Don’t Give Up the Fight
Everybody loves a good rivalry. Ever since Hector and Achilles—and probably even before that—rivalries have been the stuff of legend. Today some of the greatest rivals are professional athletes, such as Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, and the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Sometimes, as in the case of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, archrivals can become the best of friends.
In the 1970s two of the greatest boxers to ever lace up the gloves, Muhammad Ali and “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, engaged in a trilogy of matches. Victory in the first—1971’s “Fight of the Century”—went to the reigning heavyweight champion, Frazier, the first pugilist to hand Ali a professional loss. Ali took revenge in their second bout and also triumphed in the “Thrilla in Manila,” the third and final fight, staged in the Philippines in 1975. This epic rematch has been the subject of documentaries and films, such as 2008’s controversial Thrilla in Manila.
Just as Ali’s rivalry with Smokin’ Joe captured the global imagination in America, the matchups between association football (soccer) clubs Manchester United and Chelsea have captivated England for years. So far, seven Premier League championships have been taken by either the “Red Devils” of Man U or the Chelsea “Blues,” with Manchester dominating in worldwide popularity. As in the case of Ali and Frazier, films have turned some English footballers, like Manchester’s David Beckham, into superheroes. But not, perhaps, Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard. After all, the movie was called Bend It Like Beckham, not “Launch It Like Lampard.”
Certain matchups are simply imbalanced. This is particularly difficult for the underdog, especially when the favorite always seems to come out on top. In the English football Premier League, for example, the Chelsea “Blues” have been trying to step out of the shadow of the Manchester United “Red Devils.” The Boston Bruins have been attempting the same thing—for nearly 90 years—in their matches with the Montreal Canadiens in the National Hockey League. The two teams have played each other over 700 times, with Montreal leading in head-to-heads. Additionally, Montreal holds the edge over Boston in playoff series contests, with a record of 24–9. As for winning the game’s most prestigious prize, the Stanley Cup, Boston lags far behind: The Canadiens de Montreal have hoisted the Cup 24 times, compared with Boston’s six. But Bruins fans currently possess the bragging rights, as Montreal has not captured the title since the early 1990s, while Boston won its first championship in nearly 40 years in 2011. Boston has also been on a tear with Northeast Division titles, giving them ample reason to boast—for now.
The Bruins claimed Boston’s most recent championship among the four major professional team sports. But the NFL’s New England Patriots and the NBA’s Celtics have also won titles in the new millennium—as have the Boston Red Sox. The Major League Baseball club went a while between World Series Championships—the last before its pair of titles in 2004 and 2007 was in 1918. That drought was superstitiously attributed to the “Curse of the Bambino.” If the Red Sox owned a time machine, it’s a good bet the organization would use it to stop the sale of Babe Ruth, a.k.a. “the Bambino,” to the New York Yankees in 1919, after which the Yanks won a couple dozen World Series while the Sox watched.
When the Red Sox went on an inspired run in 2004, all “curse” talk went quiet. Their victories that year and in 2007 proved they could beat the Yankees—all the way to the Fall Classic. Boston has come back down to Earth after those highs, and meanwhile the Yankees won the World Series again in 2009. But if there’s one thing Boston fans know about, it’s perseverance. Decades of futility will do that to you.
In contests between heavyweights, sacrifice is a given—whether it’s from the opposite side of the ring or on the baseball diamond. For example, the training: Did Muhammad Ali work harder than Smokin’ Joe Frazier? Are Red Sox practices less regimented than those at Yankee Stadium? Probably not. But what about money? In the case of the boxers, neither Ali nor Frazier came from a privileged background. Of course, the costs that go into making an individual a premier athlete differ from what’s needed to build a team. But money has made a difference in the Yankees–Red Sox rivalry. Beginning in 1919 with the acquisition of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, the Yankees have outspent every other Major League team for nearly a century, securing top free agents like Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter. The Red Sox won the Fall Classic in 2004 by adopting the strategy laid out in Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s book about less than flush ball clubs trading players by strict statistical analysis. The Sox repeated this strategy in 2007 and won again. In the past few years, however, the franchise seems to have lost its way and overspent on the open market.
A victory in boxing—the champ’s glove held high in triumph—perhaps best symbolizes vanquishing an opponent. In 1971 Joe Frazier handed Muhammad Ali his first loss. By the time of the Thrilla in Manila, Ali had proved he could beat such formidable contenders as Ken Norton and George Foreman.
While the ring is the perfect stage for mano a mano combat, boxing rivalries are relatively short-lived. The clock runs a bit differently on the gridiron. Two of college football’s most prestigious programs, the Michigan Wolverines and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, first faced off in 1887. That was Notre Dame’s inaugural game, which Michigan won, and the Wolverines have barely let up on the Irish since, leading its series 23 to 15, with one tie. Despite that, Notre Dame has shown some signs of life in the new millennium, winning four games in the 2000s. With the tradition of long-running rivalries in college football, individual games matter much less than the cumulative record.
The rivalry between the University of Michigan’s Wolverines and Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish has galvanized college football fans for more than a century. Perhaps there’s something about Michigan and Indiana, the states hosting those illustrious schools, that compels athletes to face off. Case in point: Earvin “Magic” Johnson was born in Lansing, Michigan, and starred in college basketball at Michigan State. Larry Joe Bird, a.k.a. “The Hick from French Lick” in Indiana, played college ball at Indiana State. The two grappled in one of the most-watched college games in history, when Magic’s Spartans beat Bird’s Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA Finals.
That set the stage for the resurgence of an entire professional sports league. Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers and Bird’s Boston Celtics dominated the NBA throughout the 1980s, with the squads taking one or both spots in the finals every year during the decade. But Magic/Bird was more than two players leading their teams to glory: It was black vs. white, flash vs. grit, freewheeling vs. playing close to the vest. Despite their perceived differences, Magic and Bird’s mutual respect elevated each other’s games. Their story eventually made it to the Great White Way—albeit briefly—in 2012’s Magic/Bird.
Larry Bird lifted a franchise—and a sports-mad city—on his shoulders, and his Boston Celtics ran roughshod over the NBA’s Eastern Conference during the 1980s. That can also be said for Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who did the same on the West coast. Johnson’s LA Lakers won NBA titles in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988. Johnson and Bird inspired every player in the league; Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas and Clyde Drexler played better basketball when paired against either of these titans. As Jordan put it, “In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.”
Major League Baseball is no stranger to long-running, hard-scrabbling franchise rivalries, and no two teams exemplify this more dramatically than the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. The Sox have often been on the losing end of this dogfight, with many in Red Sox Nation attributing their bad luck to the “Curse of the Bambino.” But even after Boston sold Babe Ruth, a.k.a. “the Bambino,” to the Yankees, they found some good luck sprinkled into each decade, fielding Hall of Fame talent from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Carlton Fisk.
Before Magic Johnson announced that he had HIV, Larry Bird proved himself a lifelong friend by being the first to reach out. Friendship, it seems, is possible even between archrivals. Tennis superstars Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova battled one another for their sport’s biggest prizes for a decade. From 1980 to 1989, all but six Grand Slam finals featured one if not both players. Over the course of their careers, each won 18 major singles titles. Evert, with her double-handed backhand and consistent baseline game, won the French Open a record seven times. Meanwhile, Navratilova, with her serve-and-volleying style, became practically synonymous with Wimbledon; she captured that title nine times, also a record.
Navratilova, the Czechoslovakian-born American who wore her emotions on her sleeve, lost 16 of her first 20 matches to Evert, the stoic “Ice Princess.” But after adopting an intense physical regimen and working with new coaches, Navratilova ended up leading her chief rival 43 to 37. Eighty matches is a record for superstar single-athlete encounters. As it happens, Unmatched is the name of a documentary chronicling the women’s rivalry and friendship, which got Evert through three divorces and helped Navratilova when she came out as a lesbian.