- Rivals: Legendary Matchups That Made Sports History
If you want to start an argument in a bar in Birmingham or Dallas turn and say to the guy next to you “the best rivalry in college football is Michigan-Ohio State.” Fans of Alabama or Auburn, Oklahoma or Texas, will tell you in no uncertain terms that you are a charlatan and a fool, may question your sanity and surely will question your intelligence. Or tell a football fan in Odessa, Texas, that Ohio’s Masillon-Canton McKinley rivalry is the best in all of high school sports or someone in the Dawg Pound that Cowboys-Redskins is the best rivalry in the National Football League. Or simply wear a Yankees hat in Boston, a Packers jersey in Chicago, or a Manchester United scarf around people who are not brazen, soulless frontrunners.
Rivalries are at the heart of sports both as they are played on the field and perhaps even more significantly, as fans appreciate them at the stadium, in the arena, amidst their friends at the bar or in the comfort of their living room. Second only to loving my team is hating the other guy’s. ESPN thrives on sports rivalries. Talk radio lives for them. And whether the media fuels these conflicts or merely reflects their existence is one of the great chicken-egg dilemmas. Life is better for Red Sox fans because “Yankees Suck!” cheers exist.
This is the foundation upon which David K. Wiggins’ and R. Pierre Rodgers’ fine edited collection, Rivals, is built. Although the contributors consist of scholars, most of the chapters will appeal to a broad audience of sports fans, with the exception of a couple of poorly written, jargon-laden pieces that will also hold the least appeal for scholars and other specialists. As with any collection of essays, not all are of equal quality, and the bad ones are execrable, but the vast majority of the essays are quite good, insightful, and at times innovative, striking a balance between describing the rivalry from the vantage point of sporting performance while at the same time investigating the greater significance of the matchups. [End Page 175]
Rivals consists of an introduction laying the groundwork for the book and sixteen essays in three categories. “One-on-One” explores six rivalries between individuals. “Team Games” looks at six important rivalries between teams across a range of sports. The four essays in the final section, “Wide, Wide World,” examine sporting rivalries involving American athletes from a global perspective.
The essays in “One-on-One” cover a range of individual rivalries in arguably the most problematic group of essays in the book. Unlike with teams, which endure beyond individual players, or global rivalries, which rely more on geopolitics and cultural rivalries than on particular athletes, once one or both of the individuals retire or fade from relevance these personality-driven rivalries disappear to all but historical memory, to be replaced by other compelling duels. Individual rivalries are temporal, and fan loyalties to individual athletes are simply not as widespread or as lasting as those to teams. Thus the rivalries between decathletes Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang in the 1950s and 1960s, golfers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and figure skaters Debi Thomas and Katarina Witt—all the subject of fine essays—give way to those between Carl Lewis and Mike Powell, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward, Steffie Graf and Monica Seles, and Yu-na Kim and Mao Asada. And this presupposes that these individual rivalries and not others take precedence even in these sports.
A final example from this section is both more ambitious than the others and is most problematic, even anachronistic, and that is the example of the rivalry between Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers. Daniel Nathan does...