A competition between friends doesn’t sound like it would produce a high-quality script about rivalries — I mean, who hasn’t battled their buddy here and there over the years?
However, beyond the oxymoron of having friendly rivalries lies some of the best storylines sports have ever come to know.
While most fans can’t seem to overcome differences — like Duke and North Carolina fans who are separated by a shade of blue or Redskins and Cowboys fans who think they’re respective teams are the best in the NFL despite having won zero combined titles in the past two decades, individual athletes have been able to break down the barrier that stems from being in direct contention with one another.
Sports teams have done this too, but to a lesser extent — most feed into the media craze behind something that doesn’t even qualify as a part of history, let alone a rivalry of significant proportions (see: Ravens-Steelers or, for an individual athlete example, Jeff Gordon-Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
These are a blip on the radar, yet are perpetuated for reasons we don’t really understand but accept willingly whenever they go head to head because it makes for a good story.
Regardless of perception, there is some bad blood in most rivalries, just like there was with Ali and Frazier or Chamberlain and Russell, and that’s what draws us to them. The best modern example of this “bad blood” is Auburn and Alabama (see: that whole outrageous tree poisoning scandal), but I digress.
Here are rivalries that were built only upon mutual respect and had/have absolutely zero history of verbal assault or physical abuse:
1. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle
Our generation could have easily claimed this top spot with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who’s home run record chase in 1998 captured the nation’s attention as they both supported each other in the quest to break the magical 61 home run mark set by Roger Maris. Unfortunately, the steroid era still stains the legacy of that friendly rivalry to the point that it doesn’t even qualify on this list.
Have no fear though; baseball provided us sports fans with one of the best scripts in 1961 when Maris set the single-season home run record after going toe-to-toe with then-teammate Mickey Mantle throughout the whole season.
Yes, I realize it’s hard to be rivals when you play for the same team, but these two didn’t exactly get along great (see: the movie “61” directed by Billy Crystal) as Maris feared he would be traded that season and Mantle’s behavior off the field began to affect his play on it. Nonetheless, they challenged each other and, as a result, we’re still talking about them 50-plus years later.
2. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird
The team rivalries — like Johnson’s Showtime Lakers and Bird’s blue-collar Celtics — are just so much harder to qualify as “friendly” when you look at some of the things that have happened on the field of competition, in this case the basketball court. Blood was shed, players were ejected and words were thrown out without any semblance of caution. That was basketball in the 1980s though — purple and gold versus green and white, with a little bit of blood smeared all over the place.
Nonetheless, Johnson and Bird’s friendship off the court and their mutual respect for each other on it never wavered. It’s become one of those timeless human stories that has been re-produced through so many medium that it’s hard to keep track — documentaries, books, movies; I think it’s even been turned into a Broadway play.
Magic and Larry have become the prime example of competitors who were rivals but at the same time friends.
3. Army vs. Navy
Again, going deep into the history books to pull out what is unarguably college football’s most friendly rivalry. Although both programs haven’t been relevant for decades, they still play each other in front of a sold-out stadium every season and the camaraderie after the game goes unmatched throughout the rest of the college football season. It’s one of the most traditional and enduring rivalries (114 years) in college football, which hasn’t exactly been a sport that’s been conducive to rivalries recently with all the conference realignment.
Also, it’s worth noting that both Army and Navy were football powerhouses in the 40s and 50s and that instant replay made its debut in the 1963 Army-Navy game.
4. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal
These two tennis heavyweights have faced each other more times than should even be possible. Their duality makes the head hurt. Their cultural difference — Federer from Switzerland and Nadal from Spain — and playing styles has only made the story better over time. That and the fact they are both so damn good and have become such great ambassadors for the sport, together.
I’m not a tennis nut by any means, but I know when these two are going head to head its time to turn off everything else and pay attention.
5. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy
Considering how much time these two spend together off the links and how little head-to-head competition they’ve had against one another, it’s surprising that Rory and Tiger even made the cut here.
However, the passing of the “best golf player in the world” torch from Tiger to Rory has been so seamless and met without much resistance at all — even from the egotistical Tiger Woods — that it does belong on a list of great friendly rivalries even if the tension hasn’t hit a climax (yet).
Note: I was VERY tempted to throw Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in here but didn’t want to have another historical-referenced rivalry. For those who don’t know, about 50 years ago, Palmer-Nicklaus had a somewhat similar dynamic (respectful, if not friendly) as Woods and McIlroy.
Honorable mention: Colts vs. Patriots (stems from Brady-Manning earlier in the decade, but coming around again with Luck-Brady squaring off this weekend); Steelers vs. Cowboys (no bad blood there despite multiple head-to-head Super Bowls); Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs (from 1944 to 1978, they met in five Stanley Cups, but it hasn’t been nearly the same since); UNC vs. Duke (despite the earlier dig, this is the most enjoyable college rivalry out there and they always keep it relatively respectful despite the eight mile proximity); Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova (yes, tennis gets another shout out!)