When Superstars Collide

Scott Janovitz@@BrainTrain9Featured ColumnistJune 14, 2015

When Superstars Collide

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    Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Larry Bird shared numerous memorable battles.
    Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Larry Bird shared numerous memorable battles.Anonymous/Associated Press

    Though most high-profile sporting events offer at least one compelling reason to watch, there’s absolutely nothing better than the rare moments when superstars collide.

    Perhaps no athletes illustrate this point better than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two iconic athletes who have met on 33 occasions and are responsible for some of the most epic tennis matches the world has ever seen.

    And the same can be said of boxing Hall of Famers like Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, who went toe-to-toe three times and treated fans to classic collisions on two memorable evenings.

    Of course, the rule applies to team sports as well, which once featured unforgettable showdowns between the likes of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who wowed fans worldwide in three heated NBA Finals.

    With, then, these transcendent grudge matches in mind, we’ve done our best to illustrate the magic that occurs When Superstars Collide.

    That said, we’ve spotlighted 10 famous rivalries that elevated the athletes involved and captivated the fans watching.

James vs. Curry

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    LeBron James and Stephen Curry are in the process of creating a classic rivalry.
    LeBron James and Stephen Curry are in the process of creating a classic rivalry.Ben Margot/Associated Press

    We begin our superstar collision course with two MVP award winners who are at each other's throats. 

    Of course, we're directly referencing the 2014-15 NBA Finals, a championship series that's currently in progress and, in LeBron James and Stephen Curry, features two absolute legends in the making. 

    Though he still has room for growth, no matter where we go from here, James has already cemented his status among the all-time greats. At 30 years of age, the physical specimen has four MVP trophies and two NBA Championships to his name.

    Curry, on the other hand, has only recently come into his own, winning the NBA's 2015 MVP award en route to leading his Golden State Warriors through a brutal Western Conference and all the way to the NBA Finals. At just 27 years of age, the former Davidson star is considered by some to be the best shooter in NBA history and currently holds the league record for three-pointers made in a season (286).

    And together, the two have made magic early in the final series, which has justifiably set ratings records.

    Without both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, James has carried a relatively weak supporting cast through four hard-fought games, playing 45.8 minutes per contest en route to forcing overtime twice and stealing Games 2 and 3. In the tied-at-two series, The King is averaging a ridiculous 35.8 points per game in addition to 12 rebounds and 8.3 assists!    

    On the other side of things, though Curry struggled uncharacteristically with his shot in Game 2, he's bounced back to contribute 23.5 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game while leading the Warriors back from a 2-1 deficit! 

    More importantly, with the future in mind—and with this respect to both the remainder of the series and beyond—the James-Curry rivalry is one that should only continue to intensify, entertain and reward. 


Leonard vs. Hearns

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    In 1981, Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns collided in one of the most exciting boxing matches ever.
    In 1981, Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns collided in one of the most exciting boxing matches ever.Anonymous/Associated Press

    In 1981, two of the greatest fighters in boxing history—Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns—came to blows in a bout that carried nearly unprecedented anticipation. Entering the fight, Leonard sported a 30-1 record and the WBC welterweight belt, while Hearns was 32-0 and the WBA welterweight champion of the world.

    Not surprisingly, the tussle lived up to its billing and morea violent back-and-forth classic between two legends in their prime.

    Hearns started out fast and grabbed the early advantage through five rounds, evidenced by swelling of Leonard's left eye. But Sugar, the ultimate competitor, was far from done and managed to battle back and blister Hearns in rounds six and seven.

    Of course, Leonard's run only lit a fiercer fire in Hearns, who regrouped and proceeded to win rounds nine, 10, 11 and 12 on all three judges' scorecards, virtually guaranteeing that a decision would go in his favor.

    The Hearns surge inspired Leonard's trainer—the famous Angelo Dundee—to find the perfect, now famous, words to rally his boxer: "You're blowing it, son! You're blowing it," screamed the legendary Dundee. 

    With his trainer's battle cry singed in his mind, and the knowledge that he could no longer leave the outcome in the judges' hands, Leonard emerged from his corner with 13th-round vengeance on his mind and delivered promptly, first knocking his opponent clear through the ropes and then to the canvas in the round's waning seconds. 

    Finally, it all came to a head in Round 14.

    With The Hitman pinned against the ropes, Sugar unloaded at will, bombarding Hearns with vicious left and right blows until the ref had seen enough. Despite trailing on all three scorecards, Leonard's late-fight explosion made all the difference in the end, as the resilient fighter handed Hearns his first loss. 

    And though it didn't happen until 1989, the boxing public demanded the two icons share a ring once more. In the second meeting, Hearns again controlled most of the fight, though the judges controversially ruled it a draw. But in the years following the fight, Leonard has humbly admitted that he deserved to lose the second time around. 


Russell vs. Chamberlain

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    In the 1960s, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell combined to form one of the NBA's all-time great rivalries.
    In the 1960s, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell combined to form one of the NBA's all-time great rivalries.Associated Press

    In the 1960s, arguably the two greatest centers in basketball history—Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain—met in a collection of classic confrontations.

    In total, the two legends collided in eight of ten postseasons from 1960-69—including two NBA Finals (in ’64 and ’69) and six Conference Finals—with Russell and the Celtics getting the best of Chamberlain on all but one occasion.

    The matchups, however, were almost always competitive. In truly poetic fashion, the two superstars faced off in four separate Game 7s, with one decided by a single point, two decided by two points, and the fourth decided by four points. 

    Of all their memorable matchups, perhaps the best occurred in 1962, the same year in which Chamberlain scored a record 100 points in a single game and averaged 50.4 on the year. But even with all his regular-season bravado, The Stilt still had to get through the playoff Celtics, who were in the midst of what would become a staggering eight-year title run.

    As expected, both stars brought their very best ball to the floor, with Chamberlain leading all scorers with 33.6 points per game, while the more defensive-minded Russell managed to average 22 points of his own. And after seven physical games, the series came down to two plays in a single minute. 

    In the final outing, Russell slowed Chamberlain for most of the night, holding the usually unstoppable force to just 22 points. But in the last minute, The Stilt came through in the clutch, beating Russell down low to score the game-tying bucket.

    In the end, though, it was Boston’s time, as all the brutish wrestling in the paint left future Hall of Famer Sam Jones overlooked and open enough to hit the game-winning jumper with just two seconds remaining in the contest.

    Boston, of course, would go on to win its fourth consecutive title that year. We should note, though, that in 1967, it was Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors who got the best of the Celtics, and they only needed five games to do so, ending Boston’s eight-year title run before going on to win a championship of their own.


Richter vs. Brodeur

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    In 1994, Mike Richter got the best of Martin Brodeur in an epic seven-game series.
    In 1994, Mike Richter got the best of Martin Brodeur in an epic seven-game series.Ron Frehm/Associated Press

    Throughout the 1993-94 NHL season, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils ranked as the two best teams in hockey.

    Of course, the fact that the rival squads shared the Atlantic Division only intensified things when the two met up in the 1994 Eastern Conference Final.

    And if the matchup between two hockey juggernauts wasn’t enough, it also pitted a Hall of Fame goaltender Mike Richter against a future Hall of Fame goaltender in Martin Brodeur.

    The series, it turns out, hardly disappointed, as it included a Mark Messier third-period hat trick and three double-overtime games, one of which was an absolutely classic Game 7.

    Not so surprisingly, with everything on the line, both Richter and Brodeur played like legends in the do-or-die setting. In yet another battle that required two overtimes—and eventually ended with New Jersey on top, 2-1—Brodeur was special, saving 46 shots on net. And on the other side of things, Richter was just as impressive, shutting out the Devils for all but seven seconds of regulation hockey.

    Really, though, here's all you need to know: In the epic two-overtime showdown, the iconic goalies combined to save 77 of 80 shots!

Elway vs. Favre

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    John Elway met up with Brett Favre in 1998's memorable Super Bowl, and scored Denver's go-ahead touchdown.
    John Elway met up with Brett Favre in 1998's memorable Super Bowl, and scored Denver's go-ahead touchdown.ELISE AMENDOLA/Associated Press

    While playing football's most important position, both John Elway and Brett Favre put together Hall of Fame careers. 

    In 16 seasons with the Denver Broncos, Elway made it to nine Pro Bowls and was named the AP's 1987 NFL MVP. 

    Favre, on the other hand, played for four different teams over 20 seasons, making it to 11 Pro Bowls along the way while also setting multiple NFL records, including career passing yards, career completions and consecutive starts. 

    And in truly poetic fashion, the two legends came together in 1998, on the biggest of stages in their sport's most important game. 

    Heading into the '98 Super Bowl, Elway was looking for his first victory in four attempts, but he had to get by Favre and the defending-champion Packers, who were considerable 12-point favorites

    Spoiler: The game actually exceeded expectations.

    With 28 seconds to play, Elway's Broncos clinched a monumental 31-24 upset by denying Favre's comeback bid, breaking up a desperation pass to tight end Mark Chmura. With the victory, the Broncos became the second-biggest underdog in NFL history to win the Super Bowl. 

    On a memorable night, but in a losing effort, Favre was nonetheless impressive, completing 25 of 42 passes for 256 yards and three scores. 

    Oddly enough, in his first of two Super Bowl crowns, Elway actually struggled for most of the night, throwing for just 123 yards while rushing for only 17. But in true Elway fashion, the legendary signal-caller gave Denver both momentum and its first lead with a huge second-quarter touchdown, and the Broncos held on to both for the rest of the classic duel. 


Spahn vs. Marichal

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    Willie Mays put an end to Juan Marichal's epic pitching duel with Warren Spahn.
    Willie Mays put an end to Juan Marichal's epic pitching duel with Warren Spahn.Associated Press

    It's incredibly rare for two future Hall of Fame pitchers to share a field on the very same day, and it's even more extraordinary to see both concurrently bring their very best stuff to the diamond.

    But that's precisely what took place on July 2, 1963, when Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves took on Juan Marichal and the San Francisco Giants.

    At the time, the veteran Spahn was already a 17-time All-Star as well as a Cy Young award winner and World Series champion. In contrast, the young, up-and-coming Marichal—who would go on to become the winningest pitcher of the ‘60s—was a two-time All-Star and in just his fourth year in the league.    

    Throughout their epic battle, however, the two superstars were on even ground.

    More specifically, the two combined to throw in excess of 400 pitches on the day and went nearly 16 full innings without allowing a single run. Marichal, to be exact, gave up eight hits and struck out 10, while Spahn allowed nine hits and struck out two.

    Better yet, as if divinely inspired, the classic showdown came to an end in supremely dramatic fashion, with Hall of Famer Willie Mays crushing a walk-off homer to left.


Federer vs. Nadal

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    In 2008 at Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in perhaps the greatest match in tennis history.
    In 2008 at Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in perhaps the greatest match in tennis history.Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

    Simply put, the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is among the greatest in sports history.

    For six long years—from 2005-10—the two legends sat atop the sport of tennis, a feat no other players have ever combined to accomplish. And thankfully for fans, the two transcendent talents have faced off on 33 separate occasions, including in 20 tournament finals (eight Grand Slam finals and 10 Master Series finals), nine semifinals and two quarterfinals. 

    To put their individual dominance and mutual rivalry in perhaps even better perspective, consider this stat: From 2006-2008, Federer and Nadal played each other in every single French Open and Wimbledon final!

    Of course, their most famous and exciting match took place in London in 2008, when No. 2-ranked Nadal defeated No. 1-ranked Federer after nearly five hours, winning his first career Wimbledon title.

    The duel was the longest singles final in the tournament’s history. Overcoming the part of underdog, the Spanish “clay-court specialist” managed to jump out to a two-set lead before Federer rallied to force a fifth and final set, in which the Swiss star came to within two points of yet another grass-court title.

    In the end, though, Nadal prevailed, closing the match out with a 9-7 victory in the fifth.

    Fittingly, near the end of the back-and-forth classic, tennis legend John McEnroe emotionally exclaimed, “this is the greatest match I've ever seen." 


Ali vs. Franzier

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    Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought three times and in two classics.
    Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought three times and in two classics.MITSUNORI CHIGITA/Associated Press

    Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier—two of the top boxers of all time—were willing to stand toe-to-toe with each other on three separate occasions. 

    The first—coined The Fight of the Century—and the third bout—The Thrilla in Manila—are both considered classics to this day.

    The two polar-opposite Hall of Famers first met in 1971, with Ali entering the bout at 31-0 and Frazier—26-0—holding both the WBC and WBA World Championship belts. Both boxers—but Ali in particular—transcended the sport, attracting celebrities like Norman Mailer, Woody Allen and Frank Sinatra to the fight.

    And just like in so many other epic athletic battles, momentum changed hands countless times, with Ali dominating the first three rounds before Frazier took over in Round 4. Then, in Round 11—after mostly even boxing in Rounds 5-10Ali was noticeably shaken by a left hook and was forced to place both hands and his right knee to the canvas to regain balance. In a controversial decision, referee Art Mercante refrained from calling the stumble a knockdown.

    Frazier, however, was not deterred. Already ahead on all three scorecards, the bullish fighter held his own in the next three rounds before pummeling Ali in the 15th, at one point putting the undefeated challenger flat on his back.

    And though a resilient but battered and bloody Ali managed to get back up and finish out the fight, Frazier was declared the bout’s unanimous winner just a few moments later, retaining his titles behind a truly landmark victory.

    Of course, Ali would get his revenge in both ’74 and ’75, with the latter also going down as one of the all-time great pugilistic displays.

Manning vs. Brady

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    Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the top two quarterbacks of the last 20 years, have faced each other 16 times.
    Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the top two quarterbacks of the last 20 years, have faced each other 16 times.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    When discussing the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have to be mentioned.

    Brady is a four-time Super Bowl champion, a 10-time Pro Bowler and has led his team to 12 division titles in 14 years!

    Manning, on the other hand, has just one Super Bowl title to his name but is the league record holder for touchdown passes in a career, touchdown passes in a season and passing yards in a season!

    Better yet, because they are contemporaries who have spent their entire careers in the AFC, Brady and Manning have faced off on 16 separate occasions, including four times in the postseason alone (note: Brady leads the series 10-5, though the two are tied 2-2 in postseason play).

    Of the four dramatic playoff showdowns, three have gone down in the AFC Championship Game, with perhaps the best of all taking place back in 2007.

    The classic collision included just about everything.

    New England jumped out to a commanding 21-3 lead and held what appeared to be a demoralizing 21-6 advantage at the half. Manning and the troops, though, chipped away at the lead and eventually managed to tie the score, 31-31, with 5:31 to play in the fourth.

    As expected, Brady responded with a drive of his own and set Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski up for what looked like the game-winning field goal, which gave New England a three-point lead with less than four minutes to play.

    But it was meant to be Manning’s year. The savvy signal-caller calmly led his Colts on a memorable 80-yard drive, which they finished off with a three-yard touchdown run, grabbing the lead for good with just 1:02 remaining in the game.

    Manning threw for 349 yards and scored two touchdowns—one throwing and one rushing—in the nail-biting, come-from-behind 38-34 victory. More importantly, the thrilling win over his fiercest rival gave the quarterback the confidence necessary to beat the Bears two weeks later and capture his first and only Super Bowl crown. 

Magic vs. Bird

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    Over nearly 20 years, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird became legendary rivals and great friends.
    Over nearly 20 years, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird became legendary rivals and great friends.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    As unique as just about any classic rivalry out there, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s competitive feud began in college—Magic and Michigan State defeated Bird and Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA National Championship game—before intensifying in the pros.

    It, of course, didn’t hurt that the two wound up playing for two of the most storied NBA franchises—The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. 

    And in the 1980s, the two teams met up in the NBA Finals on three occasions, with Bird and Magic standing at the center of it all.

    In 1984, Bird and Boston got by Magic and L.A. in seven grueling battles, with the former contributing a gaudy 27.4 points per game in the winning effort. For both teams, though, the series had highs and lows. It saw Boston get run out of the gym 137-104—a result that famously inspired Bird to call his teammates “sissies”—and also featured a panting and exhausted group of Lakers floundering around an AC-less Boston Garden.

    Just one year later, though, Magic and the Lakers achieved revenge, defeating the Celtics for a title and becoming the first team to do so on Boston’s home floor. As expected, Magic played a big part in LA’s resounding victory, averaging 18.3 points per contest in the six-game series in addition to a ridiculous, game-changing 14 assists. 

    Then, armed with a new toy—the “junior sky-hook”—Magic once again broke Boston hearts, this time in the '87 NBA Finals, stealing Game 4 late before leading the Lakers to a resounding, title-winning victory in Game 6. Most importantly, the dramatic conclusion and epic performance—for the series, Magic averaged 26.2 points per game in addition to an absurd 13 assists and eight rebounds—put a fitting exclamation point on a uniquely historic rivalry, as the two Hall of Famers would never again lock horns on the NBA’s biggest stage.