12 of the Biggest Feuds in Sports History

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz,  Game 3

12 of the Biggest Feuds in Sports History

At the start of September, the best competitive eaters in the world will face off and reignite their long-standing feud live on Netflix. To be the best at anything in the world, much less sports, requires grit, determination, and intensity. This explosive mindset can naturally lead to conflict, especially in team sports requiring coordination, communication, and eye-to-eye. While conflicts spring up all the time in professional sports, some disputes remain the biggest feuds in sports history.

Conflicts in sports run the gamut. Sometimes top players come to blows with their managers. Other times managers themselves find conflict with their team’s front office. Furthermore, players can also grow alienated from practically everyone around them. This results in more existential disputes between individual players and each team they play on, or more absurdly, whole cities. While athletic feuds take many forms, often ugly and just as often embarrassing, the best conflicts elevate both sides to a higher level of sportsmanship, ability, and productive intensity. In this article, we will explore 12 of the biggest feuds in sports history. (For a contemporary sports conflict, discover everything to know about the Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese feud.)

To compile a list of the biggest feuds in sports history, 24/7 Tempo consulted a range of sports, history, and news publications including BleacherReport, Men’s Health Magazine, and Britannica. Next, we selected feuds that covered the spectrum from outright fights to sports-elevating rivalries. After that, we confirmed aspects of each dispute using sites like The New York Times and ESPN. 

Barry Bonds and Jim Leyland

Pittsburgh Pirates
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These days, Bonds’ reputation teeters between legend and pariah. Decades previous, Bonds (pictured in 1990) was a young upstart for the Pittsburgh Pirates under the notoriously tough Coach Leyland. Being considered a virtuoso talent helped Bonds earn his first Most Valuable Player award while with the Pirates in 1990. It seems, however, that the recognition went to Bonds’ head.

This resulted in Bonds phoning it in during training drills, flexing his newfound glory, and being an overall buzzkill for the team’s morale. However, Leyland wouldn’t stand for it and reportedly approached Bonds to read him his last rights more than once. What started as internal disputes came to a head after the pair got into a shouting match on the field in front of numerous reporters and spectators. Leyland ended the argument by telling Bonds, “If you don’t want to be here, get the hell out of here.”

Regarding Bonds’ sullen attitude, Leyland said to reporters, “I don’t give a damn what his problems are, he’s not going to run this camp. He can just go home.” To Bonds’ credit, however, his attitude shift may have sprung from losing for a second time in salary arbitration, bringing his $3.25 million pay down to $2.3 million. Bonds later claimed he wouldn’t continue playing for the Pirates if they paid him $100 million. He got his wish, as Bonds drifted into free agency by 1992.

Marcus Allen and Al Davis

Marcus Allen address the media
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After being selected by the Los Angeles Raiders as their 10th pick overall in the 1982 NFL Draft, Allen (pictured in 2003) embarked on an exemplary run for the team. Arguably the best running back to ever grace the Raiders organization, Allen helped them win the 1984 Super Bowl. For decades, however, trouble brewed between Allen and Raiders head coach Al Davis.

It came to a head in the early 1990s, as Allen’s status on the team lessened and Davis publicly called him a “cancer to the team.” Some say one of the biggest feuds in sports history occurred because Allen demanded more money and more chances to hold the ball during play. Others say that Davis resented Allen’s star burning brighter than his own. One commentator, author Murray Olderman, even suggested that Davis disliked Allen’s friendship with O.J. Simpson.

Speculations abound as to the true root of the feud, but even into their later years, neither party would comment except to give vague comments suggesting sinister overtones. In his 2010 documentary “Straight Outta L.A.” rapper Ice Cube confronted Davis about the long-standing beef. Cryptically, Davis replied: “I’m not going to tell you. It’s a deeper story than you even dream, that I was well aware of, and I just got a certain approach to life.”

Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin

Reggie Jackson
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For years, New York Yankees manager Martin maintained a reputation for being erratic, unpredictable, and hot-headed. After burgeoning ball player Jackson (pictured in 1969) joined the team in 1977, he and Martin immediately disliked each other. While Jackson kept his issues internal to the organization, Martin proceeded to denounce Jackson in multiple passive-aggressive interviews. 

One of the biggest feuds in sports history came to a head that same year during a game between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. After Jackson’s sluggish play in the sixth inning caused a double play, Martin stormed out onto the field to give him a piece of his mind. This devolved into a shouting match, with Jackson asking Martin, “You’re too old. Do you want to fight?”

Not one to back down from a fight, Martin held his ground, brimming with anger. Luckily, coaches Elston Howard and Yogi Berra ran onto the field and intervened as thousands of bloodthirsty fans watched. This ultimately contributed to Martin being fired from the team, before being rehired multiple times in the following years. For Jackson’s part, he freed himself from the team tension after becoming a free agent in 1981 and signing with the California Angels. 

Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner

Billy Martin
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As mentioned in the previous slide, Martin was many things — including undiplomatic. He said what he thought and didn’t care much about the consequences. This contentious spirit manifested itself in Martin’s relationship with the equally mercurial New York Yankees owner Steinbrenner. The pair loved each other as much as they hated each other.

Like many on-again, off-again toxic relationships, the coupling of Martin (pictured) and Steinbrenner seemed to bring the worst out of each other. After a chaotic stint as the Yankees manager, Steinbrenner fired Martin. A few years later, however, Steinbrenner rehired Martin before firing him again after he failed to bring the Yankees to the playoffs.

This pattern continued for another five absurd cycles. Martin would fail to get the Yankees high enough in the rankings, Steinbrenner would fire him, Martin would make outlandish comments in the press about Steinbrenner’s character, and things would settle. While it remains one of the biggest feuds in sports history, both parties showed a surprising self-awareness. They kissed and made up so many times that the feud became a running joke in the media with the pair appearing in multiple commercials together. At one point, Steinbrenner even prank-called Martin while being interviewed on “Late Night with David Letterman.”

John Rocker and New York City

Anti-John Rocker Fans
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When the Atlanta Braves signed pitcher Rocker, they had high hopes. He had thrown an unheard-of three no-hitters during his high school baseball career and seemed like a solid fit. After playing his first season in the majors, however, Rocker came away with a losing record. In the process, Rocker seemed to go off his rocker and started threatening reporters and making increasingly outlandish statements.

This came to a head during an interview in 1999. When asked if he’d ever play for the New York Yankees or New York Mets, Rocker made comments that would make a KKK member blush. He threw invective at anyone with a pulse, lambasting the tri-state area and every ethnic or marginalized group that called it home. He also called Mets fans “degenerates.”

Major League Baseball did not take too kindly to Rocker’s comments and suspended him for 28 games. While initially repentant, Rocker ultimately refused to back down and never disavowed his hateful comments. Be it his attitude, playing ability, or a mixture of both, Rocker would go on to have an increasingly lackluster career for various ball teams before ending his career with the Long Island Ducks minor league team in 2005. Though hardly anyone remembers his time on the field, many still recall Rocker’s feud with the entire city of New York. 

Terrell Owens vs. everyone

Philadelphia Eagles v Kansas City Chiefs
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After the San Francisco 49ers selected Owens in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft, he began an interesting career. Innately talented as a wide receiver, Owens went on to earn six Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro selections. In the process, however, Owens earned the ire of just about every team he ever played for.

Besides his increasingly flamboyant and controversial touchdown celebrations, Owens seemed to poison the well everywhere he went. First, he battled with 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci. After being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2004, he embarked on a contentious relationship with head coach Andy Reid.

Later, he ran afoul of the fans and press alike after he reportedly spit on Atlanta Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Though the incident failed to find confirmation, the NFL fined him $35,000. Perhaps they were tired of his antics. While Owens remained a talented player throughout his career, his endless issues with his teams and other petty contractual disputes led to him becoming persona non grata in the NFL. After that, he embarked on an unremarkable era in the Canadian Football League.

Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz,  Game 3
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Suffering from success can be a very real phenomenon. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the early 2000s era of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Together, Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal brought the team back to greatness. Multiple injuries and an early playoff loss, however, led to a rift between the star players. After head coach Jackson jumped in the middle, it caused one of the biggest sports feuds in history.

Perhaps resentful of Jackson’s interference, Bryant embarked on a petty but pervasive feud with Jackson. He made it his mission to call Jackson’s bluffs. This manifested with Bryant increasingly ignoring plays put forth by Jackson, opting instead to play the game how he saw fit. Suffice it to say, the results were mixed, and Jackson left the team shortly afterward.

The feud might have ended there, but Jackson was indignant. Jackson wrote a memoir with one passage offering a scathing critique of the Laker’s star player. A few years later, the dust settled and Jackson returned to coach the team. Together, Bryant and Jackson brought the team a few more NBA Championship rings. 

Omar Vizquel and Jose Mesa

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One of the biggest feuds in sports history started during Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. The Cleveland Indians led the game 2-1 against the Florida Marlins and only needed three outs to win their first World Series in over 50 years. Unfortunately, the game tied after the Indians’ closing pitcher Mesa allowed a run to come home for the Marlins. Mesa may not have known it at the time, but shortstop Vizquel was furious.

Vizquel’s feelings became readily apparent six years later when he published his autobiography, “Omar! My Life On and Off the Field.” In the book, Vizquel called Mesa’s pitching ability into question. Worse, Vizquel leveled suspicion at his rival’s passion for baseball. In response, Mesa offered a threat. He said, “Even my little boy told me to get him. If I face him 10 more times, I’ll hit him 10 times. I want to kill him.” (Pictured is the pair during happier times in 1995.)

Though years away from the World Series upset and on different teams, Mesa made good on his words. The next three times Vizquel faced Mesa at the plate, Mesa hit him with a fastball on purpose. While this caused an outcry in Major League Baseball, with Mesa being suspended for his assaults, the bad blood between the pair still boils. (For incredible upsets, discover the most spectacular wins in baseball history.)

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi

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In the mid-1990s, professional tennis players Sampras and Agassi were at the top of their game. Both were ranked the No. 1 tennis player in the world at various points during the decade. Bringing very different playing styles and temperaments, Sampras and Agassi faced off against each other 34 times.

Though it could be called one of the biggest feuds in sports history, it took the form of a rivalry. While Agassi gave it his all, Sampras seemed to hold the upper hand. In five final Grand Slam tournaments, Sampras won four. Overall, their head-to-head matches also favored Sampras 20-14. This rivalry, however, came to a head at the Hit for Haiti charity fundraiser at the BNP Paribas Open in 2010. There, the seemingly friendly banter between the pair took a darker turn after Agassi asked Sampras, “You always have to go get serious, huh, Pete?”

In response, Sampras made a mocking impersonation of Agassi’s pigeon-toed walk. While the exchange kept the veneer of civility, the tension in the room could have been cut with a knife. It took years for the rivalry/feud to settle down. Upon reflection, Agassi wrote in his autobiography, “I realized I never really knew him… Two different guys, with different styles, who see the world differently. That was a bridge that was difficult to cross.”

Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi

Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest Champions Attend Official Weigh-In
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Not all rivalries occur in the upper echelons of sports. Some take place at a relatively obscure level, but the personalities of the warring pairs are so strong that the fight can’t help but rise to the mainstream. Take Chestnut and Kobayashi, two of the best professional hot-dog eaters in history. It’s lonely at the top, however, and crowded enough that the pair’s hatred of each other becomes more apparent by the year.

For years, Chestnut badmouthed Kobayashi to anyone with a microphone. In the process, he has called him a liar and a sissy, and comes just short of accusing him of cheating, suggesting Kobayashi harps on any advantage he can get. As for Kobayashi’s part, the feeling seems to be mutual. After Chestnut won the 95th annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in 2010, Kobayashi rushed the stage in protest, leading to his arrest.

Kobayashi has been barred from the authorized Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest due to contractual disputes and his very public arrest. Nevertheless, the competitors still hold onto their beef. On Labor Day this year, the pair will face off for a live Netflix special. Regarding the return of one of the biggest feuds in sports history, Chestnut said, “Through all of my years in competitive eating, Kobayashi stands out as my fiercest rival. Competing against him pushed me to be so much better. I know that fans have waited a long time for another chapter of our rivalry and I can’t wait for our massive showdown live on Netflix! It’s time to give the people what they want!”

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier

Fallen Butterfly
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This wouldn’t be a proper list of the biggest feuds in sports history without mentioning the classic rivalry between legendary boxers Ali and Frazier. Both at the top of their game, they first dueled at Madison Square Garden. This bout on March 8, 1971, was called “The Fight of the Century.” Before the match, the pair traded increasingly charged insults, one-liners, and other wars of words that would give battle rappers a run for their money.

By the time the match finished after a grueling 15 rounds, Frazier was declared the victor. In response, Ali showed nothing but respect, calling Frazier “the greatest fighter of all time next to me.” The pair would go on to fight two more bouts over the years, but nothing came close to the ferocity and intensity of their first fight. Decades later, many people remember the unparalleled sense of sportsmanship, charisma, and rival intensity that Ali and Frazier brought to the boxing ring.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird

Bird and Johnson
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Not all of the biggest feuds in sports history have to be ugly. Sometimes feuds take the form of unparalleled sportsmanship. Take the incredible rivalry between pro basketball players Johnson and Bird, for example. After an era of basketball ruled by the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, the sport declined in popularity. Then out of nowhere, Bird joined the Celtics and Johnson joined the Lakers, resulting in one of the most exciting chapters in basketball.

During their mutual time in the NBA, both won three MVP Trophies. They also seemed to come head-to-head almost every year during the NBA Finals. Fierce competitors, Bird and Johnson wanted to show each other up without devolving into courtside disputes.

Though undoubtedly rivals, their abilities helped save a floundering NBA and resulted in a renewed interest in the game. Furthermore, it made the winning streaks of the Lakers and the Celtics seem exciting again. It also provided Bird and Johnson with plenty of commercials, shoe deals, and eventual inclusions in the Basketball Hall of Fame. (For sports issues that border on criminality, discover the top corruption scandals in the history of sports.)

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