The Most Iconic Sports Rivalries of All Time
Kobe and Shaq fueled each other to be the best—we can't say the same for everyone on this list.
To be the best on the field or court, you have to believe you're the best—and that mindset often leads to conflict. The stars in just about every league have clashed at one time or another, turning close games into history-making events. From Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant's notorious dynamic to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning's competitive relationship, these are the most explosive athletic rivalries—and in some cases, full-out feuds—of all time.
In 2000, there was definitely no love lost between Yankees star Roger Clemens and Mets Hall of Famer Mike Piazza—today people still debate whether the pitcher purposely beaned Piazza in the head with a fastball or not. The move gave the Mets player a concussion and took him out of the All-Star Game that year—something he wouldn't soon forget.
Just a few months later, their teams met again in the World Series. After a foul ball broke Piazza's bat, Clemens infamously picked up one of the shards and threw it in his direction, causing the benches to clear.
Piazza later revealed he took karate lessons before the game to prepare to fight Clemens, but backed out from fear of "getting my ass kicked in front of Yankee Stadium and the world," he revealed in his memoir, Long Shot
Steve Young and Joe Montana famously duked it out to see who would become the quarterback for San Francisco in the '88 season. Ultimately it was Montana who led the 49ers to Super Bowl victory.
Despite the awkwardness that came with feeling replaced by Montana, Young said they maintained a friendly relationship. "I give Joe a ton of credit, because despite all of the angst around it, we never had a cross word," Young revealed on NFL's A Football Life.
It was the feud that lit up the NBA in the late '90s and early '00s. A few years after becoming teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996, Shaquille O'Neal began accusing Kobe Bryant of selfish play. Reports at the time claimed O'Neal was jealous that Bryant's jersey was outselling his.
Things took a turn for the worse in the 2003-2004 season, when O'Neal told press "the full team is here" at training camp, despite Bryant not being present. After publicly exchanging more insults, the Lakers would go on to lose to the Detroit Pistons in five games in the NBA Finals that year.
To this day, there are rumors that Bryant forced the Lakers to choose between him and O'Neal. Although he denied it—and O'Neal later publicly said he believes his former teammate—nothing was more shocking than O'Neal's trade to Miami in 2004.
Once on separate teams, they began an unlikely friendship. After Bryant's tragic passing in 2020, O'Neal spoke at his service, sharing, "Make no mistake, even when folks thought we were on bad terms, when the cameras are turned off, he and I would throw a wink at each other and say let's go whoop some ass."
In 2013, the champs took their competitiveness off the court when Maria Sharapova began a relationship with Serena Williams' rumored ex-boyfriend, Bulgarian tennis player Grigor Dimitrov. Williams later told Rolling Stone: "She begins every interview with 'I'm so happy. I'm so lucky' – it's so boring. She's still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it."
Sharapova in turn hinted to the press that Williams was dating her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. "If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids," she said at the time in a pre-Wimbledon press conference.
When Sharapova released her memoir
As two of the best boxers to ever step into the ring, Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier's rivalry ran deep. In 1971, their "Fight of the Century" matchup turned ugly when Ali hurled a string of horrible insults Frazier's way. Frazier ended up defeating Ali, but their feud was far from over and it resulted in a series of fights.
Their 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" match got even more personal, with another exchange of nasty verbal jabs. Though Ali won, he later revealed he wanted to stop mid-fight because he thought he might not make it, calling Frazier the greatest fighter in history (besides himself, of course).
Ali later tried to apologize to Frazier and his family for his harsh words—claiming it was all said to promote their fights—but Frazier wasn't having it. They never reconciled before Frazier's passing in 2011. Ali still attended his former rival's funeral, before passing five years later in 2016.
Golf hasn't been the same since these two arrived on the scene. In 2019, their feud began when Brooks Koepka hinted at Bryson DeChambeau's slow pace while on the course, without mentioning him by name. The two talked it over, and seemingly squashed it—but not for long.
In 2020, Koepka posed nude for ESPN's The Body Issue. DeChambeau commented on it in a livestream, saying, "I don't know if his genetics even make him look good, to be honest. That Body Issue, he didn't have any abs, I can tell you that. I got some abs." Koepka retorted with a picture of four trophies, captioning the post, "You were right @b_dechambeau I am 2 short of a 6 pack!"
The pair have continued to tease each other on social media, crash each other's interviews, and publicly roll their eyes at one another. While they act more like siblings than actual rivals, fans love every moment.
If you haven't heard the story of soccer stars Mauro Icardi and Maxi Lopez, buckle up. To summarize: Icardi married his former teammate and friend's wife in 2014, then tattooed the names of her and Lopez's children onto his body.
In 2016, Icardi (who married Lopez's ex-wife two years prior) called his former teammate "ignorant" for refusing to shake his hand before a game. "Unfortunately, these things happen, it depends on the ignorance of certain people," he told Mediaset Premium (via ESPN), "I gave my hand, I am polite."
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—a.k.a. two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time—saved their rivalry for the field. For over a decade, all of their matchups were intense, competitive nail-biters. While Brady won 11 of their 17 head-to-head matchups, Manning took home the win three of four times they competed in the AFC Championship Game.
Peyton's little brother also had his fair share of games against Tom Brady, besting him in two Super Bowls—2008 and 2012—with the New York Giants. He never let him forget it, either. "I appreciate your generosity in at least sharing a few of those Super Bowls with me," Manning joked in a congratulatory video to Brady after he announced his retirement.
This wild story is one of the most intense feuds in Olympic history. After practice in the Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan in 1994, Nancy Kerrigan was brutally attacked with a metal baton. The man found to be behind it all? The husband of her biggest rival, Tonya Harding.
While everyone involved in the attack served jail time besides Harding, she pleaded guilty to the charge of "conspiracy to hinder prosecution." The skater was later stripped of her gold from the 1994 national championships and was banned from figure skating for life.
Ever since their 2005 debut, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have entertained NHL fans with a rivalry that has stood the test of time. For the first few years, both athletes—who are two of the best in the league—felt that the feud was mostly media-driven. That all changed in 2009.
In 2009, Crosby and Ovechkin faced off in a playoff series for the very first time. While Crosby ultimately led the Pittsburgh Penguins to victory that year, it was also the year their on-the-ice clashes became a common thing.
After years of trading shots back and forth, it all came to a boil in December 2018. After a controversial play, the two got into a yelling match, with Ovechkin challenging Crosby to a fight, saying, "Why don't you fight me? Stop talking."
It's 1997. The Cleveland Indians are three outs away from winning their first World Series since 1948. That's when reliever Jose Mesa gives up a leadoff single and sac-fly to the Marlins, costing them the game—and eventually the entire championship. Nobody was angrier than his teammate, shortstop Omar Vizquel.
In his autobiography
Mesa wasn't done just yet. "Even my little boy told me to get him. If I face him 10 more times, I'll hit him 10 times," he warned. The reliever lived up to his promise, purposely hitting Vizquel with a pitch every chance he got when they faced each other on different teams.
When Jeff Gordon arrived on the NASCAR scene in 1992, he was in his early 20s—and around 20 years younger than veteran Dale Earnhardt. That made for some fun bickering between the two top competitors. Earnhardt joked if Gordon won, he'd have to celebrate with milk instead of alcohol.
In 1995, Gordon—who took home the title of Cup Series champion that year—got revenge. "I would like to offer a toast to the man," he said at the NASCAR Awards as a champagne flute of milk was brought to the stage. "Dale, great effort, man. Here's some milk." Earnhardt was seen laughing before standing up to toast Gordon, making it clear no hard feelings remained.
As a Chicago native, it's been speculated that Isiah Thomas envied Michel Jordan for becoming the star of the Bulls—especially because he was also considered one of the greats. Thomas quickly became one of the only players who could keep up with Jordan on the court, and so their rivalry began.
During the 1985 All-Star Game, Thomas allegedly led a plan to stop the then-rookie Jordan from scoring, working with players like Magic Johnson and George Gervin. Although it's still widely debated whether or not this actually happened, it created even more tension between the players.
When Thomas was left out of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, no one was more surprised than Thomas himself. Though Jordan denied having anything to do with it, 2020's "The Dream Team Tapes" podcast revealed an old audio clip that suggested otherwise. "Rod Thorn called me. I said, 'Rod, I won't play if Isiah Thomas is on the team,'" Jordan could be heard saying.
As soccer's best of the best, the Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's rivalry is one of the biggest in sports. While it never seemed to get personal between the two—who leave it all out on the field—rumors have always swirled that they're not the biggest fans of each other.
Ronaldo denied the allegations, telling MARCA, "We don't have a relationship outside the world of football, just as we don't with a lot of other players." Messi echoed a similar sentiment, telling World Soccer magazine (via DailyMail), "We have no relationship, mainly because we only see each other at awards ceremonies and that's the only time we speak."
At 55 years old, Bobby Riggs came out of retirement in 1973 with guns blazing. Several highly offensive comments against women's tennis later, he challenged Wimbledon champ Billie Jean King to a match. She declined, and Margaret Court took her place. When Riggs won, it fueled King to change her mind.
King showed Riggs how it's done, defeating him by a landslide in front of 30,000 spectators and 50 million TV viewers. The match served as a huge inspiration for female athletes in every sport. Years later, the story was told in the 2017 film Battle of the Sexes
Janaya Wecker Lifestyle Editor Janaya is a Lifestyle Editor for Hearst Magazines.
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