Tag Archives: Garry Kasparov

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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