Tell me if you've heard this already, but Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are playing in a football game this weekend. Yeah, I know, it feels like their involvement in the AFC Championship Game has been criminally underreported, but that's where they'll be, and the winner gets to take his team to the Super Bowl.
Despite not playing in the same division and not even facing each other all that much in the playoffs over their respective Hall of Fame careers, Brady and Manning might have one of the biggest personal rivalries in sports today.
Is it a rivalry? The two quarterbacks genuinely seem to like each other. At the very least, they respect the hell out of each other and never say an ill word publicly, which takes a bit of the sting out of any sports rivalry.
Contemporaries, sure, but rivals? You bet.
Brady and Manning always seem to be one-upping each other's records. The New England Patriots, Denver Broncos or both make the playoffs as Super Bowl favorites every year. Their matchups always seem to have more on the line than a simple team victory.
They may not be enemies—nemeses, if you will—but Manning and Brady are two of the biggest rivals in the NFL right now.
Where does their rivalry rank in all of sports? And what, for the purposes of this argument, makes two people rivals?
We've established that rivals don't have to hate each other, but a good amount of disdain surely helps. Begrudging respect doesn't hurt, either. Really, a good rivalry just has to have combatants on each side who raise their level of performance expressly because the other is involved.
A good rivalry becomes more memorable when both sides are battling for the same prize, and it becomes great when the stakes are so high that history has no choice but to take notice.
A great rivalry is something that will live on through future generations, like Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier and Jack Nicklaus vs. Arnold Palmer. Teams can be rivals—Ohio State and Michigan still may have the best rivalry in American sports—but for the purposes of this article, we've kept the list to personal rivalries.
What are some of the best rivalries in sports today, and where does Brady vs. Manning fit? Let's find out.
Wait, didn't I say no team rivalries? I did, and while the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks represent probably the most heated team rivalry in the NFL right now—I still believe Pittsburgh and Baltimore give any two teams a run for their money—this NFC West clash is buoyed by the connection of its coaches.
Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll don't seem to like each other very much, and it stems from their days coaching in college. From Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:
The NFC Championship Game on Sunday will mark the 10th meeting between teams coached by Harbaugh and Carroll. Harbaugh had a 2-1 record against Carroll-coached USC teams when he was at Stanford. In the NFL, Harbaugh is 4-2 against Carroll.
Both coaches have downplayed spats from the past, with Harbaugh recently balking at questions about their issues from nearly half a decade ago, calling them "irrelevant." For rivalry purposes, they are anything but.
The fact that these coaches have faced off—in college and in the pros—with conference championships on the line makes this the best coaching rivalry in the NFL and maybe the best in sports right now.
I hastened to even put the rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin on this list at all. If this were 2009, sure, but until this season, with Ovechkin leading the NHL in goals and Crosby leading in points, it felt like a pretty one-sided rivalry at best over the last few years.
A year ago, Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy wrote this about the once-great hockey rivalry:
There are no more tale-of-the-tape comparisons between the two on NHL.com the day of the game. There are no massive feature stories on the rivalry in the national media. Sidney has the gold medal, the Stanley Cup ring and an ever-increasing maturity and repertoire; Ovi hasn’t won anything of consequence on a team basis and has arrested development as a player, to the point of decline.
The two players were linked for much of their early careers—both were drafted first overall in successive seasons—but hockey fans have moved on from those comparisons for some time. The national media have, too, but this year, it feels like maybe there will be something sprouting again, especially with Ovechkin in top form heading into the Sochi Olympics.
If Canada and Olympic-host Russia meet in the medal round, expect all the old tale-of-the-tape stuff to be dusted off and the rivalry talk to be rekindled.
Speaking of Olympic rivalries, there is one on the ice that the media won't have to manufacture out of old footage.
Mao Asada of Japan and Kim Yuna of South Korea will have the entire world paying attention to their long-running rivalry when the figure skating competition begins at the Sochi Olympics.
Kim won the gold medal in the 2010 Games, while Asada won silver. Asada struggled after Vancouver but refocused her training in preparation for Sochi. She recently won the Grand Prix Final in Japan and finished third in the 2013 World Championships. Kim won that title. She is expected to capture gold again in Sochi, but Asada is one of the few skaters who may stand in her way.
“Yu-na has become a megastar,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion. “She has that Olympic title and that puts them in a slightly different category than they were in before. Now, Mao is a bit of an underdog, pushing to grab that medal. Yu-na has only gotten more confident.”
Expect to hear more about this rivalry and what each skater has had to deal with since Vancouver—injury, personal loss, etc.—a lot during February's Olympic coverage.
It's become the best rivalry in baseball—even better than Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout* or Zack Greinke and Carlos Quentin—and the outcome may have a bigger impact on the sport than any rivalry to come before it.
Alex Rodriguez and Bud Selig have become rivals in a very odd way. They don't like each other. They were combatants on the biggest possible stage. History will surely remember the outcome.
Yep, rivals indeed.
What's funny is that if Rodriguez does not retire and comes back to the New York Yankees after his full-season ban for allegedly taking performance-enhancing drugs, he won't be doing it on Selig's watch. They will never officially be in the game of baseball together again.
Selig is retiring after the 2014 season, making people (read: me) wonder if he slapped A-Rod with such a lengthy ban so he could say, "He'll never play again under my watch."
No matter what comes of it, both of the game's most high-profile characters will be linked to one another forever.
*Note: I thought long and hard about including Cabrera and Trout, who have finished first and second, respectively, in each of the last two American League MVP races, but that rivalry is a complete media fabrication. There is no connection between them other than that they had great years at the same time, twice. There is no on-field rivalry, no angry quotes or anything beyond the new-school baseball writers using Trout's success in his first two MLB seasons to fuel their argument with the old school, who inexplicably still think that RBI and pitching wins are comparable stats between players and eras. Ah, baseball writers. Now that is a good rivalry.
Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather have had the greatest rivalry in the history of boxing for two fighters who have never thrown a punch at each other.
For years, boxing fans have demanded that the two greatest pound-for-pound fighters in the world square off, and it almost happened in 2010, but gamesmanship, money and legal battles over drug testing repeatedly put the most hyped fight in decades on hold.
There is talk the two may actually face off in 2014, but at this point, the bout is nothing more than an exhibition of what could have been. From Carlo Pamintuan of Yahoo! Sports:
The rumors started up again when Pacquiao won over Brandon Rios in Macau, which prompted the WBC to name him as the mandatory challenger for Mayweather’s welterweight title. The undefeated American fanned the flames by frequently dropping Pacquiao’s name in conversations which were mostly to make fun of him or put him down.
Although the boxing world is in agreement that a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight will be one of the richest fights in boxing history, animosity between the two camps have prevented it from happening.
Until it happens, or until both fighters retire for good, the specter of a Pacquiao vs. Mayweather fight is better than anything else boxing has to offer, even if one or both are well past their prime.
Two fighters who aren't past their prime are Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, and their rivalry played out on national television as part of the UFC's The Ultimate Fighter show. Bleacher Report featured columnist Nathan McCarter called the Rousey-Tate rivalry the most heated MMA spat of 2013:
Some rivalries are fabricated by the individuals, and some are played up by the organizational hype machine to sell the fight. That is not the case with Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. They do not like each other...
A real hatred between fighters is rare. That is what this is. Real hate. And throw in an alpha competitor like Rousey, and you reach new heights. If Tate was on Rousey's level, this would be an all-time rivalry that could draw millions upon millions. It's a shame she's not.
There is something curiously rewarding for the viewer when rivals genuinely don't like each other. That doesn't seem to happen nearly enough in sports these days.
LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet. There is very little debate about that, especially after winning back-to-back NBA titles and multiple MVP awards since taking his talents to Miami.
Nobody is better than James. But Kevin Durant is pretty darn close.
Certainly on the offensive side of the ball, Durant has proved he is every bit as good as James. The two dueled in the NBA Finals two seasons ago, and if it weren't for a playoff injury to Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, the two might have squared off for the title again last year.
The showdown just feels bigger when James and KD are on the court together. There's a buzz about it that doesn't seem quite as big in other contests, even when they face other great players—though the James and Paul George rivalry is getting close—and it feels like they elevate their games when the other is on the court.
Even though James has all the hardware—though Durant does have three of the last four NBA scoring titles—LeBron is the one who is jealous of Durant this season. From Matt Moore of CBSSports.com:
"I get jealous sometimes when I look over at KD and he's like 16-for-32 (from the field) and then 14-for-34. ... Man," James told ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh.
While the Miami Heat star is shooting a career-high 59.1 percent from the field this season, he is tied for just 18th in the league in field goal attempts (580) with an average of 16.1 per game...
"First of all, you have to have an unbelievable mindset to get up 30 shots," James said. "I always think about it, though. If I get up high-20s, 30 shots a game, what could I do today, with the way I'm playing?"
Don't hate me because I'm beautiful. Just imagine how beautiful I could be if I shot as much as that guy.
Jealousy is a big factor in making a rivalry great. This one feels like it might just be getting started.
Tiger Woods is the best golfer of his generation. There is no question about that, and for much of his early dominance, he had no rival against which to measure his greatness. There were names here and there—David Duval, for example—but until Phil Mickelson won his first major in 2004, Woods didn't have anyone who could help him elevate the game of golf.
In his own way, Mickelson has done that over the last 10 years.
Mickelson became the anti-Tiger. We've all seen how Phil glad-hands the fans and acknowledges every person in attendance, while Tiger sees the crowd as a necessary nuisance to his ultimate goal. We've heard the old stories about how all the players get along well with Tiger behind the scenes, while Phil's nickname, FIGJAM—F*** I'm great, just ask me—has lingered with him for years.
That's changed recently, though. Some of the younger golfers have taken Mickelson on as a mentor, while Woods had become more withdrawn from the game due to injury and personal transgressions. Keegan Bradley credits Mickelson whenever he can. Hunter Mahan called Mickelson "a leader" this past summer, which is a term not often used in an individual sport like golf, especially not for a guy who had a reputation of being above the other players.
Woods and Mickelson are, in so many ways, polar opposites. At the same time, Woods was dealing with the public fallout from his infidelity and subsequent divorce, Mickelson's personal issues made him look like the greatest husband, father and son in sports. All the while, the wins, money and majors kept piling up, and Phil's legacy kept growing.
It's still nowhere near Tiger's, but he is certainly the second most important player in the world over the last decade. There is really no debating that.
Since Mickelson won the 2004 Masters, he and Woods have combined for 11 majors, with Tiger taking home six to Phil's five. No other player in that span has more than three majors.
Tiger, however, hasn't won a major since being plagued by injuries, with his last title coming in the 2008 U.S. Open—the one major Phil has never won. Since his last major, Phil has won two.
After last year's Tour, as Tiger was officially making his way back to the level of the world's best golfer—he was named the PGA Player of the Year for 2013—it was Mickelson who took home another major, winning his first British Open. Frankly, Phil should have had two, but he faltered down the stretch at the U.S. Open.
For a few years, it looked like the Woods-Mickelson rivalry was dormant. It looked like both golfers may have been past their prime, and the young upstarts in the game—Rory McIlroy, Bradley and a host of other first-time major winners—were going to carry the torch.
Not so fast, at least not in 2013. The rivalry of Tiger and Phil is not over and may not be for some time.
Peyton Manning is 6-12 against New England in his NFL career during the regular season and just 1-2 in the postseason. His only playoff win over the Patriots came in the most recent AFC title game in which he and Tom Brady faced off.
That was 2007.
It's been a long time since Brady and Manning squared off with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, so this rivalry between the two legends has been perpetuated by the media as much as their play on the field. Having said that, the regular-season matchups since then have all come with added intrigue—prime time, all the time—so the games between them almost always feel more important than other ones.
And then there's this: Manning threw 55 touchdown passes this season, breaking the mark of 50 that Brady had set in 2007. Brady's record had topped the total of 49 that Manning had reached in 2004.
And then there's this, which is probably more significant to both players: Since 2003, a team led by Brady or Manning has earned AFC home-field advantage in eight of 11 seasons, including each of the last five years.
Since the 2001 season—the first title in a run of three in four years for New England—either the Patriots or Manning's then-Indianapolis Colts made the Super Bowl seven times. This year will make it a combined eight for the two signal-callers.
It's nothing more than coincidental—and perhaps a bit ironic—that the last two times Brady made it to the Super Bowl, he lost to Manning's little brother, Eli. In a way, that almost adds to the rivalry between the two.
Brady and Manning will be linked together forever because their greatness coincided. Brady has more titles and more trips to the Super Bowl. Manning, who will win his fifth MVP this season to Brady's two, has more individual accolades.
They are inexorably linked. They are rivals through greatness and proximity more than battles on the field, but rivals nonetheless.
Just two rivalries are bigger than Manning and Brady right now, and one might be the best rivalry in any sport over the last 25 years.
Roger Federer will likely go down in history as the greatest tennis player of all time. He has more than 925 career victories, including 77 career titles and 17 major championships.
Rafael Nadal, five years his junior, has more than 660 career wins and 61 titles, with 13 majors.
While Federer boasts the loftier career numbers, Nadal has dominated the head-to-head rivalry. The duo has faced off 32 times in their illustrious careers, with Nadal besting Federer 22 times.
From 2005 through 2010, there was little disagreement as to who the best two players on the planet were, as both Federer and Nadal fought for the top two spots in the world rankings every year for more than half a decade.
Age and injury have caught up to both in the last few seasons, and players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have taken advantage, giving tennis fans a quartet of all-time greats to enjoy.
Still, somehow, Nadal and Federer have sustained their excellence. Nadal fought back from injury to regain the No. 1 ranking as the major-championship season begins in 2014. Federer, a step slower than he was, is still sixth in the world despite failing to appear in a major final in 2013.
Clearly, Federer is in the twilight of his career, but he is looking for a resurgence this season. To be fair to both, if this article were written a few years ago, there is no doubt the rivalry between Federer and Nadal would be tops on the list. Currently, Murray and Djokovic might have the best rivalry in tennis.
They still have a long way to go to reach Federer and Nadal at their peak, even as this rivalry comes to an end.
There is no debate about the the best personal rivalry in the world of sports right now. Truly, if you thought the answer was going to be anything other than the two best players in the world's most popular sport, you're kidding yourselves.
Cristiano Ronaldo recently won the FIFA Ballon d'Or award, which is given to the most outstanding player in the world each year. The previous three years, the award went to Lionel Messi.
Before winning, Ronaldo finished second two years in a row. Messi finished second this year.
In La Liga, Messi's Barcelona is tied atop the table with Atletico Madrid after the club had to weather the storm of his absence due to injury. Meanwhile, Ronaldo's Real Madrid is well within striking distance in third place.
Last season, Barcelona ran away with the league title, and Real Madrid came in second. The year before, Madrid bested Barca. The three years before that, Barcelona topped Real Madrid again and again and again.
It's a huge international event whenever Barcelona and Real Madrid play—with the myriad tournaments and league competition, the two clubs seem to face off in another El Clasico at least four or five times a season—and so much of the spotlight of those matches is on Messi and Ronaldo.
Have two of the greatest players in the history of the world been on the same field at the same time as often as them?
Messi may finish his career as the best player ever. That's not hyperbole. At just 26 years old, he is already in the conversation with the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona for greatest in history. If he can lead his Argentina squad to a World Cup title in Brazil this summer, there will be no debate left to have.
Only, over the last two seasons, Ronaldo has been every bit as good and just as vital to his club's success. Certainly this year, with Messi hampered by injury, Ronaldo has been the most dominant player on the planet, scoring 43 goals and adding eight assists in just 36 matches for club and country.
Since the 2010-11 season, he has played in 241 matches, scoring 232 goals and adding 54 assists for Real Madrid and Portugal.
Since the 2010-11 season, Messi has played in 223 matches, scoring 223 goals and adding 72 assists for Barcelona and Argentina.
Those numbers are insane.
To put that in greater perspective, Zlatan Ibrahimovic—the Novak Djokovic of this conversation for all intents and purposes—has 145 goals and 53 assists in 191 matches over the same span. Those are great numbers by any measure, but not even close to Ronaldo's and Messi's.
What makes the Ronaldo-Messi combination so amazing is that both players are simultaneously in their prime, and both routinely battle for not just league titles but European championships and international acclaim as well.
They are global icons at the top of their craft at the same time. It's an amazing rivalry.
No two players in any sport are as closely compared as Messi and Ronaldo have been over the last five seasons. There aren't many with the same collective place in history.
Given how often they go head-to-head and that they are in the prime of their careers, it's hard to pick another rivalry better than this one.