By Chris Le
Thinking back to North Carolina’s last meeting with Duke, I can’t help but crack a smile. Not because I dislike Tyler Hansbrough, who never fails to look like a Special Olympian. No, it isn’t that at all. It’s the fact that Gerald Henderson’s forearm added more bad blood—literally—to an already heated rivalry, which is possibly the best in all of sports. I can only hope to see more blood in tonight’s game. The fans at the Dean Dome will most definitely be on Henderson’s case, but don’t count out Carolina fans unleashing their verbal onslaughts on Greg Paul and particularly Kyle Singler, the ACC’s top freshman who possesses the traditional Duke arrogance, though in a more subtle manner than Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick. Can you imagine how tense and testosterone-filled the atmosphere would be if these two teams were to meet again in the upcoming ACC Tournament? Or better yet, the NCAA Tournament? This is one match up I look forward to every year. And it’s all because of their mutual disgust for one another.
This got me to thinking. Is UNC-Duke the best rivalry in sports? Certainly, it’s the most heated and storied in college basketball, but does it stack up to sports’ other battles?
Here’s my take:
(In no particular order, except for one. You’ll see. Read on.)
Duke vs. North Carolina – Perennial powerhouses and two of the most successful college basketball teams in NCAA history separated by a shade of blue and an eight-mile stretch named Tobacco Road. There are so many elements that make this such an impassioned rivalry: the close proximity of the two schools, the legendary coaches (Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, Roy Williams), the prolific players (Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse, Christian Laettner, J.J. Redick and of course, the incomparable Shane Battier). But most of all, it’s the parity combined with the sustained excellence of both teams that push it over the top. In this 88-year battle, UNC holds only a 126-96 edge in the all-time series. And the fact that these two teams are always in the top 25, if not top 10, makes every single one of their meetings that much more meaningful, often deciding who will be the ACC Champion. This is sports hatred in its purest form.
Ohio State vs. Michigan – It wasn’t until recently, thanks to the HBO documentary “The Ten Year War,” that I fully realized the intensity and magnitude of this match up. Two of the most storied programs in college football lore, Michigan and Ohio State have been each other’s final regular season opponent since 1942, regularly with Big 10 supremacy at stake. But it isn’t just about the legendary coaches (Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes), the titles or the fact that Michigan steals many of Ohio’s native blue-chip prospects. Like most of the best rivalries, this goes beyond the field in which the game is played. In the eyes of the fans, this is a social divide. Michigan sees Ohio State as a bunch of hicks that are beneath them, which is apparent in the joke of the Michigan student dropping out and enrolling at Ohio State, effectively raising the collective GPA of both universities. On the flip side, Ohio State views Michigan as crowd of smug wannabes with a false sense of self worth. Either way, it makes for great football. Michigan leads the series 57-41-6, though Ohio State has been dominant lately, taking the last four meetings.
New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox – Not the closest rivalry in the bunch, seeing how the Yanks hold the edge in World Series Championships (26-7) and Pennants (39 to 11), but the seemingly one-sidedness of this match up doesn’t hold it back in the rankings of the greatest head-to-head meetings of all-time. Though the disparity in titles hurts, this shared distaste was developed in the way these division rivals have inflicted emotional pain in each other. This factor truly sets rivalry apart from any other: Boone in ’03, the Curse of the Bambino, the come back from a 0-3 series deficit to release the curse – none remembered without a bitter taste in the mouth. The history of these two teams is infamous, the pain felt by Sox fans legendary, and because of this, the Yankees and Red Sox will forever be linked and seen as the best rivalry in baseball, even if the outcome at times is lopsided.
And now the fiercest opponents in the history of sports…
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier – The mother of all rivalries. Nothing has or ever will come close. I don’t think in any other rivalry, the participants actually hated one another; they just hated losing to one another. Not so with Ali and especially Frazier, whose abhorrence for Muhammad was/is as intense and real as it gets. Maybe not so much with Ali, as he most likely traded verbal shots with Frazier in order to hype their fights. But his words cut Frazier deeply, particularly the “Uncle Tom” comments, which in the 70’s was probably the worst thing a black man could call another. Ali would end up winning two of their three meetings, with their first and last bouts being two of the most sickeningly savage displays of boxing the world has ever seen. And don’t think for a second matters have cooled down between the two. In 1996, when asked about their trilogy, Joe Frazier remarked, “Look at me and look at Ali (who is currently suffering from Parkinson’s disease) — who do you think won those fights?” All I can say is, damn, that’s cold. Now that’s a rivalry.