The 10 greatest rematches in sports history
Drama-filled, high-stakes sports clashes are remembered. But it’s the rematches that make them revered.
When two men or women, college programs or pro franchises are so special that they collide with something big at stake not one but two years in a row, it creates a lasting memory that unites them forever.
Sometimes, it’s an old rivalry renewed. Other times, it’s an unrelated pair brought together because they happened to be great at the same time, like Alabama and Clemson. The Crimson Tide and Tigers will clash for the second January in a row on Monday night in Tampa, again with everything at stake, in the rarest of college football championship rematches.
So in the spirit of Roll Tide and Howard’s Rock and their title game tussle, part II, we present the 10 greatest rematches in sports history.
Of course, there are a lot more great ones than just 10, and the requirement is that the combatants must have met two years in a row, so special rematches like Steelers-Cowboys in those two 1970s Super Bowls that happened to have two years in between them are disqualified.
And our list isn’t limited to championship-round clashes, so something like a conference final is just fine, and that’s right where we begin our countdown:
10. Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics, 1981 and ’82 Eastern Conference Finals: Everyone talks about the Lakers and the Celtics from the Golden 1980s, but when it came to true hatred mixed with greatness, Sixers-Celtics was the real headliner. Philly blew a 3-1 lead in the ’81 conference final, losing the last three games by a combined five points.
The same scenario was playing out one spring later for these ancient rivals, with the Sixers seeing a 3-1 lead turn into a 3-3 deadlock and a Game 7 in Boston. Nobody gave Philadelphia a chance in the Boston Garden, and a few Celtics fans near the Sixers bench even dressed up as the ghosts of Celtics past. Then the game happened, and the ultra-motivated 76ers took apart the Celtics and left the crowd stunned.
The lasting memory from that day at the Garden: The Celtics fans chanting “Beat L.A.” to the Sixers in the final moments, urging Philly to go the distance. The Sixers didn’t (they did the next year), but the famous chant about beating the Lakers was born as this riveting rematch came to a close.
9. Edmonton Oilers vs. New York Islanders, 1983 and ’84 Stanley Cup Finals: Not only did these two finals series feature a litany of future Hall of Famers, headlined by Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and New York’s Mike Bossy, but it was a wonderfully symbolic passing of the torch from one dynasty to another. In ’83, the Islanders taught the young Oilers a championship-round lesson, sweeping Edmonton to win their fourth straight Stanley Cup.
When these titanic hockey forces found their way to each other again the following spring, Edmonton’s nucleus had grown up and was ready to start its rule. The Oilers denied the Islanders in their “Drive for Five” as they rolled to their first Stanley Cup crown in five games. Messier earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and would help lead Edmonton to four more Cups through the rest of the decade.
8. Duke vs. UNLV, 1990 and ’91 Final Four: This rivalry was short-lived but long remembered, with it being a two-game clash of varying styles, on and off the court. Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebels blew the Blue Devils off the floor in the 1990 national title game, as Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Co. were way too quick and powerful for Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Mike Krzyzewski’s shell-shocked guys from Durham, N.C.
The 103-73 final score spoke volumes in 1990. Then Duke spoke up in the 1991 national semifinals, taking down the undefeated Rebels 79-77 in Indianapolis with many of the same players on both teams on the floor. Duke both dethroned UNLV and finally got Krzyzewski his first national title after so many near misses.
7. Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz, 1997 and ’98 NBA Finals: Not enough people remember that the Jazz of Karl Malone and John Stockton nearly beat Michael Jordan — twice — during the Bulls’ 6-0 Finals run through the 1990s. In ’97, visiting Utah had Chicago on the ropes in Game 6, so close to being the only team to take that Bulls team to a Finals Game 7. But a little guard named Steve Kerr hit that foul-line jumper, with Jordan dishing to him in ultimate trust, and Chicago had its fifth title of the decade.
In ’98 it was the same scenario, but this time in Salt Lake City. The Jazz were so agonizingly close to pushing the series to seven, but Jordan would have none of it. His famous shot and follow through (yes, with a little push off) over Bryon Russell sunk the Jazz and provided one final, iconic moment to Chicago’s decade-long championship rush.
6. New York Yankees vs. Los Angeles Dodgers, 1977 and ’78 World Series: The Yankees and Dodgers were used to meeting in the Series, but that was back when the Dodgers called Brooklyn home. In the late 1970s, the rivalry was separated by 3,000 miles, not a subway ride. The ’77 Series will forever be remembered for Reggie Jackson’s three-homer assault on Dodgers pitching in Game 6, as Mr. October gave his career signature performance at a rocking Yankee Stadium to help New York clinch the series.
The storied teams hooked up again the following October, and after the Dodgers won the first two games in Los Angeles, the Yanks ripped off four straight wins, holding L.A. to a combined eight runs and this time clinching the repeat championship at venerable Chavez Ravine.
5. Cleveland Browns vs. Denver Broncos, 1986 and ’87 AFC title games: The Browns and Broncos, never division rivals or anything, are forever linked because of what took place on those two January days in the 1980s. The Browns had their championship-starved city on the brink of a Super Bowl appearance in the ’86 title game, leading the Broncos 20-13, with Denver backed up at its 2-yard line and the Dog Pound howling. Then came the “The Drive” authored by John Elway to tie it before Denver prevailed in overtime.
The following year’s thriller took place amid the Rocky Mountains, with the same stakes and the same team prevailing. Cleveland fought back from a 21-3 deficit and was on the verge of tying the game. But Earnest Byner was stripped on his way to the goal line in what became known as “The Fumble,” Denver recovered and went onto the Super Bowl, again at the expense of the heartbroken Browns.
4. Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees, 2003 and ’04 ALCS: The cumulative drama from these two epic series was enough to make a fan forget (especially a Yankees or Red Sox fan) that neither was the World Series, even if it felt that way during both. The Red Sox had the hated Yanks beat in Game 7 at the now old Yankee Stadium, or so they thought. Leads of 4-0 and 5-2 both went up in the smoke of Babe Ruth’s ghost, and Aaron Boone belted one of the most famous homers in baseball history in the 11th inning to lift New York into the World Series and break Boston’s heart again.
But the Curse of the Bambino would fall the next fall, in historical fashion, as the Red Sox became the first (and still only) team in baseball history to come back from a 3-0 deficit and win a series. They won Games 6 and 7 in a shell-shocked and despondent Yankee Stadium, just for good measure.
3. John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg, 1980 and ’81 Wimbledon finals: This brief but iconic rivalry riveted the world right in the heart of the tennis boom of the 1970s and 80s. It was a must-see grass-court show of ultimate contrast played out over two London summer days. The ’80 final was arguably the best match of all time, highlighted by McEnroe’s breathtaking 18-16 tiebreaker victory in the fourth set. The stoic Borg gathered himself and prevailed 8-6 in the fifth set to win his fifth consecutive Wimbledon.
But McEnroe got his revenge in ’81 on the fabled Centre Court, dethroning the five-time defending champ with a four-set victory that took the brash, young New Yorker’s legend to another level.
2. Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 1984 and ’85 NBA Finals: The two behemoth franchises of the 1980s perfectly split the decade with two blood-sweat-and-tears Finals meetings. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had famously clashed in the 1979 NCAA title game, and five years later they finally met again, this time on the grandest professional stage.
Bird’s gang in green struck first in ’84, winning an epic seven-game war that featured Kevin McHale’s clothesline of Kurt Rambis, the finest symbol of the teams’ hatred for one another. Magic and the Lakers got their opportunity for revenge in ’85 and not only became the first Lakers team to beat a Celtics team in an NBA Finals (after eight straight Finals losses), they clinched the crown on the fabled parquet floor at a mostly silent and stunned Boston Garden.
1. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, 1974 and ’75: The legendary boxing rivals first met for the heavyweight title in 1971 in the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden, with the Philly brawler Frazier handing Ali his first career loss. Neither was a champion when they met again in 1974 in Super Fight II, again at MSG. Ali was a slight favorite and triumphed by unanimous decision.
The Ali-Frazier phenomenon wasn’t finished creating its legacy in American sports history though. The next year, in the Thrilla in Manila, this time with the heavyweight championship on the line, Ali won by technical knockout to make it two victories in two calendar years over his bitter rival. To this day and forever, just comparing something to Ali-Frazier means whatever battle it is must be pretty serious, and illustrious.