The battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda for the 1976 F1 world championship was a classic example of how tense, emotional and enthralling a sporting rivalry can become.
Now the subject of a new movie, ‘Rush’, it is one of the few classic sporting confrontations that have made it to the big screen – but there are plenty of others, some friendly and some bitter, that could also make the grade...
The ultimate sport for personal confrontations, boxing has thrown up many heated battles but the sport’s greatest heavyweight rivalry ever is surely Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier, with three epic fights fuelled by intense pre-match hype and controversy. The first, in 1971, saw Frazier end Ali’s unbeaten record. The second, in 1974, saw Ali get him back. And the third, the ‘Thriller in Manilla’ in 1975, saw a brutal battle won by Ali in the 15th with both on their last legs.
The rivalry between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield was equally enthralling but for very different reasons. It was five years in the making, repeatedly cancelled due to surprise knockouts, injuries and jail time, and when it finally happened, in 1996, Holyfield, a 25-1 underdog, scored a massive upset to win, battering Tyson on the ropes until the fight was stopped in the 11th. The inevitable rematch came a year later, in Las Vegas, and resulted in an unforgettable mauling as Tyson bit off a piece of Holyfield’s ear in the third. The fight continued but was stopped when Tyson tried to bite again. Already disgraced out of the ring, it was a dramatic and sad end for a man who had once been a boxing legend.
Lighter weight but no lighter on drama, the Nigel Benn v Chris Eubank rivalry in the 1990s saw the pair channel mutual hatred into a series of enthralling battles. Arrogant showman Eubank stopped at nothing to entertain and in their first match he recovered from two knockdowns to win in the ninth. The rematch ended in a disappointing draw, but animosity continues to this day.
The tennis court may be a less ferocious arena than the boxing ring but it still creates some classic rivalries because the top players meet each other on such a regular basis.
Arguably the greatest contest in tennis history, Roger Federer v Rafa Nadal, has been played out more than 30 times over nine years, eight of those in Grand Slam finals. They finished as the ATP Tour’s top two every year between 2005 and 2010 but Nadal, five years Federer’s junior, has the upper hand 21-10.
A generation earlier, Pete Sampras v Andre Agassi was another long-running rivalry with a classic contrast of playing styles and temperaments. Sampras, shy and reserved, was one of the best ever serve-and-volleyers while Agassi, a flamboyant entertainer, had crushing baseline ground strokes. It ended 20-14 to Sampras and their last meeting, the 2002 US Open Final, was an absolute classic.
Another duo with contrasting styles, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg had one of tennis’ fiercest rivalries but it only lasted three years and ended with the pair tied 7-7. Brash volatile New Yorker McEnroe and cool calm Swede Borg first met in Stockholm in 1978 but their rivalry hit the headlines in the 1980 Wimbledon final, one of the all-time great matches. Their final meeting, in the 1981 US Open, ended with Borg walking out of the stadium before the prize giving ceremonies.
In the women’s game, Chris Evert v Martina Navratilova dominated an era, playing 80 matches over more than a decade and winning 18 of the 19 Grand Slams between them between 1982 and 1986. They are still tied behind Stefi Graf in the all-time Grand Slam winners’ list.
There is, however, nothing more fascinating than sibling rivalry, so step forward Venus and Serena Williams. Born 15 months apart, they have met 24 times on the pro tour, with younger Serena now leading 14-10. Between them they have won over £75m in prize money but have never let the constant pressure escalate into a family feud – at least not in public.
F1 has delivered plenty of animosity and rivalry down the years, with team-mates in equal machinery given (most of the time) free reign to fight each other.
In the gentleman racer days of the 1960s, Jim Clark v Graham Hill was a classic case of friends off track and fierce rivals on it, with the pair sharing titles as team-mates at Lotus in 1967 and 1968.
A decade later came one of F1’s classics with Niki Lauda v James Hunt a battle between a straight-playing Austrian champion and a playboy Brit on the way up. Lauda, racing for Ferrari, almost died in a crash at the Nurburgring but made an incredible comeback to take the title battle to the wire. Hunt then won by a point when Lauda quit in protest of the conditions at a rain-soaked race in Japan.
In the 1980s, an intense team-mate rivalry between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironiat Ferrari escalated into a feud over team orders and reached a fatal extreme when Villeneuve crashed and died as he pushed desperately to beat his team-mate’s time.
But there is no bigger rivalry in motorsport, indeed perhaps in sport as a whole, thanAyrton Senna v Alain Prost, with fierce wheel-to-wheel battles infused by a bitter off-track feud. The pair, two very different personalities, clashed together at McLaren when Senna broke a gentleman’s agreement at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1989. From then on, Prost refused to speak to the Brazilian. The title went to the wire and Prost won when the pair controversially collided in the title-decider in Japan. Prost joined Ferrari for 1990 and took the title to the wire again, but it was Senna who won this time - by deliberately knocking Prost off the track in Japan. On the morning Senna died, at Imola in 1994, he spoke to Prost and also praised him in an interview with TF1. Prost was a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral and said part of him had died too because their careers had been so intertwined.
As a team sport that thrives on leaders and supporters, cycling is another hotbed for intense rivalries.
The battles between Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck in the 1970s were classics, so too Jan Ullrich v Lance Armstrong in the 1990s, albeit now viewed in a different light. In the 1980s, the team-mate rivalry between Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMondbecame bitter when the latter’s support was not repaid, as perhaps it would have between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome had the former not dropped out of this year’s Tour.
One rivalry was so big, however, it divided a nation. Fausto Coppi v Gino Bartali was described as being “like a religion” but it also had political connotations in Italy, with youngster Coppi representing the industrial north and veteran Bartali the conservative south. It played out in the 1940s in an era where doping was not banned. Coppi openly admitted to using amphetamines while Bartali despised them. They shared the spoils time and again, and debate over who was better continues to this day.
Finally, in track cycling, Victoria Pendleton v Anna Meares was a bitter battle between two strong and firm riders who never gave up. It started in Bordeaux in 2006, when Meares deliberately ‘hooked’ her rival in a keirin race. Pendleton vowed – and took - vengeance with victory in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but the animosity has built with every race. “It has turned into something bitter and nasty...I don’t like it,” said Pendleton before Meares defeated her in London 2012. After that, she retired from the sport – and the rivalry ended with an emotional embrace.