University of Nevada, Reno History Professor Dick Davies knew he was in for trouble when he mentioned the subject of his latest book to a friend.
The book, “Rivals! The Ten Greatest American Sports Rivalries of the 20th Century” (Wiley Blackwell), is Davies’ effort to bring some scholarship, context and, well, some order to one of the most hotly contested questions in all of sports.
Davies’ top 10 list runs a heated sports gamut, from Michigan-Ohio State in college football to Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers in professional basketball to Chris Evert-Martina Navralitova in professional tennis to Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier in professional boxing. The list also includes Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers in professional football, Harvard-Yale in college football, New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants in professional baseball, Duke-North Carolina in college basketball.
For Davies’ friend, however, the list wasn’t as complete as it should have been.
“He wondered where Williams-Amherst was,” Davies said recently during a lunch at the Eldorado Hotel Casino. A number of University of Nevada, Reno graduates, ranging in age from 25 to 75, were at a table nearby. Davies, one of the nation’s foremost sports historians who has written several other books on sports and its place in American society, anticipated the next question before it was even uttered. “And I’m not looking forward to having to answer all the questions about why Nevada-UNLV isn’t among the list.
“But that’s the beauty of rivalries in sports. Everyone believes that their sports rivalry, whether it’s Williams-Amherst, Nevada-UNLV, or something else entirely, is the most important one of them all.”
What distinguishes Davies’ book is the great lengths it goes to bring context and clarity to each of the sports rivalries it addresses.
Take the Lakers and Celtics in professional basketball. Not only has this rivalry consisted of two distinct epochs – the 1960s when the Bill Russell-led Celtics always seemed to get the better of the Jerry West- and Elgin Baylor- and Wilt Chamberlain-led Lakers, and the 1980s, when college rivals Larry Bird (Celtics) and Magic Johnson (Lakers) brought an unparalleled intensity to the NBA Finals – it was probably the first American sports rivalry not ruled by geographic proximity.
“What’s interesting about the Lakers-Celtics is that almost all of your sports rivalries are neighbors,” Davies said. “They’re usually in the same state, or located across state borders from each other. The New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers were only a few miles apart, and even when they moved West in 1958, they re-located to the two major cities on the West Coast. Proximity is always a factor in college football rivalries: Ohio State-Michigan, Nebraska-Colorado, UCLA-USC. The Lakers-Celtics is unique. This one is 2,600 miles apart … Los Angeles and Boston are so far apart, I had to get out my map just to figure out how far apart they are.”
There were other contrasts as well, Davies said.
“You have a blue-collar, lunch-pail town in Boston, playing for years in an arena, Boston Garden, that had no air conditioning,” he said. “The parquet floor was gorgeous, but everything else about Boston Garden was seedy. And then you had the surfers from Los Angeles. They were Hollywood and Gucci Row and (actress) Dyan Cannon and (actor) Jack Nicholson and they played in an arena called ‘The Fabulous Forum.’
“So you had a real cultural conflict, and the teams reflected that. Russell, (John) Havlicek, (Bob) Cousy, they were all working-class players on the Celtics. The Lakers, the West Coast guys, West, Baylor, Wilt, they were the more flamboyant players.”
Davies’ book takes a close look at the personalities of many of principal sports figures of the 20th century. Three of the chapters, in fact, are studies in contrast, as Davies deftly profiles Evert-Navratilova, golfers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and perhaps the greatest sports rivalry of them all, the titanic boxing competition between Ali-Frazier.
Never a big boxing fan, Davies said he surprised himself with his chapter on Ali-Frazier, which included three monumental fights in a four-year period. In his research and writing, Davies said he found a surprising poignancy to the life of Frazier, who was often described in less than humane terms by Ali.
Ali, ever the showman, always the most quotable of the two men, questioned Frazier’s intelligence, Frazier’s “blackness” and often compared Frazier to a gorilla.
Frazier’s life, Davies said, had a hard-working nobility and honesty that many refused to grasp during the height of the rivalry.
“Frazier comes out of this a far better man than Ali,” Davies said of his chapter, “The Bull and the Butterfly: The Never-Ending Rivalry Between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.” “I like Frazier. He’s a rags-to-riches story. He was the 12th of 13 children raised in a shack in South Carolina. He dropped out of school early, in the eighth grade, to pick fruit for 50 cents an hour.
“He went to Philadelphia and wanted to be a fighter, but was overweight and out of shape. He worked hard at becoming a good fighter. He trimmed down from 240 pounds to 210, 205. Remember that wonderful scene in the film ‘Rocky,’ where Rocky Balboa trains by slamming his fists into sides of beef? They got that from Joe Frazier. He would do that, when he worked at a Kosher meat factory.
“He’s a man of real of character.”
Ali’s story, often told by Ali, also seemingly sprang from humble beginnings in Louisville, Ky.
“Ali portrayed himself as a poor young man, but he came out of a working-class family, and Ali had many of the advantages unavailable to Frazier,” Davies said.
When he finished the chapter, Davies said he was proud of the story he had told.
“I’m not a big boxing person,” he said. “A sport where the purpose is to give your opponent a concussion doesn’t strike me as very sporty, but the Ali-Frazier chapter is replete with symbolism: the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the first fight between the two of them where Ali had stood up against the Vietnam War, and the way the promoters seemed to promote Frazier, who had much darker skin than Ali, as a sort of ‘Great White Hope’ against his more flamboyant opponent.
“All three of their bouts were classics, and the first one and the last one were two of the greatest boxing matches of all time.”
While Ali-Frazier was filled with bitterness – Davies uses a quote from Frazier to end the chapter, “He’s a ghost and I’m still here. Now let’s talk about who really won those three fights” – Davies said the rivalry between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus was much different.
Palmer grew up on the outside looking in at the exclusive world of professional golf. His father was a groundskeeper at a country club in Latrobe, Penn., and young Arnold could only play on the course in the early morning. Once members showed up to play, he was shooed away like a homeless person. Nicklaus’ father owned four drug stores in Columbus, Ohio, and the boy honed his craft at an exclusive country club, where the Nicklaus family belonged.
As professionals, Palmer was a beloved, rakishly handsome, working-class hero. His thrashing swing was far from perfect, but this imperfection made the masses love him even more. Nicklaus wore funny-colored olive pants, was overweight and had a bad flat-top haircut. He looked more like something that should be dropped into a martini glass than a great athlete. His golf swing, though, was magic. He would uncoil like a panther and send the ball rocketing high and far off into the horizon — always a good 20 or 30 yards further off the tee than any other professional.
“They were two highly competitive individuals,” said Davies, noting that the rivalry extended from golf into the world of business, where both Palmer and Nicklaus also excelled, building their own golf course design empires. “But their competition was a healthy one. They hated to lose to each other but then they could have a drink or dinner together afterward. Their wives would walk the course together on the final days. It was a very healthy, competitive rivalry.”
The sportsmanship that both men showed was not lost on Davies, particularly given the revelations of recent months regarding Tiger Woods’ private life. Both Palmer (“Arnie’s Army”) and Nicklaus (who eventually went to Weight Watchers, grew his hair more stylishly long and became the more dashing “Golden Bear”) had very distinct and very carefully cultivated images.
Neither man, though, Davies said, has been trapped by their image.
“Tiger has become a prisoner of the image-makers,” Davies said. “His watches are $10,000, his line of clothes, his golf clubs, are all very expensive. The closest he has ever come to being middle class during his time on the PGA Tour was when he would drive an endorsed Buick for a while.
“And, this is my own opinion, I think he had no idea he had become a prisoner of the image-makers. He will be playing without some of his endorsements, his marriage is still hanging in the balance. It’s going to be different out there for him. Whether or not he can handle that, I don’t know.”
One thing that Davies does know, however, is that “Rivals!” at the very least should spur great discussion.
Sports, he said, have become central to the lives of most Americans.
“When you travel to Europe, and you go to find the heart of the city, to discover what was important to the residents there centuries ago, you usually find cathedrals, places of gathering for worship,” he said. “When archeologists examine American cities years from now, they’re going to say, ‘Here’s the Super Dome, here’s Madison Square Garden, here’s Fenway Park, here’s Wrigley Field, here’s Yankee Stadium, here’s the $1.5 billion monument to football that (Dallas Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones built in Dallas.’
“So, it must’ve been sports that was, if not the most important thing, then certainly one of the most important and defining things for the American people.”
(Editor’s note: A book signing for “Rivals!” will be held on Saturday, May 15, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Sundance Bookstore in Reno, 1155 West Fourth Street.)