For all of the great rivalries between teams that have been witnessed over the years, there isn’t much that can compare to the spectacle of a well-documented feud between two individual athletes. The vitriol that is spewed between them strikes the viewer on a personal level, and adds a different dimension than is seen in rivalries between teams or fanbases. It’s an easy thing to hype, and when the rivalry lives up to it, it makes for some of the greatest moments in the history of sports.
Obviously, individual rivalries are more likely to be seen in certain sports than others. Football isn’t really conducive to it from a player’s perspective, although it does happen occasionally. Mostly, it’s individual sports that give the better opportunity for it to occur, with the NBA being the main notable exception. As a result, it sheds some light on tennis and golf that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of big-time professional sports. It’s well-deserved publicity, and these feuds between the athletic elite are often cornerstones of American culture, with stories being recounted year after year. At the end of the day, it’s just great entertainment, and deserves to be recognized as such.
Ranked below are the top 15 individual sports rivalries of all time.
15. Sidney Crosby Vs Alex Ovechkin
Crosby and Ovechkin both entered the NHL during the 2005-06 season, and unquestionably have been the two players in the sport in that span of time. They rank first and second respectively in point totals, and are the two most recognizable athletes in the NHL by a mile. Crosby has the postseason success, notching two Stanley Cup-victories with the Penguins, while Ovechkin’s Capitals have been largely underwhelming in postseason play. Conversely, Ovechkin has the edge in MVP awards, three to Crosby’s two, and is widely considered the better pure shooter between the two. This isn’t the most volatile rivalry in terms of trash talk, but the statistical aspects of it has given hockey two players to hang it’s hat on for the last ten years, and that will continue for several more. Two of the most entertaining athletes alive today.
14. Nick Saban Vs. Urban Meyer
They’re the two best coaches in college football today, and since 2006, only two FBS National Championship games have been won by another coach. In total, Saban has notched five titles, all with Alabama, and Meyer has three; two with Florida, and one with Ohio State. As far as age goes, Saban has about 12 years on Meyer, at 64-years-old. The way all of this lines up will probably mean that there is going to be a competitive arms race between the two over the next decade, to see who can amass the most championship victories. They may be in different conferences, but there’s no denying that as elite figures in college football, that this rivalry will be the running storyline for quite some time, and when it’s all said and done, they both may be considered the two best coaches that the college football game has ever seen.
13. Ted Williams Vs. Joe DiMaggio
The two most marquee hitters during baseball’s golden age, Williams and DiMaggio were the standard when it came to talent in their heyday, and it’s only natural to compare the two. Of course, being a Yankee for the duration of his career, DiMaggio has the postseason success to his name, winning a grand total of nine World Series in 10 appearances. On the other hand, Williams and the Red Sox didn’t win one, and only made one appearance in 1946. Both players have records to their name that many believe will never be broken; Williams with his .406 batting average for the 1941 season, and DiMaggio laying claim to the 56-game hitting streak during the same season. In all, they’re two of the greatest hitters in baseball history, and their rivalry is one of the most pronounced that the sport has to offer.
12. Phil Mickelson Vs. Tiger Woods
The two catalysts for golf’s resurgence during the late-1990s, Woods and Mickelson battled each other for the better part of ten years on the PGA Tour. Of course, Tiger holds the edge in Major-victories, but Mickelson has been in the same elite category, and their careers have followed a similar trajectory beginning at nearly the same starting point. In recent years, given Tiger’s reduction in activity, Mickelson has held a distinct advantage, and looks to be the one that will be able to continue to play on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Tiger was once on top of the sport, and the only other player during that time that could give him a run for his money was Mickelson. They were both at one time, faces for a sport that desperately needed some help, and they provided it in spades.
11. Venus Williams Vs. Serena Williams
Perhaps the most well-documented sibling rivalry in the history professional sports, the Williams sisters have been the face of women’s tennis, nearly since their debut in the late-1990s. Venus started out as the dominant one in their head-to-head match-ups, with Serena winning eight out of the last 10. Both have approached the sport with a distinct amount of class, and that shows in their well-disciplined competitiveness on the court when they face each other. Overall, it’s still probably the biggest draw in the realm of women’s tennis, and will continue to be for as long as they are both active. It will be a long time before the sport is able to replace the presence of both of them, as well as their stories rivalry that has persisted for around the last 20 years.
10. Patrick Ewing Vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
Contrary to what younger fans may believe after seeing the Warriors three-point shooting prowess, there was a time in NBA history when post play and centers were the order of the day. They were easily the most important position on the court, and no two players embodied this more during their era than Ewing and Olajuwon. Olajuwon holds the edge with the accolades, but the career statistical averages for both players is nearly identical, and shows just how dominating they were during their prime. In the Jordan-absent 1994 season, Olajuwon’s Rockets defeated Ewing’s Knicks in the NBA Finals, cementing Olajuwon with the ultimate one-on-on victory between the two. Still, both embodied the best that their position had to offer at one time, and were both must-watch for well over a decade. In the era of Jordan’s-excellence, these two may have just been the runner-ups for the most exciting players to watch.
9. Mike Krzyzewski Vs. John Calipari
The gold standard for college basketball coaches in the modern day, the rivalry between Coach K and Calipari runs the gamut from recruiting to statistical achievements, to their matchups on the court. While Calipari took the Kentucky job in 2009 after a nine-year run with Memphis, Coach K has of course been the head coach at Duke for seemingly forever, starting in 1980. It may seem unnatural to compare the two, but Calipari turned Kentucky into a re-established powerhouse so quickly, that his only legitimate foe (besides perhaps Roy Williams at North Carolina) is Coach K and Duke, and a game between the two coaches is the marquee matchup in any college basketball season. Both coaches have overseen dozens upon dozens of NBA draft picks, and it’s a testament to their ability to get the best out of their players.
8. Mike Tyson Vs. Evander Holyfield
The infamous “bite fight” has definitively become part of American pop culture, is one of the most recognizable of Tyson’s shenanigans. The rivalry was relatively short-lived, but the impact that it had on boxing and each fighter’s career (specifically Tyson’s), can not be understated. It marks a distinct turning point in Tyson’s boxing career, and he never really was the same again. The biting took place in the second fight between the two in 1997, which saw Holyfield retain his title. Besides the obvious incident, the Tyson/Holyfield pay-per-views were some of the highest grossing of all-time. It was a highly-demanded rivalry in the ring, and factoring in everything else, it is one of boxing’s most notable rivalries, with unlimited entertainment value at the time.
7. Arnold Palmer Vs. Jack Nicklaus
Before Tiger and Mickelson, the biggest rivalry in the sport of golf was Palmer and Nicklaus during the 1960s. It’s what really put golf on the map during that time, and the two remained friends for decades after, despite their on-course rivalry. Nicklaus had more pure talent, and was probably the better of the two from the on-course perspective. Palmer, while still an elite talent in his own right, always had the admiration of the fans. It served as an interesting dichotomy between the two, and heightens their already legendary status. After both players exited their prime, it would take a long time for golf to gain the resurgence back into the national spotlight, featuring transcendent athletes. The Palmer and Nicklaus rivalry set the tone for future great rivalries in the sport, and was one of the most entertaining of its day.
6. Kobe Bryant Vs. Shaquille O’Neal
Strange from most of the other described here, because Kobe and Shaq obviously had great championship success as members of the Lakers. Even so, during their time in Los Angeles, there was noticeable tension, and both players continued their feud for the duration of their careers. The Lakers opted to keep Kobe, and the first several years of Shaq’s departure while a member of the Heat (where he also won a title), served as a marquee game for the league to hype up. Truly, they were two of the most pronounced personalities in NBA history, and the rivalry was memorable in just about every aspect. Both could talk trash, and they were still in their prime in that respect, as well as their play on the court.
5. Muhammad Ali Vs. Joe Frazier
Of course, the greatest boxing rivalry of all-time goes to these two. Again, this has become a fixture of American pop culture, and this feud featured two of the greatest athletes of all-time in the prime of their careers. The pair faced each other on three different occasions from 1971 to 1975, and each match was absolutely electric. The trash talk was paramount, and both fighters had clear disdain for one another at the time, which led to increased anticipation for the fight. Most fans consider this era of boxing the “golden age”, and it’s hard to disagree when this is the caliber of fights that were put on display. A rivalry with complete entertainment value, and will go in history as one of the best of all time, in any sport.
4. Chris Evert Vs. Martina Navratilova
The cream of the crop when it comes to women’s tennis rivalries, Evert and Navratilova combined to form an extensive, visceral on-court feud. They faced each other a total of 80 times over the years, including 14 Grand Slam finals, in which Navratilova won 10, and holds the all-time record between the two with 43 victories, compared to Evert’s 37. The feud was active for about 15 years from 1973 to 1988, and represented one of the best of it’s era, in any sport. Obviously, this was key in paving the way for future rivalries, such as the aforementioned Williams sisters. Evert and Navratilova shed some well-deserved light on the sport of women’s tennis, and it stands today as one of the most underrated rivalries in the spectrum of professional sports.
3. Magic Johnson Vs. Larry Bird
Indeed, the two most relevant NBA teams of the 1980s were the Lakers and Celtics, with Magic and Bird serving as microcosms for both of them. Additionally, both players helped usher in the most successful era in NBA history. While Jordan was a peer of them in the 80s, he wasn’t winning titles at the time. For nearly every year during the decade, Bird and Johnson traded the NBA Championship back and forth, with classic games and series being a staple of their feud. In essence, they set the stage for Jordan’s title-winning teams, and the ready-made fanbase that popularized them. At the time, there wasn’t a hotter ticket in professional sports, and they were both part of the game’s elite on the court. They played with passion and intensity, which sustained the success of their feud up until the present day, as it is still highly regarded and discussed at some point during every NBA season.
2. Peyton Manning Vs. Tom Brady
It’s rare that NFL football, as team oriented as the sport is, is able to produce two players who have enough of a storied history with each to be considered a top rivalry. As it so happens, two of the greatest QBs of all-time entered the league around the same time, and dominated the sport for the next 15 years. Brady against Manning is the best rivalry in sports during the last 20 years. Brady holds the all-time record between the two, but Manning has the edge in postseason play, with three wins to Brady’s two. No matter the victor, for over a decade this was the best rivalry in sports, which pitted the two best QBs in the game against each other, more often than not in meaningful, tense games. With Manning’s retirement, it’s the end of an era, but it won’t soon be forgotten. It will be a long time before the NFL sees an individual rivalry on this level again.
1. Wilt Chamberlain Vs. Bill Russell
The rivalry that put basketball on the map as a major part of the American sporting landscape, Russell and Chamberlain defined success in the NBA for well over a decade. Russell had the 11 title victories, and Chamberlain is widely considered to be the player who has had the most impact in league history. It’s a classic scenario, one that pitted the best player on a superior team, against the superstar who could do it all. Indeed, Chamberlain was the better pure scorer, but they were neck and neck in the rebounding category. The rivalry set the standard for those in the NBA, and paved the way for future encounters in the league. Because the sport obviously didn’t have the coverage it does today, we’ll never get to see it from an all-encompassing perspective, but it’s still a hallmark of NBA history, and featured the two greatest players of the era.
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