Commentary

Sports beefs: When players attack

Updated: May 28, 2009, 4:22 PM ET
By Jemele Hill and Mike Philbrick | Page 2

PAGE 2: BEST SPORTS FEUDS


Part 1: Player vs. player

Part 2: Player vs. management

Part 3: Wild-card feuds

We love the games. We love the players. But we live for the feuds. Real, imagined or somewhere in between, a large, spicy helping of animosity is the best way to get us to tune in.

This week, Page 2 takes a look at the most memorable feuds in sports history.

First up are player versus player feuds. Jemele Hill starts us off with the beef that had something for everybody.


1. Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan

Plenty of athletes hate each other, but those beefs typically don't result in an organized physical attack that requires FBI investigation.

In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding became linked forever when Harding's ex-husband hired a goon to club Nancy Kerrigan in the knee at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit -- arguably the most gangster act in sports history.

[+] EnlargeHarding/Kerrigan
AP Photo/Merline SummersTonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan is the gold standard for sports feuds. It also allowed us to use "Gillooly" as a verb in 1994.

It was an international incident, complete with a media frenzy reserved for a presidential campaign. Kerrigan and Harding became cult figures and at the 1994 Olympic games in Lillehammer, Norway, their rivalry spurred unprecedented television ratings. Almost half of American households (48.5 percent) tuned in to see Kerrigan versus Harding. Even if a LeBron-Kobe NBA Finals happens, it won't draw a fraction of that.

Though we later learned from Kerrigan's comments about Oksana Baiul's looks that Kerrigan was no angel either, Harding perhaps was the most charismatic villain since General Zod.

There was absolutely nothing likable about Harding, which, naturally, only made her more likable. Kerrigan was a media-concocted sweetheart. Harding was someone you called to split a fifth of vodka with after a bad breakup. It was the homecoming queen versus the hood rat.

Kerrigan faded into relative obscurity -- save for a cameo in "Blades of Glory" -- but for Harding, the knee whack was only the beginning.

Harding made Pacman Jones look like an altar boy. There was the sex tape with her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, her short-lived career as a wrestler, her pitiful attempt at being a rock star, the claim she was abducted at knifepoint (police found no evidence she was attacked), pelting an ex-boyfriend with a hubcap, a drunk-driving conviction and a stab at a boxing career -- which included a celebrity match against Paula Jones. Donna Rice wasn't available.


Rounding out the Top 5:


2. Shaquille O'Neal vs. Kobe Bryant
The single-biggest reason most people still have a problem with Kobe has nothing to do with being accused of rape, but telling Colorado police that Shaq paid women hush money. Kobe is no match for Shaq when it comes to trading barbs. Shaq's "Tell Me How My A-- Taste" is pro sports' "Hit 'Em Up."


3. Isiah Thomas vs. Michael Jordan
In the '85 NBA All-Star Game, Thomas was rumored to be one of several all stars who froze Jordan out, supposedly out of jealousy. Later, Jordan allegedly one-upped Thomas by making sure he wasn't named to the 1992 Dream Team. Still, the best sports moment of my youth was when Thomas and the rest of the Pistons refused to shake the Bulls' hands after being swept by Jordan and Co. in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. Yeah, I'm still bitter.


4. Donovan McNabb vs. Terrell Owens
Instead of McNabb, I could have easily named Jeff Garcia, Jason Witten, Tony Romo, Jason Garrett or rational people in general, as among T.O.'s biggest foes. But the McNabb rift stands out because T.O. morphed into a clown. Without the McNabb beef, we don't get sit-ups in the driveway or "next question."


5. Omar Vizquel vs. Jose Mesa
The Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza feud got more pub, but Vizquel-Mesa actually was more entertaining and vicious. The former Indians teammates became bitter enemies after Vizquel wrote in his autobiography "Omar! My Life On And Off The Field" that Mesa's head wasn't in the game and that's why he blew a critical save against the Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Shortly after the book was published, Mesa issued a historic threat: "If I face him, I'll hit him," he said. "I won't try to hit him in the head, but I'll hit him. And if he charges me, I'll kill him." Mesa followed through on his threat twice. Vizquel, though, batted .333 against Mesa for his career.


The best of the rest of Page 2's player vs. player beefs:


[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens, Mike Piazza
AP Photo/Gary Hershorn, PoolThe Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza beef bubbled over with the shattered bat tiff in the 2000 World Series.
6. Roger Clemens vs. Mike Piazza
Very few hitters can say they "own" Roger Clemens, but Mike Piazza is one of them. His eight hits, four homers, 10 RBIs and .421 average in 19 career at-bats against the Rocket came to a head (literally) on July 8, 2000, when Clemens decided to use the mantra "if your can't beat 'em, hit 'em." Clemens' high and inside fastball didn't just knock Piazza out of the game … it knocked him out with a mild concussion. Fast forward to the 2000 World Series, where Clemens would face Piazza again in Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. Piazza's routine shattered-bat foul was anything but routine, with Clemens picking up a jagged piece of the bat barrel and throwing it toward Piazza. In a bizarre twist that shows the circle of feuds never stops, in the 2004 All-Star Game in Houston, Piazza would catch for Clemens, who gave up six first-inning runs, ultimately handing home-field advantage in the World Series to another Rocket nemesis -- the Red Sox. Mere coincidence? You be the judge.




7. Carlton Fisk vs. Thurman Munson
Munson was the 1970 Rookie of the Year catcher for the Yankees. Fisk was 1972 Rookie of the Year catcher for the Red Sox. But Fisk was the first to win the award unanimously, a fact which came up far too often for Munson, who constantly aimed to surpass Fisk in any statistical category he could. Their feud came to a head in August 1973 at Fenway Park, when Munson tried to score on a failed bunt by Gene "Stick" Michael. The collision at the plate resulted in a 10-minute, bench-clearing brawl in which both players were ejected. The two never went public with their lingering feud after that day, but they never reconciled, either. Munson would die in a plane crash six years later still "feuding" with his rival.


8. Pedro Martinez vs. Jorge Posada
Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS between the Red Sox and Yankees featured several showdowns, including one between Yankees catcher Jorge Posada and Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez. After Martinez hit Karim Garcia with a pitch, the Boston ace began jawing back and forth with the Yankees' dugout. Posada stood at the top step, yelling at Martinez, who then pointed at his own head in response. While many people believed Martinez was indicating that he was going to throw at Posada's head, Martinez later said he simply meant he was going to "remember" everything Posada said. Posada got the last word in the series when his double off Martinez in the eighth inning of Game 7 tied the game and sent Martinez to the showers. The Yankees famously won the pennant in the 11th inning on an Aaron Boone walk-off home run.


[+] EnlargeJason Kidd
AP Photo/Eric GayThe Mavericks' recipe for greatness turned out to be cauldron of turmoil.

9. Jason Kidd vs. Jimmy Jackson
In the mid-1990s, Jason Kidd and Jimmy Jackson were part of a group that was supposed to bring the Mavericks to prominence. It never happened. According to Kidd, it was Jackson's on-court selfishness that led to his demand that one of them be traded. Some tell a different story -- one in which singer Toni Braxton went to the team hotel to meet Kidd, but instead left with Jackson. This story ended up being nothing more than a urban legend (perpetuated by Braxton), but these two hated each other so much that even a pretend riff added fuel to the fire. Kidd eventually got his way in a trade to Phoenix.


10. Hungary vs. Soviet Union
When the Hungarian and the Soviet water polo teams met during the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, it was on the heels of a bloody uprising in Soviet-controlled Budapest. The Kremlin sent 200,000 troops to stop any further attempts to overthrow the communist party, leaving more than 5,000 Hungarians dead. The Hungarian water polo team (which was revered, as the sport is second only to soccer in popularity in Hungary) was sent out of the country ahead of schedule to avoid the violence. The tension was at a fever pitch when the two teams finally met. "We always had an extra incentive when we played the Soviets, but the atmosphere at Melbourne was another dimension," Hungarian player Ervin Zador said later. "The game meant so much to us. We had to win the gold medal. We were playing for ourselves, for our families back home, for our country." After several contentious plays, and Hungary leading 4-0, a Soviet player punched Zador after a whistle. The punch landed below Zador's right eye, leaving a gash which required eight stitches to close. With furious Hungarian fans spilling out of the stands, the referees called the game to prevent a riot. Hungary went on to win the gold with many members of the team defecting to the United States after the medal ceremony.


11. Jim Brown vs. O.J. Simpson
The quiet feud between Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson started when Simpson was still playing. Many pundits said Simpson was not only a better player, but a better person. According to writer Ralph Wiley, "Jim just laughed in reply. Jim had a way of laughing about it that drove Juice crazy." The two continued to simmer by refusing to acknowledge the other when asked about the great running backs in NFL history. But Wiley added that it went further than that for Brown: "A sneaky sort like O.J. always did make Jim Brown's skin crawl. Ours too … now. Jim saw the mask, the duplicity, the lie." Now, Brown spends his time working as a consultant for the Cleveland Browns, while O.J. spends his time behind bars in Nevada.


12. Ty Cobb vs. Babe Ruth
Who was the better player? It depends on whom you ask. According to a 1941 article in Time, "Cobb used to call Ruth 'that big baboon,' and Ruth would bristle at Cobb's mere name." The two were so fiercely competitive with one another they even took the rivalry to the golf course after their careers were over. The results? Cobb, then 54, won the first match 3 and 2, while Ruth, then 47, won the rematch a two days later on the 19th hole -- no, not the bar.


13. Steve Smith vs. Ken Lucas
How quickly can a feud appear then disappear? Take Carolina Panthers players Steve Smith and Ken Lucas -- their helmetless brawl in 2008 training camp left Lucas with a broken nose and a black eye. Moments after the fight, while Lucas was being worked on by medical staff, there were reports that "Smith -- with Muhsin Muhammad and an assistant coach by his side -- came over to the tent and attempted to reconcile with Lucas. The two men briefly exchanged a hug." The team suspended Smith for two games as a result, but this much-publicized feud was over as fast as it began.


14. Marcus Williams vs. Bill Romanowski
Sure, there are fights all the time during football practice, but few of them end careers. Former Raiders backup tight end Marcus Williams is one of the exceptions. Williams retired after a punch from Bill Romanowski during a 2003 practice resulted in a broken eye socket. The punch set off a wave of problems for Williams -- he was cut from the team and later developed vision and balance problems along with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Two years later, a jury awarded Williams $340,000 (far less than the $3.4 million he was seeking) for lost earnings and medical expenses. One of the highlights of the trial was testimony from former teammates Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice, who admitted that football was violent but Romanowski's actions "crossed the line."


15. Rick Fox vs. Doug Christie
With all the controversy that surrounded the 2002 Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Kings (the Lakers' 27 fourth-quarter free throws in Game 6 are still a topic of conversation), it's no surprise that tensions were high the next season. During the opening minutes of a preseason game, Kings guard Doug Christie and Lakers forward Rick Fox got into a fight that led to both players being ejected. While they were making their way to the locker rooms the two fought again in a Staples Center hallway, only this time Christie's wife, Jackie, famously joined in by swinging her purse at Fox. Since it was decided that Fox started the second fight, he was suspended for six games, while Christie received only a two-game suspension. The Lakers and Kings were set for a rematch in the playoffs, but the Spurs and Mavs had other plans, knocking out L.A. and Sacramento, respectively, and pulling the plug on any juice the feud had left.


16. Charles Oakley vs. Tyrone Hill
Philadelphia 76er Tyrone Hill made a big mistake prior to the 2001 NBA season -- he shot dice with Raptor Charles Oakley, lost and then didn't pay up. Oakley slapped Hill before a preseason game, resulting in both players being ejected. Oakley was fined $10,000 and suspended for a game for hitting Hill in the head with a ball during a morning shootaround before a regular-season game. While the 76ers and Raptors faced each other in the playoffs, Hill reportedly went to Oakley's hotel room to pay off the debt, which was alleged to be $54,000. While Oakley claimed he was owed twice that since "a gentleman pays his debt within a week or two," Hill and the Sixers got the last laugh by winning the series with a one-point victory in Game 7.


17. Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin
It's Magic-Bird without the respect. Each believes he's the best hockey player in the world. A Crosby-led Canada team beat the Ovechkin-led Russia squad to win the 2005 world junior championships. Ovechkin edged out Crosby for the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year in 2006. Crosby led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008. Crosby bristles at Ovechkin's exuberant goal celebrations. Ovechkin hates Crosby's perceived whining. If hockey fans have their way, this great rivalry will continue to brew for a long time.


[+] EnlargeJeff Kent and Barry Bonds
Donald Miralle/Getty Images"Dude, I totally hate you." "Dude, I totally hate you, too."
18. Jeff Kent vs. Barry Bonds
When Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds had their dugout brawl in June 2002 in San Diego while teammates on the Giants, it was an event that got top billing in many sports pages. Why not? You had the 2000 NL MVP (Kent) and the 2001 NL MVP (Bonds) throwing each other against a wall. Turns out this was Round 7. When questioned after the game, Kent said, "add this to the half-dozen times we've done it before." After a bitter loss later that season in the World Series, Kent would leave the Giants, signing with the Astros.


19. The Williams Sisters vs. Martina Hingis
While Martina Hingis was winning Grand Slam titles, some of her fiercest matches came during press conferences when asked to comment on Venus and Serena Williams. It wasn't big news when Hingis said the Williams sisters had "big mouths" prior to the 1999 U.S. Open. But it was when she responded to their complaints of discrimination by saying, "Being black only helps them. Many times they get sponsors because they are black. And they have had a lot of advantages because they can always say, 'It's racism.' They can always come back and say, 'Because we are this color, things happen.'" Hingis finished her career with a 17-17 record against the Williams sisters (6-7 against Serena, 11-10 against Venus), but ultimately retired from tennis in 2007 rather than face a ban for testing positive for cocaine.


20. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier
Ali and Frazier fought in three of the biggest fights in the 20th century: The "Fight of the Century" (won by Frazier, in 1971), a non-title bout (won by Ali, in '74) and the "Thrilla in Manila" (won by Ali, in '75). Nevertheless, the biggest blows the two traded were out of the ring. Ali repeatedly called Frazier "ugly," "a gorilla" and an "Uncle Tom." In 1996, when a Parkinson's-stricken Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, Frazier, who claims to have caused Ali's physical decline, said he wished he could have "pushed him in." The two traded apologies and recanting of the apologies in the years that followed. To this day, Frazier's answering machine bears this message: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, I done the job, he knows, look and see."

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine

Mike Philbrick | email

Grantland contributor
Mike Philbrick is an editor for Grantland.