Rivals push the world forward. They inspire to be your best, for no other reason than to ensure your rival isn’t. They drive us to achieve unattainable heights and stoop to unspeakable lows.
A rival is someone to whom you’re so intertwined, you’d probably be best friends if only you didn’t hate each other so much. Whether tied together by geography, division or mutual success, or drawn apart by international borders, dueling personalities or socioeconomic disparity, rivalries transcend the game and blur sports and society.
Below, we’ve presented the 20 best rivalries in sports (we think). If fan behavior is any indication, one aspect of this list is inarguable … you will choose to argue.
20. Syracuse vs. Georgetown (College Basketball)
Ever since John Thompson declared “Manley Field House is officially closed” on the house mic in 1980, Syracuse and Georgetown have a history of hate. The two were founding members of the Big East Conference, which helped turn college basketball into the modern spectacle it currently is. Exclusively presided over by Jim Boeheim and two generations of John Thompsons, the yearly home-and-home between the perennially ranked opponents draws the largest and most raucous crowds in college basketball’s most hotly contested conference.
19. Fenerbahce SK vs. Galatasaray SK (Club Football – Turkey)
I know what you’re saying. Who? These two football clubs from Istanbul are by far the most successful in the Turkish Super Lig, accounting for 17 league championships each, dating back to their first meeting in 1909. What else makes the rivalry hot? Though the two squads share the same city, they’re based in opposite continents. Fenerbahce calls Asia its home and Galatasaray plays in Europe, staring at each other from opposite sides of the Bosphorus. Also, the fans set the stadium on fire:
These two played more games against each other than any two in the NHL, in a rivalry that dates back to 1924. They’ve met for 159 games in the playoffs alone. The Canadiens’ Rocket Richard was suspended for the rest of the 1955 season for intentionally injuring Bruins forward Hal Laycoe, preventing Le Habs from winning the Stanley Cup. They battled for the Stanley Cup throughout the 70s, and in 1979 played a Game 7 that goes down as one of the most memorable in hockey history. The rivalry retained its relevance through the 80s and today, with both squads taking up residence in the NHL’s Northeast Division and meeting occasionally in the playoffs.
Dating back to 1933, this back-and-forth rivalry is the most prominent and heated of all the New York – Philadelphia sports rivalries (which includes Phillies-Mets, Rangers-Flyers and Sixers-Knicks) and continues to get better with age. The two teams have met three times in the postseason since 2001. The oldest rivalry in the NFC East, tensions boiled to a head in 1960, when the Giants’ Frank Gifford was infamously forced into an 18-month retirement after being blindsided by the Eagles’ Chuck Bednarik.
16. Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (Hockey)
Canada’s two largest cities hold two of the NHL’s Original Six. The two teams are also by far the two most popular teams in Canada in any sport, and representative of Canada’s longstanding disputes between Anglophones vs. Francophones. The Canadiens and Leafs have met 15 times in the playoffs, with Montreal winning eight to Toronto’s seven. The rivalry spilled over into battles over television coverage, as Montreal fans feel slighted that Toronto-based CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada regularly features the Leafs, not the Canadiens, as the early game.
15. FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid (Club Football – Spain)
“El Clasico”, as its called, pits the two most successful Spanish football clubs and two largest Spanish cities against each other in Spain’s top-level La Liga. The rivalry is a sports embodiment of the centuries-old feud between separatist Catalans and nationalist Castilians. The two clubs also differ philosophically, with Real Madrid’s free-spending on high-priced transfers, and Barcelona valuing chemistry and fluidity over star-power.
The hardest-hitting, most intense rivalry in American sports plays twice annually in what usually amounts to a battle for AFC North supremacy. These two typically field the toughest, most bone-crunching players in the NFL, adding an extra layer of grit and heat. Though the rivalry is relatively new (The Ravens were an expansion team in 1996), it’s more than made up for lost time. Terrell Suggs once put a bounty on Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward’s head, and the two squads played three games in 2008 where less than two yards would have shifted the series from a Steelers sweep to a Ravens sweep.
The first series between the two teams produced no winner, and a rivalry was born. The I-55 series (and, before that, the Route 66 series, as the rivalry dates back to 1885) is one of the most evenly-matched regular-season rivalries in baseball. The Cubs lead, having won just over 51% of the over 2,100 games played. The teams have accounted for 33 NL Pennants between them (the Cards have 17, the Cubs 16). The McGwire-Sosa home run chase in 1998 only helped to intensify the rivalry, as the two players became the focus of baseball all summer. One measure is distinctly lopsided, however, as the Cardinals have won 9 world series titles since the Cubs won their last, in 1908.
Combining for 21 NFL Titles and 48 members of the NFL Hall of Fame, the oldest rivalry in American Football began in 1921 and has spanned 180 games. Amazingly, the two teams have met just once in the postseason, but that hasn’t stopped the blood from spilling. The rivalry peaked in 1986 when Green Bay DT Charles Martin wore a towel with a hit list of specific Bears jersey numbers on it, including #9 Bears QB Jim McMahon. After Jimmy Mac threw an interception, Martin body-slammed him to the turf, ending McMahon’s season and earning himself what was at the time the longest suspension in NFL History.
The battle commenced long before the teams’ first meeting in 1897. During 1835 and 1836, Michigan and Ohio engaged in a border dispute called the “Toledo War”, and a rivalry between two Midwestern states was born. Dating back to 1935, the last weekend of the college football season has belonged to Michigan and Ohio State, with the game deciding the Big Ten Championship 22 times between themselves, and affecting the outcome of the conference title an additional 25 times. The Snow Bowl. Woody. Bo. The Ten Years War. John Cooper’s ineptitude followed by Jim Tressel’s dominance. And all that was just a precursor to the “Game of the Century”, the final tilt of the 2006 season which pit the two 11-0 teams, ranked #1 and #2, against each other for the right to play the for the national title.
Cowboys and Indians. A rivalry as old as the frontier itself. Combining for 31 division titles and 10 NFL championships, the two current wealthiest franchises in America’s richest sport, the hatred started before Dallas even had its own team. Peep this story:
In 1958 Texas oilman Clint Murchison thought he was finally closing in on his dream of bringing pro football to Dallas. Two previous attempts to purchase teams had failed, but now word reached Murchison that Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was eager to sell his club. Just as the sale was about to be announced, Marshall demanded a change in terms. Murchison told him to go to hell and canceled the deal.
Marshall also had a falling out with Barnee Breeskin, the Redskin band director who had written the music to the Redskins fight song. Breeskin approached Murchison’s lawyer Tom Webb and asked if he’d like to buy the rights to “Hail to the Redskins.” Webb agreed, paying $2,500. He figured this would at least be good for an occasional joke on Marshall.
Meanwhile, feeling abused by Marshall, Murchison decided that his best chance of owning a team was to start one himself. In that endeavor he got support from the chairman of the NFL expansion committee, George Halas. Halas agreed to put the proposition of a Dallas franchise before the NFL owners. Unanimous approval would be required for the proposition to pass.
As the meeting approached, every owner but one was in favor of the proposal. The holdout? George Preston Marshall. Marshall knew that he had strong fan loyalty in the South and was afraid of losing it to Dallas. So he told the other owners he would not vote for a Dallas franchise.
But then Marshall found out that Murchison owned the rights to his song. When word of Murchison’s “dirty trick” leaked out, a deal was struck. For Marshall’s approval of the Dallas franchise, Murchison returned the song. Thus, Murchison’s Cowboys were free to be born.
9. Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer (Men’s Tennis)
Federer and Nadal are the only two players to finish five consecutive years at No. 1 and No. 2 in the ATP men’s tennis rankings. Since Nadal finally passed Federer for No. 1 in 2008, after spending an ATP record 160 weeks at No. 2, Nadal and Federer have tossed the No. 1 ranking between the themselves ever since. The two have met in 17 tournament finals and seven Grand Slam finals, with Nadal leading the head-to-head series 14-7. The two played in what’s widely considered the greatest tennis match ever, the 2008 Wimbledon final, which Nadal won 6–4, 6–4, 6–7(5), 6–7(8), 9–7 in a five hour marathon. They’ve combined to capture 21 of the past 23 Grand Slam titles, a run of dominance never before seen in men’s tennis.
Manning vs. Brady. Who ya got? The most important current rivalry in sports from a recent success standpoint centers on the two quarterbacks. They’ve combined for five of the past seven MVP awards, four of the past seven Super Bowl Championships, and have met nearly annually in the regular and/or postseason, in many cases to determine the class of the AFC. Brady won six in a row against the Colts until the 2008 AFC Championship game, when the Colts came back from 18 down to win 38-35. Division opponents from 1970-2001, the rivalry never caught fire until both teams found success after realignment placed the Pats and Colts in separate divisions. Since 2002, the series is tied 5-5, and the two teams separated by just six points scored.
For over 100 years, the Sox and Yanks have played the most heated rivalry in all of American sports. The two most storied franchises in baseball met twice in the last series of the season to decide the AL pennant (prior to baseball having divisions), three times in the ALCS since 1999, and in 1978, the two teams squared off in a memorable one-game playoff for the division title. You can’t say the names Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone in Boston without getting cold-cocked. The two teams have split the season series 9-9 in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The Curse of the Bambino. The Bloody Sock. The Alex Rodriguez bidding war. The Impossible Dream. Williams vs. Dimaggio. Mantle vs. Yaz. A-Rod vs. Varitek. Pedro vs. Don Zimmer. Red Sox pitchers plunking Derek Jeter. The players hate each other. The owners hate each other. The fans hate each other. These are the Hatfields and McCoys of American sports.
33 NBA titles. 52 NBA finals appearances. East vs. West. Grit vs. Glitz. The two most storied franchises (by a LOT, the two teams account for over half of the NBA’s championships) have an odd rivalry, based almost entirely on meeting in the NBA Finals, which they’ve done 12 times. The Celtics won the first eight until Magic’s Lakers bested Bird’s Celtics in 1985. Since then, the Lakers have won three of four. The rivalry’s been renewed since the “Big 3” Celtics and Kobe Lakers met twice in the past three seasons to determine the title again. They’ve split those contests; the Celtics winning in ’08 and the Lakers winning in ’10. It’s been proposed the rivalry of the 80s was the basketball manifestation of a race war, with the Celtics’ unusually high number of Caucasian players, and the Lakers’ predominantly African-American squad.
5. North Carolina vs. Duke (College Basketball)
Two academically superior schools, one public, one private; separated by eight miles of 15-501 and just a couple shades of blue on the swatch. Both are home to two of the five best college basketball teams of all time. Over the past 126 meetings (dating back 50 years), at least one of the schools was ranked in the AP Top 25, of which they’ve both been ranked in 66 of them. The Dean and Coach K combined to win over 1500 games while coaching the two teams (and, in Coach K’s case, still counting). Amazingly, Duke and UNC have never met in the NCAA tournament, but that hasn’t stopped their games from having a tournament-like atmosphere.
4. Alabama vs. Auburn (College Football)
The Iron Bowl is North America’s best rivalry. Starting in 1893, the series was played under perpetual dispute between the coaches and programs, leading to a suspension of the series in 1907. Forty years later, it took a resolution from the Alabama House of Representatives to end the disagreement and bring the two schools back together, as they agreed to play the games in Birmingham until 1989, roughly half-way between the two schools. Starting in the 80’s, Auburn and Alabama regularly built additions to their stadiums in an attempt to one-up the other in stadium capacity. The rivalry divides a state completely devoid of pro sports. The Iron Bowl has been broadcast nationally since 1964, and with Auburn currently sitting at #1 and Alabama at #7, this year’s installment might the biggest yet.
3. Liverpool vs. Manchester United vs. Chelsea vs. Arsenal (Club Football – England)
Wait a minute, there’s four teams here. How is this a rivalry?
- Since 1995, only one of these four teams has won the English Premier League championship
- Since 1998, only one of these four teams has finished runner-up
- Since 1996, one of these four teams has finished in third place 13 times
- The four teams account for 53 English Football championships, with Manchester United and Liverpool totaling 18 a-piece.
- Liverpool dominated the 70s and 80s, Man U the 90s and 2000s, and Arsenal’s won all 13 of their titles post-1930.
- Chelsea’s won 3 titles since 2005, and finished runner-up in the years they did not win
In short, if you’re not playing for one of these four teams … you might as well not play English Football. The four-team round-robin is the most engaging psuedo-knockout tourney in pro sports, with each team regularly battling each other for Top-of-the-Table Supremacy.
2. India vs. Pakistan (Cricket)
The bloodiest, bitterest rivalry in sports occurs in a game most Americans (myself included) can’t begin to understand, yet everyone knows the history between the two countries. Since the Partition of India in 1947, birthing the nation of Pakistan, the two sides have disputed borders, religious ideals and diplomatic policy ever since. Since the last cease-fire between the two countries in 1971, the cricket rivalry ballooned in lieu of real war. The teams have threatened to boycott matches against each other. Players homes have been burned after losses. Players have been burned in effigy. Matches between the two countries generally draw 700 million television viewers across the world. The two teams have played 59 test matches, of which 38 have ended in a draw.
1. Celtic vs. Rangers (Club Football – Scotland)]
The Old Firm is the end-all be-all of sports rivalries, taking on a contextual significance that dwarfs logic and reason. Since 1888, the two teams have combined for 67 Scottish Cups and 95 League Championships, and since 1996 the two teams finished in the top two of their league every year except once, when Rangers finished third. The two teams have played 389 matches, with Rangers leading the series 156-140, with 93 draws. The two clubs share a city (Glasgow, Scotland) and have divided supporters around the world. The rivalry is enhanced by added elements such as religion (Catholic v. Protestant), and Northern-Ireland politics (Republican v. Loyalist). In 1980, fans fought on-pitch following a Celtic 1-0 win, resulting in alcohol being banned from football grounds in Scotland. Players and refs have often been pelted with objects from the stands, and in 1999, a missile was shot from the crowd, striking a referee. Supporters routinely come to blows with each other at games, in bars and on Old Firm weekends, hospital visits increase by 900% above normal. A 12-seat buffer, sealed off by hundreds of security guards, separates fans of the two teams.