The Top Twenty Individual Rivalries in Sports
Sports Rivalries are what get the fans' attention, attract ratings and provide drama. Whether the players loathe each other or have great respect for one another, rivals usually bring out the best play in each.
Some are in individual sports, while others match up directly head-to-head. No matter what the playing surface or field, these are the matchups all the fans want to see.
20) Phil Mickelson - Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods won the first of his 14 majors at the 1997 Masters. Ever since, the media and golf fans have been clamoring for a rival.
Mickelson was labeled as the best golfer to never win a major early in his career. He finally broke through with the 2004 Masters and has won three more majors since then.
They are the biggest names of their generation in golf. They were the highest paid athletes in the world in 2007. They have yet to play as the last pair in a major on the final day. To truly reach the great rivalries of all time, that will need to happen.
19) Julius “Dr J.” Erving - Larry Bird
From 1980 to 1988 the Celtics and 76ers represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. At the core of their rivalry were star players Larry Bird and Julius “Dr. J.” Erving. Both Erving and Bird were first team All-NBA 1980-83.
Bird’s rivalry with Magic Johnson and the Lakers received more publicity through history than the rivalry with Dr. J. and the 76ers, which actually might have been more intense. In that era, division teams played each other six times per season, while teams in the opposite conference played only twice. From 1980-82 the C’s and Sixers played each other every year in the Eastern Conference Finals and again in 1985. The split those four meetings.
The height of the intensity of the Bird-Dr.J rivalry occurred during a 1984 game. An early season game between the last two NBA Champions and undefeated teams heightened the rivalry. With 1:38 remaining in the third quarter, two of the NBA’s biggest stars came to blows. Both Bird and the Doctor would later be fined $7,500 by the league office.
An amazing side note to their big fight is that the game had only one referee at the time. In that era only two referees were used; Jack Madden had suffered a broken bone above his kneecap earlier in the game and had to leave. Dick Bevetta had to restore order and dole out the technicals and ejections alone.
18) John McEnroe - Bjorn Borg
Borg and McEnroe met 14 times during their career. A true rivalry, each won seven times. What made the rivalry intriguing were their contrasting personalities and styles. McEnroe was the bombastic American from New York who was athletic, serving and volleying his way to victory. Borg was the laid back Swede who preferred to play from the baseline.
The height of their rivalry came in 1980-81 when they played each other in back to back Wimbledon and US Open Finals. After losing to Borg at Wimbledon in 1980, McEnroe won the other three. McEnroe’s victory at Wimbledon in 1981 ended Borg’s five-year and 43-match streak of dominance at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
Borg retired shortly after losing the McEnroe at the US Open in 1981. He was just 25 years old.
17) Sidney Crosby - Alexander Ovechkin
Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have become the 21st century faces of the NHL. They have each won a scoring title, combined to win three MVP awards, four most outstanding player awards, and three times have combined for the most goals scored.
Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins got the best of Ovechkin’s Captials in their only playoff meeting in 2009. The Penguins were able to overcome a 2-0 series deficit to advance past the second round. The Pens then went on to capture the Stanley Cup, and Crosby earned the Conn Smythe award for playoff MVP.
Crosby added to his legend a year later when he scored the game winner in overtime to give Canada the Olympic Gold Medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy (Rookie) and played on Russia’s 2006 and 2010 Olympic teams. He has 260 goals and 269 assists for 529 points in 369 career games.
Crosby has 183 goals, 323 assists for 506 points in 371 career games.
They have both been in the league for five years; with Ovechkin 24, and Crosby only 23, this is a rivalry that figures to intensify as the players mature. They play on marque teams and figure to be featured as the league's top players for at least the next 10 years.
16) Tom Brady - Peyton Manning
When the Colts and Patriots play, it creates the biggest buzz of any matchup in the NFL. They have combined to win five of the last seven MVP awards, six of the last nine AFC Championships and four Super Bowls in the same time period.
Manning has won the last two MVP awards. Since Brady took over from Drew Bledsoe as the Patriots starting quarterback in 2001, the Pats hold a 7-4 advantage over Indianapolis when both QBs play. The Colts have won four of the last five against a Brady-led New England.
Brady and New England have won two of their three postseason meetings.
15) Michael Jordan - Patrick Ewing
The Ewing-Jordan rivalry dates back to the NCAA National Championship just like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Three years later, their national championship game also had historical significance. The Final Four at the Superdome in New Orleans was the first played in a dome stadium.
The game will be remembered for Jordan’s clutch shot as a freshman putting North Carolina up late, and for Freddie Brown’s errant pass to UNC’s James Worth to give Dean Smith his first national championship.
After that matchup, Ewing and Jordan met seven years later in the 1989 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Bulls upset the Knicks in Game One at Madison Square Garden. They stole the second round series in six games. This set the stage for one of the NBA’s most intense rivalries over the next seven years.
The Bulls won every postseason matchup with the Knicks in which Jordan played. The only exception was during Jordan’s first retirement in 1994. The Bulls won four titles during that span.
Including the 1982 NCAA Championship, a Jordan-led team beat a Ewing-led team five times on the way to a championship.
14) “Sugar” Ray Leonard - Roberto Duran
Duran and Leonard fought in two of the most famous non-heavyweight fights in the history of boxing.
The first occurred when Leonard returned to the site of his Olympic gold medal, Montreal. Leonard made the mistake of trying to fight Duran, instead of boxing him. On June 20, 1980, Duran upset Leonard with a 15-round unanimous decision that gave Duran the World Lightweight Championship.
Leonard exacted his revenge in the Superdome in New Orleans. In the infamous “No Mas” bout, Duran quit at the end of the eighth round. He cited stomach cramps as the reason he threw in the towel. He was doubted in both the United States and his native Panama.
13) Sunday Silence - Easy Goer
In 1989, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer staged a rivalry on the race track similar to Affirmed and Alydar 11 years earlier. Ironically enough, Alydar was Easy Goer’s sire.
Sunday Silence won the first two legs of the triple crown over a second place Easy Goer. Easy Goer then dominated the Belmont, winning by eight lengths. That set up one final showdown in the Breeders Cup Classic at Gulfsteam.
Sunday Silence held off a hard-charging Easy Goer down the stretch to win. That gave Sunday Silence a 3-1 advantage head to head and virtually clinched the Eclipse Award as the 1989 Horse of the Year.
12) Pete Sampras - Andre Agassi
Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi are the perfect foils for a rivalry. Sampras' reserved demeanor to Agassi’s image is everything. Sampras’ serve-and-volley aggressive style of play to Agassi being more of a counter puncher.
Sampras dominated on grass and hard courts on his way to a then record 14 career grand slams. Agassi won eight career slams, including the career slam.
They met 32 times in their career with Sampras winning 20 times. Sampras held a 4-1 advantage in Grand Slam finals. His last match was a four set victory over Agassi at the 2002 US Open final.
They combined to win 20 of 40 Grand Slam titles between 1993 and 2002 and led the US to three Davis Cup titles.
Their rivalry continued post retirement at a charity event for Haitian earthquake relief. In a very awkward moment, after being chided for being too serious, Sampras mocked Agassi for the way he walked. Agassi shot back about Sampras supposedly being a poor tipper.
11) Affirmed - Alydar
Thirty-two years later, Affirmed remains the last horse to capture horse racing’s Triple Crown. Affirmed and Alydar will always be linked in history. Alydar is the only horse ever to place in all three triple crown races. They raced a total of 10 times between June of 1977 and August of 1978 with Affirmed winning seven of those encounters.
Affirmed barely survived the Triple Crown races. He won the Kentucky Derby by 1.5 lengths, the Preakness by a neck and the Belmont by a nose.
Their last meeting at the Travers in Saratoga produced their most controversial matchup. Affirmed clipped Alydar down the stretch. Affirmed was disqualified and placed second; Alydar picked up his third and final win against Affirmed.
10) Ted Williams - Joe DiMaggio
The summer of 1941 is considered one of the greatest in the history of baseball. Williams and DiMaggio captivated the public and to this day maintain two of baseball’s premiere records and milestones.
Williams finished the season with a .406 batting average, while DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak. Williams remains the last player to finish the season hitting over .400, while DiMaggio’s 56-game streak is still the MLB record.
Williams finished his career with four home run titles, four RBI crowns and six batting titles, including two triple crowns. He won the AL MVP twice and 12 times finished in the top 10 including four runner-ups.
Di Maggio won two batting titles, topped the AL twice in HRs and twice in RBI. DiMaggio picked up three MVP awards and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting 12 times during his career.
The biggest advantage Joltin’ Joe had over the Splendid Splinter were his nine titles in 13 major league seasons, to Williams' zero.
The debate on which player was better will remain eternal.
9) Muhammad Ali - Joe Frazier
Ali-Frazier provides many memories for boxing fans of the early 1970s. Their fight of the century and "Thrilla in Manila" are considered two of the greatest matches in the sports' history.
In the “fight of the century” both men entered with undefeated records. Each won gold medals in the Olympics, Ali in Rome in 1960 and Frazier in Toyko in 1964.
The Thrilla ended when Frazier ring man Eddie Futch stopped the fight after the 14th round. Frazier would never talk to Futch again. After the Thrilla, Ali said it was the closest thing to death that he had experienced.
8) Serena Williams - Venus Williams
If they weren’t sisters, it could be argued that this is the greatest rivalry in the history of women’s tennis. They have combined for 22 Grand Slam singles titles since Serena won the first Grand Slam between them at the 1999 US Open. That is 22 out of the last 44 grand slams.
Serena leads 13-10 head-to-head and 6-2 in Grand Slam finals. They are the only pair to play each other in four consecutive grand slam singles finals. Venus has 43 WTA titles to Serena's 36. Serena has been No. 1 for a total of 103 weeks to Venus' 11. They also have 19 career doubles titles together, including 12 grand slam titles.
Serena won the career grand slam, including the “Serena Slam.” This was when she won the 2002 French Open, Wimbledon, US Open and 2003 Australian Open, holding the four slam titles at the same time.
7) David Pearson - Richard Petty
Pearson and Petty dominated NASCAR between 1963 and 1977. They finished 1-2 63 times, combined to win 10 NASCAR Championships (seven for Petty and three for Pearson), 305 wins (Petty 200, Pearson 105) that rank first and second all time and faced each other 550 times with Petty holding a 289-261 advantage.
Pearson rarely ran a full season. Many claim he would have challenged Petty’s records if he had. Pearson finished his career with an 18.1 winning percentage.
6) Wayne Gretzky - Mario Lemieux
Hockey reached new levels when Wayne Gretzky led his Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years during the mid 1980s.
The Oilers played a wide open, fast paced game that changed the style of the NHL. In 1982, they became the first team in NHL history to score 400 goals in a season. They went on to repeat the feat for the four seasons after that. Upon his retirement in 1999, The Great One held or shared 61 NHL Records.
Lemieux changed the culture of the Penguins. They won two Stanley Cups during his playing days.
Super Mario and the Great One dominated the NHL’s scoring leaders for nearly two decades. Between 1980 and 1997, either Gretzky or Lemieux led the league in points in every year but the lockout shortened season of 1995. One or the other topped the assist leader board from 1980-98 and in goals scored from 1982-89 and Lemieux again in 1996.
Lemieux ended Gretzky’s eight year streak of MVP awards in 1988 and then Gretzky won again the next season.
Although they never faced each other in the playoffs, this was a rivalry that captivated fans and transcended hockey. They were the dominant players of their sport for a decade and a half. They have given even more back to the sport off the ice. Lemieux saved the Penguins from bankruptcy and Gretzky has been the General Manager for Team Canada during the Olympics.
5) Martina Navratilova - Chris Evert
“Martina and Chrissy" met an astounding 80 times during their careers with Navratilova holding a 43-37 advantage, including a 10-4 head-to-head record in Grand Slam finals. The rivalry lasted 15 years, a feat that may not be matched today. They are tied for fourth all time with 18 Grand Slam singles titles.
4) ) Rafael Nadal - Roger Federer
There have not been many rivals that have dominated their sport together like Nadal and Federer. Since Federer won his first Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon in 2003, Fed and Rafa have combined to win 24 of the last 29 grand slams.
Federer is considered by many to be the best player ever. He has a record 16 Career Grand Slam titles. Amazingly, Nadal holds a 14-7 career record against Federer. He also leads 5-2 in Slam finals and 6-2 in Grand Slams overall.
Only five other players have won Grand Slams during their amazing run. Juan Martin Del Potro was the only won to defeat either in a Slam final.
At only 24, Nadal has a realistic chance at matching Federer's record.
3) Bill Russell - Wilt Chamberlain
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain matched up with each other an astounding 142 times in the 10-year span of their rivalry. While Chamberlain almost always posted better stats. It was Russell’s Celtics that usually got the upper hand, winning 85 times head-to-head.
Chamberlain matched up with Russell eight times with three different franchises in the post-season. Russell and the Celtics went 7-1 in those match-ups. The met twice in the Finals with Russell’s Celtics winning both times. The Celtics rallied from a two games to none deficit in 1969 to win the series in seven games.
Wilt was finally able to be on a team that defeated the Celtics as a member of the 76ers in 1967. The Sixers won in five games in the Eastern Conference finals on their way to the NBA Championship. Wilt would lose twice more to the C’s and Russell before his retirement at the end of the 1969 season.
2) Jack Nicklaus - Arnold Palmer
The Nicklaus-Palmer rivalry was born at the outset of televised sports and was the catalyst for golf becoming a regular part of sports broadcasting.
Many credit their 1962 showdown in the US Open at Oakmont as the birth of their rivalry. Nicklaus overcame a three shot deficit to force an 18-hole playoff. He beat Palmer by three shots in the playoff for the first of his record 18 majors. Palmer captured seven slams in his career. Four times during their great rivalry they finished 1-2 in Grand Slams.
1) Larry Bird - Magic Johnson
The Bird Magic rivalry began when they faced off for the 1979 NCAA Championship. Bird and Indiana State entered the game with a 33-0 record.
The game was the most anticipated in NCAA tournament history. NBC received a 38 share and 24.1 rating as Magic and MSU romped to its first title.
The rivalry continued in the NBA. Bird and Johnson met three times in the Final (1984, 85 and 87) with the Lakers winning twice. Between 1980 and 1988, the Celtics and Lakers combined to win eight of the nine NBA Championships.
They combined for six MVP awards and five NBA Finals MVP Awards. Many credit them with rescuing the NBA.