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An Onion’s Labyrinth: The five greatest rivalries in sports

1. College Basketball: Duke vs. University of North Carolina

In light of the March Madness basketball games, I thought it would be only necessary to begin this week’s list with the best rivalry in college basketball and perhaps all of college sports. It all began in 1920 when the two teams met for the first time during an Independent (neither were part of a conference back then) League game—UNC beat Duke 36-25. Carolina has enjoyed the winning record against their Blue Devil rivals ever since, winning 133 over Duke’s 103. With the two schools being located less than ten miles away from each other, it’s no wonder their battles are so heated. The rivalry can be summed up by legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who said, “Whatever thing you want to check, whatever you need to have it be a great rivalry, Duke and Carolina check all the boxes.”

2. Soccer: FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid C.F.

The greatest rivalry between club football teams is as much political as it is athletic. During the 1930s, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco led a revolution against the democratic Second Spanish Republic (SSR). The president of F.C. Barcelona, Josep Sunyol, criticized Franco’s authoritative leadership and Franco had him executed without trial in 1936. Many Barcelonans were outraged with the dictator’s decision and they began to show the same Catalonian pride that can be seen today by many Spanish residents living in the northern region of the country. The two teams consistently hold the top two positions in La Liga (Spanish’s top rated professional league), both winning it a combined 54 times out of the league’s 85 years of existence. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid C.F. are also host to two of the arguably best players currently in soccer, Lionel Messi to the former and Cristiano Ronaldo to the latter, which only heightens the debate of which club is the superior.

3. Boxing: Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier 

“Joe Frazier should give his face to The Wildlife Fund! He’s so ugly, blind men go the other way.” These were the words Ali spoke of Frazier that helped build the intensity of their historic “Thrilla in Manila” fight that Ali won in 1975. These two heavyweight boxers were known to trash talk one another their entire careers and lives. Even when Ali was struggling with Parkinson’s disease and was asked to light the Olympic torch in 1996, Frazier told a reporter that, “They should have thrown him in.” Yet the flames of the Olympic torch couldn’t burn as bright as the dedication these two had to beat one another. The rivalry began in 1967 when Ali, at the time an undefeated heavyweight champion, was stripped of his title by the boxing commission for refusing to report to selective service. The title was then given to Frazier after he had knocked out Jimmy Ellis in the World Boxing Council’s Heavyweight Boxing Championship. However, Frazier still did not seem the “undisputed” champion in the eyes of the public, and so began the three-fight classics that ended with Ali winning two of them.

4. College Football: Ohio State vs. University of Michigan

The Thursday before the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game, thousands of Ohio State students jump into a freezing cold lake hoping to stir the spirit of legendary coach, Woody Hayes. The two teams first met on Oct. 17, 1897, but the rivalry didn’t erupt until a very cold and snowy day in 1950. On Nov. 25, 1950, Michigan beat Ohio State 9-3, thus securing the Wolverines a trip to the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten Title. However, some (primarily Buckeyes’ fans) feel the game was never meant to be played. Their argument is logical because that cold and snowy day in November was one of the worst recorded storms in Ohio history. Ohio State, who was leading the Big Ten prior to the game, was given the option to opt out of the game due to the severity of the whether, yet Wes Fesler, the Buckeyes’ coach, declined the offer. However angry Buckeye’s fans were with their coach, they showed even more resentment towards their football team’s opponent.

5. Professional Tennis: Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal 

It’s hard to engage in a debate about tennis without the name Roger Federer coming up. With his record seventeen Grand Slams, he has dominated the game of tennis since he won Wimbledon in 2003. The next year he won three of the four Grand Slam titles, and claimed a number one year-end ranking, which he would hold on to for the next 286 weeks. His tennis prowess was only matched by his respect for the game and his opponents. Yet there was one opponent whom he’d ironically have respect for more than any other, and it happened to be his biggest rival, Rafael Nadal. While Federer was enjoying his triumphant success in 2004, Nadal exploded into the rankings in the past year, climbing 169 spots to reach a number 34 ranking. It was when he reached this (at the time) career high that Nadal beat world number one Roger Federer at the Miami Masters event, igniting a rivalry that has seen Nadal claim 23 of their 33 meetings.

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