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Forget Keane and Vieira: Here are the five greatest sporting rivalries

Keane and Vieira's little love-in this week got us debating sport's greatest rivalries in Power Tower this week. Here's the Blog's very own Amy Eustace with five of her favourites

by Amy Eustace | December 14, 2013

Time heals all wounds, so it’s hardly surprising that a great deal of the fire has waned from the Patrick Vieira/Roy Keane rivalry in the years since the pair have retired. So much so, that between reminiscing about their stadium tunnel bust-ups in the ‘Best of Enemies’ documentary on their relationship which aired earlier this week, the Frenchman and the Irishman found it in their hearts to say nice things about each other and how much respect they had for their adversary.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Rivalries and respect usually go hand in hand, and the best always hate each other a little bit. It’s the very nature of competition. On that note, here are some of sport’s greatest rivalries.


Tiger Woods v Phil Mickelson

For a non-contact sport, golf has had its fair share of spats. Frosty relationships on the course often don’t thaw out after the 18th hole is played. While they stop just short of Happy Gilmore versus Bob Barker, golfers can be as passive-aggressive as schoolgirls. Tiger Woods is the epicentre of most of these protracted rivalries, and while nobody will ever cause as much damage to his career (or his car) as his ex-wife, Phil Mickelson has had some harsh words and cold shoulders for his Ryder Cup teammate in the past moreso than most.

Mickelson drew first blood back in 2003, when he commented in a magazine interview that Woods was using ‘inferior’ equipment and claimed only he was good enough to overcome the equipment he was stuck with. Woods’ caddy claimed the pair didn’t get along in 2008. So, you can imagine no one was rubbing their hands together with more rueful glee than Mickelson when Woods’ career and likeability took a nosedive along with his marriage. Perhaps it’s the reason why in the last few years Mickelson has been able to even out the scoreline between the two when they’ve gone head to head.


Even though Rory McIlroy has carved out a place for himself as the heir apparent, his patent admiration for Woods makes that ‘rivalry’ fairly one-sided. There’s a sense on Mickelson’s end at least that playing against Woods makes him up his game considerably. Much like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer’s 1960s stand-offs, they motivate each other, but even though it’s been five years since Tiger last won a major, Mickelson (with five) still has a long way to go to equal his record of 14.

Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal

For a while it looked like there would never be a tennis player who could match Roger Federer. He dominated grass courts at a time when the stars of the game were beginning to fade. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi (another notable tennis rivalry) retired in 2002 and 2006 respectively, so there was a vacancy, and Federer wasted no time in assuming the throne. The Swiss won his first Grand Slam singles title in 2003 at Wimbledon at age 22, and for the following years, he was untouchable.


But then an incredibly athletic Spaniard by the name of Rafael Nadal won his first Grand Slam. It was 2005 and he was 19. By July of that year Nadal had risen to number 2 in the World Rankings. He matched Federer title for title in 2005 – they had 11 singles titles and 4 ATP Masters Series wins each that year – and bested him in the French Open final the following year. They faced each other in Wimbledon finals in 2006 and 2007 but Nadal couldn’t overcome the champion. In 2008, though, in what would go down as one of the greatest tennis matches in history, he beat Federer in five sets at Wimbledon and leapt into the number one spot in August.

Unlike Keane and Vieira and some of the other tense relationships on this list, Federer and Nadal’s dynamic is mostly good-natured, evidenced by this famous behind the scenes video from a promo they did for a charity game. The pair are a testament to the fact that you don’t need to constantly go at each other in the press, or off the field of play, to have a sense of intense competition. It certainly does help, though.


Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier

Three bouts between Ali and Frazier in the 1970s sealed this boxing match-up’s place as the sport’s greatest rivalry. The two boxers exist in history in terms of each other; these match-ups epitomised their respective careers, even though Ali’s heyday had come much earlier.

The first was dubbed ‘The Fight of the Century’, and while boxing promoters bandy those kinds of words about liberally, the billing stood the test of time. It matched an unbeaten former heavyweight champion against the unbeaten current champion. Ali had lost his title for refusing to join the army, and he was by all accounts ‘The People’s Champion’ instead, so the match-up took place against a backdrop of politics: patriotism versus realism.


Frazier won the bout, but it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of the rivalry. The two met again in 1974 in a non-title fight (Frazier having lost the crown to George Foreman the previous year) and Ali was the victor.

Frazier’s career was winding up and he had a cataract in his left eye, but he agreed to fight Ali once more. In October of 1975 they met in the Philippines and Ali won the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, and thus had the final word in the saga. The fight was one of the greatest in boxing history. A ludicrous display of will and determination, Ali later called it the “closest thing to dyin’ I know of”.

Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost

You get a distinct impression that this was one of the coldest relationships in sport. Prost and Senna’s competition manifested itself in many ways; as teammates, as rivals, sharing the podium and in crashes on the track. Disagreements between the two led to Prost deciding to leave McLaren to join Ferrari at the end of the 1989 season, but before he switched sides, Senna’s win at Suzuka, which he was stripped of due to a controversial decision, caused no end of animosity between the pair.

Senna accused the French FIA president of favouring his compatriot, Prost. Without the victory the Brazilian could not feasibly overcome his teammate and so, Prost won the 1989 title. Senna collided with Prost on the same track the following season to clinch the driver’s championship for himself. “What he did was disgusting,” Prost claimed. “He is a man without value.”


When McLaren became uncompetitive and Prost left Ferrari in a less-than-amicable fashion, they both wanted to join Williams. Prost got there first, but a clause in his contract forbade Williams from bringing in Senna as his teammate. Senna called the Frenchman a coward. But as Prost moved closer towards retirement, their relationship cooled somewhat, and Senna embraced his enemy on the podium at the 1993 Australian Grand Prix – Prost’s last race. Like so many of the rivalries on this list – Warrior and Hulk included – they spurred each other on, and made each other better competitors.

Prost was retired when Senna was tragically killed at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Their careers were so intertwined that Prost commented that “a part of himself had died also”. Following Senna’s state funeral in Brazil, Prost said that as a mark of respect for his fallen former teammate, he would “never get into a Formula One car again” and added that despite their tense relationship: “He was the only opponent I truly respected.”

Ultimate Warrior v Hulk Hogan

‘Professional wrestling’, with its unparalleled capacity for narrative, has turned just about every prize fight into a rivalry for the ages over its storied history. There was a lot of WWF on in my house growing up, and the Smackdown-du-jour then was undoubtedly between ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock. Who would’ve thought, back then, that The Rock was actually the Tooth Fairy the whole time?

Extra-curricular activities aside, the most colourful wrestling rivalry would have to be the dazzling lycra, hairspray and face-paint spectacle that was Hulk Hogan v Ultimate Warrior. Like two ageing hair rock band rejects on steroids in a fist-fight, the pair’s 1990 Wrestlemania clash somehow went down in history as one of the best. Hogan recently claimed he wanted to ‘turn heel’, defy the script, beat Warrior and be the best bad guy in WWF history, but Vince McMahon wouldn’t let him, setting the wheels in motion for another display of wrestling enmity. Hogan won the battle of notoriety, though, and is now as well known for his fairly disastrous MTV reality show as he was for his wrestling. But all credit to the Warrior; he really does a decent Phil Jones impression.

So, who’d make your list of greatest sporting rivalries?

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