The Most Epic Sports Rivalries
Things get ugly every time these teams face off!
While all sports are competitive, there are some rivalries that stand out above all the rest. From dueling football franchises to feuding baseballers to elite college opponents, it seems every league of American athletics boasts at least a few pair of teams that really have it out for each other. And the stakes are never higher (or the fans more amped!) than when it finally comes time for them to face off.
But of the many sports rivalries that have kept us glued to our seats over the years, which are the most memorable? Here’s a look at the most epic team feuds in American sports history.
New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox
This legendary baseball rivalry dates back over a century, but it really intensified with the trade of MLB star Babe Ruth in 1919. At the time, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee decided to sell Ruth to the Yankees as a means of financing the Broadway musical, “No, No, Nanette.” What he couldn’t have predicted is that Ruth’s arrival in New York would coincide with the start of a history-making winning streak for the Yankees. As the Yanks went on to win 26 World Series from 1920 through 2003 (including four wins during Ruth’s years), 1918 would mark the Red Sox’s last championship for 86 years.
This abrupt turn in fortune has become known as the “Curse of the Bambino,” and though the Red Sox eventually broke their long period of losses, the strained relations between these two teams — and their fandoms — continue to surface on and off the field.
Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Michigan Wolverines
These storied college football teams have been facing off against each other annually since 1918. The yearly event alternates between Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio, with the latter hosting in odd years and the former hosting in even. The competition between the two has remained fierce over the years, particularly since many of the games since the 1970s have determined the Big Ten Conference title and the resulting Rose Bowl Game matchups.
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier
Unlike some of the other feuds on this list, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s ugly rivalry didn’t just stem from good old-fashioned competitiveness, but from a deep and genuine dislike for one another. Much to the delight of boxing fans, the two got to (literally) fight it out. The athletes faced off in the ring three times, with the Thrilla in Manila marking their final boxing match. A record global television audience of 1 billion viewers tuned in to watch Ali win the three-round bout, 2-1.
Duke Blue Devils vs. North Carolina Tar Heels
The rivalry between these two elite college basketball teams is fierce and often considered one of the most intense in all of U.S. sports. Located just a few miles from each other, both schools boast their own super passionate fanbases — which means every time they face off against each other, the stands look (and sound) like something straight out of a Hollywood movie. Both universities are also considered highly prestigious but boast very different cultures, which only adds to the contention between the two.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
As the two most storied franchises in the NBA, it’s no wonder these teams don’t exactly get along. The Lakers and the Celtics have faced off a whopping 12 times in the NBA Finals, starting in 1959. Both of them also dominated the league in the 1960s and 1980s, with their rivalry reaching new heights under the leadership of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, respectively. The two teams have won the highest number of championships in the NBA, with the Celtics winning 17 and the Lakers winning 16.
Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus
Considered to be golf’s greatest rivalry, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus endured a tense competition between each other for over three decades. Both thrived on and off the golf course in different ways; while Nicklaus swept major trophies and won 18 majors in all, Palmer was widely beloved by fans and was the first golfer to ever reach $1 million in match earnings. But their rivalry didn’t always remain so tense. In the years before Palmer’s death in 2016, the two actually became close friends.
Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers
While not the longest continuous rivalry in the NFL, the competition between the Bears and the Packers is the most-played in the league; it consists of 198 regular and post-season games, dating back to 1921. The Packers surpassed the Bears in 2017 for the first time since 1932, currently leading 97–95–6. The two teams have also faced off twice in the NFL playoffs, with each winning one game.
Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Auburn Tigers
If you live in Alabama, you’re either a Crimson Tide or a Tigers fan, period. There’s no in between — and for good reason. This fiery rivalry dates back to 1893, and the two elite football teams continue to face off once a year in the Iron Bowl. It’s one of the most highly anticipated events in college sports and also one of the most heated among both fans and players. Out of the entire series, Alabama currently leads 45-35-1.
Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The bitter rivalry between the Cubs and the Cardinals, also known as the Route 66 rivalry, is one of the most talked-about not only in the MLB but in all of American sports. The feud has remained strong since the late 19th century, with the two teams facing each other over 2,000 times. Though the Cardinals just barely edge out the Cubs in NL pennants (19-17, respectively), the St. Louis team has a clear victory in World Series, with 11 championships to the Cubs’ 3.
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants
One of the longest-standing rivalries in American baseball is that between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. The fierce competition between the two teams dates back all the way to the late 1800s when both clubs were based in New York. Given that the respective cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco also tend to compete economically and culturally, their rivalry only intensified following their move to California. The Dodgers and Giants are tied for most National League Pennants at 23. However, the Giants have more total wins and World Series titles (8-6) in franchise history.
New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat
Another notable rivalry in NBA history: the Miami Heat vs. the New York Knicks. The two teams faced each other in the playoffs for four years in a row from 1997–2000. All of these series were marked by aggressive physical play, numerous foul calls, and late-game strategy that left every game down to the wire. Of these series, the Knicks won three and the Heat won one. Most recently, the Knicks and Heat met again in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, which the Heat eventually won.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins
The feud between the Cowboys and the Redskins is arguably the most heated in the entire NFC East division. Their rivalry can be traced back to 1961, when the Cowboys first joined the league as an expansion team. Since then, the two NFL teams have played each other every regular season. The Cowboys currently lead the series, with a record of 71–43–2.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Nicknamed the “Battle of Pennsylvania,” the rivalry between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers is a fierce one that dates back over 50 years. Introduced in 1967 as expansion teams, both clubs quickly became entangled in cutthroat competition, fueled by their geographical proximity. In the last decade, the Flyers and the Penguins have also met in the Stanley Cup playoffs four times from 2008 to 2018, only adding to the tension between the two teams. Basically, every time these teams have to face off, you can be sure things are going to get ugly.
Harvard Crimson vs. Yale Bulldogs
The Harvard and Yale football teams face off annually in an event known by loyal fans as simply “The Game.” Considered by many to be the most outstanding athletic contest between universities, The Game is one of the most-played rivalries in NCAA Division I. Yale currently leads the series 67–60–8.
Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding
There was no bigger story of the 1994 Olympics than that of skating rivals Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. The two made international headlines after Harding’s ex-husband orchestrated an attack on Kerrigan before the first ladies’ singles competition. Despite the attack, both women went on to compete, with Kerrigan taking home the silver medal and Harding finishing eighth. Harding was later banned from the U.S. Figure Skating Association for life. The whole saga was widely covered in magazines, newspapers and tabloids and has since been dramatized in film multiple times — most recently, in 2017’s “I, Tonya.”
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens first faced off in 1996, kicking off one of the NFL’s most notorious rivalries. The teams have played each other at least twice a year ever since, often battling for supremacy in the AFC North division. Since the beginning of their matchups, both the Steelers and the Ravens have won two Super Bowls, making them the only two teams in the AFC North to do so. They have also faced off in the postseason four times, with the Steelers leading 3-1.
UCLA Bruins vs. USC Trojans
With two Division I teams located within 12 miles of each other in Los Angeles, there’s bound to be plenty of competition. Their rivalry is fueled by students from each college, who often engage in pranks in the lead-up to a big game. Of the all-time series, USC currently leads 47–32–7.
Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal make up one of the great rivalries in tennis history. The two have played each other 39 times, most recently at the semifinals of the 2019 French Open. Nadal currently leads in both Grand Slam and French Open wins (10-3 and 6-0, respectively), but Federer comes out on top 2-1 in Wimbledon victories. One tournament where the two have yet to meet in the final: the U.S. Open.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
Though these two teams have played each other regularly since the 1970s, their competitiveness didn’t turn into a full-blown rivalry until the 2010s. Starting in 2014, the teams faced off in four consecutive NBA Finals, with the Warriors winning three championships (2015, 2017 and 2018) and the Cavaliers taking home one (2016). Prior to their 2014 matchup, no other NBA teams had ever faced each other in more than two consecutive Finals. Their series streak ended during the 2018-2019 season when the Cavaliers missed the playoffs following LeBron James’ move to the Lakers.
Shaquille O’Neal vs. Kobe Bryant
Any team with two megastar athletes is bound to have some friction. That pretty much sums up the tension between former Lakers teammates Shaquille O’ Neal and Kobe Bryant. The two battled over leadership, resulting in an ongoing feud that eventually got O’Neal traded to the Miami Heat. But it seems the whole thing’s blown over. In 2018, over a decade after their clashes first made headlines, O’Neal publicly apologized to Bryant for his part in their quarrel.
Army Black Knights vs. Navy Midshipmen
The traditional game between the Black Knights and the Midshipmen has become one of the most enduring representations of the interservice rivalry in the U.S. Armed Forces. The annual event, occurring at the end of the regular college football season, has been nationally televised since 1945 and is often attended by the sitting president. Though both teams have enjoyed several periods of dominance throughout the long-running series, the Navy has held the longest winning streak, with 14 victories from 2002 through 2015. The Navy also leads the all-time series, with a record of 60–52–7.
Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have had a long and complicated relationship, dating back to the early days in Woods’ career. Though Mickelson is six years older than Woods, the younger golfer quickly began to outshine him in his rookie season. Woods went on to win five major titles in his first few years as a professional before Mickelson earned his first. Though the two once traded public barbs, their relationship has warmed now that they’re later in their careers, In recent years, both golfers have spoken publicly about their mutual admiration for each other.
Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady
When it comes to NFL quarterbacks, there’s perhaps no more talked-about rivalry than that of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Prior to Manning’s retirement in 2016, the two played against each other 17 times, with Brady’s team taking him the prize 11 times. Though Brady might have Manning edged out in terms of stats, most would still agree that The Sheriff (as Manning was nicknamed) was Brady’s biggest competitor and remains one of the greatest players in NFL history.
Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks
The Kings and the Sharks have both played in the same division since the latter joined the NHL in the 1991-1992 season. Though the two California teams have long been fierce competitors, their rivalry reached new heights in the 2010s. From 2011 to 2016, the Kings and Sharks have faced each other four times in the playoffs. While there are inarguably more intense rivalries within other California teams, there’s no denying the animosity between these two.
Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor
The bad blood between the two boxers started brewing in 2015 when UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor loudly began proclaiming that he would love to take on undefeated fighter Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the ring. After about two years of trash-talking, the pair finally faced off in a widely watched 2017 match known as the “The Money Fight.” Initially scheduled for 12 rounds, Mayweather took out McGregor in the 10th round, extending his undefeated streak to 50-0. And it seems this feud still hasn’t ended. McGregor was still calling out Mayweather last summer.