Who will history remember as the better quarterback, Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning?
It’s an endless debate and really comes down to what the beholder values. If you value wins and championships, it’s Brady. If you value individual records, it’s Manning. But one thing is without question. It’s the greatest player vs. player rivalry in NFL history.
But where does this rivalry stand with the 10 greatest rivalries in the history of sports?
10. Affirmed vs. Alydar
Last June, American Pharoah became the 12th horse in history to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes in the same season, more commonly known as the Triple Crown. Three different horses, Firing Line, Tale of Verve, and Frosted, finished in second place. That was in stark contrast to the previous Triple Crown winning horse, 1978’s Affirmed.
Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, holding off a late charge from the favored horse, Alydar. The only thing that changed at the Preakness Stakes was the favorite, as Affirmed again held off Alydar down the stretch to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. Affirmed winning the Belmont Stakes would mean consecutive Triple Crown winners (along with Seattle Slew in 1977) for the first (and still only) time in history. What followed was one of the greatest races in the history of the sport.
American Pharoah was never really challenged in the Belmont Stakes. Much like Affirmed and Alydar, Secretariat was pushed by Sham for most of the first half of his Belmont Stakes victory but ultimately won in simply dominating fashion. Alydar gave Affirmed more of a fight than Affirmed’s owners, trainers, jockey, bettors, and probably the horse himself would ever have wanted.
No other Triple Crown winner has been pushed so consistently by one rival. Actually, no other Triple Crown winner had the same runner-up in all three legs. Affirmed will be remembered as the greater racehorse, but without the constant push from Alydar, it’s not a give that he would’ve won a Triple Crown.
9. Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal
Roger Federer has more Grand Slam singles victories than any male player in tennis history with 17. At 14 Grand Slam titles, Rafael Nadal is tied for second with Pete Sampras for second. The fact that two are direct contemporaries and 1 and T-2 all time in Grand Slam wins speaks to how dominant these two were, and still are. Until the emergence of Novak Djokovic, they had no close No. 3.
The two have met in eight Grand Slam Finals. From 2006-2008, every final at the French Open and Wimbledon matched these two titans. If you’re not overwhelmed by Grand Slam success, know that in some order, Federer and Nadal finished the 2005-2010 ATP seasons at No. 1 and No. 2 in the world.
If you’re a fan of great moments, they’ve had plenty. The greatest moment in this rivalry would most likely be the 2008 Wimbledon Final, which John McEnroe called the greatest match he had ever seen.
These two are special. If either man had the same edge that both of the players in our next entry have, this would be even higher.
8. John McEnroe vs. Jimmy Connors
John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors are two of the best to ever play tennis. But these two had something else that sets this rivalry apart. When you watched them play, you had to wonder if the two might come to blows at some point.
In total, these two met 34 times during their ATP careers and nine times on a Grand Slam stage. Unlike Federer and Nadal before Djokovic, McEnroe and Connors had other rivalries to deal with (more on that later) and only got to meet twice in a Grand Slam final, with each man taking one.
In 1998, with both men well past their primes, the two played a match so contentious that they didn’t shake hands at its conclusion. Time may heal all wounds, but it’s pretty safe to assume that these two didn’t like each other for a good, long while.
7. John McEnroe vs. Björn Borg
Styles make for the greatest rivalries, but so do contrasting personalities. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer both conduct themselves very calmly. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors played with an edge not at all common to a sport like tennis. McEnroe and Björn Borg, however, were perfectly described as “Fire and Ice” in a 1981 article by B.J. Phillips.
Beyond the contrast of styles, these two put on some classic matches. If McEnroe is wrong and the Nadal/Federer Wimbledon Final of 2008 is not the greatest match ever, then the final that these two put on in 1980 likely holds that distinction.
Borg won the match to claim his fifth consecutive Wimbledon final. But even in defeat, McEnroe managed to win a 34-point fourth set tiebreaker to push the match to its fifth and final set.
The two would meet in the finals of the 1980 US Open, as well as the Wimbledon an US Open finals in 1981. McEnroe won all three matches. In total, the two played 14 times, and unlike the other tennis rivalries listed finished dead even with each other.
Their personalities could not have been much more different, but their attitudes and skills made for a perfect rivalry.
6. Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova
Chris Evert had dominated women’s tennis for much of the latter half of the 1970’s. Martina Navratiova had beaten Evert before, but had never beaten anyone in a Grand Slam Final. That all changed at Wimbledon in 1978.
From that point on, these two dominated the game of women’s tennis for a decade, meeting 18 more times in Grand Slam semifinals or finals through 1988.
For a stretch from 1981-1985, either Evert or Navratilova won 15 consecutive women’s Grand slam titles. From 1981-1987, one or both of them appeared in every Grand Slam final. Only Hana Mandlikova (1985 US Open, 1987 Australian Open) and Steffi Graf (1987 French Open) kept the Evert and Navratiova duo from going 24-for-24.
Tennis is not a sport that tends to favor players into their 30’s. The fact that these two both remained dominant past 30 speaks volumes to how great they were. The fact that they did so as contemporaries speaks to one of the best rivalries in the history of any sport.
5. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning
In the NFL, when teams from the same conference don’t share a division, there’s only one way that they’ll be guaranteed to meet each year, and that’s finishing in the same place in the standings. While Brady has missed one Meeting and Manning has missed two, Brady’s Patriots and Manning’s Colts/Broncos have met every year since 2003, usually because both teams finished in first place the previous season. If Manning returns to Denver in 2016, the two will play again.
It’s hard to determine what is more glaring between these two, their similarities or their differences. Both are easily first ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks. They both easily belong in the top five when discussing the best quarterbacks in NFL history. While neither Brady or Manning seem afraid of a sideline shouting match with a teammate, both are the undisputed leaders of their teams. They both seem to be absolutely tireless workers and despite their sideline arguments, you don’t hear many (if any) former teammates come out and complain about them.
The differences stand out in their commercials and interviews. While Brady isn’t bad, Manning is much more natural in front of the camera. Another difference comes from what was expected of them.
Manning is the son of a former NFL quarterback, the brother of another NFL quarterback, and as the No. 1 pick in the draft his brilliance has surprised nobody. While Brady went to an outstanding football university, he was the 199th player selected in the 2000 NFL Draft. And if Mo Lewis never hit Drew Bledsoe (another No. 1 pick) in 2001, Brady might have been out of the NFL by 2002. From the outside looking it, it seems as though Brady still plays as though his job is on the line with every pass.
Given the sustained run of excellence of these two players and their teams over the years in a sport that craves parity, this could be higher. It holds at No. 5 for two reasons.
One, if Brady and Manning don’t have an incredible amount of mutual respect for each other, Adam Jones should be giving both of them Grammy’s for their acting skills.
Two, the more obvious one is that they don’t actually compete directly with each other. Brady has never played defense for the Patriots, while Manning has never played defense for the Colts or Broncos.
But the classic games these two have played vs. each other and the absolute dominance they’ve had for nearly two decades just can’t be ignored.
4. Serena Williams vs. Venus Williams
Serena Williams is the greatest, most dominant women’s tennis player of all-time. The fact that anyone has done well enough against her to really earn the “rival” label speaks for itself. But that doesn’t even scratch the surface on this rivalry.
Given its history, it would be unusual enough for two African-American women to dominate a sport like tennis for two decades. It would be unusual enough for two sisters of any race to dominate any sport for two decades. Combine those two elements, and this rivalry is unlike any other.
They first met at the 1998 Australian Open and the most recent meeting between the Williams sisters came at the 2015 US Open in the quarterfinals.
Serena’s words in the post-match interview were incredibly telling.
“When I’m playing her I don’t think of her as my sister, because she’s playing well. She’s hitting so many big serves and running a lot of balls down. When you’re in the moment, you don’t really think about it.”
Needing to even have that mindset is beyond unique. Sure, Peyton and Eli Manning compete, but not very often. Even when their teams play, they’re not on the field at the same time.
So many individual elements of the rivalry would put Serena and Venus on this list. The combination of all of them puts the Williams sisters in this spot.
3. Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain is essentially Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning on a basketball court. The big difference is that they did share the court, and since Russell and Wilt played the same position they can be measured against each other.
While they competed with each other, it’s still hard to say which one is better.
Chamberlain’s statistical dominance is unrivaled. We can pretty safely say that no player will ever score 100 points in a game or average 50 in a season again. At the same time, we can pretty confidently say that no player will ever win 11 NBA championships again, especially as the team’s anchor.
The two rivals played in nine postseason series. Russell’s teams easily got the better of Wilt’s, but Chamberlain’s 1967 76ers team was one of only two to beat Russell’s Celtics in the postseason.
The rivalry between these two men helped make the game more mainstream. When the two retired, the NBA suffered and even went through a period where the NBA Finals Series were not broadcast on live television. That would change, in no small part due to the next rivalry.
2. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird easily hit on many elements that contribute to a great rivalry.
We’ll start with the X factor that we’d be naive to ignore, race. Magic and Bird played at roughly the same time as Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney fought for the World Heavyweight title in a fight that was sold largely on race. Of course, like Holmes, Cooney, and every other human on the face of the planet, neither Magic or Bird had any say in what race they were born into. But it’s an element that was a hot issue at the time in which they played.
The two were brilliant players. They finished first and second in Rookie of the Year voting in 1980. Magic and Bird won six of the seven league MVP awards from 1984-1990. The only guy who kept if from 7-for-7 was some dude named Michael Jordan.
Magic and Bird also played on great teams. At least one of them was a part of every NBA Finals series during the 1980’s. Johnson and the Lakers won five championships and lost three (adding a fourth loss in 1991), while Bird and the Celtics won three and lost two. They played each other in three NBA Finals series (1984, 1985, 1987) as well as in the NCAA Championship in 1979, when Michigan State and Magic defeated Indiana State and Bird.
Not only did Magic and Bird play on great teams, but they played on the right great teams. In addition to being big market teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics are historically the league’s two greatest franchises by a comfortable margin. The few teams that could come closest to challenging them have done most of their damage post Magic and Bird.
The two also had drastically contrasting personalities. Magic was a city boy with a smile that could light up a room. He was made for a city like Los Angeles. Bird was a shy country boy dubbed “The Hick From French Lick” and perfect for a blue-collar city like Boston. The contrast was on display in a commercial that starred the two.
All of that combined made the 1980’s a very fun time for NBA basketball. By the time Magic and Bird began to fade, another superstar, Michael Jordan, was entering his prime and in addition to his on court brilliance, became maybe the most marketed athlete ever. That’s in no small part due to the Magic vs. Bird rivalry.
Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird is the greatest rivalry in the history team sports, but one purely individual rivalry stands tall above the rest.
1. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier
This rivalry can be dissected in a lot of different ways. Quite frankly, the people who should speak for the rivalry are the two men themselves, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Upon Frazier’s death in November of 2011, Simon Burnton of The Guardian compiled a litany of quotes from Ali and Frazier over the years. Better than anything, these quotes show just how intense this rivalry was.
Fair warning, this is unfiltered and if you’re unfamiliar with the rivalry, know that some fairly hostile racial language was used.
The first one came from Ali in the buildup to their first fight, in 1971.
“Joe Frazier is an Uncle Tom. He works for the enemy.”
Frazier won the fight, handing Ali his first defeat. At the fight’s conclusion, he spoke of Ali’s accusation.
“A white lawyer kept him out of jail. And he’s going to Uncle Tom me. THEE Greatest, he called himself. Well, he wasn’t The Greatest, and he certainly wasn’t THEE Greatest … It became my mission to show him the error of his foolish pride. Beat it into him.”
The two had a rematch in 1974 which Ali won. When the fight was over, both men seemed to indicate that the hatred had dissipated.
Ali: “Joe Frazier’s a nice fella, he’s just doing a job. The bad talk wasn’t serious, just part of the buildup to the fight. The fight was serious, though. Joe spoke to me once or twice in the middle, told me I was burned out, that I’d have to quit dancing now. I told him I was gonna dance all night.”
Frazier: “I’m happy the guy’s in my time and I’m sure he’s happy I’m in his time. He wouldn’t be making the money fighting those other guys that he made fighting me.”
Any good feelings were soundly squashed before their 1975 rubber match, The Thrilla in Manilla, when the racial charges from Ali were back on.
“He’s the other type Negro, he’s not like me,” Ali shouts to the now stunned white interviewer. “There are two types of slaves, Joe Frazier’s worse than you to me … That’s what I mean when I say Uncle Tom, I mean he’s a brother, one day he might be like me, but for now he works for the enemy.”
Predictably, Frazier did not take too kindly to that.
“I don’t want to knock him out. I want to hurt him. If I knock him down, I’ll stand back, give him a chance to breathe. It’s his heart I want.”
Ali won the third fight when Frazier’s corner stopped the fight after the 14th round. Ali was apparently ready to quit the fight himself, but Frazier’s corner beat him to it. When the fight was over, Ali, the man who won the fight, didn’t sound like much of a winner, and had nothing but good things to say about his rival.
“It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.”
“It’s so painful. I must be crazy. I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him.”
“I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.”
To put it mildly, Frazier had mixed emotions about Ali.
“Why did he say the things he said? Only he has the answer to that, and I would prefer not to comment on it. He just seemed to have a bad word for everybody. It was just foolishness.”
“Ali would not be Ali unless I had come along. Him and me had three fights,” Joe says. “He won two of them, I won one. But if you look at him now, you can see who won them all. Me!”
“The Butterfly and me have been through some ups and downs and there have been lots of emotions, many of them bad. But I have forgiven him. I had to. You cannot hold out for ever. There were bruises in my heart because of the words he used. I spent years dreaming about him and wanting to hurt him. But you have got to throw that stick out of the window. Do not forget that we needed each other, to produce some of the greatest fights of all time.”
“Look at him now. He’s damaged goods. I know it; you know it. Everyone knows it; they just don’t want to say. God has shut him down. He can’t talk no more because he was saying the wrong things. He was always making fun of me. I’m the dummy, I’m the one getting hit in the head. Tell me now. Him or me, which one talks worse now? He can’t talk no more and he still tries to make noise. I don’t care how the world looks at him. I see him different, and I know him better than anyone. Manila don’t matter no more. He’s finished, and I’m still here.”
It’s incredibly sad that such hurtful words were used to sell a fight, and while it’s understandable, it’s also sad that Frazier held such bitterness for so much of his life.
But as sad as it is, it does speak to a great rivalry. The two clearly had immense respect for the skills of the other. Prior to Frazier’s death, Ali summed up why this is the best of all of these great rivalries in a perfect way.
“I’m sorry Joe Frazier is mad at me. I’m sorry I hurt him. Joe Frazier is a good man, and I couldn’t have done what I did without him, and he couldn’t have done what he did without me. And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me. “