On the surface, all basketball and boxing have in common is the letter “B.” Boxing is an individual sport in terminal decline, a sport once dominated by great champions and now run by shameless, rival promoters. Basketball is a team sport on the rise. Yet, boxing and basketball do share two crucial commonalities: a focus on individual talent and personality and an emphasis on the power of great rivalries to drive the sport forward.
So, how do basketball’s top rivalries compare with the greatest in boxing history?
Boxing’s most celebrated, bitter rivalry was between Muhammad Ali, history’s greatest fighter, and “Fighting” Joe Frazier. Ali was fast, graceful, and outspoken, forever in the spotlight, while Frazier was blue-collar, understated, and gritty. What they both shared was incredible talent, even greater pride, and skilled ferocity in the ring. The two dueled in three epic battles with Frazier winning the first, the “Fight of the Century,” and Ali winning the final two, including the “Thrilla in Manila.”
Doesn’t that sound like the Los Angeles Lakers’ rivalry with the Boston Celtics? The Lakers are brash and flashy in the spotlight, always winning; the Muhammad Ali of basketball. The Celtics, meanwhile, come from blue-collar Boston; placing greater emphasis on their pride, team history and lore, and record number of NBA titles. Even the rivalries’ chronology sounds a bit familiar: like Frazier, the Celtics of the 1960s won their first bout with the Lakers – when Bill Russell dominated Wilt Chamberlain en route to 11 NBA championships. But, like Ali in his final two convincing wins over Frazier, it’s been mostly Lakers since: Los Angeles’ darlings have won 10 NBA titles since 1980 compared to four for Boston.
What about boxing’s under-the-radar, gritty turn-of-the-century rivalry between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward? Neither Ward nor Gatti are Hall of Fame fighters; both were known more for their toughness than their skill or style. Yet, Gatti and Ward were immortalized for their three straight Fight of the Year bouts in the early 2000s; battles that changed fans’ perception of non-heavyweight boxing.
Reminds you of the budding New York Knicks vs. Brooklyn Nets rivalry, right? The Knicks and Nets have already waged two tough battles this year. It’s an all-out dogfight for the “Best Team in New York” title, even if that title means little outside of bragging rights. The Knicks and Nets aren’t winning any NBA championships, yet you still have to hand it to them for gritty defense and tough play.
And what about the hypothetical “what-if” rivalry between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather? The Fighting Congressman and Money Mayweather are the two best fighters of their era but they have never dueled it out in the ring. If the two cannot make a deal soon, a whole generation of boxing will be robbed of the best possible match-up in the sport.
Sounds just like the predicted “Lakers vs. Miami Heat” NBA Championship this season. The Lakers, with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash, are clearly the NBA’s best answer to Heat dominance, even with their early season struggles under Mike D’Antoni. But, if those struggles continue, will NBA fans be deprived of their dream matchup?
Fans will just have to see. In the meantime, fans can tune in to watch the New Orleans Hornets, soon to be named “Pelicans” (yes, seriously), take on the Milwaukee Bucks.
And which boxing rivalry is that like? Your guess is as good as mine.
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