The 5 Biggest Individual Rivalries in Sports

Patrick HarrelCorrespondent IIOctober 18, 2011

The 5 Biggest Individual Rivalries in Sports

0 of 5

    There is nothing like a duel of two players at their best to stir up interest. Whether it is two basketball players going at each other every play down the court or a pair of golfers matching each other shot for shot, few things electrify a crowd like a good individual rivalry.

    As we saw on Sunday, it doesn't necessarily have to be two players dueling for sports fans to take notice. Over the last few days, the post-game fracas between Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz has been the most talked about story in football, more than any game played on Sunday.

    Read on for the five best in sports history.

5. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus

1 of 5

    As the rivalry between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods grew in the mid-2000's, many were quick to label it the greatest in golf history. They would be mistaken.

    The dynamic of Nicklaus and Palmer was interesting in that they entered the scene in completely different times—by the time Nicklaus had turned pro, Palmer had already established himself as the dominant force in golf. Nicklaus was out to change that.

    The climax of their rivalry occurred at Oakmont in 1962, the setting of the U.S. Open. Nicklaus, who had trailed Palmer by three shots at one point in the final round, forced a playoff that he would later win, putting their rivalry on the forefront of all things golf.

    After the 1962 U.S. Open, the ratings in golf spiked as fans turned on their sets in droves to see these two duel. In fact, some credit the two of them with transforming televised golf into the popular attraction we see today.

4. Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams

2 of 5

    As two star outfielders on opposite sides of baseball's biggest rivalry, the potential for a heated duel between Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams was huge. In the summer of 1941, they delivered.

    In one of the greatest summers in baseball history, Williams and DiMaggio one-upped each other over and over again, with DiMaggio finishing with a record-breaking 56 game hitting streak and Williams becoming the last player to finish a season hitting above the golden .400 mark in batting average. Both hit 30 or more home runs, had 120 or more RBI's, and finished first and second in the MVP voting.

    The most interesting thing about this rivalry was that the Yankees and Red Sox reportedly agreed to trade the two for each other before Yankees GM Larry McPhail got cold feet and refused to include Yogi Berra, the young catcher coming up for the Yankees.

    They would go on to combine for four more MVP trophies and nine World Series victories (though Joe DiMaggio certainly contributed more in that department considering the Splendid Splinter won zero).

3. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier

3 of 5

    Though boxing has seen its fair share of rivalries, none comes close to that of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, who as a pair fought in two of the greatest boxing matches of all-time.

    In the "Fight of the Century," Frazier took Ali the distance, beating him in unanimous decision and dealing him his first loss as a professional. After an anti-climatic bout between the two of them, the duo would meet again in the "Thrilla in Manila," widely considered the best boxing match ever. Ali would win in a fourteen round slug fest after which he claimed he was as close to dying as he'd ever been.

    The two of them may have only met three times, but the incredible quality of those two matches merits their placement this high on the list.

2. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

4 of 5

    Rarely have their been two players who have peaked at the same time like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. The two, who have set an ATP record for the most consecutive years finishing together in the top two of the rankings (2005-10),  have traded the No. 1 spot back and forth three times in the last three years.

    Though Nadal has been on top more often than not (17-8 in head-to-head matchups), 14 of these have fallen on clay court, Nadal's favored surface. From 2006 to 2008, the two met in every French Open and Wimbledon Final, capped off by the 2008 Wimbledon Final which many consider to be the greatest tennis match ever.

    Though the rivalry has been punctuated by incredible matches, its staying power has been unmatched in tennis history. Rarely has their been a player like Roger Federer who can remain dominant into his late 20's and early 30's. Rafael Nadal also has to consider himself lucky to have avoided major injury with his aggressive playing style. As Novak Djokovic has asserted himself as the top player in tennis, this rivalry has begun to diminish, but odds are we won't see another like it for generations.

1. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson

5 of 5

    The tale of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson begins in 1979 when Michigan State and Indiana State played in the NCAA Tournament Final. In what would be the most watched college basketball game ever (to that point), Michigan State captured the tournament, but this rivalry was just beginning.

    Over the next decade, the two would combine for six MVP awards and five NBA Finals MVP's, establishing themselves as the two best in the game. In the 1980's, the two of them were unmatched, putting together some of the greatest stat lines in modern NBA history.

    Some two decades after the rivalry started to wane, it's easy to see why many claim that they saved the NBA. Though Jordan may be the greatest player of all-time, he never had a rivalry that came close to matching that of Bird and Magic.