Greatest Rivalries in Sports
Some of the greatest moments in sports takes place when two bitter rivals square off on the playing field. This is the one time when one opponent hates to lose to the other.
There are many reasons why many rivalries exist.
Perhaps it’s a rivalry that was born decades ago. It could be only a mere miles separates the two rivals. It could be politically driven.
Sometimes, it’s two individuals who are at the top of their games. Or they’re simply popular in stature.
Here are some rivalries from around the world that stand out from the rest.
Real Madrid-Barcelona, Soccer
This is definitely the best rivalry in soccer. Every matchup between Real Madrid and Barcelona is known as "El Clasico," or "The Classic."
These two Spanish heavyweights are the two richest teams in soccer, and Forbes rated the two clubs as the richest in sports in 2014. Their popularity has gone global, and now they are the two most popular teams on social media.
Much of this hatred between the two is politically rooted, dating as far back as the 1930s when Spain was under dictatorship rule. Real Madrid is seen as representing Spanish nationalism, and Barcelona is viewed as representing Catalan nationalism. Throughout history, Barcelona has been known for its rebellious nature, while Madrid has been a conservative symbol. You often don’t see two cities within the same country with such open political disputes every day.
The hatred is carried from the players to the fans. Fans will pay top dollar to see these two giants meet, and you can believe their matchups are intense, spirited and sometimes downright nasty.
No two teams carry the world’s attention like this matchup. If you haven’t seen them play, do a search for previous games and see how intense this can get on the field and in the stands.
Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees, Baseball
You can probably say this is the rivalry Babe Ruth built. In 1919, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees. Well, we all remember what Ruth did after that, and Red Sox fans did not hear the end of that for a long time, dubbing it “The Curse of the Bambino.”
No question, many great players participated in this rivalry, which featured many memorable games. For years, the Yankees were the ones winning one title after another while the Red Sox were praying next year would be the time they would shine.
That finally came in 2004 when the Red Sox won their first championship in 86 years. In many ways, Boston’s title has made its rivalry against New York even more intense. Not only is this still a great rivalry, but their games have additional meaning, often with postseason implications on the line.
Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics, Basketball
The greatest traditional rivalry in NBA history. Even to this day, no teams in the NBA can match the Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
The Celtics and Lakers have by far the most NBA championships and NBA Finals appearances. They come from both sides of the country, each representing the cultural differences of Boston and Los Angeles. Many times, these two great teams brought different styles to the table.
That was no more apparent than during the Bird vs. Magic era when the Celtics, led by Larry Bird, brought a fundamental, well-executed style of play against Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” free-wheeling, up-and-down play. Magic and Larry Bird were credited with taking the NBA’s popularity to the next level, and now the league is one of the great international attractions in sports.
Over the years, the Celtics and Lakers rosters are a who’s who in the Hall of Fame — they have a combined 48 players in the Hall of Fame. And while the two teams haven’t met in the NBA Finals since 2010, they might be on track for some future classic showdowns in the near future.
Boston Bruins-Montreal Candiens, Hockey
Here’s a rivalry, dating back to 1924, that matches perhaps the two most successful franchises in the NHL. The Bruins and Canadiens have faced each other more times in regular-season and playoff games than any other teams in league history. It is considered one of the great rivalries in all of sports.
Their greatest showdowns have come when something big was on the line, including a league record nine times in Game 7 playoff encounters. Some of the greatest players of all time have met each other in this rivalry.
But the rivalry also has had its violent moments between players, with one incident in 1955 leading Boston police to attempt to arrest a Canadian player and a riot taking place in Montreal. There have been many more memorable fights between these two teams, who definitely give it their all when they meet.
Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears, Football
This is the longest running rivalry in NFL history, dating back to 1921. And quite frankly, these two franchises just don’t like each other. The 1924 game featured the first players ejections for fighting during a game in league history. Thus, a rivalry was born.
Some of the greatest players and teams the game has ever seen have played in this rivalry. They have both combined for 22 NFL championships, and they have 65 former players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Two major trophies are named after coaches in this rivalry — longtime Bears coach George Halas has the Halas Trophy for the NFC championship winner and former Packers coach Vince Lombardi has the Lombardi Trophy for the team that wins the Super Bowl.
This rivalry is more than some of the greatest accomplishments in league history. Much of this rivalry has been get-down-and-dirty football, fought in the trenches, and featured some of the toughest players in history, such as Bronko Nagurski, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher, Ray Nitschke, Jerry Kramer, Reggie White and Clay Matthews.
In the end, players and coaches alike will tell you that the beauty of this rivalry is that it was built on mutual respect.
Duke-North Carolina, Basketball
The greatest and most intense rivalry in college basketball. Many things make this rivalry special. The two schools are located just 10 miles apart. They often feature some of the greatest players in the country. There is usually a conference title on the line when they meet. And students and players simply don’t like each other.
The intensity is unmatched in any college basketball setting. Duke fans tend to pull out all of the stops when North Carolina comes to Cameron Indoor Stadium, regarded as perhaps the toughest place to play for an opponent. In the event of a North Carolina victory, students in Chapel Hill rush out to Franklin Street, many of them starting bonfires with Duke jerseys.
The rivalry also features great coaches, such as Dean Smith and Roy Williams for North Carolina and Mike Krzyzewski for Duke. Not only is this rivalry intense between the two schools, but it’s definitely a favorite among college basketball fans throughout the country.
Ohio State-Michigan, Football
The tradition between Ohio State and Michigan has been unsurpassed for decades. Usually, the two teams meet at the end of the regular season, with the Big Ten Conference championship often hanging in the balance.
Many great coaches and superb athletes have competed in this spirited rivalry. But the game transcends the normal regular-season matchup. Typically, the game is played before more than 100,000 fans in attendance and a nationwide audience on TV, smartphones and tablets.
One significant highlight to this rivalry was "The Ten Year War" between Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and Michigan coach Bo Schembechler from 1969 to 1978, which featured two of the top teams in the country. The same can be said now for the current rivalry as the Buckeyes and Wolverines still face each other with national ranking and bowl game implications on the line.
Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins, Football
The Cowboys and Redskins didn’t really become a full-fledge rivalry until the late 1960s, and it blossomed in the 1970s. The matchups were legendary. You had Roger Staubach on one side and Joe Theismann on the other. The Doomsday Defense against the Hogs. Great coaches in Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson, Vince Lombardi, George Allen and Joe Gibbs. Two teams in the same division fighting it out for one prize, the Super Bowl. The two have combined for eight titles.
This rivalry not only captured the hearts of Cowboys and Redskins fans, but all of America was watching. Besides all of the great players who have played in this rivalry, it has come with some great moments, such as Clint Longley, standing in for an injured Staubach in 1974, heaving two touchdown passes to beat the Redskins 24-23 on Thanksgiving Day.
While the game may not have the same kind of meaning now as it did then (until the Cowboys and Redskins pick their games back up again), it still is a game both side hates to lose. Plus, the fans don’t care much for each other as well.
Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants, Baseball
If you’re looking for a rivalry that has pure hatred among fans, and sometimes players, we present to you the Dodgers and Giants. They first started hating each other back when they played in New York — the Giants in New York City and the Dodgers in Brooklyn. Fights on the field and off were common.
Then, in 1958, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, and the Giants moved to San Francisco. You think moving 3,000 miles or so away put the end to this bitter rivalry? Wrong. The two teams also brought their hatred and those fights with them, with a new set of fans in California despising each other, too. Sometimes, the fans seem to hate each other more than the players. Just ask a Dodgers fan after going to a game in San Francisco. Or vice-versa.
Both teams have had their share of success, particularly the Giants’ three World Series titles in the 2010 decade. They've also had failures, such as the Dodgers still looking for their first title since 1988. That goes out the door when they meet on the field — the feeling is if one team can’t make the playoffs, they will do everything they can to make sure the rival doesn’t make it either.
Montreal Canadiens-Toronto Maple Leafs, Hockey
Talk about a rivalry with some longevity. Two longtime teams from Canada, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs have been facing each other since 1917 when players didn’t wear helmets and goalies didn’t have any face protection. Yeah, things were a bit crazy in the NHL back then.
This is clearly the NHL’s longest-running rivalry between the two largest cities in Canada. What’s interesting about this rivalry is there’s always been some animosity between the French and English in this country, and it carries over on the ice The Canadiens represent mainly the French-speaking fan base, whereas the Maple Leafs represent the English-speaking fans. The particular rivalry sometimes takes on some added meaning — they have met each other in five Stanley Cup finals, with the Leafs winning three.
Due to realignment and more Canadian teams joining the NHL, the rivalry struggled for a few years. They played in opposite conferences from 1981 to 98. However, realignment brought the two teams back to the same division in 1998 and again after another realignment 2013. While they haven’t met in the playoffs since 1979, their disdain for each other as division rivals is as strong as ever.
U.S.-Europe, Ryder Cup, Golf
The Ryder Cup is considered one of the greatest showdowns in golf. The top players from the U.S. and Europe go at it in a team format for bragging rights and to show which part of the world has the best golfers.
The Ryder Cup is played every two years, and the venue alternates between courses in the U.S. and Europe. Home-course advantage is big here. The crowds are not tame, and neither are the players. With every ball going in the hole, there’s roars with delight, singing and flag waving. Players are fist-pumping, yelling and high-fiving. Don’t expect the usual atmosphere for golf here.
This is special for the players. They spend an entire year trying to qualify for the team, and get to be a part of something special. They take extra pride that they are representing their countries.
Los Angeles sports fans have the reputation of having a blase attitude toward their local teams. But when it comes to the gridiron showdown between USC and UCLA, fans are anything but blase. The intensity hits another level. Not only does the Southern California region stand up and take notice, so do college football fans across the country.
This crosstown rivalry has been thriving for decades. Some of the greatest football players and finest teams of all time have played in this rivalry. Typically, a trip to a major bowl game is at stake — the Trojans and Bruins have combined to win or share 54 conference championships. And in the case of a failing season, you can believe both teams have played the spoiler role very well.
Former UCLA coach Red Sanders said it best about this rivalry: "Beating 'SC is not a matter of life or death. It's more important than that."
Most rugby teams love the opportunity to beat England, which makes it the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees of European rugby. You either love them or hate them. First on the list for hatred toward England rugby is its neighbor, Wales.
The proximity of the two countries automatically makes this matchup a superb grudge match. The two have been going after each other since 1881. It begins with a war of words off the field. Both sides have no problem talking it up before their matches. On the field, it’s a fight to see who will have bragging rights over the other.
Alex Bywater of the Irish Examiner says this about the rivalry: "For those born both sides of the Severn Bridge, it’s a match which generates something different to any other encounter; it raises patriotic fervour to new heights, causes you to sing that anthem just that little bit louder, and most importantly of all, leaves you praying your side comes out on top."
We’ve talked about some of the great rivalries around the world, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more intense, bitter rivalry than India and Pakistan in cricket. Violence has surrounded this rivalry since the first test series between the two in 1951-52. Two wars halted play between the two countries from 1962 to 1977.
Somehow, that did not diminish this rivalry. The popularity of these matches is astounding due to the rising fan base in the region, where as many as a billion viewers have tuned in to one of their games. However, things are so intense with both nations that often these matches are played on neutral sites. Players themselves can be under threat if they lose.
The two nations are scheduled to meet up again on Sept. 19 in the Asia Cup in Dubai. We encourage you to tune in and see what this great rivalry means.
Celtics-Rangers (Glasgow, Scotland), Soccer
This Celtic-Rangers rivalry is called “The Old Firm,” and it literally splits Scotland due to the religious and political differences. Both clubs are based in Glasgow, which really makes for a cozy relationship.
These two clubs know what winning is all about, and their showdowns in title matches have become legendary over the years. Both Celtic and Rangers clubs have a combined 103 Scottish League championships, 71 Scottish Cups and 44 Scottish League Cups.
While you have spirited play on the field, the spirit (or insanity) from the fans often goes over the top. Acts of violence and vandalism have taken place — alcohol may have been involved.
At the end of this past season, the Rangers announced they were cutting ticket allocation to Celtic fans, and the Celtic club is expected to do the same. How that plays out from this point forward is anyone’s guess.
Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson, Golf
You might think one of golf’s biggest rivalries has died. Tiger Woods has had personal and physical problems, and Phil Mickelson’s game isn’t always, shall we say, up to par. Don’t let that fool you for a moment. The Tiger-Phil rivalry might be a little doormat right now, but it’s still there among golf fans.
Look at how fans follow Tiger and Phil on the golf course. Their daring play on the golf course still makes them the two biggest attractions. Tiger has been in the mix recently, and when he does something spectacular, the gallery explodes. And fans wait to see Phil pull off another amazing shot. Tiger and Phil grabbed our hearts during their heydays, and that still hasn’t changed.
If Tiger and Phil are not golf’s best rivalry, why were they offered and agreed to play for $9 million on Thanksgiving weekend in Las Vegas? Why is that not going to, say Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas? Because it’s Tiger and Phil. They are the crowd favorites and two of the most spectacular players ever to tee it up on a golf course.
LeBron James-Stephen Curry, Basketball
Over the last four NBA seasons, the standouts have been the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. They have participated in one of the most spirited rivalries in league history. Yet, with such team rivalries, there’s usually an underlying individual grudge match taking place. That was between Steph Curry and LeBron James.
Now that James has signed with the Lakers, it appears the Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry could be dying off. The real rivalry, however, will live on, and that’s between LeBron and Steph. Let’s be honest. They were the two players (begging Kevin Durant’s forgiveness) who made the Warriors-Cavs rivalry the main attraction. Now, they play each other in the same division, and that gives this little grudge match a new dynamic.
When it comes to NBA title rings, Steph and LeBron have cornered the market the past four seasons. LeBron on the Lakers should reignite a doormat California rivalry between the Warriors and purple and gold.
Get ready. Steph vs. LeBron. We get to see a new chapter unfold, and that should excite any NBA fan.
Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer, Tennis
One of the longest rivalries in tennis history is moving right along. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been fighting it out since they first played in 2004, and they still are regarded as two of the top players today.
Throughout history, tennis has been loaded with personal rivalries. McEnroe vs. Borg, Martina vs. Chris, Serena vs. Venus, Agassi vs. Sampras. Federer, 37, and Nadal, 32, are definitely in this class or beyond. They have combined for 37 major championships in their great careers, and they have played each other 38 times, with Nadal winning 23 of those matches.
The highlights for these two came with two matches at Wimbledon, a five-set thriller that went to Federer in 2007. The next year, a four-hour, 48-minute classic went to Nadal as darkness set in. That’s what we call two rivals going toe-to-toe.
Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby, Hockey
Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby arrived on the NHL scene on similar paths. Ovechkin was the top pick in 2004, and Crosby was the top pick in 2005. A lot was expected from both players, and they did not disappoint.
The 2004-05 season was wiped out due to a labor dispute ,so they both were rookies in 2005, and they were the last rookies to both reach the 100-point mark in the same season. Ovechkin edged Crosby for top rookie honors that year, but that was only the beginning of their ongoing grudge matches.
Crosby has won more Stanley Cup titles (3) than Ovechkin (his first in 2018), but their amazing styles on the ice make them the top two players in the NHL. And they have had some incredible showdowns, such as when they both had hat tricks against each other in the same game in a memorable playoff matchup in 2009.
Sure, there are plenty of team rivalries in the NHL, but as far as two individuals going at it, there’s nothing like Ovechkin and Crosby.
Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo, Soccer
Argentina forward Lionel Messi and Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo give soccer fans an amazing rivalry. When you consider they are perhaps the two greatest players to ever walk on a soccer field, you can believe their matchups on the field are something special to watch.
They have both scored more than 600 goals each for their country and clubs. Their popularity soars as they are two of the most followed athletes on social media, and their contracts are among the world’s richest among athletes.
Experts say what separates Messi and Ronaldo from other players is that their desire to succeed is unmatched, their leadership on the field is second to none, and they deliver when it counts.