The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Sports Rivalries

It’s a universal truth that rivalry is the blood that fuels sports. Teams and individuals strive to be the best at what they do, and constantly aim to defeat, mock, and demoralize anyone who stand in their way.Some of those rivalries go down in history as the greatest in sports. Others are seen as some of the most boring in sports. Still other rivalries make their participants notorious and are labeled downright ugly, offending players and fans so badly that they are never forgotten. These are those rivalries that deal with individuals rather than whole teams. We can leave that book of team rivalries for another time.

good text The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Sports Rivalries

 #5: Arnold Palmer VS Jack Nicklaus
Golf: 1960 – 2005

The rivalry that Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had in splitting 25 majors in the PGA is a lot different than today’s sports rivalries. Golf is a more personal sport than most, where you play yourself to improve your score. Such a sport has good-natured rivalries where you and your nemesis can go out for drinks after a grueling week on the golf course, no matter who won.

This was the type of rivalry where you expect the combatants to grow old together on a front porch drinking Long Island Ice Teas (Or, perhaps,Arnold Palmers?) and grumbling about how the golf balls today are more like ping pong balls than the rocks they used to hit with their wooden clubs.

#4: Roger Federer VS Rafael Nadal
Tennis: 2004 – Present

Tennis’s popularity has always thrived on top-seeded rivalries. There’s just something personal about two players matching up on a tennis court, and when those two players constantly play each other, fans begin foaming at the mouth  whenever there is a chance for it to happen again.

The latest rivalry in men’s tennis to fit this bill was between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. For the past 8 years, these two have swapped rankings, titles, and fan-love, and the world has been followed every minute of it. Fueled in part by Nadal’s angry on-court facial expressions and Federer’s similarity to director Quentin Tarantino , this rivalry coaxed many new players to pick up a tennis racket and figure out this tennis thing.

#3: Chuck Liddell VS Tito Ortiz
Mixed Martial Arts: 2004 – 2010

It’s hard to imagine that two fighters beating the crap out of each other can maintain a friendship outside of the, but it’s true. This, of course, is not the case between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.

The bad blood that came to the surface after Liddell defeated Ortiz twice in a row in his quest to gain and maintain the UFC Light Heavyweight title culminated in the 11th season of The Ultimate Fighter when Ortiz mentioned Liddell’s drinking problem. This personal information leak lead to alleged quotes that Liddell was training to “kill” Ortiz for their third fight. Unfortunately for fans, and fortunately for Ortiz, a neck injury kept Ortiz out of the octagon to complete this fighting trilogy.

#2: Magic Johnson VS Larry Bird
Basketball: 1979 – 2012

Few sports rivalries have gone on as long as the one between Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. It began in the 1979 NCAA Championships when Johnson and Michigan State defeated Bird and Indiana State and ended up in the NBA with two teams that couldn’t have been better foreshadowing: Johnson was the #1 draft pick in the NBA, going to the Los Angeles Lakers. Bird went #6 in the draft to the Boston Celtics.

From 1980-1991, Johnson and the Lakers were in the NBA Finals, winning five of them. Bird’s Celtics were in the NBA Finals in 1981 and 1984-1987, winning 3 championships and facing the Lakers 3 times (no correlation). Sportscasters and fans alike barely blinked when watching these two basketball giants on the court at the same time.

Then Converse decided to create a commercial with both of them, and the rivalry was never the same again. “Enemies don’t work on cheesy ’80s commercials together,” people from the future were exclaiming. “They must be friends.” That idea resonated for years to come until, long after they were both retired, the Broadway show Magic/Bird was released in 2012, becoming one of the worst climaxes to a rivalry, even when that rivalry ultimately ends in friendship.

#1: Muhammad Ali VS Joe Frazier
Boxing: 1971 – 1975

Sometimes the line between a great rivalry and an ugly rivalry is blurred. That was the case in the battles between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. In 1967, Ali was stripped of his World Heavyweight Champion title and ejected from the sport of boxing for refusing to be drafted into the US armed forces in 1967. Joe Frazier defeated Buster Mathis and then went on to defeat Jimmy Ellis to become the “undisputed” world heavyweight champion, which was disputed because Frazier did not defeat the undefeated Ali to win the title directly.

Always the honorable boxer, Frazier supported Ali’s quest to be reinstated into boxing in order to make his “undisputed” title truly indisputable by beating the crap out of Ali. He got his wish in 1971, as Frazier and Ali squared off and went the full 15 rounds in what has been dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” Frazier won the battle by unanimous decision, unless you count Ali’s decision to complain about it being “The White Man’s Decision.” This was Ali’s first loss in boxing.

In 1974, a rematch was held, with hype fueled by an on-camera brawl between Ali and Frazier on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Unfortunately, the non-title fight in the ring was not as intense, and the unanimous decision went to Ali.

The war between Ali and Frazier ended in 1975 with “The Thrilla In Manila,” a title fight that erased the boredom derived from their last meeting. The fight was a blood-bath that lasted 14 rounds and was called in favor of Ali in a TKO when Frazier’s manager Eddie Futch threw in the towel. Supposedly, this happened at the same time Ali told his corner to cut his gloves off to forfeit the match.

This rivalry may have been bathed in blood, but at the end of the day these two champions held a mutual respect, lasting until Joe Frazier passed away in 2011 when Ali was quoted as saying, ““The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.”

bad text The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Sports Rivalries#5: Roger Maris VS Mickey Mantle
Baseball: 1961

Rivalries between players that are on the same team rarely happen, and when they do, they just don’t have the same appeal as classic grudge matches. This was the case when baseball mercenary Roger Maris came to “Mickey Mantle’s Team,” the New York Yankees.

The rivalry blossomed as much as it could in 1961, when both Mantle and Maris were on a quest to break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record on their way to winning another World Series. Both players missed the mark with Mantle hitting 54 home runs and Maris hitting 59, ending a short, media-driven rivalry that didn’t even really exist. Just ask Yogi Berra.

#4: Pete Sampras VS Andre Agassi
Tennis: 1989 – 2002

The tennis war between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in the ’90s should be considered a good rivalry. The two played each other 34 times with Sampras leading Agassi 20-14. Five of those matches were in Grand Slam tennis finals, where Sampras lead Agassi 4-1. Statistics like that would fuel a rivalry for any under-dog.

Unfortunately, neither Sampras nor Agassi had the demeanor to make their matches much more than two guys playing tennis. While the rivalry did boost the sport of tennis, any rivalry that features a commercial where the combatants play tennis in the streets of Manhattan can’t be highly regarded.

#3: Manny Pacquiao VS Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Boxing: 2006 – 2013

No rivalry has been engineered so beautifully by fans that the one between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Highly touted as the best fighters of the past decade, Pacquiao and Mayweather were sized up countless times in order to find out who truly is the best in boxing today.

The joke is, these fighters have never met in the ring. They finally found themselves in the same class since 2009, but have only fought with words now and again. Pacquiao and Mayweather never got on the same page to give the world the greatest boxing match in recent years. With Pacquiao recently being knocked out by Juan Marquez, fans have all but given up on this rivalry as both fighters would have more to lose than win in this fantasy matchup. This, of course, means that millions of dollars will be air-dropped on them via helicopter to make it happen anyway.

#2: Anderson Silva VS Every Other UFC Middleweight Contender
Mixed Martial Arts: 2006 – Present

There is no question that Anderson Silva is the best MMA fighter in the world at the middleweight division. For almost 7 years, “The Spider” demoralized and destroyed almost every fighter that he has stepped into the ring with, dropping his arms and bobbing and weaving away from his opponent’s strikes countless times. He’s cocky, but he backs it up, to the point that he himself can’t fathom who in his division can defeat him. He’s even gone after UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre to sign a catch-weight fight while balking at the idea of doing the same with UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones.

Unfortunately, one man’s rivalry against an entire weight-class isn’t much of a rivalry at all.

#1: Richard Sherman VS Darrelle Revis
Football: 2013

Football rivalries are a rare occurrence because the sport is so team-focused. That didn’t stop Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman from calling out New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, claiming to be the best cornerback in the league.

Sherman began his campaign by taking to the streets of New Orleans during Super Bowl Week, asking random people whether he or Revis was the best corner in the league. This led to a Twitter war of words between the athletes where Sherman proceeded to put his foot in his mouth while Revis countered online trolls with some of the worst comebacks in Twitter history.

Unfortunately, this rivalry will go down as one of the worst because it is only a battle of words 140 character long or under. They will never be able to take the field against each other to prove their arguments because there’s no clear way to defend against a defensive player.

ugly text The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Sports Rivalries#5: Ndamukong Suh VS Whatever Offense He’s Playing Against
Football: 2012 – Present

While Sherman VS Revis is not much of a rivalry because they will never match up on the field, the rivalry between Ndamukong Suh and every offense he plays against doesn’t have that problem.

Sure, every defensive player’s sole goal is to pounce on the other team. What makes Suh’s goal ugly is that he has pounced, literally. In a Thanksgiving game in 2011 against the Green Bay Packers, Suh pushed an offensive lineman’s head into the ground and stomped on his arm after a play was over. In next year’s Thanksgiving game, Suh’s foot found itself in Texans quarterback Matt Schaub’s groin, allegedly by accident.

These plays and countless others have earned Suh 9 personal foul penalties, $42,500 in fines, the “dirtiest player” title from a player poll, and was crowned the NFL’s “Least-Liked Player.”

#4: Sean Avery VS The Rest of the NHL
Hockey: 1999 – 2012

Hockey fans revel in brawls and enforcers, so it’s hard to imagine that one player could stand out and provoke hatred from both teammates and opponents. Those people probably haven’t followed Sean Avery’s career.

Polled in 2007 as the most hated player in the NHL, Avery has been known to attack players on and off the ice. On the ice, he accumulated 1,500 penalty minutes and his own penalty dubbed “The Sean Avery Rule” where screening a goalie without facing the active play is met with a penalty, as Avery had done in a playoff game against the New Jersey Devils in 2008. Off the ice, Avery mocked teammates and made a remark about Calgary Flames player Dion Phaneuf dating Avery’s ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert, referring to Phaneuf as getting Avery’s “sloppy seconds.”

#3: Mike Piazza VS Roger Clemens
Baseball: 2000

Baseball rivalries are usually focused between teams rather than individuals. That’s what happens in team sports. However, the rivalry between Roger Clemens of the New York Yankees and Mike Piazza of the New York Mets was ugly enough to deserve a place in rivalries between specific players.

In an inter-league game, Clemens beaned Piazza in the head, causing a mild concussion. Piazza claimed that Clemens threw at him intentionally because he had homered off of Clemens in 3 straight games. The bad blood continued into the World Series of that year when Clemens threw a broken bat in Piazza’s direction after a foul ball, causing a confrontation that emptied the dugouts for both teams.

The feud gained steam again this month when Mike Piazza’s autobiography was released, where it was mentioned that Piazza took karate lessons after the beaning incident in case he ever came across Roger Clemens again.

#2: Mike Tyson VS Evander Holyfield
Boxing: 1996 – 1997

The feud between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield was short-lived, but continues to echo through the sport of boxing. It began when Tyson defended his WBA title against Holyfield, who was 4 fights into his return from retirement. Holyfield defeated Tyson in an 11 round TKO, a fight which riled up the Tyson camp, screaming it was due to consistent head-butts by Holyfield.

The rematch a year later turned an honest rivalry into one of the ugliest in history. Tyson was disqualified in the 3rd round for biting a chunk out of Holyfield’s ear; a second bite, in fact, but while the first bite was minor, this second bite took a chunk out of Holyfield’s ear that was later found in the ring. This bite led to a withholding of $3 million from Tyson’s purse and his boxing license being rescinded so that he could not box in the United States until 1998.

An icy rivalry indeed.

Who knew figure skating was the nastiest sport of all?

#1: Nancy Kerrigan VS Tonya Harding
Figure Skating: 1992 – 1994

The idea that a rivalry in the sport of ice-dancing, aka figure skating, could turn ugly is almost too ridiculous to imagine. The idea that such a rivalry would go down as the ugliest rivalry in sports history is almost inconceivable. Yet here we are, with the war between US figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding being crowned queen of ugly sports rivalries.

Tonya Harding began her quest for Olympic dominance in 1991 when she completed her first triple axel at the US Figure Skating Championships and received the events first 6.0 score in technical ability. Don’t fall asleep yet, it gets better.

In the 1992 Winter Olympics, Harding placed 4th in women’s figure skating. Who took the bronze medal? Fellow US figure skater Nancy Kerrigan.

In 1994, Harding was implicated in an attack on Nancy Kerrigan where Kerrigan was smacked in the leg with a baton by Shane Stant, allegedly hired by Harding’s ex-husband and bodyguard. The injury forced Kerrigan out of US Figure Skating Championships, which Tonya Harding ended up winning. The US Olympic Committee began proceedings to have Harding removed from the US Olympic team, but dropped the case when Harding threatened legal action.

The feud ended in the 1994 Winter Olympics when Nancy Kerrigan won the silver medal and Tonya Harding finished 8th. From there, Kerrigan went on to star in professional figure skating shows while Harding became even more notorious with a leaked sex tape and a professional boxing match in 2002.

jamarcus russell jed jacobsohngetty images sport The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Sports Rivalries

Aw, sad Jamarcus Russell

Patrick Emmel likes watching sports rivalries almost as much as he likes watching actual sports. You can see more of his work at or heckle him on Twitter @Patrick_AE.

Need more Good, Bad, and Ugly sports moments? Check out The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in Football Draft History.–>

More from The Man Behind Patrick Emmel

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