Greatest rivalries in sports

Rivalries are a part of what makes sports great. Whenever two teams, athletes or groups of fans who have animosity battle it out, the intensity on the court or in the ring is exciting, giving the games more meaning. Even fans who do not root for the two teams squaring off can enjoy a little extra excitement when a rivalry is renewed.

Sporting rivalries can span years, decades and even centuries and the ways in which they have been covered and reported has changed considerably over time. The advancements in modern technologies mean the coverage of these rivalries is taking place across many different formats, bringing fans even closer to the events. 

That’s why it’s important that modern sports journalists can cover news on both traditional and digital platforms. An online sports journalism degree program, such as the one offered by St. Bonaventure University, provides students with the necessary skills they will need to be successful in the industry. 

Keep scrolling as this article outlines sporting rivalries that have spawned history’s most controversial and talked-about moments.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics

Some rivalries stand the test of time. Such is the case for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers dates back to the start of the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Even before the NBA’s golden age, both franchises had already enjoyed significant success, producing teams that became legendary dynasties. Whether the Celtics or Lakers are title contenders in a specific season or headed for the lottery, the heated rivalry between these two teams has stood the test of time, and for a good reason.

Boston and Los Angeles have established the ideal foundational component for hated rivals: success at one another’s expense. As per Basketball Reference, the Celtics and Lakers have faced one another in the NBA Finals a dozen times, the earliest being in 1959 when the latter was still in Minneapolis.

The Celtics manhandled Los Angeles in the 60s, beating them five times in the finals. Boston then managed to add three more titles at the expense of the Lakers in the next two decades. However, after playing second fiddle and losing eight consecutive finals to the Celtics, the Lakers finally solved the puzzle and knocked their rival down a peg in 1985.

For the first time in their illustrious history, the Celtics lost the championship in Boston. The 1985 title win started Los Angeles winning three out of its last four NBA Finals matchups against the Celtics. While the Celtics still lead the overall series 9-3, both teams have 17 titles.

The Celtics and Lakers have created several heroes and villains who took center stage in their battles. This included the infamous Kevin McHale’s clothesline on Kurt Rambis in 1984, the Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell rivalry and the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson standoff. These moments are the essential fabric of what makes the Celtics-Lakers rivalry among the best.

FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid FC

Like the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, the animosity between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid FC has existed for a long time. Famously known as “El Clasico,” the rivalry between these two squads dates back to 1902. Unlike the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, this fixture carries a large-scale political battle as Madrid is Spain’s capital and largest city. At the same time, Barcelona is the largest capital city of the autonomous region of Catalonia, which currently seeks independence from Spain.

The two clubs represent two political positions, with Real Madrid fighting for Spanish nationalism, while Barcelona is going for Catalan nationalism. As of this writing, over 280 matches have been played, with FC Barcelona winning the initial encounter on May 13, 1902, 3-1. However, Real Madrid holds the record for most wins in official matches with 101, while Barcelona has registered 120 wins for total games, including exhibition fixtures.

The rivalry extends to the players, making the battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona much more exciting. With the arrival of Alfredo Di Stefano and Laszlo Kubala in the 1950s, both teams became the most important European clubs of that era. During Di Stefano and Kubala’s time, El Clasico was played 26 times, with Real Madrid registering 13 wins, while Barcelona recorded 10 victories. Di Stefano found the back of the net 14 times, while Kubala scored four goals in those matches.

The rivalry between these two squads intensified into the modern era after Barcelona signed Lionel Messi and Real Madrid poached Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. The battle between Messi and Ronaldo has been the most competitive in El Clasico’s checkered history, with both players being their clubs’ leading scorers.

Between 2009 and 2018, Ronaldo and Messi broke many club records and alternated as top scorers in La Liga and the Champions League. During this time, the Argentinian star bagged the European Golden Shoe five times, while Ronaldo won thrice. Messi also won the Ballon d’Or five times and Ronaldo four times.

After nearly a decade of playing with one another, Messi and Ronaldo have recorded over 900 La Liga goals, including 38 in El Clasico matches. Both players also played a significant role in helping their clubs register the most points in La Liga History, with 100 points in the 2011-12 season for Real Madrid and 100 points in the 2012-13 season for Barcelona.

While Ronaldo and Messi are no longer playing in La Liga, the rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona still burns brighter heading into the modern era, with Karim Benzema leading the former and the Polish striker Robert Lewandowski spearheading the latter’s attack. 

New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox

For nearly a century, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox have worked to beat one another. In fact, the rivalry between the teams is highlighted by intense brawls.

Now, you might ask how these teams started hating one another. After all, Boston is miles away from New York. The reality is the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry did not get any traction until the late 1930s. In fact, during the first two decades of the 20th century, wherein the Red Sox bagged five world championships, the Yankees were nowhere to be seen.

However, in the next two decades, New York won eight world titles, while Boston took the backseat and found itself in unfamiliar territory. But things changed in 1938 when Boston regained its old form, and New York was the reigning champion.

On May 30, 1938, over 83,000 people entered the Old Yankee Stadium to watch the Memorial Day doubleheader and witnessed the most action-packed episode of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Up 7-0 in the fourth inning of their initial encounter, Yankees star outfielder Jake Powell was hit with a fastball by then-Boston reliever Archie McKain. Although he missed the initial target, McKain hit Powell in the thigh on the second one.

However, it is worth noting that the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees was sown as early as the 1920s when Boston sold Babe Ruth to New York for a measly $125,000. With Ruth, the Red Sox won three world titles but did not win again until 2004 after trading him. During that time, the Yankees bagged 26 titles.

The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry took a notch higher in 2003 when the teams played each other in the American League Championship Series (ACLS). Aaron Boone hit a home run in the 11th inning of a do-or-die Game 7 that helped New York win.

Boston and New York crossed paths again in the ACLS the following year, but this time the latter took a 3-0 series lead, which put them a win away from making it into the world championship. However, the Red Sox pulled a miracle of biblical proportions when it won the next four games to make it to the World Series. They were the first team in sports history to win a seven-game series after being down 3-0 and eventually won the world championship for the first time since 1918.

Fresh off their title win, Boston faced New York in April 2005, wherein both teams recorded the longest nine-inning game in Major League Baseball history, finishing the match at four hours and 45 minutes. This time, though, the Yankees won 14-11. With each team having its share of storied figures, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry remains one of the biggest sporting rivalries in the modern era.

Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier hated one another. These two elite fighters went after one another in and outside the ring during the golden years of boxing. Ali and Frazier delivered timeless classics like the “Fight of the Century” and “Thrilla in Manila” from New York to the Philippines. The narrative was if you hated Ali, you loved Frazier. If you loved Ali, you hated Frazier.

Dubbed the Fight of the Century or simply The Fight, Frazier scored an emphatic unanimous decision win over Ali during their first bout on March 8, 1971. It also marked Ali’s first official loss after coming into the fight with a spotless 31-0 win-loss record. With the victory, Frazier improved to 27-0, along with 23 knockouts.

Three years after their initial encounter, Ali and Frazier went at it again in Madison Square Garden on January 28, 1974. This time, though, Ali won via the 12th round unanimous decision. However, the victory was so close that it warranted a trilogy for all the marbles.

A year later, Frazier and Ali went head-to-head again, this time on international soil. Billed as the Thrilla in Manila, Ali destroyed Frazier and went on to win via the 14th-round corner stoppage in a match watched by roughly one billion viewers. The bout is regarded as one of the best and most intense fights in boxing history.

After beating Frazier, the Philippines’ first multi-level commercial shopping mall, known as “Ali Mall,” was named after Muhammad Ali as a tribute to his win. Ali Mall is situated in Araneta Center, right beside the location where Thrilla in Manila took place.

Even after Ali and Frazier have retired, both still throw jabs via the media. For instance, Frazier did not hold back with his comments when Ali was carrying the Olympic torch in 1996 while dealing with Parkinson’s disease. Although Ali and Frazier are opposites, they are ring equals and will forever be etched as two of the best to have ever done it.

Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

A list of the greatest sporting rivalries wouldn’t be complete without the decade-long battle between Swiss netter Roger Federer and Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal. Both players have faced one another 40 times, with Nadal winning 24 times, including 14 final victories. 

Nadal and Federer crossed paths 40 times; 20 were played on hard court, 16 on clay and four on grass. Federer has won three out of four on grass and 11 out of 20 on the hard court, while Nadal has won 14 of the 16 matches on clay. Both players have faced one another in the majors 14 times, with Nadal leading 10-4. The Spaniard leads 6-0 at Roland Garros and 3-1 at the Happy Slam, while Federer has beaten Nadal three out of four at Wimbledon.

Nadal is tied with Serbian star Novak Djokovic for most single titles in major tournaments with 22, while Federer is in third with 20. Between 2006 and 2008, Federer and Nadal contested every French Open and Wimbledon final.

Like others on this list, the rivalry has also set astonishing records. Nadal and Federer currently hold the record for the Most French Open finals played against each other in history. Conversely, Nadal holds the record for most French Open Finals appearances with 14, while Federer is the record-holder for most Wimbledon finals appearances with 12.

Unlike the rivalries in this list, the Nadal-Federer rivalry is rather friendly. Federer and Nadal crossed paths for the first time in March 204 in the third round of the Miami Masters. At 17 years old and then-ranked No. 34, Nadal pulled off an upset by dominating Federer in straight sets. Their last match was in the semifinal round of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships, wherein Federer won in four excruciating sets.


As highlighted in this article, rivalries make sport the great spectacle that it is and bring excitement to many audiences across the world. Some rivalries have developed over many years and the way in which they have been reported and discussed has also changed over time. Sports coverage will continue to adapt alongside the emergence of new rivalries.