said that Rafael Nadal has made him a better player. He might have won a fewer Grand Slams due to the Spaniard, but it is the fact that he has won 18 Grand Slams while playing in an era which has featured Nadal that makes him a candidate for the “greatest of all time” title.

Here are 10 of the greatest rivalries we have witnessed in the sporting history.

10. Sachin Tendulkar vs Shane Warne

When the greatest spinner of all time goes up against one of the greatest batsmen of all time, fireworks are expected. Shane Warne had said that Sachin Tendulkar was his greatest opponent – compliments do not come bigger than that. Right from Sydney in January 1992, when Warne made his Test debut in the third match of the series in which Tendulkar smashed an unbeaten 148, to the numerous T20 matches in the Indian Premier League, these two champions have fought many enduring battles on the pitch which are now part of cricketing folklores.

Sachin has had the upper-hand in this rivalry and even found a place in Warne’s nightmares after his ‘stormy’ innings at Sharjah in the 1997-98 Coca-Cola Cup. Warne has dismissed Sachin just once in ODIs and thrice in the Test format. Despite being one-sided, this rivalry has produced some of the most enduring images in the memories of the cricket fans who grew up in the 90s.

9. Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning

The rivalry between two of the greatest quarterbacks in the NFL started back in 2001 and ran for a period of 14 years till Manning’s retirement last year. Brady had dominated the head-to-head record between the duo with 11 wins compared to six, however, the 39-year-old has gone on record to label Manning as the greatest of all time. It was a healthy rivalry where admiration for each other overcame any bitterness competitive sports can bring. It started with Brady joining New England Patriots as the 199th pick in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, and Manning was already an established name playing for Indianapolis Colts since 1998.

This rivalry was cherished and embraced by the whole of NFL. Not only is Brady the greatest quarterback of all time and Manning the greatest regular season quarterback of all time, but their careers have run side-by-side and they have pushed each other. It will take a long time before another rivalry of this quality stands the test of time over 15 years.

8. Alain Prost vs Ayrton Senna

The rivalry started with Prost joining Senna at the McLaren team in 1988, reached its peak at the end of 1989 when the title was to be decided between Senna and Prost at Suzuka and culminated with an embrace at the top of the podium in the 1993 Australian Grand Prix. In those five years, the duo was involved in numerous spats on and off the track, championship-deciding crashes, and moments of sheer madness and sheer brilliance. The competitive hatred they had for each other was perhaps the thing which made they who they were.

Speaking four years after Senna's death, Prost had said that he "always refused to speak about him". When Senna died, Prost stated that "a part of himself had died also". Over the fights through the years, their career and fortunes had become intertwined with each other. Senna had also felt the same when Prost had retired at the end of 1993, when he admitted to a close friend that he had realised how much of his motivation had come from fighting with Prost. Only a couple of days before his death, when filming an in-car lap of Imola for French television channel TF1, he greeted Prost, by then a pundit on the channel: "A special hello to my,... to our dear friend Alain. We all miss you Alain."

7. Garry Kasparov vs Anatoly Karpov

Chess might be the gentlest of sports, but is still capable of producing the most dramatic of moments – and few have been as dramatic as the match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov in the 1984 World Championship. It was a match which lasted five months and, yet, did not produce a result.

Karpov, 33-year-old back then, was the reigning champion, while Kasparov was the 21-year-old challenger to his throne. 48 games were played in what was the longest championship match ever. Karpov took an early lead in the game and was just one win away from retaining the title. However, Kasparov produced one of the most memorable comebacks in sport. The momentum had changed completely in the young Russian’s favor before the FIDE stopped the match controversially, and Karpov retained his crown.

Kasparov expressed his anguish publicly like the rebel that he was. But seven months later, he would avenge that loss by beating Karpov and become the youngest World champion in the history of the sport.

It was the start of a rivalry which lasted over a couple of decades and five World championships. Kasparov led the head-to-head stats with 28 wins, while Karpov managed 21. There were 129 draws between the duo.

6. Lee Chong Wei vs Lin Dan

Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan have a lot in common – both of them love fast cars, fancy watches, and former top-ranked badminton players (Dan is married to Xie Xingfang, while Chong Wei is married to Wong Mew Choo). Both of them hold military ranks in their respective nations, and both are also considered to be the best players this sport has ever seen.

There are a few differences, though. Lin Dan is known for his aggressive play on the court, while Chong Wei is known for his creative defensive game. For long, Chong Wei has been a bridesmaid at the majors against the Chinese star. However, at the recently concluded Rio Olympics, the Malaysian avenged his loss to Lin Dan in the two previous finals at the Games with a dramatic win - only to eventually lose to Super Dan's compatriot, Chen Long though.

The two of them are strong rivals and even closer friends. Last year, when Chong Wei was abandoned by most during his doping scandal, he found Lin Dan as a voice of support. Badminton won’t be the same when these two stars hang up their boots.

5. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi

The Pele-Diego Maradona debate in the previous generations has now been replaced by the Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi debate. Ronaldo and Messi have established a duopoly on almost all of the biggest individual honors available in football over the past decade. The duo has been present in the top three of the Ballon d’Or in all but one year since 2007. In fact, Kaka was the last footballer other than Messi and Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or almost 10 years back.

The constant drive within these two to out-score and out-perform each other has helped in pushing their game beyond the realms of reason and reality at times. If one looks back, it will be difficult to find two players at such a high level in football scoring over 40 goals every season for such a considerable spell. It is also unlikely we will witness something like this in the future as well.

As brilliant as they are, Ronaldo and Messi are almost diametrically opposite as footballers. While one relies on inhuman athleticism and years of hard work, dedication, and discipline in the gym and on the training ground, the other relies on natural talent and a sorcerer-like command over the ball. While one is the epitome of pace and power, the other exemplifies guile and flair. Even in person, they are completely different characters.

One is 32, the other is 29 now. This rivalry might not last for too long now. As football fans, it is perhaps time to enjoy their brilliance for the years that remain, rather than oversimplifying it to just one question – Messi or Ronaldo?

4. Jack Nicklaus vs Arnold Palmer

The King versus the Golden Bear – the greatest rivalry golf has produced. Arnold Palmer was the undisputed king of the sport before Jack Nicklaus stepped in. Palmer was the first real star golf had at that time, and his humble background helped in somewhat changing the perception that it was a sport for the elite. His ‘Arnie’s army’ would accompany him everywhere he went. Nicklaus, 11 years younger, though arrived almost out of nowhere to challenge Palmer's hegemony, and Arnie’s army did not like it one bit.

History will remember Jack Nicklaus as the greatest golfer, while Palmer the most popular. “Jack had the trophies that Arnold wanted, but Jack didn’t have the love of the fans that Arnold had,” said Ian O’Connor, author of “Arnie & Jack.”

However, somehow this fierce rivalry did not turn their relationship into a bitter saga. Somehow, they managed to become the closest of friends. From 1962, when Nicklaus recorded his first win, through the end of the decade, they were virtually dead even in Tour wins (Nicklaus led, 30-29). Looking at 1962-64, the period bookended by Nicklaus' first major and Palmer's last, they won six of 12 majors (three apiece) and combined for five runner-up finishes.

When Palmer passed away last year at 87, Nicklaus gave a warm tribute to his long time friend. “We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed,” Nicklaus wrote.

3. Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson

The rivalry between basketball legends Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird first garnered attention during the 1979 NCAA National Championship. Johnson led Michigan State to victory, defeating Bird and Indiana State in the highest-rated college basketball game of all time. The duo made a seamless transition from NCAA to the NBA and rekindled the Celtics-Lakers rivalry along the way.

Bird and Magic became household names, and their success and failures were matched against each other. They won eight NBA Championships among themselves, six season MVPs and were part of the American dream team. At the start, they had a deep-seated hatred for each other but over the years, it had mellowed down to a semblance of friendship.

Bird was the sharpshooter, while Magic was the assist master. Bird was able to win a Rookie of the Year award, Magic did not. Magic was able to win five championships, while Bird brought in only three rings. They won the same amount of MVP awards. For some, Bird was the better player, for some it was Magic. For most, this was the best rivalry in the NBA’s history.

2. Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier

When Smokin’ Joe and The Greatest faced each other for the first time at the Madison Square Garden in 1971 with the World Heavyweight Championship on the line, it was the first time that two undefeated boxers fought each other for the heavyweight title. Frazier was 26-0, Ali was 31-0. The former won by unanimous decision after 15 grueling rounds, but Ali would avenge his loss three years later to make it 1-1.

The intense rivalry between the duo would reach its conclusion at Manila in 1975 in what is labeled as one of the best bouts in the sport’s history. Ali won it via technical knockout, but Frazier, who could not stomach the adoration Ali has received throughout his career from the fans and after it, walked into the sunset with his head held high. During the fight, Ali said to Frazier, "They said you were through, Joe." Frazier said, "They lied."

1. Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal

Almost 13 years back, a 17-year-old Spaniard, ranked no.34 in the world at that time, surprised the world by beating Roger Federer, the World no.1 back then, at the Miami Masters. It was the start of what would go on to be the biggest rivalry in sport which has witnessed rivalries between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.

It is the stark contrast in their personality and style of play which has made this rivalry so special. Federer’s grace and finesse against Nadal’s power and athleticism. Nadal’s heavy topspin and his ability to target Federer’s single-handed backhand gave the Swiss maestro a challenge very few had every posed in front of him.

Overall, the Spaniard has a massive lead in their head-to-head record at 23-12, but the 35-year-old has recently shown at the Australian Open that he might yet have the last word in this epic rivalry.

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