Category Archives: boxing

The Sports Bloke’s Top 10 sporting moments of the decade

As the noughties (officially the worst decade name EVER) draw to a close, it’s the perfect time to consider the most magical, unforgettable, outstanding moments of the last 10 years.

It’s a given there will be a rash of these lists in newspapers and online and there’ll no doubt be a a vague consensus as to which moments are the most memorable. You can expect Kelly Holmes’ golden Olympic double, Lennox Lewis’ knockout of a faded Mike Tyson and Liverpool’s Champions League final comeback to feature prominently. None of these moments make my list, and here’s why.

When I thought about the most personally compelling sporting moments of the last decade, I was drawn to memories of utterly unbridled joy, sadness or exhilaration. With the three examples above, I didn’t see Kelly Holmes’ wins live, I don’t care whether Liverpool win or lose and Lewis’ win against Iron Mike was completely one-sided and nowhere near as memorable as his battles with Evander Holyfield. None of these achievements made me scream, shout, punch the air or even exhale with the release of tension.

The moments I’ve chosen are strictly personal. I either witnessed them live in person or was 100% emotionally invested in them when I watched them live on TV. All 10 took my breath away. So, without further ado, here’s the Sports Bloke’s Top 10 sporting moments of the decade.

Cricket: England vs Australia, 2nd Test, Edgbaston, July 2005
It should have been easy. It turned into the most tense, desperate and ultimately joyous conclusion to a test match. England needed two wickets to draw level in the Ashes. Australia needed an unlikely 107 runs for a series-killing 2-0 lead. On the way to the ground we all felt we’d only see half an hour of play. But Shane Warne and fellow tail-ender Brett Lee had other ideas, carving the English bowling to all parts in a desperate effort to reach their unlikely target. When Flintoff forced Warne to tread on his stumps, the target was down to 62. The partisan Edgbaston crowd breathed an epic sigh of relief. Just one wicket to go. But it didn’t come. the confidence of Lee and last man Michael Kasprowicz grew. The target continued to wittle away. Tension enveloped the ground and was made worse by the group of 50 or so Aussie “Fanatics” chanting “(insert number here) runs to go, (insert number here) runs to go” each time a run was scored.

England were going to blow their chance. I had predicted an English Ashes win about six months before the series and started to receive texts from friends blaming me for getting their hopes up. In the ground, people sat with transfixed looks of horror etched on their faces. The target was down to four. Steve Harmison searched for a yorker but produced a full toss. Lee carved it towards the boundary. It should have been the winning runs. But it went straight to the only English fielder in the area for a single. Then came the moment. Kasprowicz gloved a Steve Harmison bouncer. Wicketkeeper Geraint Jones claimed the catch. And oh-so-crucially, umpire Billy Bowden raised his finger. Pandemonium does not describe the crowd reaction accurately enough. Roll unbridled joy, unparalleled relief and emotional exhaustion into one and you might be close. England won by 2 runs and would go on to win the Ashes for the first time in 19 years. Simply the most amazing sporting moment I have ever witnessed in person.

Usain Bolt Olympic 100 metre final, Beijing 2008
If I was totally objective and not obsessed with cricket, Usain Bolt’s devastating performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics 100 metres final would have been a clear No 1 on this list. Bolt’s effort was, in equal measure, breathtaking, awe-inspiring, supremely arrogant and uniquely entertaining as he effortlessly powered his way to a previously unfathomable world record time of 9.69 seconds. Knowing he had left the rest of the field in his wake, Bolt extended his arms and eased up with around 30 metres to go as if to say “look how easily I can do this”. He emphasized his dominance of the event one year later at the World Championships lowering the world record to 9.58 seconds, a time that had only seemed possible on 1980s video game Track and Field. I was at a wedding on the day of the Olympic 100 metre final and, at the reception, deliberately spilt food over myself to create an excuse to go to my room to get a change of tie whereupon I watched Bolt’s record-shattering race live. There was no way I was going to miss it.

NFL: NY Giants win the Super Bowl
On their way to a perfect 19-0 season, the New England Patriots didn’t even consider the possibility of losing Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants. They’d even printed up 19-0 t-shirts to wear after they’d cruised to victory. But Belicheck, Brady, Moss and Co reckoned without the grit of Big Blue. People will always talk about David Tyree’s amazing one-handed catch or Eli Manning’s Houdini act that help him evade the Pats defence and make the pass to Tyree. For me, Manning’s winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress is the memory that I treaure most. Riveted on a sofa at 3am in London, I saw the pass in slow motion, floating into the end zone with Burress closing in on it and found time to wake up my neighbours by shrieking “CATCH IT, PLAXICO” at the top of my lungs. Plax obliged, the Giants led and there was nothing the Pats could do.

Football: Germany 1 England 5
The result that fooled a nation into thinking Sven Goran-Eriksson was a genius and prompted the classic News of the World headline “Don’t Mention The Score”. An historically emphatic win over Germany shouldn’t have eradicated the pain of losing to them on penalties in Italia 90 and Euro 1996. After all, this was a qualifier and those were semi-finals. The smug Matthaus and Moller were long gone and Germany were a much weaker team then when they dominated international tournament football in the 1990s. But, but, but…… WE BEAT GERMANY FIVE ONE AWAY!!!! Michael Owen’s hat trick, Steven Gerrard’s late first half thunderbolt, Emile Heskey’s golf putt celebration, Sven laughing when the fifth goal went in. Up to this point, I don’t think I’d ever witnessed a sporting event that made me this deliriously happy. In the long run, normal service was resumed. Months later, England were dumped out of the World Cup at the quarter final stage while the German team they thrashed went to the final proving my Dad’s only football mantra: never bet against the Germans.

Boxing: Marco Antonio Barrera vs Erik Morales I
I came very close to including the first Arturo Gatti vs Mickey Ward fight over this but, in terms of excitement, I think Barrera vs Morales I just edges it for me. I had this fight on a video with a Barcelona vs Deportivo la Coruna in La Liga. Depor came from two nil down to win in the Nou Camp in what was one of the best football matches I’ve seen. It was only fitting that Barrera vs Morales I found a home alongside it. The February 2000 showdown was so ferocious it signalled a shift in the focus on boxing from the heavyweights to the little men. I had seen Morales dismantle an opponent in two rounds on the undercard of a Lennox Lewis pay per view in 1999. I knew nothing about Barrera. So what I witnessed in that first fight had elements of surprise and discovery about it.

Fighting for Morales’ WBC Super Bantamweight title, both Mexcian warriors displayed masses of heart and machismo in addition to iron chins concussive punching power. Pride meant neither men would yield the advantage for more than a few seconds. Throughout the fight, they stood toe to toe exchanging haymakers. There was no let-up in the intensity at any point in the 12-round battle. Both men emerged cut and battered after the final bell. Barrera probably edged it on points. Morales won on a split decision. It was voted Ring magazine’s fight of the year. In my mind, it was the fight of the decade.

PDC World Darts Final 2003: John Part vs Phil Taylor
Darts may be criticised for not being a real sport but I would defy anybody holding that opinion to not be utterly enthralled by John Part’s defeat of Phil Taylor in the 2003 PDC final. Darts purists may point to Raymond van Barneveld beating Taylor a few years later as a better match. For me, Part’s win ranks higher because at the time of his victory, Taylor looked utterly invincible. Relying on 100-120-range three dart checkouts, Part built a 4-1 lead before Taylor won 11 straight legs and roared back into 5-4 lead. The Power seemed certain to bully his way to yet another world title but Part sank pressure doubles to retake the lead six sets to five. Taylor broke back to send the final to a deciding set and again looked favourite to win. But Darth Maple again wound up the pressure on Taylor who, for the first time in nearly 10 years, had no response. Part stayed calm, sank his doubles and slayed the giant of darts to win his second world title.

England vs Australia, Rugby World Cup Final 2003
I’m not going to pretend I’m a huge rugby enthusiast. I watch the England internationals and, like most of the country, fell in love with Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson for six weeks at the end of 2003. If you take cycling and rowing out of the equation, English victories in world cups are extremely rare and should be celebrated accordingly. The 2003 rugby world cup final remains memorable as it was the only time in my life I got drunk three times in 24 hours. The night before the game I nervously hit the sauce with my mate Herman. It was only supposed to be a couple of gentle beers but got out of hand.

The next morning we headed to the then Australian enclave of Shepherd’s Bush for 7am and got on the beers in a pub full of Aussies. Watching this game was one of the last times I truly enjoyed watching sport in the boozer. England dominated the game from the scrum but were stymied by some dodgy refereeing. With the game in the dying seconds of extra time and the game poised to be decided on a drop goal shootout, Jonny Wilkinson stepped up and won the game with that drop goal. I remember almost crying and repeating the phrase “we never win anything” over and over again. We then went to Clapham to meet some mates where I ate a fry-up (it was nearly midday by now) and fell asleep in a pub. When I woke up, we drank in celebration of a rare England world cup victory.

Steve Redgrave’s fifth gold medal, Sydney Olympics
This historic moment happened at around midnight UK time. I had the TV on mute and Alan Green’s commentary on Radio Five. I don’t remember much about the race other than Redgrave, Pinsent, Cracknell and the bloke who looked a bit like Emmanuel Petit starting quickly and hanging on for grim death at the end. What lingers in my mind is Green’s manic Irish intonations, urging a nation of listeners to “get up on your feet and salute the greatest Olympian of all time”. I have goose bumps from typing those words. One of the rare times when a commentator dealt with the moment in the most perfect way.

South Africa beat Australia by one wicket, ODI, March 2006
Sometimes, like with Usain Bolt, you watch sport because you know something great is going to happen. Other times, you stumble on great sporting moments by mistake. I’m still not entirely sure why Sky were televising this game but I’m really glad they did. If the 2005 Ashes was the pinnacle of test cricket, this match was definitely the greatest one day international ever played. Ricky Ponting smashed 164 of 105 balls as Australia set a record one day score of 434 of their 50 overs. Surely there was no way back for South Africa.

Undaunted by the mammoth target, Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith set about the Australian bowling. Smith was eventually dismissed ten runs shrt of his hundred but it was Gibbs who ultimately made the impossible possible. He battered 175 runs in just 111 balls and, by the time he was out, had made South Africa favourites for the win. In typical fashion, the Aussies fought back. When Nathan Bracken dismissed Justin Kemp, South Africa needed 77 of the last seven overs. The teams traded wickets and boundaries until, with one wicket left, Mark Boucher struck the winning boundary off the game’s penultimate delivery. 872 runs had been scored off 99.5 overs. That wasn’t the only record set in this match. Aussie bowler Mick Lewis’ 10 over cost him 113 runs, the worst ever figures in a 50-over game.

New York Knicks vs Phoenix Suns, January 2006
This one was very personal to me. It was the best basketball game I’ve ever seen in person pitting my team (New York) against my favourite player (Steve Nash) in my favourite sporting arena (Madison Square Garden). The Suns were (and might still be) the most entertaining team in the NBA at this time. New York were (and still are) mediocre at best. On this night, Stephon Marbury and Co came to compete. Nash turned in a 22-assist performance featuring a handful of alley-oop passes to Shawn Marion. For the Knicks, David Lee had a coming out party, scoring 23 points and hauling down 15 rebounds. Eddy Curry had a 20-10 game too.

The Knicks blew a fourth quarter lead and the game went into overtime. In the end, the Suns wilted in the third extra period and the Knicks, led to Marbury’s 32 points, eventually prevailed 140-133. What stays with me about this game is the way that the play of boths teams bought the MSG crowd to life. By the third overtime, people all over the arena were utterly sucked in to what, in the grand scheme of things, was just another regular season game. My favourite player battling my favourite team in a triple overtime classic at the world’s most famous arena with a sold-out crowd going out of their minds. This was the day I properly gave my heart to basketball.

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The most dubious distinctions and unwanted records in sport

The New Jersey Nets have lost their first 16 games of the NBA season and, with one road game left on a devilish West Coast swing, look like a mortal lock to match the 0 and 17 landmark of early season futility set in 1988/89 by the Miami Heat and equalled by the ever-hapless Los Angeles Clippers ten years later.

The Nets are not poorly coached and the roster has clearly not quit on Lawrence Frank. However, injuries to guards Devin Harris and Courtney Lee and overall “talent issues” have sent them spiralling on a losing skid that may well see them surpass the unwanted record. Simply put, the likes of starters Trenton Hassell and Josh Boone don’t have the quality required to come out on top, however infrequently, against their opponents. Things have got so bad that they recently lost at home to the arguably-more-hapless New York Knicks.

The Nets’ descent into potentially precedent-setting ignominy is just one of many of sport’s dubious distinctions. From the NFL and MLB to the English Premier League, Formula 1 and boxing, the owners of such unwanted records become part of the folklore of their respective sports and, in the case of some, almost a comical euphemism for continued miserable failure and bad luck. Read on as the Sports Bloke examines 10 of the most dubious distinctions in sport.

Major League Baseball
Although there’s never a shortage of struggling MLB teams, none can match the horrific record of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On September 7 2009, the Pirates lost to the Chicago Cubs. It was their 82nd game of the season and condemned them to a 17th successive sub-500 season. No team in MLB history (or any American sports franchise) has ever matched Pittsburgh’s losing streak.

NBA
There isn’t a single NBA diehard who doubts that the Los Angeles Clippers are jinxed. Take this season for example. Armed with the No 1 pick, they made the correct selection in Blake Griffin only for their new signing to blow his knee out on a dunk in a pre-season game. At the time of writing, Griffin has yet to play for the Clippers. Although the Nets may surpass the Clippers 0 and 17 mark for consecutive early season losses, the franchise holds so many unwanted records that it has become a by-word for futility. To save time and space, I’ll only cite two. The Clippers are the oldest NBA team never to appear in the NBA finals. They are one of three teams (Memphis and Charlotte are the others) to have never won a Conference Championship or Division Title in their history.

Boxing
Far away from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and Caesers Palace, British boxer Peter Buckley carved out his own particular niche in boxing. He lost more fights than any other boxer in history. The Birmingham welterweight lost 256 of this 300 professional bouts, making a living as a durable punching bag for up-and-coming fighters including Prince Naseem Hamed, Duke McKenzie, Scott Harrison and Kell Brook. At one point, he lost 88 consecutive fights. Regardless of their record, anyone prepared to make a living as a boxer deserves respect. It was fitting, if a little unexpected, that Buckley won his 300th and final fight when he scored a four round points victory over Matin Muhammad in his hometown in October 2008.

Cricket
Former England captain Mike Atherton always struck a lonely figure, an obdurate leader hamstrung by the ineptitude of national selectors and surrounded by mediocre teammates unable to stand up to superior Australian, Pakistani and Indian teams. Although Atherton led his country with stoicism and made big scores against most countries, he was regularly tormented by metronomic Aussie opening bowler Glenn McGrath. Over the years, Atherton was dismissed 19 times by McGrath in test matches, a record for any bowler against one batsman.

Football
You have to feel sympathy with fans of perennial League Two strugglers Rochdale. The Greater Manchester club were relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League in 1974 and have remained there ever since. At the time of writing, Spotland’s finest have spent 35 years in the basement of English football, longer than any other English club.

NFL
The NFL prides itself on the “Any Given Sunday” principle that preaches league-wide parity and the fact that any outcome is possible in any game. Sadly, the Detroit Lions spent the entire 2008 season disproving this theory. With inferior offence, defence and special teams, the hapless Lions conspired to lose all 16 of their regular season games. Their futility surpassed that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who, in 1976, went 0 and 14 in their first season in the league.

FA Cup
The historical showpiece of the English football season has provided a seemingly endless stream of memorable moments over the last 120 years. Until 1985, no player had suffered the shame of being sent off in an FA Cup final. Manchester United defender etched his name into FA Cup history when he scythed down Everton’s Peter Reid in the 1985 final and was deservedly dismissed from the field. Down to 10 men, the Reds forced extra time and secured victory when Norman Whiteside curled a delicate left footed shot past Neville Seville and inside the far post to score the only goal of the game.

Formula 1
It might be a little bit harsh to label a driver who only appeared in three Grands Prix as the worst racer Formula 1 has ever seen but Jean-Denis Deletraz’s efforts were so poor that he is definitely in the conversation. For example, in his debut race, the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, the Swiss driver qualified 25th out of 26 cars and was lapped by leader Michael Schumacher after 10 laps. Deletraz did manage to find some speed at one stage. Unfortunately, this burst of pace came in the pit lane and he was penalised as a consequence. When his gear box finally failed after 57 laps, he had been lapped 10 times and was approximately 13 minutes behind the race leader.

Baseball
The Philadelphia Phillies may have contested the last two World Series but they also hold one of the most unwanted records in American sport. Although they’ve never been lovable losers and cursed by bad luck, no team has ever lost quite like the Phillies. A lot of this is down to the fact that they’ve existed since 1883. In July 2007, the Phillies were routed 10-2 by the St Louis Cardinals. It was a landmark defeat that condemned them to becoming the first American sports team to lose 10,000 games.

English Premier League
In July 2007, a poll in The Times newspaper labelled Southampton’s one-game wonder Ali Dia as the worst footballer ever to play in the Premier League. Saints manager Graeme Souness had been led to belive Dia was the cousin of World Footballer of the Year George Weah. He was also told the player had played for Paris St Germain and won 12 international caps for Senegal. None of this was true. When Dia replaced Saints legend Matt le Tissier in a 1996 game against Leeds United, everyone realised the awful truth. His performance, described by Le Tissier as “embarrassing to watch”, was mercifully cut short after 52 minutes when Souness cottoned on to the fact he had been duped about Dia’s credentials.

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Sport’s most memorable David vs Goliath moments

British heavyweight boxer David Haye faces a mammoth task in Nuremberg tonight as he attempts to wrest the WBA Heavyweight title from the mountainous champion Nikolai Valuev. The Hayemaker is dwarfed by his 7ft 2in opponent to such a degree that the fight couldn’t possibly be billed as anything other than David vs Goliath.

The idea of the overmatched underdog taking on and beating an opponent with superior strength and talent is one of sport’s most compelling dreams. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And there’s more to the David and Goliath concept than seemingly mismatched individuals, sometimes it can relate to entire teams.

To mark David Haye’s world heavyweight title challenge, the Sports Bloke has compiled a short list of the most memorable David vs Goliath moments in sport.

1) Nate Robinson rejects Yao Ming
November 2006, Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks defending their homecourt against the Houston Rockets. Rockets all-star, 7ft 6in Yao Ming receives the ball in the low post and prepares to make a jump shot. From the weakside, the Knicks ever-energetic sixth man, 5ft 7in Nate Robinson goes airborne to swat Yao’s shot away, poking the “Great Wall” in the eye for good measure. You’d like to think Yao’s teammates ensured he never lived this down. Winner: David
Watch: Nate Robinson rejects Yao Ming

2) Jonah Lomu dominates Tony Underwood
New Zealander Jonah Lomu burst onto the world sports scene courtesy of his dominant performances at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Left-winger Lomu, described by England captain Will Carling as a physical “freak”, was the size of most forwards but with pace that would shame most backs. You had to feel for the opposition right wing who directly faced him.
When New Zealand faced England in the tounament’s semi-finals, Tony Underwood had this onerous task. He was dwarfed by Lomu’s size and destroyed by his strength. Lomu ran rings around him for 80 minutes, running in four tries as New Zealand cruised into the final. At one point, Lomu actually ran over Underwood and teammate Mike Catt before crossing the line. Winner: Goliath
Watch: Jonah Lomu destroys England

3) The ultimate act of FA Cup giantkilling
The 1988 FA Cup final proved beyond doubt that David can defeat Goliath in a team game. In the red corner, Liverpool, the finest team in the country, league champions with international class players throughout their squad. In the blue corner, Wimbledon, the team known as the Crazy Gang, a team of wind-up merchants renowned for their long ball tactics, who, 10 years previously, had been playing in non-league football.
For Goliath, read John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Alan Hansen. For David, read John Fashanu, Dave Beasant and Dennis Wise. In TV terms, it was the equivalent of the University Challenge episode of the Young Ones where Vivian, Neil, Mike and Rik represent Scumbag College against a team of Oxbridge toffs.
However they managed it, the Dons got under Liverpool’s collective skin. They had the temerity to take the lead when Lawrie Sanchez flicked Wise’s free kick inside Liverpool’s far post. When Beasant saved a John Aldridge penalty (the first in FA Cup final history), the game was up for Liverpool. They were the victims of the most famous FA Cup giantkilling. Winner: David

4) When Goliath squashed David
Whether or not you consider professional wrestling a sport, there’s no denying that Wrestlemania 3 provided the WWF’s ultimate David vs Goliath moment. And I’m not talking about the Hulk Hogan vs Andre The Giant main event. Cast your eye further down the card and you’ll see a six-man tag team match featuring King Kong Bundy and two midgets vs Hillbilly Jim and two midget partners.
Memorably described by commentator Gorilla Monsoon as “a condominium with legs”, the 440-pound Bundy made an ultimately forgettable (and possibly bad taste) match memorable when he was disqualified for body-slamming the 4ft 4in, 60-pound midget Little Beaver and followed it up with his trademark giant elbow drop. Winner beyond doubt: Goliath
Watch: King Kong Bundy marmelises midget at Wrestlemania 3

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Karpov vs Kasparov and the greatest sporting rivalries

Twenty-five years ago, rival chess grandmasters Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov squared off in Moscow for the world title. It turned into a titanic five-month struggle. For many observers, Karpov represented Soviet order while the Azerbaijan-born Kasparov was cast as a rebellious anti-establishment figure. After 48 games, the champion Karpov led 5-3 when the match was terminated with no clear winner. One year later Kasparov would take Karpov’s title and successfully defend it in 1986.
So why would the Sports Bloke bring this up now? Glad you asked. A quarter of a century on from a clash whose significance went way beyond individual competition, Karpov and Kasparov have reunited, like a rock band looking to revive past glories, for a 12-game duel in Valencia, Spain.
I was nine years old when Karpov and Kasparov first played in 1984. Thanks to my uncle, I liked to play a bit of chess. I can remember reports about the world title match and thinking it strange that this funny little sport could make global news headlines. I didn’t understand it at the time but it seemed there was more than just sporting reputations and a trophy on the line. Karpov and Kasparov’s rivalry had transcended sport and entered, to some degree, mainstream consciousness.
The political significance of Kasparov and Karpov’s clash catapulted it into the pantheon of sporting rivalries but not all such duels become memorable because of politics. Sometimes, as with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, individual animosity can be enough. In Britain, perceptions of social class can make an intense rivalry all the more fierce as middle distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett can attest.
Though it is possibly the unlikeliest sporting duel to capture the mainstream’s imagination, Karpov vs Kasparov doesn’t make my list of the greatest individual (no teams) sporting rivalries of all time. Here, in Miss World-style reverse order, are my top five.
5. Borg vs McEnroe
The spectacular but short-lived duel between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe illuminated world sport for three years. The players could not be more different. Borg: the phlegmatic, ice-cool baseliner. McEnroe: the volatile, brash server and volleyer. Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry was defined by their fourth set tie break in the 1980 Wimbledon final. McEnroe won it 18-16 but lost the match in the final set. A year later, Mac ended Borg’s streak of five successive Wimbledon titles, a pivotal victory which led to Borg’s premature retirement a few months later. Borg’s exit robbed the sporting world of a definitive conclusion to the duel while McEnroe later admitted he struggled to motivate himself to play his best tennis without the opportunity to test himself against his great foe.
4. Leonard vs Duran
Although they fought for the third and final time in 1989, the rivalry between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran burned brightest for the six months in 1980 that spanned their first two fights. In their initial bout, dubbed “The Brawl in Montreal”, Leonard, bristling at his opponent’s pre-fight taunts, abandoned his slick boxing style to stand toe-to-toe with Panamanian known as “Hands of Stone”. His decision backfired as Duran edged a hard-fought victory on points. The inevitable re-match, which took place in the New Orleans Superdome, produced one of the oddest endings in boxing history. Leonard returned to his natural style and toyed with Duran, showboating to the crowd and doing all he could to humiliate him. During the eight round, Duran turned his back on Leonard, uttered the now-infamous words “no mas” and quit. Leonard was WBC Welterweight champion once again.
3. Coe vs Ovett
Like many great rivalries, the mutual antipathy between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett spurred both athletes to a string of record-breaking and medal-winning performances. The contrast between the pair was stark. Ovett, the rebellious, cocky man of the people who blew kisses to the crowd before he crossed the finish line. Coe, the diminutive, privileged University graduate who would go on to be a Conservative MP and peer. What the two athletes shared was an unquenchable hunger to be the best. Fellow athletes would stand in awe watching their training regimes.
Their duel at the 1980 Moscow Olympics gripped a global audience. Coe, favourite for the 800 metres, was beaten in his preferred event by a surging Ovett. Written off by critics, Coe then bounced back to win the 1,500 metres, ending Ovett’s 45-race winning streak over that distance. Four years later in Los Angeles, Coe defied the critics again by becoming the first man to successfully defend an Olympic 1,500 metre title.
2. Bird vs Magic
An individual duel that revitalised a team sport. The basketball careers of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were inexorably linked from the time the pair met in the 1979 NCAA tournament final. Magic’s Michigan Spartans downed Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores to become college basketball’s national championship. Five years later, Bird’s Boston Celtics met Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals and this time the whole world was watching. Their rivalry was irresistible. Bird was all blue-collar hustle and clutch shooting, the epitome of a dogged Boston team. Magic, with his speed, vision and exuberance, was the very essence of Showtime Lakers basketball. As individuals, they couldn’t have been more different. Magic was gregarious and his million dollar smile charmed reporters while Bird’s homespun shyness with the media gave him an air of mystery or, depending on your perspective, truculence. After being blown out in two of the opening games of the series, the Celtics rallied and finally prevailed 4-3. The pair would meet again in the 1985 and 1987 finals with Magic’s Lakers winning both series.
Like many sporting rivalries, Magic and Bird gained respect for each other’s skills in the heat of battle. Unlike many duels, they also became firm friends, bonded by an appreciation of how basketball should be played. When Larry Legend retired from basketball in 1993, Magic travelled to Boston to host his friend’s jersey retirement ceremony.
1. Ali vs Frazier
The seeds of the unbridled animosity between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were sown in the late 1960s during Ali’s exile from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the United States Army. Smokin’ Joe was world heavyweight champion while Ali was struggling to make ends meet. Frazier helped Ali financially and showed genuine concern over the former champion’s plight. Everything changed when Ali was re-instating as a fighter. Knowing his biggest payday would be a title showdown with Frazier, Ali began his usual routine of ridiculing his target. He dubbed Frazier “the gorilla” and accused him of “working for the enemy”, meaning the white establishment. By the time of the fight, your choice of victor said as much about where you stood socially, racially and politically. Frazier won the “fight of the century” on a points decision. He gained an even greater measure of revenge by felling Ali with his trademark left hook.
The rivalry would burn for four more years. Ali scored a points win over Frazier in a world title eliminator to earn a shot at George Foreman. After winning the title back at 32, Ali defended it against Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila”. The fight was so intense that Ali later described it as “like being in the waiting room for death”. At the end of the 14th round, Ali was ready to quit on his stool when Frazier’s cornermen threw in the towel. Thomas Hauser memorably described the Ali Frazier trilogy as “the world championship of each other”, with both men so stubbornly refusing to lose to the other that they were willing to die.

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