One-on-One Rivals

Baseball, basketball, and football each have tremendous team rivalries.  However, in each sport games are made up of a series of one-on-one battles that determine the outcomes.  This page is devoted to the best individual match-ups in these team sports, broken down by decade.  These aren't necessarily the rivalries with the most bad blood, title implications, or national attention.  Instead, I'm documenting the head-to-head confrontations that pitted the sport's all-time greats against their natural counterpart.  In baseball this is easy enough: the best pitcher vs the best hitter, so long as they play in the same league/division.  In basketball it is slightly more difficult because they have to play the same position so that they actually guard each other.  In football it is harder still, with so many different positions, shorter careers, and the need for players to be in the same division to guarantee they play each other every season.  We start below with Major League Baseball, followed by the NBA and NFL.



Major League Baseball
Baseball is fundamentally a one-on-one sport: pitcher vs batter.  Using Baseball-Reference.com, I took the career pitching WAR and offensive WAR leaders for each league and selected the pitcher-hitter combos that had the most combined WAR over the years that they overlapped in their respective careers.  Below are the top-10 match-ups, plus an 11th because the six year rivalry between Randy Johnson and Barry Bonds was so unique: in six years Barry Bonds won four MVP's, finished 2nd once, and was injured in the other year, while Johnson had the exact same run with Cy Young's.  Listed below each set of rivals:
Years they overlapped
Combined Wins Above Replacement (harmonic means of their totals)
Combined WAR per 162 games (harmonic mean)
Harmonic mean of their ERA+ and OPS+
Head-to-Head Stats

Walter Johnson (RH) vs Ty Cobb (LH)
1907-1927
299.4 WAR (149.6)
14.9 WAR/162 (7.4)
159 ERA+/OPS+
Head-to-Head Stats (scroll down to Cobb)


1907-1927
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Walter Johnson
G
802
pWAR
152.6
34 GS
7.1
ERA+
147
Ty Cobb
PA
12148
oWAR
146.8
650 PA
7.9
OPS+
172


Greg Maddux (RH) vs Barry Bonds (LH)
1986-2007
248.1 WAR (120.9)
12.4 WAR/162 (6.0)
154 ERA+/OPS+


1986-2007
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Greg Maddux
G
711
pWAR
104.4
34 GS
5.0
ERA+
134
Barry Bonds
PA
12606
oWAR
143.7
650 PA
7.4
OPS+
182


Lefty Grove (LH) vs Lou Gehrig (LH)
1925-1939
221.3 WAR (110.6)
15.1 WAR/162 (7.5)
165 ERA+/OPS+


1925-1939
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Lefty Grove
G
573
pWAR
109.7
34 GS
7.6
ERA+
153
Lou Gehrig
PA
9623
oWAR
111.6
650 PA
7.5
OPS+
178


Warren Spahn (LH) vs Stan Musial (LH)
1942-1963
218.2 WAR (107.0)
11.3 WAR/162 (5.6)
139 ERA+/OPS+


1942-1963
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Warren Spahn
G
676
pWAR
93.9
34 GS
5.0
ERA+
123
Stan Musial
PA
12669
oWAR
124.3
650 PA
6.4
OPS+
159


Red Faber (RH) vs Babe Ruth (LH)
1914-1933
217.8 WAR (93.9)
13.7 WAR/162 (5.7)
152 ERA+/OPS+
Head-to-Head Stats (scroll down to Ruth)


1914-1933
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Red Faber
G
669
pWAR
68.5
34 GS
4.0
ERA+
119
Babe Ruth
PA
10059
oWAR
149.3
650 PA
9.6
OPS+
209


Christy Mathewson (RH) vs Honus Wagner (RH)
1900-1916
210.2 WAR (104.6)
12.9 WAR/162 (6.4)
145 ERA+/OPS+
Head-to-Head Stats (scroll down to Wagner)


1900-1916
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Christy Mathewson
G
636
pWAR
97.7
34 GS
5.6
ERA+
136
Honus Wagner
PA
9955
oWAR
112.5
650 PA
7.3
OPS+
156


Pete Alexander (RH) vs Rogers Hornsby (RH)
1915-1930
202.1 WAR (99.2)
14.7 WAR/162 (7.2)
156 ERA+/OPS+
Head-to-Head Stats (scroll down to Hornsby)


1915-1930
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Pete Alexander
G
509
pWAR
87.3
34 GS
6.2
ERA+
139
Rogers Hornsby
PA
8756
oWAR
114.8
650 PA
8.5
OPS+
178


Phil Niekro (RH) vs Joe Morgan (LH)
1964-1983
191.7 WAR (95.5)
10.7 WAR/162 (5.2)
126 ERA+/OPS+


1964-1983
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Phil Niekro
G
739
pWAR
90.0
34 GS
4.6
ERA+
120
Joe Morgan
PA
10861
oWAR
101.7
650 PA
6.1
OPS+
133


Bob Gibson (RH) vs Hank Aaron (RH)
1959-1975
186.1 WAR (91.7)
12.0 WAR/162 (6.0)
142 ERA+/OPS+


1959-1975
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Bob Gibson
G
528
pWAR
81.9
34 GS
5.5
ERA+
127
Hank Aaron
PA
10460
oWAR
104.2
650 PA
6.5
OPS+
160


Kid Nichols (RH) vs Bill Dahlen (RH)
1890-1906
174.2 WAR (77.1)
10.8 WAR/162 (5.1)
125 ERA+/OPS+
Head-to-Head Stats (scroll down to Dahlen)


1890-1906
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Kid Nichols
G
621
pWAR
116.6
34 GS
6.7
ERA+
140
Bill Dahlen
PA
9051
oWAR
57.6
650 PA
4.1
OPS+
113


Randy Johnson (LH) vs Barry Bonds (LH)
1999-2004
104.0 WAR (51.7)
18.9 WAR/162 (9.4)
199 ERA+/OPS+


1999-2004
WAR
WAR/162
Adjusted ERA/OPS
Randy Johnson
G
193
pWAR
48.1
34 GS
8.5
ERA+
175
Barry Bonds
PA
3484
oWAR
55.9
650 PA
10.4
OPS+
230



 


National Basketball Association
Basketball is great for rivalries because players match up against each other on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.  And more than in baseball and football, the best players have a greater impact on their team's success.  Basketball does not have a universally used stat like baseball's WAR (though I do include Win Shares here) so I relied primarily on award voting.  Below are the top-10 match-ups of players who the same position, ranked by combined All-NBA selections in the years that they overlapped during their respective careers.  Listed below each set of rivals:
Years they overlapped
Combined All-NBA selections (combined First Team All-NBA)
Combined MVP's
Combined Win Shares (harmonic mean of their totals)
Combined WS per 82 games (harmonic mean)
Head-to-Head Stats
Number of playoff meetings


Tim Duncan (PF) vs Dirk Nowitzki (PF)
1999-2016
26 All-NBA (13 First Team)
3 MVPs
392.4 Win Shares (196.2)
24.3 WS/82 (12.1)
6 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Tim Duncan
1310
14
9
2
193.6
12.1
Dirk Nowitzki
1340
12
4
1
198.8
12.2


Charles Barkley (PF) vs Karl Malone (PF)
1986-2000
24 All-NBA (16 First Team)
3 MVPs
366.0 Win Shares (182.0)
27.5 WS/82 (13.8)
2 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Charles Barkley
991
11
5
1
169.7
14.0
Karl Malone
1192
13
11
2
196.3
13.5


Oscar Robertson (PG) vs Jerry West (PG)
1961-1974
23 All-NBA (19 First Team)
1 MVP
351.8 Win Shares (174.9)
29.2 WS/82 (14.6)
2 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Oscar Robertson
1040
11
9
1
189.2
14.9
Jerry West
932
12
10
0
162.6
14.3


Kevin Durant (SF) vs LeBron James (SF)
2008-Present
21 All-NBA (17 First Team)
5 MVPs
319.0 Win Shares (157.5)
30.2 WS/82 (15.0)
3 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Kevin Durant
849
9
6
1
141.7
13.7
LeBron James
882
12
11
4
177.3
16.5


Wilt Chamberlain (C) vs Bill Russell (C)
1960-1969
18 All-NBA (9 First Team)
8 MVPs
331.4 Win Shares (159.3)
34.7 WS/82 (16.7)
8 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Wilt Chamberlain
787
9
7
4
198.3
20.7
Bill Russell
776
9
2
4
133.1
14.1


Hakeem Olajuwon (C) vs David Robinson (C)
1990-2001
18 All-NBA (7 First Team)
2 MVPs
269.4 Win Shares (129.0)
26.9 WS/82 (13.0)
1 Playoff Meeting


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Hakeem Olajuwon
791
8
3
1
106.9
11.1
David Robinson
845
10
4
1
162.5
15.8


Kobe Bryant (SG) vs Dwyane Wade (SG)
2004-2016
18 All-NBA (11 First Team)
1 MVP
223.7 Win Shares (111.8)
21.5 WS/82 (10.8)
0 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Kobe Bryant
850
10
9
1
109.9
10.6
Dwyane Wade
855
8
2
0
113.8
10.9


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (C) vs Moses Malone (C)
1977-1989
17 All-NBA (9 First Team)
5 MVPs
286.3 Win Shares (143.1)
23.3 WS/82 (11.7)
2 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1011
9
5
2
141.7
11.5
Moses Malone
1001
8
4
3
144.6
11.8


Bob Pettit (PF/C) vs Dolph Schayes (PF/C)
1955-1964
17 All-NBA (13 First Team)
2 MVPs
212.0 Win Shares (101.0)
24.6 WS/82 (12.0)
0 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Bob Pettit
742
10
10
2
129.0
14.3
Dolph Schayes
660
7
3
0
83.0
10.3


Gary Payton (PG) vs John Stockton (PG)
1991-2003
17 All-NBA (4 First Team)
0 MVPs
274.6 Win Shares (136.5)
22.1 WS/82 (11.0)
4 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Gary Payton
1027
9
2
0
126.7
10.1
John Stockton
1016
8
2
0
147.9
11.9


Larry Bird (SF) vs Magic Johnson (PG)
1980-1991
20 All-NBA (18 First Team)
6 MVPs
292.5 Win Shares (146.0)
27.8 WS/82 (13.9)
3 Playoff Meetings


Games
All-NBA
First Team
MVP
Win Shares
WS/82
Larry Bird
852
10
9
3
140.3
13.5
Magic Johnson
874
10
9
3
152.2
14.3



National Football League
Football's individual rivalries are a little harder to quantify than baseball and basketball.  That said, each play in football is rich with one-on-one match-ups along the line and at the skill positions.  For this section I started by looking at the following position battles: wide receivers vs corner backs, running backs vs linebackers, offensive tackles vs defensive ends, and centers/offensive guards vs defensive tackles.  Quarterback is the most important position in the game, but there isn't really an opposite position on the defensive side of the ball.  Since most positions on the field do not accumulate many stats, I relied almost exclusively on award voting.  The below rivalries met all three of the following criteria: 1) both players are in the Hall of Fame, 2) both made an All-Pro team since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, and 3) they played at least 10 games against each other.  Listed below each set of rivals:
Years they overlapped
Combined All-Pro selections
Combined Pro Bowl selections
Times they met
Combined Approximate Value (harmonic mean of their totals)
Combined AV per 16 games (harmonic mean)

Jerry Rice (WR) vs Deion Sanders (CB)
1989-2004
13 All-Pros
18 Pro Bowls
10 Head-to-Head Games
342 Approximate Value (166)
26.4 AV/16 (13.2)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Jerry Rice
243
7
10
199
13.1
Yes
Deion Sanders
172
6
8
143
13.3
Yes


Earl Campbell (RB) vs Jack Lambert (MLB)
1978-1984
8 All-Pros
11 Pro Bowls
12 Head-to-Head Games
161 Approximate Value (80)
26.9 AV/16 (13.3)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Earl Campbell
99
3
5
73
11.8
Yes
Jack Lambert
93
5
6
88
15.1
Yes


Russ Grimm (LG) vs Randy White (RDT)
1981-1988
8 All-Pros
9 Pro Bowls
12 Head-to-Head Games
175 Approximate Value (86)
25.8 AV/16 (12.9)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Russ Grimm
97
3
4
77
12.7
Yes
Randy White
120
5
5
98
13.1
Yes


Jerome Bettis (RB) vs Ray Lewis (MLB)
1996-2005
6 All-Pros
11 Pro Bowls
16 Head-to-Head Games
215 Approximate Value (99)
25.0 AV/16 (11.3)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Jerome Bettis
145
1
4
78
8.6
No
Ray Lewis
134
5
7
137
16.4
Yes


Marvin Harrison (WR) vs Ty Law (CB)
1996-2008
5 All-Pros
13 Pro Bowls
13 Head-to-Head Games
267 Approximate Value (128)
22.9 AV/16 (11.0)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Marvin Harrison
190
3
8
161
13.6
Yes
Ty Law
182
2
5
106
9.3
Yes


Mike Webster (C) vs Curley Culp (NT)
1974-1981
5 All-Pros
8 Pro Bowls
13 Head-to-Head Games
140 Approximate Value (67)
20.1 AV/16 (9.9)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Mike Webster
120
4
4
84
11.2
Yes
Curley Culp
101
1
4
56
8.9
No


Steve Largent (WR) vs Mike Haynes (CB)
1976-1989
3 All-Pros
16 Pro Bowls
12 Head-to-Head Games
273 Approximate Value (136)
20.1 AV/16 (9.9)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Steve Largent
200
1
7
140
11.2
Yes
Mike Haynes
177
2
9
133
12.0
Yes


Franco Harris (RB) vs Robert Brazile (ROLB)
1975-1984
3 All-Pros
14 Pro Bowls
18 Head-to-Head Games
204 Approximate Value (101)
22.2 AV/16 (11.0)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Franco Harris
147
1
7
113
12.3
Yes
Robert Brazile
147
2
7
91
9.9
Yes


Fred Biletnikoff (WR) vs Emmitt Thomas (CB)
1966-1978
3 All-Pros
11 Pro Bowls
21 Head-to-Head Games
207 Approximate Value (101)
18.6 AV/16 (9.1)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Fred Biletnikoff
176
2
6
119
10.8
No
Emmitt Thomas
181
1
5
88
7.8
No


Michael Irvin (WR) vs Aeneas Williams (CB)
1991-1999
3 All-Pros
11 Pro Bowls
17 Head-to-Head Games
213 Approximate Value (105)
25.4 AV/16 (12.3)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Michael Irvin
127
1
5
118
14.9
Yes
Aeneas Williams
144
2
6
95
10.6
Yes


Art Shell (LT) vs Fred Dean (RDE)
1975-1982
3 All-Pros
8 Pro Bowls
11 Head-to-Head Games
131 Approximate Value (65)
19.7 AV/16 (9.8)


Games
All-Pros
Pro Bowls
App Value
AV/16
All-Decade Team
Art Shell
109
1
5
70
10.3
Yes
Fred Dean
104
2
3
61
9.4
No



Website Builder