Four or More: Championship Matchups That Keep Happening

The Warriors and Cavaliers aren’t the only athletes locked in Groundhog’s Day.

May 31, 2018 5:00 am
LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors embrace after Game Five of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 12, 2017 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Their teams meet again in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season. (Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors embrace after Game Five of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 12, 2017 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Their teams meet again in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season. (Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
NBAE/Getty Images

Each of the last four NBA Finals has boasted subtle differences from the previous version: Tyronn Lue replaced David Blatt as Cavs coach in 2016, 2017 saw Kevin Durant make his first Finals appearance as a Warrior, this season Kyrie Irving left for the Celtics. But mostly it’s been the same old song: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors once more, LeBron against Steph again, just as it was last season and the season prior to that and the season before that too.

In honor of these teams going back-to-back-to-back-to-back, here are other title matchups that kept on keeping on.

“Sugar” Ray Robinson vs. Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta

The Bouts: 6 (5-1 Robinson)

“I fought Sugar Ray so often I almost got diabetes,” the Raging Bull often joked. Both fighters were remarkably active in general: LaMotta had 106 career fights (winning 83) and Robinson a staggering 200 (with 173 wins). Thus they took the trilogy relatively common in boxing—think Ali-Frazier or Bowe-Holyfield—and doubled it. Between 1942 and 1951, they fought six times, including twice in a three-week period.

Incredibly, they only battled for an actual belt on one occasion: their final bout, when Robinson took the middleweight title from LaMotta. (This should be seen more as an indictment of boxing’s governing bodies than either fighter—LaMotta famously threw a fight in a desperate attempt to get a title shot.) Then again, every time they stepped in the ring one honor was up for grabs: dibs as boxing’s pound-for-pound king. Quite simply, Robinson was the best fighter of his generation and by general consensus the greatest ever. (Sorry, Ali.)

Of course, the Raging Bull was no slouch. (ESPN named him one of their 30 top boxers of all time.) Five of their fights reached the scorecards, including the one where LaMotta handed the 40-0 Robinson his first career defeat. (It would take 90 more fights before Robinson got his second.) Even Robinson’s stoppage only enhanced LaMotta’s legend. LaMotta had managed to knock Robinson down a handful of times in their bouts, but never been dropped himself. This held true even during their final fight, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Robinson ripped LaMotta apart, but he couldn’t get him off his feet.

It’s immortalized in the brutal, oddly beautiful scene in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull when De Niro takes an extremely cinematic beating but still insists: “You never got me down, Ray.”


Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

Grand Slam Finals: 9 (6-3 Nadal)

Roger Federer has 20 Grand Slam titles. Rafael Nadal has 16. No one other man has more than 14. So it makes sense they’d meet in a Grand Slam Final or nine. Nadal has dominated on the clay of the French Open (4-0) and they’ve never met in a US Open Final. This leaves the Australian and Wimbledon, with Federer coming out ahead 3-2 with four of the matches going five sets. Nadal’s 2008 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 Wimbledon victory is regularly cited as the zenith of tennis.


Yet both legends also have reason to be humble, as each currently trails their contemporary Novak Djokovic head-to-head. (Albeit not by much: He leads Rafa 26-25 and Fed 23-22.)

Yankees vs. Dodgers

World Series Showdowns: 11 (8-3 Yankees)

The comic Joe E. Lewis famously quipped, “Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.” It rarely felt truer than when they took on the Brooklyn Dodgers. From 1941 to 1956, the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers faced off in seven World Series. The Yankees won six. (With stars including Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, the Yankees won nine championships in this period alone, including another Subway Series in 1951 against the New York Giants.)

Both the Dodgers and Giants got permission to move to California in 1957, permanently embittering East Coast fans and deflating the rivalry. (It’s hard to stay too engaged when you’re thousands of miles apart and go years without playing.) The Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers have split four additional World Series. The Yankees also squeezed in one more Subway Series, taking out the New York Mets in 2000 and bringing their overall record in crosstown World Series to 11-3.

Celtics vs. Lakers

Finals face-offs: 12 (9-3 Celtics)

They first met in 1958, when the Lakers were still in Minneapolis. Their championship showdowns have been a regular showcase for legends of the game, whether in 1969 (Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Sam Jones vs. Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor) or 2010 (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol). For sheer star power, good luck topping 1984 when the Celtics rolled out four future Hall of Famers (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson) only to have the Lakers counter with five (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo and Jamaal Wilkes). Making it all the stranger the remarkable coming together of talent may be best remembered for this:


While it now feels a matchup between equals, for many years the games were just killing time until Red Auerbach lit up a victory cigar: Boston won the first eight Finals. (The Lakers finally broke through in 1985.) Incredibly, they’ve never met more than two years in a row, even as both teams dominated their respective conferences for decades on end.

Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova

Final face-offs: 61 (36-25 Navratilova)

The two tennis icons played a total of 80 times and were so dominant only 19 occurred outside of a final. Both had absurdly successful careers in general, with Evert winning 157 singles titles (second most all-time in the Open Era, women or men) and Navratilova winning 167 (most). While they’re tied with 18 Grand Slam singles titles, Navratilova can take satisfaction in knowing the bulk of hers came at Evert’s expense (10-4 in Grand Slam Finals). The greatest show of their superiority to the rest of women’s tennis may be the fact that, despite so many losses to Martina, Chris still retired with the highest lifetime winning percentage (.900) for women’s or men’s tennis.

Incredibly, their battle count could have gone significantly higher. While Evert called it quits at 34 in 1989, Navratilova stuck around until she was nearly 50, winning the Mixed Doubles title at the US Open in 2006 (with Bob Bryan).

Barcelona vs. Real Madrid

El Clasicos: 271 (112 Barcelona)

RCL has addressed how common it is in soccer for a single team to take over a league and a nation, an advantage that only grows over the years as they develop an enduring financial edge. Occasionally two franchises rule side by side for a time, but invariably one falls back. (Or literally falls to pieces, as happened in Scotland when Rangers FC slipped into bankruptcy. Celtic has since controlled Scottish football to a comical extent, recently winning all three of Scotland’s major titles in consecutive seasons for what they’ve celebrated as a Double-Treble.)

Pretty much since their first game against each other in 1902, however, both Barcelona and Real Madrid have both scorched Spain and earned renown well beyond the Iberian Peninsula. They have nearly identical values (each is estimated to be worth roughly $3.6 billion), putting them among the five most valuable franchises in the world regardless of sport.

No other team in Spain reaches a billion, meaning they quadruple their closest La Liga opponents. It’s difficult for any team to compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid for top players, but there’s little point in their Spanish rivals even trying. (Their commercial clout is reflected in estimates that 400 million viewers worldwide tune in for El Clasico, dwarfing the Super Bowl’s total planetary audience of 172 million in 2017.)

Each season these giants play twice in La Liga. There’s always the potential for additional meetings: Champions League, Copa Del Rey, the Spanish Super Cup, even “friendly” matches on occasion.

Quite simply, virtually every encounter between these clubs takes on the significance of a championship. After all, they gobble up all available titles, between them winning 12 of the last 13 La Ligas (eight by Barcelona), the last five Copa del Reys (four by Barcelona), 10 of the last 13 Spanish Super Cups (seven by Barcelona) and the last five Champions Leagues (four by Madrid).

But El Clasico goes beyond mere sport. During the decades Franco controlled Spain, Real Madrid was his team, while Barcelona in many ways symbolized those who resisted his brutal rule. (Indeed, the Generalissimo may have used his power to help Real to victory on occasion.)

To this day, tensions remain between Madrid and Catalonia, with secession still hotly debated. When Real Madrid plays Barcelona, it’s not quite the Spanish Civil War being battled anew… but the past isn’t entirely in the past either.

In general, El Clasicos have been good to Barcelona. (They lead the overall series 112 to 99, with 60 draws.) And in the Messi/Ronaldo era? If Cristiano ever follows through on his occasional threats to leave Madrid, it will likely be because he’s sick of Messi mauling him in head-to-head matchups. (This doesn’t even include Barcelona beating Ronaldo’s then team Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League Final 2-0, with Messi scoring a goal.)

Lionel comes out ahead in every conceivable category: wins, winning percentage, goals scored, goal to game ratio and above all assists. (Ronaldo has never been famed for his generosity as a player—YouTube is littered with clips of him growing angry when his teammates score instead of him—but still trails by a ridiculous margin: 1 to 14.)

Below, behold what happens when Messi scores a few El Clasico golazos in front of 100,000 fans.

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