Women, men, horses have dueled for supremacy

On the eve of Tarver-Jones III, ESPN.com considers the best sports rivalries in history.

Originally Published: September 30, 2005
By Teri Berg | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Saturday marks not only the third installment of the Antonio Tarver-Roy Jones rivalry, but the 30th anniversary of "The Thrilla In Manila" -- the final fight in the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy. ESPN.com considers some of the best multi-part rivalries in boxing and elsewhere in sport.

When it comes to sports, good things come in threes.

But to create this list of the top 10 sports trilogies, we had to figure out how to whittle down the mind-boggling number of threes possible in sports to a list that would shape and define the very meaning of the phrase "sports trilogy." To that end, what you won't find here are two sets of Chicago Bulls' championships, nor the three Olympic marathons contested by the barefoot Ethiopian Abebe Bikila (though they're great stories).

What was left after we chiseled and sculpted was a collection of the best head-to-head three-pronged competitions by both teams and individuals (to see boxing's best trilogies, click here) in championship or near-championship events.

In all but one case, we tried to respect the narrow window of opportunity athletic rivalries are limited to, as it would stretch credulity to suggest teams or athletes competing head-to-head after many years would make up a true, gripping rivalry. The Cowboys-Steelers choice breaks this rule, as a span of 20 years separates their Super Bowl meetings.

However different the makeup of these two teams from one era to another, we felt this was the lone exception for inclusion based on the trilogy's cathartic outcome. Still, as vindicated as Cowboys fans might have felt, this troika reached only No. 10.

For sports fans, trilogies allow for some consistency over short spans of time. Athletes and teams in their peak years going mano a mano with their archrivals allows fans an extended glimpse into what makes the competitors and the sport tick, which makes trilogies the perfect drug for sports mainliners.

1. New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox
ALCS 1999, 2003, 2004

The Yankees downed the Sox in five games in 1999, but it was Game 4's 9-2 Yankees' victory at Fenway that summarized the Red Sox's Grandpa Jones approach to the postseason: If it weren't for bad luck, they'd have no luck at all. Following a six-run Yankee burst in the ninth, then a questionable call at second against Nomar Garciaparra that halted a Boston rally and led to manager Jimy Williams' ejection from the game, fans sprayed the field with cans and bottles, stopping the game for eight minutes. Not for the first time, the Red Sox seemed to excel in their ability to lose a series as much as the Yankees excelled at winning.

In their 2003 ALCS rematch, you just knew something had to go ker-flooey.

The irreverent young Red Sox said they didn't give a hoot about The Curse, and came out swinging in Game 1. But the ghost of Babe Ruth, in his cruel and unusual way, demanded respect. The Yankees evened the score at one in Game 2, then all hell broke loose at Fenway for Game 3. In the fourth, a Roger Clemens-Manny Ramirez standoff brought Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer out of the dugout to confront Pedro Martinez, who grabbed Zimmer by his baldness and tossed him to the ground. Later, in the ninth, the NY bullpen erupted when reliever Jeff Nelson and outfielder Karim Garcia tangled with a Sox fan.

Pedro Martinez, Don Zimmer
Pedro Martinez vs. Don Zimmer indicated the intensity of the Red Sox-Yanks' rivalry.

After trading the next two victories, the Sox's offense "cowboyed up" in Game 6. Game 7 -- what's new? Not much. Ralliers extraordinaire Derek Jeter and Co. lit up Pedro to tie it 5-5 into extra innings. Then 2B Aaron Boone took the first pitch of the 11th from Pedro's replacement, Tim Wakefield, and sent it to the moon. Curses!

The Yanks-Sox' rubber match rocketed this trilogy to its hands-down No. 1 ranking. The first three games were marked by the Yankees' usual strong play, but ugly pitching from the Sox. But in Game 4, the Sox struck back -- courtesy of Mariano Rivera -- with the bat of "Big Papi," David Ortiz, whose walk-off bomb in the 12th got the win. The Yankees bullpen choked again in a 14-inning Game 5 that lasted 5 hours and 49 minutes, as Estaban Loiaza walked Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez before giving up a game-winning single to Ortiz, the eventual series MVP.

The Red Sox became only the third team to rally from 0-3 to force a sixth meeting, though no team in history had pushed their luck beyond that.

Enter first-game loser Curt Schilling. Having suffered an injury in the ALDS, Schilling took the mound in Game 6 with a jerry-rigged ankle -- with sutures connecting skin, ligaments and bone. But Schilling outlasted his sutures, holding the Yanks to one hit (a run) through seven, while his ankle bled visibly through his sock. Upon Shilling's exit, NY began what looked like another classic Yankees rally -- Jeter drove in a run, then looked to score on an Alex Rodriguez grounder that reliever Bronson Arroyo seemed to have bobbled as he lunged for the tag at first. After the play, which Sox faithful regard as the moment The Curse was reversed, officials called back the run and ruled Rodriguez out for swatting the ball out of Arroyo's outstretched hand.

The self-proclaimed idiots had bucked history by forcing a seventh game. In their battle for redemption and all the AL marbles, the Sox hammered Yankees starter Kevin Brown. Although Pedro Martinez, in the role of reliever, gave Sox fans a scare in the seventh, he helped hold off the Yankees in a historic 10-3 victory that sent the Red Sox on to their first World Series victory in 86 years.

2.Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers
NBA Finals 1984, 1985, 1987

Two names pretty much sum up this amazing troika: Magic and Bird.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird
Magic Johnson (left) and Larry Bird personified the NBA's best trilogy, the mid-1980s battles between the Lakers and Celtics.

Their 1984 series, in which the Celtics edged the favored Lakers 4-3, set the pattern for the rivalry. It was East Coast grit versus West Coast flash. The Teamsters versus the MDs. Dorky-looking white guys scrapping for rebounds against Hollywood black dudes on the fastest and most stylish team in America.

In '84, the Teamsters won out. Despite shooting bricks throughout the series (making only 44.2 percent of their shots, as the Lakers shot 51.4), the MVP play of Larry Bird and the Celtics' rebounding shut down the Lakers' bread and butter, the running game. The Lakers' futility extended to turnovers and missed free throws; in a memorable Game 2, the Lakers were unable to hold off the tenacious Celts and pull the trigger for a victory.

Although Larry Legend reigned in his second season as league MVP, 1985 belonged to Lakers' senior citizen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Though the 38-year-old looked sluggish in "The Memorial Day Massacre," in which the Celtics blitzed L.A. 148-114, he ended up averaging over 30 points, 11 boards, six dimes and two blocked shots per game in the Lakers' four victories. Backing Jabbar, the Lakers somehow channeled the Celtics' down-n-dirty game and made it their own. The Celtics edged the new old-look Lakers in Game 4 with a sweet last-second Dennis Johnson jumper, but Pat Riley's get-the-ball-to-the-big-man strategy kept the Celts and an injury-weary Bird at bay for the overall 4-2 series victory and the championship.

The Lakers opened the teams' rubber series by winning the first two games, no surprise from a team that notched a 65-17 regular-season record and had routed foes at will through the postseason.

And though Bird and the Celts rallied to take Game 3 at the Boston Garden, home-court advantage did them no good against a team that had Earvin "Magic" Johnson on its side. Game 4 seesawed, as first the Lakers played catch-up, then the Celtics. At 29 seconds, the Lakers took a 104-103 lead. Then Bird drained a 3-pointer with only 12 ticks left. Jabbar made one free throw, boosting L.A. to the tie.

Three years earlier, the Lakers had lost Game 2 to the Celts when Magic looked to pass to Jabbar rather than let fly himself. Not again. With two seconds remaining, the Lakers' point guard took the ball, hesitated, then drove. His "junior, junior, junior" skyhook, as he described it, doused all hope for the Celtics. The Lakers dropped Game 5, but won Game 6 to give arguably the best team in league history another championship title, a rubber match win over the Celtics, and a third Finals MVP trophy to Magic.

3. Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova
French Open 1984, 1985, 1986

In what is likely the most Zen rivalry in sports history, the two best women's tennis players ever squared off on three final Saturdays in a row on the red-clay surface of Roland Garros.

Martina and Chrissie's clashes were a study in contrasts. The left-handed serve-and-volleyer against the metronomic baselining righty. The dominating server versus the game's best returner. One an aggressive power-player, the other a patient and precise tactician. The emotional and effusive Czech paired with the Floridian Ice Princess.

The Über-jock lesbian facing down the tennis world's Ultra Fem.

Martina Navratilova/Chris Evert
Navratilova (left) and Evert's rivalry reached its peak during a run of French Open finals in the 1980s.

By 1984, Navratilova was at her peak while Evert struggled. But just as critics were writing her off, Evert kicked off a new training regimen aimed at toppling her archrival. She weight trained for the first time in her career, and practiced against lefty playing partners. But the dividends didn't accrue fast enough for that year's French Open, where Martina clobbered her 6-3, 6-1 in 63 minutes.

Evert struck back in their 1985 rematch, battling her way to an epic 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 victory. The win propelled her back into the No. 1 spot, after a 3½-year absence, for the fifth and final time in her 16-year career. Evert struck her final blow on Court Philippe Chartier against her nemesis in 1986, rallying from 2-6 to win the next two sets 6-3, 6-3.

Navratilova, none the worse for wear, went on to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that year. The '86 title was the last victory and final at Roland Garros for Evert, and gave her a record seven triumphs there. Unable to keep up with either Martina or the younger players on tour (Hana Mandlikova, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf), Chris finally retired in 1989. The final win-loss tally between the two stands at Navratilova 43, Evert 37.

4.Oakland A's vs. Baltimore Orioles
ALCS 1971, 1973, 1974

Though the Oakland A's "Mustache Gang" seemed to have more in common with their city's NFL counterpart, the Raiders at the time than with Baltimore of the "Oriole Way" era, both teams based their long success on pitching, good D and clutch hitting. In 1971, though, the more experienced O's swept the A's 3-0 to move on to the Fall Classic.

In 1973, the Athletics rode the momentum of their '72 World Series victory through another strong season and into the AL pennant series. On the losing end of a Jim Palmer 6-0 Game-1 shutout, though, the A's knew they had a struggle ahead. Oakland took the next meeting, as well as Game 3. The highlights of Game 3: LHP Ken Holtzman hurled an 11-inning complete game, boosted with run support from Bert Campaneris, whose lead-off dinger gave Oakland a 2-1 victory. The O's rallied to win Game 4, but they couldn't handle the irrepressible A's in Game 5. Redeeming himself for his collapse in Game 2 of the 1971 ALCS, Jim "Catfish" Hunter threw a 5-hitter for a 3-0 shutout to finish the series.

The O's came back in 1974 to give it the old college try, but the A's had become a steamroller.

After the Orioles' HR-fest in Game 1, 19-game winner Holtzman got down to business in Game 2, blanking Baltimore 5-0. And the A's never looked back. The old Vida Blue, 1971's AL Cy Young and MVP winner, made a timely reappearance for the third game, hurling a two-hitter in the 1-0 win. The Orioles finally cracked in Game 4, as their ace, lefty Mike Cuellar -- who had won 22 games in the regular season -- surrendered nine walks, one of which yielded an A's run in the fifth.

Reggie Jackson, not yet Mr. October, doubled in the decisive run in the 7th, and A's closer Rollie Fingers worked his mustache magic for the series-winning save.

5.Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Oakland Raiders
AFC Championship 1974, 1975, 1976

The Steelers-Raiders' rivalry of this era dates back to 1972, just as Pittsburgh was putting together one of the best collections of players in NFL history.

After trading first-round playoff victories in '72 and '73, the two teams lined up across from each other again in 1974's conference championship.

Though 12-2 under head coach John Madden during the regular season -- and having stuffed Pittsburgh 17-0 earlier that year -- the Raiders were ineffective against the "Steel Curtain" in this AFC final. Oakland's No. 1-ranked offense mustered just one touchdown. The Raiders held a 10-3 lead at the end of the third quarter, but two Franco Harris scoring runs and a short Terry Bradshaw touchdown pass to Lynn Swann in the fourth ended the Raiders' season, 24-13.

In the 1975 rematch, this time at Three Rivers Stadium, was staged in Lambeau Field-like conditions: brutal cold, snow and a freezing wind.

The weather put Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler's arm on ice. "The Snake," who had earned AFC player of the year honors, connected on just 18 passes in 42 attempts and threw two interceptions. Bradshaw was no better, going 15-for-25, with three interceptions. In a game of turnovers, missed field goals and temperatures dropping to 16 degrees, the Steelers survived with a 16-10 victory.

In terms of the rivalry, the teams' 1976 rubber match was anti-climactic. Injuries to Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris left the Steelers' offense weakened. The Raiders, who had their best season ever at 16-1, easily stopped Bradshaw and Co. and snatched the victory 24-7. Behind owner Al Davis, voted that season's Executive of the Year, the Raiders would go on to beat the Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI.

6.New York Knicks vs. Los Angeles Lakers
NBA Finals 1970, 1972, 1973

The Bill Russell era in Boston was over, and the 1970 season offered the Knicks and the Lakers as heirs to the throne.

Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Frazier
Getty ImagesThe Lakers' Chamberlain (13) got the upper hand on the Knicks' Walt Frazier, right. The teams had titanic title struggles in that decade.

With the series even after two games, the teams traded the lead in Game 3 right up to the final buzzer, when Jerry West drained a 60-foot trey to give the Lakers the victory!

Oh, wait: Only the ABA had the 3-point rule then.

Out of the locker room comes a sheepish Wilt Chamberlain to play the overtime. Knicks win, 112-108. The teams then swapped victories, though one Game 5 injury made the ultimate difference: Knicks center Willis Reed tore his right quad.

Reed's absence in Game 6 allowed Chamberlain to score 45 points and grab 27 boards in the Lakers' victory. That set up the drama for Game 7: Not even the Knicks knew whether Reed would play. But play he did.

Visibly pained and hobbling onto the court, Reed still harassed Chamberlain fiercely for the few minutes he was in, limiting Wilt to 2-for-9 field-goal shooting. But more than that, Reed inspired the Madison Square Garden crowd and his teammates, who rolled over the Lakers, 113-99 for the NBA title.

It would take more than emotion to topple the 1971-72 Lakers. Following their 69-13 regular season, L.A. allowed the Knicks just one finals victory before blowing them out of the gym in five games.

By the time the teams met in the NBA Finals again in 1973, both teams were getting a bit long in the tooth.

The injury-riddled Lakers' leader Jerry West was nearing 35, while Chamberlain was 36 and increasingly sluggish on the court. Neither could put up even close to their old numbers. The Knicks had their own cast of 30-somethings: Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas and Dick Barnett. But the collective hustle of the Knicks worked its magic once more, limiting Chamberlain to just 22 field goals throughout the series. His lousy free-throw shooting -- 14-for-38 -- did not help. The Knicks took home the trophy after a 4-1 finals triumph.

7. Stefan Edberg vs. Boris Becker
Wimbledon 1988, 1989, 1990

This trifecta between two grasscourt greats pitted the gentleman against the prodigal son.

Sweden's Edberg, a five-time winner of the ATP's Sportsmanship Award, lived up to his rep so well, the award eventually was named after him. Becker, though, had a knack for creating a different sort of hype. The red-headed German's off-the-court life included posing nude for the cover of Stern with his girlfriend, model Barbara Feltus (whom he would later marry). Crowds of love-sick girls camped outside his hotels on tour. And it was later revealed he likely was addicted to sleeping pills throughout his best years on tour.

It took Edberg three days to put the 1988 Wimbledon men's final away. London's summer rains ran the competitors on and off the court, but finally Edberg strung together a 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory. Having already won Wimbledon titles in '85 (as an unseeded 17-year-old) and '86, Becker returned to Centre Court in 1989 to avenge his weird loss the previous season, and smacked down Edberg 6-0, 7-6, 6-4 for a third Gentlemen's Singles Trophy.

In their rivalry's last Wimbledon final, Edberg's steady serve-and-volley earned him a 6-2, 6-2 lead in the opening sets. But Becker, whose thunderous serve and crazy, go-for-broke volleys were his one-two punch, fought back to take the next two sets 6-3, 6-3. Edberg finally broke the German's serve once more, and finished the match with a 6-4 edge. The victory gave Edberg the No. 1 ranking, which he defended into the 1992 season.

For his part, Becker later claimed in his autobiography "The Player" to have lost the '90 Wimbledon final as a result the sleeping pills he depended on to get through the grueling season.

8. Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus U.S. Open 1960, 1962, 1967
Palmer won the U.S. Open title in 1960 at Cherry Hills, surprising everyone, including the unlikely runner-up, amateur Jack Nicklaus.

Having played steady throughout the tournament, Nicklaus shot a 282 overall, good enough to capture a victory any other year. But Palmer was on a tear on Sunday. After driving the 345-yard first green, Arnie was on his way to six birdies on the first seven holes. Palmer started Sunday seven shots off the lead, but his birdies combined with Mike Souchak's fourth-round 75 put Arnie atop the leaderboard.

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer
Nicklaus and Palmer, seen here in 2000, had a rivarly that intensified in the 1960s.

By the end of the day, Palmer shot a 65 for an overall 280, grabbing both the U.S. Open title and the record for the largest comeback in tournament history.

This began what was to become the most productive four years of Palmer's career. Between '60 and '63, he won 29 titles, $400,000 and was the tour's top money winner three times. But it wasn't enough for him to hold back Nicklaus. In the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, Nicklaus overtook the tour's most popular player once and for all.

Trailing Palmer by five shots with 11 holes left, Nicklaus closed that gap between No. 7 and No. 13 and forced an 18-hole playoff. Nicklaus won with an even-par 71 while Palmer shot a 74.

By 1967, Palmer's skills had waned, even if his star had not. But Baltusrol gave him one more shot against his young rival -- just not nearly close enough of a shot.

Two words: One iron.

. On the 72nd hole, Nicklaus unleashed what's considered his best shot ever -- a 1-iron from 238 yards out that landed 21 feet from the pin. He knocked it in for a birdie, a final score of 275 and the win. Arnie, the runner-up, finished at 279.

9. Affirmed vs. Alydar
1978 Triple Crown races

Both foaled in 1975, Alydar of exceptional bloodlines and Affirmed of more humble origins, the two chestnuts traded victories as two-year-olds.

Affirmed nosed out his rival in '77 for the Eclipse Award, the best 2 year old of the year. By the end of their racing days, Affirmed would lead in the pair's head-to-head races, defeating his archrival seven times to Alydar's three.

Affirmed/Steve Cauthen
Affirmed, with Steve Cauthen up, romps ahead of Alydar to win the 1978 Kentucky Derby.

Entering 1978's Kentucky Derby, Alydar and Affirmed, both now 3 years old, were the favored Nos. 1 and 2, by 6-5 and 9-5 odds, respectively. By the half-mile mark, Alydar had fallen to an inexplicable 17-length deficit, while Affirmed charged off the front. Despite a late rally, Alydar could not close the gap to win, and Affirmed crossed the finish first, by a neck.

At Pimlico a short two weeks later, before a record crowd of over 80,000, Alydar kept pace with Affirmed for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. Still, Affirmed won by a neck, and captured the first two-thirds of the Triple Crown.

Despite measures taken to soothe the colt early in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes three weeks later, Alydar continued to struggle in the final quarter-mile. On the home stretch, though, Alydar seemed poised to move ahead. Affirmed's jockey, Steve Cauthen, prompted his mount to dig deeper. The two colts stayed neck and neck until the wire, where Affirmed pulled out the victory by the shadow of a whisker.

Laura Hillenbrand's book, as well as the book's film treatment, both named "Seabiscuit," highlight the 1937 competition between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. But that rivalry didn't come close to that shared by 1978's best thoroughbreds, either in the number of races they contested or the closeness of their results. Affirmed vs. Alydar stands as horseracing's greatest rivalry, and the top Triple Crown trilogy.

10.Dallas Cowboys-Pittsburgh Steelers
Super Bowls X, XIII and XXX
The trilogy between these two rivals spans 20 years and two very different generations of players.

Head coach Chuck Noll and his Steelers of the 1970s put together a collection of players able to claw out four Super Bowl victories, in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979. The second and third of these victories came over the strong but luckless Cowboys.

In 1975, Dallas led the Steelers 10-7 into the final stanza, but Noll's offense reeled off two field goals and a 64-yard Bradshaw touchdown pass to Swann.

Super Bowl XIII
Bradshaw (12) and his Steelers handed the Cowboys a 35-31 defeat in Super Bowl XIII.

Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach returned the favor with a touchdown pass of his own to make it 21-17. But he later threw a last-minute interception that stopped the the Cowboys' charge for good.

In the 1978 rematch, though more of an offensive spectacle, held no more fairy dust for the Cowboys.

Despite allowing Bradshaw four TD passes -- two just 19 seconds apart, to Swann and John Stallworth, in the fourth quarter -- "America's Team" somehow stayed in the game, pulling to within four points with 22 seconds left. But just as in their last title meeting with the Steelers, that four-point gap couldn't be closed, and Pittsburgh won their third Super Bowl 35-31.

Fast-forward to 1995.

There was no Tom Landry stalking the sidelines in a fedora and top coat. This time the Cowboys coach was Barry Switzer, not long out of the University of Oklahoma.

Switzer inherited riches from former coach Jimmy Johnson: Here was a team with two recent NFL titles under its belt and a roster that included 11 All-Pros, including the explosive offensive combination of QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith and WR Michael Irvin.

Although Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell and his team was game in Super Bowl XXX, the Cowboys' superior firepower outpaced Pittsburgh from beginning to end.

O'Donnell, who entered the game as the NFL's least-intercepted QB, was intercepted three times. Eventual game MVP Larry Brown swiped two of them. How sweet the revenge: The Cowboys beat the Steelers in their long-awaited rubber match, and with the victory increased their NFL title count to five, one ahead of their now defeated rival.

The host of Sportscolumn.com's "Weekly NFL Picks" podcast, Teri Berg is a freelance writer for Maxboxing.com and a variety of online publications. She can be reached through her blog, Berg At Bat, or you can email her at bergteri@yahoo.com.