The biggest sports rivalries in the world

Sports will always naturally breed competition; it’s human nature to be competitive, and it’s beneficial within sports to use your emotions to win out against your adversaries. As a result of this strive to be the best, rivalries are inevitably created.

It becomes clear that rivalries are important for professional sports as a medium of entertainment. With every engagement, whether a friendly game or a championship finale, it all becomes a big event for both rivalling athletes and fans alike.

Here are a few examples of the most important sporting rivalries in history.

Tennis: Federer vs Nadal

Two names that became synonymous with professional tennis of the 2000s are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal; their rivalry is often considered one of the greatest rivalries of all time. Federer and Nadal’s first encounter occurred in March of 2004, where a 17-year-old Nadal successfully beat Federer for the first time; the pair would go on to compete against each other on 40 other occasions throughout their respective careers, with a whopping 25 of those 40 games taking place in tournament finales

Federer and Nadal held up a good-natured and professional relationship, expressing no animosity for each other. Although, this doesn’t mean they didn’t maintain a highly competitive rivalry when it came to their professional bouts. This competition was further expanded as many former champions and heroes of these athletes expressed their beliefs on who they thought was the better player.

Nadal and Federer had differing favourite surfaces to play on, with Federer preferring grass courts and Nadal preferring clay courts, with both players playing statistically better on their respective courts. This small fact has made discussions regarding who is the better player to become extremely subjective amongst sports journalists and commentators. Nadal did win against Federer in a charity game, where the court was divided in half, with one side being grass and the other clay.

At the current standings, Rafael Nadal is leading by 17 sets (67-50) against Federer, but only time will tell who will be crowned the victor in tennis’s greatest rivalry.


Boxing: Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali

This rivalry has become a centre point for both boxers’ careers and a great summary towards the issues of race inequality that rocked the 1960s civil rights era of America.

Ali, the graceful lightning quick boxer, was an outspoken champion for black civil rights in America, and he began this rivalry against his former friend, Joe Frazier, as his ideals regarding race equality made him view Frasier as an “Uncle Tom” to the white-ruling establishment of America.

It’s possible that Ali’s references towards Frazier, also known as “Smokin’ Joe,” being a turn cloak to the black civil rights movement, may have just been a psychological tool, as he often used such methods to gain an advantage over his opponents. Whether that was the case or not, it did create one of the greatest rivalries in boxing history.

Frazier and Ali’s rivalry would be decided over 3 fights, with Frazier winning the first bout, “The Fight of the Century,” by unanimous decision. With this win, Frazier gifted Muhammed Ali his first defeat as a pro fighter.

Ali would win the rematch in Madison Square Garden by unanimous decision; this fight had more significance than the first, as the controversial win by Ali helped further fuel their rivalry and lead to the greatest fight of their careers.

The third fight was held in the Philippines and was coined the “Thrilla in Manila”. This boxing match is often regarded as one of the best and most brutal bouts in the sports history, with one billion people tuning in to witness the fight. Ali would survive Frazier’s 14-round onslaught to come out victorious by technical knockout. 


Soccer: Celtic vs Rangers

Celtic vs Rangers is one of the most controversial and best-known soccer rivalries in the world, with the two teams rivalry being given the collective name the “Old Firm”. The two clubs are by far the most successful and popular in Scotland, which has helped their rivalry embed itself into Scottish culture.

The Old Firm’s rivalry isn’t a simple division between who you choose to support; it runs much deeper than that. The origin of this rivalry is a consequence of the political, social, and religious divisions Scotland has witnessed in the last 150 years.

This rivalry represents the complex issue of national identity within Scotland, with Rangers supporters first originating from a Protestant-Ulster-Scottish background and Celtic FC supporters coming from a contrasting Irish-Scottish-Catholic one.

This can often be reflected in how the supporters choose to represent their teams from the stands: Rangers fans will often fly the Union Jack and sing unionist marching songs, while Celtic fans prefer the tricolour and Irish rebel songs. Quite ironically for two Scottish teams, there is very rarely a Scottish flag seen waving in the stands when these teams compete.

Celtic and Rangers have played each other 422 times in major competitions, with Rangers having won 164 matches, with Celtic close behind with 159 matches. 


Rivalries are a double-edged sword within professional sports; when done correctly, they can help increase the performance and engage players helping to increase the overall level within the sport.

But, when the rivalries go unchecked, they can get ugly, with athletes and fans fuelling themselves with hatred and anger, instead of the competitive energy that a “friendly” rivalry can provide.

Sean Barrett
Sean Barrett

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