A Very Subjective List of 7 Very Intense Rivalries
One of the problems with lists is that they are so subjective, they're pretty much guaranteed to incite the wrath of a lot of people who have very different views on what they think the top selections should be. This is perfectly fine, and I'm as guilty of it as much as the next guy.
While getting a kick out of the "Down with Detroit" Facebook page last night, I was talking with a buddy of mine about the best Red Wings teams of all time, two of which we agreed were the 96/97 and 97/98 teams. Inspired by fond memories of the Wizards of Ov and the spectacle of enjoying Detroit's first Stanley Cup in 40 years with my dad, a Detroit-born, multi-generation Wings fan, I started watching YouTube videos of highlights from those seasons.
Seeing some of the highlights from a particular game against the Colorado Avalanche got me thinking about a small picture set of rivalries; not the greatest overall rivalries of all time, but the most intense rivalries during a single season, most of which just happen to be between legendary rivals.
I'm going to pick and choose from some of my personal favorites, but also from the collective sports world. Don't be offended if your favorites aren't on the list, but feel free to leave a comment with your own. Maybe they'll make it into Part II.
It isn't often that I write from the perspective of a fan, so I'm letting my hair down for this one and enjoying several trips down memory lane.
Duke/UNC Basketball: 91/92
As is usually the case when Duke and UNC play each other, there was a lot on the line. This was the first meeting of the season, so it wasn't quite as important as the final meeting, but it was a pivotal setup for the rematch in Durham.
What makes this selection important (as mentioned in the opening slide) isn't the overall historic rivalry, it's the intensity of the rivalry during this season. Eric Montross and Christian Laettner were two of the most dominant big men in the country, and it was a clash of the giants on this particular evening in Chapel Hill.
Laettner would go on to enjoy a more successful pro career (while also winning his second straight national championship), but Montross was on the better end of the rivalry this evening as his team knocked off the top-ranked Blue Devils. That loss would be one of only two that Duke took that season.
Oh, and Bobby Hurley broke his foot in that game.
Red Sox/Yankees: 2003
In 2003 the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees faced each other more times than any other pair of teams in the history of baseball, heating up the rivalry in a way that hadn't been seen in years.
The reason I pick this season over one of the fight-fueled seasons of the 70's is that I actually saw this, which automatically makes it emotionally stronger for me. When Don Zimmer charged at Pedro Martinez, that was a scene that will be etched in the memories of all baseball fans for the rest of their lives.
The Curse wouldn't be broken for one more season, but the indelible image of Zimmer tumbling to the ground was perhaps an analogy for the changing of the guard that was about to occur.
Plus, later in the game, Yankee players Karim Garcia and Jeff Nelson got into a fight with a Boston groundskeeper. The total fines issued by Bud Selig after the game was $90,000.
To keep the subjectivity of this list going, as well as a preference for my favorite teams, here's a look at a possible future intense rivalry.
On July 31st of last season, Magglio Ordonez hit a home run off of, at the time, the best pitcher in baseball, Jered Weaver. Ordonez took a slow trot around the bases, inciting the anger of Weaver who called him out on it. Ordonez joked that he was old and had bad knees, and couldn't go any faster.
The situation could have been defused with that bit of humor, but then Carlos Guillen stepped up a few innings later and hit the second home run for the Tigers, again off of Weaver. Guillen, good friends with Ordonez, flipped his bat in the air and stared down the disgruntled ace in an act of solidarity for his teammate.
Weaver was quite angry, and shouted a few choice words as Guillen took his time around the bases. Predictably, Weaver took a head shot at Alex Avila in the next at bat, and also predictably, was immediately ejected from the game.
It could have ended there as well, but then the Justin Verlander story arc comes into play. Working his second no hitter of the season into the eighth inning, Erick Aybar stepped up to the plate and bunted his way to first base, sending Verlander into a bit of a rage. Verlander made sure to tell Aybar that he would see him next season.
Guillen and most likely Ordonez too are gone from the Tigers, but Verlander is still there, while Weaver and Aybar are still with the Angels. Baseball players have long memories. This season's games will have playoff implications, and the promise that Verlander made to Aybar will be remembered the next time they see each other.
Michigan/Ohio State: 2006
The two best teams in college football in 2006 just happened to be part of the greatest rivalry in college football. At one time, Nick Saban said something along the lines of how there shouldn't be a rematch for a National Title. If there was any justice in sports, he would've refused the Alabama vs. LSU II.
Electric Snoozaloo, hopped into Dr. Brown's DeLorean and went back in time to make sure that Michigan and Ohio State got a much more deserved and entertaining rematch for the National Title.
There are a lot of beautifully tense seasons in which the rivalry between these two teams were fiercer than others, but again, it falls to the seasons that are in living memory for me, so I unfortunately can't speak from experience about being there when Woody Hayes said he would run out of gas and push his car back to Ohio before he gave a nickle to Michigan.
Going into the game, they were No.1 and No. 3 in the nation, both undefeated, and Michigan was featuring one of the best defensive lines in college football history. Almost two dozen future NFL players would be on the field at some time, including current Super Bowl winner Mario Manningham.
While it was a fairly clean game without much extracurricular activity, it is important in the history of the series as it was the first time the two faced each other in the BCS era while being ranked first and second in the nation. It also began the debate about whether or not rematches for national championships should be had.
USA/Mexico: World Cup 2002
I'm going to get loose with my own definitions here, and say that the World Cup is its own season, for the sake of this list.
One of international soccer's greatest rivalries, the next door neighbors have a history of foul play and histrionics, but the rivalry was rarely significant in the big picture of the World Cup. While making entertaining soccer for the two countries watching it, the rest of the world wasn't exposed to it until a fateful afternoon in South Korea in 2002.
The United States had made it to the second round for only the third time, and it just so happened that they had a match with Mexico for the first time in the tournament's history. The excitement levels of American and Mexican fans immediately went through the roof.
The game did not disappoint (for American fans), as the U.S. continued their Cinderella run to the quarter finals by beating Mexico 2-0. The game featured plenty of drama, with Mexico's Cuauhtemoc Blanco trying to incite a scuffle with Pablo Mastroeni, knocking him back to the ground when Mastroeni was trying to get to his feet.
Brad Friedel's impeccably timed leap to punch out a Mexican cross found him going nowhere near the ball, but instead had him punching Jared Borgetti in the side of the head. It wasn't intentional in the least, but it was a fitting action within the rivalry that once saw Alexi Lalas take a Jackie Chan kick to the crotch back in the 90's.
The dramatics of the game came to an end when the whistle blew, but just before it concluded , one of the dirtier acts of the rivalry was committed by Rafa Marquez as he went into an aerial challenge against Cobi Jones with the sole intention of causing pain. First, he tried to kick Jones in the ribs on the way up, but missing his target a little more than he will miss Tim Ream this season, he made sure to follow through with his head, crashing into Jones' exposed face.
Of all the games played between the two nations, the 2002 World Cup ranks as the most significant because it was on the world's biggest stage, and did not disappoint.
Real Madrid/Barcelona: 2011
The two best soccer teams in the world faced each other a ridiculous amount of times in a ridiculously short length of time near the end of the 2010/11 season. They saw the second leg of the regular season Clasico, the Championship of the Copa del Rey and two meetings in Champions League-play all in less than a month.
Madrid had shown themselves to be lacking when it came going head to head with the Catalans, especially after Barcelona handed them a 5-0 loss in a game that Jose Mourinho called one of the worst of his managerial career .
That game, despite being a blowout, was perhaps the best game that was played between the two teams, as every other game after that descended into chaos. It carried over into the preseason of 2011/12 when the two teams met again in the Spanish Super Cup. Madrid defender Marcelo made a rather cynical tackle on Cesc Fabregas, which about everyone not on the Real Madrid team took exception to, regardless of their team colors.
The ensuing fracas saw David Villa taking a swipe at Mesut Ozil, and Mourinho possibly trying to gouge the eye out of a Barcelona assistant coach. Even though it was technically a different season from the previous four meetings, it was still in the same year, so I'm counting it.
Red Wings/Avalanche: 96/97
The sight of Kris Draper's bloody face after Claude Lemieux became the most hated player in Red Wings history is still blood boiling. It was a dirty hit, unsportsmanlike to the very core and Darren McCarty was swift to warn that revenge would happen. That hit was in the playoffs of the previous season. I remarked earlier that baseball players have long memories, but they aren't the only ones. Hockey players have notoriously long memories, and despite repeated blows to the head, McCarty's memory apparently was the strongest.
The scene that broke out was one of the classic brawls in hockey history; one that saw McCarty send Lemieux out of the game and the ice stained with blood in the aftermath. It seemed as though the entire rosters were fighting each other at some point, and included a brawl at center ice between goaltenders Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon. The Wings would win this particular game in overtime, fittingly from a McCarty goal.
The Wings would also go on to win the Stanley Cup after beating the Avalanche in the conference finals.
The older I get, the more against fighting I become, especially as the long-term repercussions become better known as further research is done into concussions. Despite this, I will always look back at that game, remember Draper's face being broken the season before by the Lemieux cheap shot, and say that everything played out exactly the way it was supposed to.