Top Five Greatest Rivalries in Sports History - Rivalry Week

Some things never change, and in sports, rivalries remain the ageless component of any game. For many people, it’s the best part of athletics. Even if you feel no particular attachment to either team in play, the spirit and energy of a good rivalry gives the match-up momentum and makes for the most engaging of spectator entertainment.

Here are BTR’s picks for the top five greatest rivalries in sports history:

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees

The match-up of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees may be the most classic rivalry of all time, and as feisty as it gets between players, fans of the teams often create their own equally brutal enmity in the stands. It all boils down to a trade back in 1919, when the Red Sox turned over Babe Ruth to the Yankees and failed to win the World Series for the next 86 years. Meanwhile, the Yankees built a dynasty with their prized possession, and the so-called “Curse of the Bambino” lingered over the Boston skyline. In the ‘30s, it was Ted Williams of the Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees who furthered the clash, and with each passing decade, the best players seemed to divide up between the two teams. Nowadays, with trades common, the heated sentiment is felt more in the crowds. In fact, a college student died at a game in 2004 during fan revelry, and others have been arrested for starting fights.

Key moment: January 3, 1920 – The Red Sox sell Babe Ruth and other players to the Yankees for $125,000 cash and a $300,000 loan. Major mistake.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Duke Blue Devils

Every year, it never gets any tamer. Though the first match-up between the two teams was in 1920, the real Duke-Carolina rivalry dates to the 1960s, when a brawl on the court between two star players cemented the tension in stone. It peaked again in the ‘80s under the leadership of star coaches – Dean Smith for UNC and Mike Krzyzewski for Duke. That was also the Michael Jordan era in Chapel Hill, and UNC won its first national championship in 1982. Duke didn’t pull off the title till 1991. Ever since it’s been back and forth. Current tally: UNC – 5 [the most of any team]; Duke – 4.

Key moment: February 5, 1992 – One of Dick Vitale’s top 3, No. 9 North Carolina defeated No. 1 Duke in a match-up that ended with bloody players and a narrow victory for the Tar Heels.

“I remember seeing the blood streaming down Eric Montross’ face,” Vitale writes on ESPN. “That is something that will always stand out. The two schools are separated by eight miles down Tobacco Road. The intensity, emotion and passion are always on display and this rivalry will always be talked about for years. The blood and guts of Montross was something else…Tar Heels guard Derrick Phelps hit two huge free throws, and Christian Laettner missed a couple of shots that ended in defeat.”

Photo courtesy of Eric Kilby.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics

While it seems everyone is at odds with the Los Angeles Lakers, certainly the greatest tension falls between Southern Cali’s most agile and the Boston Celtics. It started when the Lakers were in Minneapolis in the 1950s, and a decade-long winning streak ended in 1959 when they lost to the Celtics in the finals. From there, it was on. The Lakers moved to L.A.; Boston won the finals almost every year between 1960 and 1970; and animosity between the players created on court pressure. When Magic Johnson went to the Lakers in the 1980s and Larry Bird to the Celtics, the rivalry hit an all-time high, and accordingly, no real fan can ever support both teams at once. It’s just not allowed. To date, the two teams have won the most championships in the NBA, the Celtics at 17 and the Lakers at 16.

Key moment: June 9, 1986, Game 4 of the NBA Finals – Lakers are down by a point at the end of the game when Magic Johnson makes the famous “sky hook.” With pressure on, the ball swooshes through the net, Lakers took a 107-106 lead with two seconds left to earn a 3-1 lead in the series and eventually win the championship.

Photo courtesy of Scott Stuart.

Ohio St. Buckeyes vs. Michigan Wolverines

Dubbed, “The Game,” the rivalry between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines means as much to many young athletes as their future careers in the pros, and is considered by ESPN to be the greatest rivalry in all of sports. One writer notes, “Both have been long-time college football powers, but it got even hotter in 1969, when Bo Schembechler took over as Michigan’s coach and upset Woody Hayes’ No. 1-ranked, undefeated Buckeyes.” The intense match-up was even the subject of an HBO documentary, The Rivalry, chronicling the history of the two universities’ battles since their initial meeting in 1897. It was the first college football documentary made by the network, and looked also at the cultural markers that celebrated the journey.

Key moment: 1922 – Ohio Stadium opened, and Michigan “spoiled the party with a 22-0 victory.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins

The Dallas Cowboys may have secretly been pulling for the Washington Redskins to beat the New York Giants this past week to help their standings, but historically, these two teams have always been at odds. The rivalry has been intensified by the fans, who grew deep hatred for one another and their opposing camps – as Sports Illustrated points out, the two have “hated each other since the series began in 1960,” and while both have had their ups and downs, they have continued to go at it 100 percent throughout the decades.

Key game: 1972 playoffs, NFC Championship game – The game was played in Washington, where the Redskins had previously defeated the Cowboys that season. Though the Cowboys were first on the board with a field goal, the Redskins soon scored a touchdown and held the lead for the rest of the game, winning the division and sending them to the Super Bowl.