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...
There are plenty of head-to-heads in this, the ultimate human v human sport, but two stand out above the rest.
Seb Coe v Steve Ovett was the story of two Brits from different backgrounds fighting it out for glory in the same discipline. The battle between ‘posh boy’ Coe and ‘rough diamond’ Ovett climaxed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when Ovett won Coe’s favoured 800m then Coe won Ovett’s favoured 1,500m six days later. The rivalry was made out to be intense and bitter but in a 2012 Daily Mirror interview Ovett revealed: “It was largely a media invention...it suited us to be cast as arch rivals.”
Around a similar time in the Decathlon, Daley Thompson v Jurgen Hingsen pitted cheeky-chappy Brit against archetypal West German straight man. The pair constantly traded world records yet Daley, undefeated between 1979 and 1987, always seemed to win the major medals. The pair, Hingsen has admitted, hated each other – yet they have become good friends in retirement.
Golf has its stars but the inconsistent nature of the game, even at the very top, means there have only been a few long-running rivalries – and for the greatest you arguably need look no further than the “Golden Bear”.
A classic rookie v pro battle, Jack Nicklaus v Arnold Palmer began when Australian upstart Nicklaus won an incredible 18-hole play-off in the 1962 US open, beating the dominant American seven-time major winner in his own back yard. He went on to win 18 majors.
Fifteen years later, it was the same man but a different rival when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had two classic battles in 1977. This time Nicklaus was the legend, Watson the youngster who knocked him off his perch, first at Augusta to win the Masters and then at Turnberry, in what was termed the ‘match of the century’, to win the British Open – with the third-placed finisher Hubert Green, 11 shots back. Watson went on to dominate and beat Nicklaus again in a classic US Open battle in 1982.
Even the gentle green baize of snooker can ignite with tension and feudal rivalry when two personalities clash – and there have certainly been some big personalities over the years.
The Steve Davis v Alex Higgins rivalry was a classic clash between two very different characters. Davis was a man whose Spitting Image puppet was only mildly less boring than John Major’s while Higgins would smash up hotel rooms when he lost but had amazing natural talent when he was on his game. Try as he might, though, Higgins, rarely won and Davis dominated.
Almost a decade later, Stephen Hendry v Ronnie O’Sullivan offered similar contrasts and a similar series of battles. Scot Hendry was a mild-mannered all-time great while Ronnie ‘The Rocket’ went against convention and was always controversial. Together, they played some classic matches but Hendry usually had the upper hand.
One of the most astonishing sports stories ever, Tonya Harding v Nancy Kerrigan reads like a Hollywood movie. The American figure skaters were preparing to do battle in the US Championships in 1994 when Kerrigan was attacked with a baton in a hired-hit orchestrated by Harding’s ex-husband and her bodyguard – a plan Kerrigan of which was fully aware. Harding won the championship but Kerrigan recovered and won an Olympic silver medal. Harding escaped jail but did 500hrs of community service, was stripped of her title and banned forever.
Chess may seem an unlikely place to find intense rivalry but right in the middle of the Cold War, a battle between the USA and the Soviet Union was also being played out on the chequered board. Bobby Fischer v Boris Spassky saw the eccentric American challenge the might of the long-dominant Russians in 1972 – and win. He was the first non-Russian to win the title.
One of the greatest rivalries in darts, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor v Raymond van Barneveld, almost didn’t happen because of the split in the game. They played in different competitions until the Dutchman switched to PDC in 2006. They have faced off more than 50 times to date, 13 times in major finals, and while Taylor has dominated 47-11 they have had many classic matches, with their battle for the world title in 2007 considered one of the greatest games ever played.
A generation before, it was all about Jockey Wilson v Eric Bristow, a rivalry built on ‘crafty cockney’ Bristow’s love of winding up his Scottish rival. Their battles were fraught but friendly and will be remembered for the dramatic world championship final in 1989 that saw Wilson dominate but falter and only narrowly hold on to win.
In swimming, Americans Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte battled for more than a decade and although Phelps dominated this utterly one-sided rivalry it was none the less engaging to watch Lochte doing all he could to beat him. After the Beijing Olympics he flipped tires, pulled chains and even stopped eating McDonald's but he still lost in London 2012, at which point Phelps decided to retire.
Football’s biggest ever clash of personalities is surely the rivalry between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, borne out of passion for their respective clubs, Manchester United and Arsenal. It all came to a head when they faced off in the Old Trafford tunnel in 2005, and the two hard-tacking midfielders were tough to keep apart whenever the two teams clashed.
Surfing also delivered one of sport’s biggest battles in Andy Irons v Kelly Slater, another rivalry fuelled by the media but driven by a pure desire to beat each other in every aspect of competition. It began when Slater, a seven-time champion, came out of retirement in 2003 to take on newcomer Irons, who had just won his first title. The youngster beat the boss two years running, but Slater hit back and, in a dramatic comeback, regained his title in 2005.