Monday, March 03, 2014
- by W. Michael Lawson
From the moment a person develops a sense of self, he or she knows what “the other” looks like. We define ourselves, in part, not just by who we think we are, but also by what we are not. This is a concept born from a philosophical desire to describe and define our essence. Hegel, Derridas, Levinas, Lacan…they built careers using this model for outlining human distinction. We see this idea acted out in life’s play in every area…work, school, music, movies, literature, religion, politics…even cartoons. Sport, my fine friends, is no different. What good is it to have a favorite team, if you don’t have a most hated team? When one loves a team, or player, or driver enough to watch, care, and pay acute attention, there is always that dreaded team, or player, or driver who is getting in the way. That ying to your yang… Bluto to your Popeye… Biggie Smalls to your 2Pac…that Iago to your Othello. A good rivalry captures the imagination, because we all have them. Hence, the question begs: What is the greatest rivalry in sport of all time?
The catalyst for this query began moving last week when, arguably, the greatest rivalry in NCAA Basketball fired up for another go. The University of North Carolina Tar Heels hosted their arch rival and nemesis the Duke University Blue Devils, which is always cause for popcorn and beverage. Something strange, however, happened on Tobacco Road that day. Upon winning, the UNC students stormed the court, which has happened before. The thing is…it just didn’t feel right. I can understand if Duke were #1 in the country, or if it was a thrilling last minute win, or if UNC had won a title of some kind…but none of that was true. They won by double digits, at home, with nothing on the line, and stormed the court anyway. Why? I have no idea, but it didn’t look like UNC expected to win. I mean…do you storm the court, if you expect to win? Does Manchester United storm the field after beating Arsenal? No. Does a St. Louis Cardinals fan storm the field after they beat the Chicago Cubs? No. You storm the court, or field, when Daniel Larusso beats Cobra Kai…not when he wins a teddy bear at the arcade. True and great rivals each expect to win every time. If UNC doesn’t treat this as a rivalry, then why should we? Certainly not the greatest…
As a devoted Atlanta Braves fan, I loathe the mention or sight of the New York Yankees. We have history. Big history. Still, no animus I can muster for them even comes close to what the Boston Red Sox fans think or feel about their biggest rival…and they express it as proudly, loudly, and profanely as you can imagine, when you see one of those games in person. Every great rivalry has to have a story, and boy do these teams ever. With a story and competition that begins April 26, 1901, it reminds one of that intergalactic battle for dominance…”A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” The plot is eerily similar to the movie Star Wars. From 1903 to 1918, Boston won 5 World Series Championships, and looked to add many more. However, in 1919, new owner Hank Frazee sold a young, and incredibly talented Babe Ruth to the hated Yankees. It was the equivalent, for Boston fans, anyway, of Anakin Skywalker joining the Dark Side of The Force, becoming Darth Vader, and proceeding to murder everything they hold dear. This is known as “the Curse of The Bambino”…because the Yankees went on to win 27 World Series Championships, while Boston didn’t get another until 2004.There were entire generations of Red Sox fans who lived and died, believing every day of their life, and with every fiber of their being, that Boston would never win another championship… because they sold Babe Ruth. Simply, it is the stuff of sport legend.
The phrase “a matter of life or death” is one that is way overused and overplayed in modern lexicon, but that was never the case when talking about the Muhammad Ali-“Smokin” Joe Frazier fights. There was a sense when these two giants of men and lore stepped into the ring, that it was going to be a fight to the end…and they didn’t even know when or where ‘the end” was. These epic struggles of determination, stamina, skill, balance, and anger defined a decade of boxing, and of sport, in general. When you think 1970’s, you think Ali-Frazier. This, in some ways, was thrust upon them for things outside the ring. There was a cultural significance to their entanglements. The fights were bigger than just a fight for many boxing fans….and for many different reasons. We, as a people, love hoisting our predilections and opinions on athletes and events to help symbolize our choices, and when this happens, it is rare that the event lives up to heightened and inflated expectations. The three Ali-Frazier fights never failed to entertain and amaze. Both men gave everything they had, every single time, and for longer than any other could. In many ways, their careers are defined by each other’s. This rivalry was a brutally barbaric example of grace, fluidity, and endurance. It’s Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa…without the fiction. Possibly, it is the greatest ever.
There is no way to answer, fully, this question in this limited space. I knew that when I started. But that is what makes it so fun. There are so many images and characters of competition from over the years who have a legit claim to the title of “Greatest Rivalry Ever”…Lakers/Celtics (very strong case), Magic/Bird, Bama/Auburn, Nicklaus/Palmer, Nadal/Federer, Army/Navy, Real Madrid/Barcelona, Tiger Woods/His personal life (Hat Tip @Chadhamby)…there are just so many, and the beautiful thing is the script is still being written. Champions and their foes are born every day, with the scheme of rivalry born into their DNA. It is who we are…it is who they are. As the famed writer Louisa May Alcott penned, “Rivalry adds so much to the charms of one’s conquests.” And she should know….she had like 15 sisters.
(W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce).