Blood, sweat and hate - the greatest sporting rivalries

EDGAR‘s rundown of the most notorious head-to-heads, past and present.

Neil Churchill April 2, 2015

"It's only a game." Four words that non-sporting folk use to reason why winning or losing at a sporting contest, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't really matter.

But try telling that to one of the men, or women, below. Sport can be so much more than a game. Religion, politics, even potential world wars can be at the heart of a sporting match - just ask the U.S. and Soviet Union's men's hockey teams of the 1980 Winter Olympics.

One of the great enjoyments of sport though, is rivalries. Derbies, grudge matches, payback games - call them what you will, they are all reminders that while sporting contests are physically played out in the present, they are both echoes of former contests and footprints of ones yet to come.

So with that in mind, we give you the greatest (individual) sporting rivalries the world has ever seen...

Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier 

Where better to start than the manliest of sports. Ali and Frazer are responsible for what is widely-agreed to be the greatest fight of all time, the Thrilla in Manila.

The Thrilla was of course the third time the pair met in the ring, a decider, and over that time an intense rivalry had formed. What audiences really enjoy when watching rivals go head to head is the feeling that there is genuine dislike, hate even, between the two. Ali and Frazer epitomised that scenario, and when they stepped into the ring, the metaphorical gloves came off.

The greatest sporting rivalries.Alain Prost vs. Ayrton Senna

There's been many great rivalries over the history of Formula One. Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio. Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Even Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are today forming what could be a rivalry for the ages. But the intense mistrust, dislike and opposing driving styles between Alain Prost and Aryton Senna during the late 80s and early 90s made for what was undoubtedly one of sport's great rivalries.

They collided multiple times on the track, most notably 1989 at Suzuka while they were both at McLaren and with the championship on the line, and again one year later with Prost this time at Ferrari. Senna's dislike for the Frenchman extended within his home nation, with Prost needing police protection when walking to the track at the 1993 Brazilian Grand Prix. The two started to become something resembling friends, before Senna died in 1994. Prost was a pallbearer at Senna's funeral.  The greatest sporting rivalries.Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

Tennis has bred plenty of rivalries over the years. Andre Agassi against Pete Sampras. Jimmy Conners and Ivan Lendl. Björn Borg and John McEnroe was a hot contest, even though, due to Borg's early retirement, their rivalry spanned just four years and 14 matches. However, just because this is one of the greatest sporting rivalries of all time, doesn't mean it can't be a present day match-up. When Federer and Nadal both hang up their rackets, their history at being on the opposing sides of the net to each other will go down as the greatest.

They have played each other 33 times over a ten year period, with Nadal leading the head-to-head 23-10. They are the only players in history to have finished numbers one and two in the world rankings for six consecutive years - from 2005 to 2010 - including a record of sharing the top two spots for 211 consecutive weeks. Out of their 33 matches, 15 have been on clay, which Nadal has won 13 of; three on the grass, which Federer has won two; five indoor, which Federer has won four; and 10 outdoor, which Nadal has won eight. 20 of the 30 matches have been in tournament finals, including a record eight Grand Slam finals, while another nine of their matches have been semifinals. If you think that's breathtaking stuff, find yourself a replay of their 2008 Wimbledon final, hailed by many as the greatest tennis match of all time. The greatest sporting rivalries.Shaquille O'Neal vs. Kobe Bryant 

The NBA is no stranger to hotly contested rivalries. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's rivalry dated back to their time at college, and when they both reached the NBA their respective teams - the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics - made history with one the all-time great team rivalries. But Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal's rivalry was intense for its own reasons: they were teammates.

Both in the yellow and purple colours of the Lakers, Bryant came into the team as a young up-and-coming star, while Shaq was the big dog of both the Lakers and the NBA in general. While the two certainly managed to play together in their eight seasons as teammates - they won three championships - their rivalry was well-known. After losing out on a fourth consecutive championship in 2004, Shaq was traded to Miami Heat - a move he says he asked for. There have always been rumours however that Bryant forced the Lakers to trade his teammate. As it worked out, Shaq won another championship with his new team, and then wrote a rap song dissing Bryant. That's payback, apparently.  The greatest sporting rivalries.Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding

Harding on the left, Kerrigan on the right.[/caption] The only female rivalry to make the list, but possibly the most disturbing and shocking of them all. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were American figure skaters, Olympic medal winners and national champions in the early 90s. In 1994 however, while practicing for the U.S. figure skating championships, Kerrigan was attacked while leaving the ice. It transpired that Harding, her husband and her bodyguard hired a man to break Kerrigan's leg, putting her out of the competition.

She was hit just above the knee with a telescopic baton, not breaking her leg, but succeeding in ruling Kerrigan out of the national championships. However Kerrigan recovered, and both women were named in the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics that year, where Kerrigan went on to win the silver medal, while Harding finished eighth. The attack had gone to trial, with Harding pleading guilty. She received three years probation, 500 hours of community service and had to pay a $160,000 fine.  The greatest sporting rivalries.Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus

Nicklaus puts the green jacket of The Masters on Palmer.[/caption] Golf, much like tennis, has bred some cracking rivalries over the years. Ben Hogan had Sam Snead. Tiger Woods had Phil Mickelson. But Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus was the first great rivalry in golf, and is still the greatest. Never a rivalry that was born out of contempt, on the contrary the two men grew to be the best of friends. Even so their competition on the golf course was as fierce as the sport had seen.

For most of the 60s, Palmer and Nicklaus were the best golfers in the world. Over that decade, their head-to-head on PGA Tour events read 30-29 to Nicklaus. There was a decade of difference in their ages however, and from 1962 to 1964, a period bookended by Nicklaus' first major and Palmer's last, they won six of the 12 major championships - three apiece. Inevitably, Nicklaus pulled away from Palmer in wins and major victories, but their rivalry continued for years, both men believing that their competitiveness helped forge their friendship.  The greatest sporting rivalries.Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo

Football has too many great individual rivalries to mention. Del Piero and Totti. Zidane and Ronaldinho. Buffon and Casillas. Viera and Keane. Gerrard and Lampard. And of course, Pele and Maradona. Players so good that only one name is needed to identify them. But the records that Messi and Ronaldo have broken, set and then re-broken, as well as hogging the Ballon d'Or between them for the last seven years, makes their rivalry unrivalled. There's even a website dedicated entirely to their comparison.

Their storied rivalry is so perfect it could have been written by Hollywood's greatest screenwriter. Both players' all-time records for their clubs and country have Messi as scoring 442 goals from 563 appearances. Ronaldo 469 from 728. Messi is the humble, shy boy from a small Argentinian village - Ronaldo the arrogant, pretty boy showoff. Messi plays his club football at Barcelona - Ronaldo at their fierce Spanish rivals Real Madrid. Messi is sponsored by Adidas - Ronaldo is at Nike. They are the second and forth highest-paid athletes in the world - Messi on $67.4 million, Ronaldo on $80 million. They even have the two biggest social media followings in the world among sportspeople.

The pair insist there is no rivalry - despite rumours that the two don't get on. Instead it seems that their equal strives for perfection simply drives them both on. The greatest sporting rivalries.Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning

The Brady-Manning rivalry has dominated the NFL for the last 15 years, with a widely-shared belief that they are the two greatest quarterbacks of the modern era. Brady has played for the New England Patriots since 2000, while Manning joined the Indianapolis Colts in 1998, before moving to the Denver Broncos in 2011. The two have played each other 16 times, with Brady leading the head-to-head count 11-5. They have met four times in the NFL Playoffs with the results tied between them, with three of the meetings being in the AFC Championship Game, with Brady winning two of those.

The two are said to be friends, sharing a mutual respect and admiration for the other's work ethic. Some analysts and media commentators have said that it's a shame the two were born into the same generation, and will forever be compared against the other, rather than being appreciated for their individual achievements. But it is unquestioned that these are two of the greatest quarterbacks the game has seen, and to have them meet each other 16 times already has forged a legendary rivalry.