Sports bring out a lot in people. There’s pride, there’s passion, and there’s a desire to do great. The game is not just for the athlete, but also for teammates and the fans, boosting an athlete’s desire to do their best. When things get heated, passions run hot and an athlete can become a little unhinged. It’s all too common in high school and college to see guys jawing and then getting into fights. However, it can happen even on a pro level a lot more than folks think. Soccer can get so rough that a “card” system was set up to try and curtail it. Baseball has plenty of major fights every season and hockey is infamous for brawls breaking out constantly. It’s one thing on the lower rungs, but the big leagues see some major stuff that doesn’t exactly make those involved look great. Some brawls are truly epic while others are notable for who’s involved.
The shock can come from not only the size, but also the intensity. Often, you’ll see full-scale, bench-clearing wars between teams that get wild and crazy. But other times, you’ll see a smaller fight, notable for the star power of those involved. And sometimes, the fight can be just so amazingly brutal that it becomes legendary. These brawls escalated into epic battles that will hardly ever be forgotten, some lasting only minutes with others so huge they canceled games. Sure, you can find plenty of fights in history, but some stand even bigger; fights often too big too ignore and serves as a reminder of how out of control things can get. Here are the biggest of the bunch. Enjoy reading about the fifteen most shocking times athletes went at it and showed how sports can be a bit too passionate; even for those performing at the highest levels.
15 Ty Cobb vs. Fan
Ty Cobb is one of the greatest players in baseball history. He has the most career batting titles, the highest batting average, and has great skills that helped put baseball on the map. However, his skill is overshadowed by how he was one of the worst guys to ever take the field. Cobb was brutal, short-tempered, violent, racist, and abusive, and those were the nicer things you could say about him. This was a man who saw no issues in spiking an opponent or spitting on a fallen foe. But nothing spoke out to Cobb more than the events of May 15, 1912 when Cobb’s Detroit Tigers faced the New York Highlanders (now the Yankees). In the stands was Claude Lueker, a man who had lost one hand and several fingers on the other in an industrial accident. Lueker proceeded to needle Cobb with various insults and trash talk although some would note it wasn’t much worse than what Cobb had spewed to countless opponents. But when Lueker made a crack of Cobb being half-black, that was it. Charging out of the dugout, Cobb raced into the stands and began pummeling Lueker. When someone yelled at the man having no hands, Cobb famously snapped “I don’t care if he has no feet!” It was unprecedented, and the America League suspended Cobb immediately. To the shock of everyone, Cobb’s fellow Tigers (who hated him as much as everyone else) went on strike to support him until Cobb told them to back down. It’s the most infamous moment of Cobb’s career and why his playing skills are secondary to how loathed a man he was.
14 Nuggets vs. Knicks
When the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden, things are always hot, but Denver found out how crazy it could get on December 16, 2006. The lowly Knicks were coming close, but the Nuggets were pulling ahead easily. With a bit over a minute left, New York's Mardy Collins grabbed J.R. Smith by the neck, dragging him to the ground. It was a flagrant foul, but things got worse as Nate Robinson shoved Smith who attacked him and sent them both crashing over photographers at courtside. Just as it looked like things were calming down, Carmelo Anthony punched Collins in the face. Jared Jeffries charged at Anthony, but tripped over other players and had to be restrained. It took several minutes for order to finally be restored and, coming only a couple of years after the infamous “Malice in the Palace” brawl, it was a bad image for the NBA. All ten players on the court were ejected and suspended with Anthony getting the biggest suspension of 15 games. It just shows how a game in New York can get wild on multiple levels.
13 Diego Maradona vs. Anyone
Diego Maradona is considered in two ways. First, as one of the most talented soccer players ever, a World Cup champion, incredibly skilled and revered in Spain. The second is by being a complete raving lunatic infamous for drug-fuelled tirades on reporters and ugly acts on the field. His actions are famous with numerous red cards handed out to him, but a few truly stand up more than others. In 1983, Maradona suffered a severe leg injury at the hands of Andoni Goikoetxea, the “Butcher of Bilbao.” Andoni claimed to have worn special boots that caused the injury so folks expected Mardona to want payback but on the field. Instead, Maradona leapt up and nailed Goikoetxea with a savage kick to the head that took him down. He followed that up by kicking at just about anyone in his presence, including knocking out the opposing goalkeeper.
That’s the most famous of his fights, but in his career Maradona was famous for brawling with most anyone around him, even teammates. Age has done nothing to slow him down; in 2016, Maradona took part in a Match for Peace in front of Pope Francis himself. Despite how the whole point of the game was to promote peace, Maradona managed to get into an altercation with Juan Verdon that included some shoving and yelling. It all just adds to the legend of what many consider possibly the wildest man to ever take a soccer field.
12 Braves vs. Padres
It’s been called possibly the greatest brawl in MLB history, even with the bad blood between the two teams. On August 24, 1984, the San Diego Padres were running off with the NL West while the Braves were struggling to reach .500. Like many brawls, it started when the two teams started to engage in a beanball war, each smacking the other’s batters, with Pascual Perez hitting Alan Wiggins with the very first pitch. Perez was hit himself, then he started jawing, and soon, the first of several fights occurred that ended with Padres pitcher Ed Winston and manager Dick Williams ejected. Another brawl kicked off with two more ejections. Perez was struck in the 8th inning and things truly came loose in an epic battle. It got so wild that two fans entered the field to take part and got hammered for their troubles. The top of the ninth saw the Braves hit back with a beanball on Greg Nettles, who charged the mound and was tackled for another crazy fight. The Braves won the game, but all anyone remembers is the fantastic brawl that set a new bar for MLB fights.
11 Sparks vs. Shock
The WNBA has always seen a struggle in winning fans over even though women have shown they can be excellent professional athletes just like men. On July 21st, 2008, they proved that women can be as down and dirty in fights as men can be. The Los Angeles Sparks were visiting the Detroit Shock in a tight game going to the last minute with a close score. With just 4 seconds left, Los Angeles’ Marie Ferdinand-Harris hit a free throw. As soon as the basket was in, the Shock's Plenette Pierson punched Candace Parker, causing both players to become entangled and fall over. As Parker rose, Pierson shoved her back down and was pulled down to the floor. Parker and Pierson both tried to throw a punch at one another before Parker was tackled by Deanna Nolan. Detroit assistant coach Rick Mahorn came off the bench as a peacemaker, but ended up making things worse by knocking Lisa Leslie backwards to the floor as Leslie swung at him. Leslie's teammate, DeLisha Milton-Jones, raced over to punch Mahorn, causing the Sparks' Shannon Bobbitt and Murriel Page to both come off the bench and shove Mahorn from behind as well. During the melee, Cheryl Ford tore her ACL and had to be taken off the court by wheelchair. It took several minutes to restore order with Pierson, Parker, Milton-Jones, and Mahorn all tossed. It was a wild affair that did earn the WNBA an odd respect by showing the ladies could get as nasty as the guys could.
10 Miami vs. FIU
Florida International University isn’t known as a big football school, especially considering its local rivals in the state. Miami University is far more famous, but the two schools do have a good inter-state rivalry going. Rarely has that been shown more than this 2006 encounter. FIU was having a horrible, winless, and pathetic season while Miami was 4-2. The game was totally lopsided with Miami dominating 35-0. With that aforementioned horrible, winless season, FIU was starting to get a little punchy. With nine minutes left in the third quarter, an FIU safety dragged Miami player Matt Perelli to the ground and kicked him. As players emptied the benches, Anthony Hendrick swung his helmet at FIU players while Brandon Meriweather kicked a few more. Punches were getting thrown about and it was so wild that FIU’s A’Mod Ned came out on crutches to take part. It required the Florida Highway Patrol a few minutes to get some order restored. Thirteen players were hit with penalties as 31 players were suspended. It was one of the biggest brawls in college history and showed how crazy things can get in Florida.
9 Charles Barkley vs. Shaquille O’Neal
It’s harder to get more “big name” than this fight. On November 12th, 1999, the Los Angeles Lakers traveled to Houston to face the Rockets. It was expected to be a big showdow between Shaq for the Lakers and Barkley for the Rockets. The two future Hall of Famers always played with high intensity, but this was next level! Few expected a fight when these two played, but after a lay-up, Barkley came over to yell at O’Neal and flipped the ball off his head. Before anyone knew it, the two were exchanging punches and rolling on the ground as refs and other players raced to pull them apart. Both were hit with suspensions and some big fines as the crowd reacted to two of the NBA’s biggest (literally) stars brawling like this. They would mend fences, but to this day, the two men will continue to needle each other on TNT’s NBA broadcasts as each still blames the other for starting it and contends they won the fight.
8 Nolan Ryan vs. Robin Ventura
Nolan Ryan is generally considered one of the greatest pitchers in the history of MLB. Over 27 seasons, he was an eight-time All-Star, an eleven-time strikeout leader, a World Series champion, and holds the record for the most strikeouts (5,714) and most no-hitters (seven) as well as having his number retired by three different teams. That shows how tough he is and thus trying to start a fight with him is a bad idea. On August 4, 1993, Ryan’s Texas Rangers were facing the Chicago White Sox and these American League rivals had no love lost between them. Robin Ventura scored a first-inning RBI single off Ryan, instantly putting Ryan in a foul mood. White Sox pitcher Alex Fernandez then hit Juan Gonzalez in the second inning. Ryan, in keeping with tradition, nailed Ventura the next inning. After a few steps to first base, Ventura charged the mound where Ryan grabbed him in a headlock and proceeded to hammer Ventura with several punches. The benches cleared with the two buried under bodies and Ryan later said he was terrified of being crushed by the mob only to be saved by none other than Bo Jackson. Surprisingly, he wasn’t ejected, although Ventura was. Given that Ventura hadn’t even been born when Ryan began his career, seeing him getting the worst of this fight was embarrassing.
7 USSR vs. Canada
Brawls in hockey are nothing new, but the “Punch-Up in Piestany” is something else. On January 4, 1987, Canada and the USSR entered the final game of the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. “The Cold War” was a reference to the decades-long feud of the two teams and thus tensions ran high. Canada was up 4-2 with six minutes in the second period when Sergei Shestrikov collided with Everett Sanipass and the two fought. Pavel Kostichkin then fought with Theron Fluery which soon dragged in the skaters of both teams. In what may be the greatest understatement in sports history, commentator Don Whitman called it “a real skirmish.” Just as things seemed to be calming down, it started up again and before anyone knew it, literally a dozen fistfights were going across the ice. By this point, the officials were doing anything they could, including shutting down the lights to the arena for twenty minutes. That just made it worse with the fights continuing and the crowd booing both teams hard. It took nearly a half hour for some semblance of order to be re-established, at which point officials decided to cancel the rest of the game. The IHF laid down the law: both teams were kicked out of the tournament and every player was suspended for six months. It remains the biggest hockey fight ever to show how the “Cold War” could get hot.
6 Kermit Washington vs. Rudy Tomjanovich
Just how huge a deal was this punch? Revered sports writer John Feinstein wrote a book about it. Yeah, that huge. On December 9, 1977, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets were in a heated game with one another. Arguments abound as to how the whole mess got started and to this day Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Kunnert still argue about who actually took the first swing. Washington, a Lakers player, moved to help teammate Abdul-Jabbar when he saw Rudy Tomjanovich rushing forward. Mistakenly thinking Rudy was there to fight, Washington hauled back and leveled him with a savage punch to the face. It was a shot a boxer would be proud of as it literally shifted Tomjanovich’s face nearly an inch off his skull and dropped the man instantly. The crowd was stunned silent at the sight of him lying in a pool of blood, but incredibly, Tomjanovich was able to get up and try to get at Washington before dragged to the locker room. He had a cerebral concussion, a shattered nose and jaw, and could taste his own spinal fluid. Washington was hit with a then record 60-day suspension and fined $10,000. The Lakers would trade him two weeks later. Neither man was really the same and, all these years later, it remains one of the most brutal images in NBA history.
5 Ik Enemkpali vs. Geno Smith
It’s not just opposing players that get into it big time. In 2015, the New York Jets were hopeful for a new season with Geno Smith leading them and looking like they could do something in the AFC East. In training camp, Smith apparently borrowed $600 from teammate Ik Enemkpali for plane tickets and a limo to attend a kid’s football camp Enemkpali ran only to back out at the last minute. As camp continued, Enemkpali got into it with Smith, who dismissed the charges. Considering Smith was making $1.7 million a year, not paying a few hundred seemed rather petty. Finally, the two started yelling at each other in the locker room and Enemkpali hauled off and punched Smith in the jaw. They fought a bit more with Ik getting the majority of good shots that ended up dislocating Smith’s jaw and putting him out for the first two weeks of the season. Ryan Fitzpatrick ended up doing a good job as back-up QB while Enemkpali was released. Smith’s career has never recovered with him getting little playing time and thus his decision to welsh on a measly six hundred bucks ended up costing him big time.
4 Flyers vs. Senators
If ever a game lived up to the old joke “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out,” this was it. On March 5, 2004, the Ottawa Senators traveled to Philadelphia to face the Flyers, a team infamous for their hard-fighting ways. There had been bad blood between them over a violent game earlier in the season, but few knew how rough this was going to get. With the Flyers up 5-2 with under two minutes left in the game, Donald Brashear and Rob Ray jostled in front of the Flyers' net. It soon turned into a full scale heavyweight fight with Ray bloodied and both were eventually ejected. As Brashear skated off, the Senators’ Todd Simpson attacked him for another fight and it was officially on. Shaun Van Allen paired off with Branko Radivojevic while goalie Patrick Lalime skated the length of the ice to take on Flyers counterpart Robert Esche. Just when things seemed to be calming down, Zdeno Chara went on the attack and was kicked out while Mike Fisher took down Michal Handzus and another four guys went at it. It was getting to the point where the refs were seriously worried neither team would have enough guys on the ice with all the ones going into the penalty box and the dressing room. By the time it was all said and done, the two teams had combined for 419 penalty minutes, the most ever for a single NHL game. The Flyers won 5-3, but it’s the epic brawl that makes this a hockey classic.
3 Malice In the Palace
There have been brawls in NBA history, but few times has it gotten so totally and completely out of hand as this. On November 19, 2004, the Detroit Pistons hosted the Indiana Pacers in a major showdown. The Pacers wanted revenge for the Pistons beating them in the playoffs the previous season, so bad blood was going to juice this game as it was. It finally came loose with a minute left in the game as Ron Artest gave a hard shot to the back of Ben Wallace. Wallace shoved back, and at that point, all hell broke loose. Artest laid down on a broadcast table while Wallace tossed a towel at him. Then, spectator Ron Green tossed a drink at Artest, who charged the stands, attacking another fan. Stephen Jackson followed to punch a fan and soon players and fans were going at it all over the place. It was sheer chaos as the security was helpless to stop things and more brawls broke out. The game was called off with the Pacers awarded a 97-82 win and 10 players were hit with suspensions. The biggest was Artest, hit with a suspension for the entire season, the most in NBA history, while Jackson got 30 games. It put a major black eye on the NBA which matched those of several in attendance.
2 Julius Erving vs. Larry Bird
It wasn’t just the star power of the two involved that made this so shocking. It was also the real-life feelings between them. In the 1980s, Erving and Bird were among two of the biggest stars in the NBA, each a champion and putting up great numbers. They were also friends off the court, appearing together in commercials and a computer game, with each happy to speak with great respect on the other. On November 9, 1984, the 76’ers and the Celtics faced off in a highly anticipated early season match-up with both teams undefeated. Bird was doing well, but it was an off-night for Dr. J, making him frustrated. As the game went on, he and Bird (infamous for riling up opponents) started yelling at one another and snapping harder. In the third quarter, Bird blocked a lay-up and Erving yelled at him, eventually grabbing Bird by the throat. They started tossing punches at each other and the Boston Garden crowd went wild at the sight of two of the NBA’s biggest stars fighting each other. It took both teams to pry them apart and they were ejected (the only time in his entire career Erving endured that). The Celtics won the game, but it was more memorable to see how basketball could drive even two good friends to major blows.
1 John Roseboro vs. Juan Marichal
Here’s a recipe for disaster: Take the Dodgers and the Giants, the oldest and most bitter rivalry in baseball. Have them be head to head in a heated pennant chase. Then put that on a hot August day in San Francisco. On August 22, 1965, everything came together when the two teams faced off with “brushbacks” being the theme of the game. In the third inning, Giants pitcher Marichal came to bat and argued that Dodgers catcher Roseboro was throwing the ball to Sandy Koufax way too close to Marichal’s ear. When Roseboro rose up to argue, Marichal spun around and began slamming him over the head with his bat. Naturally, the benches emptied, although it took a few moments for anyone to get close enough to the bat-wielding Marichal to tackle him and get the bat away. He was ejected while Rosbero had to get stitches for the savage blows to the head.
Amazingly, the punishment for Marichal was only a fine of $1750 and an eight-game suspension. As it turned out, it hit the Giants worse as Marichal’s absence cost them the pennant to the Giants. As fate had it, a few years later, Marichal was traded to the Dodgers and he and Roseboro publicly buried the hatchet. They became good friends, with Rosbero pushing for Marichal to be in the Hall of Fame and Marichal spoke at Roseboro’s funeral in 2002. It's remarkable that the men involved in one of the ugliest moments in baseball history could turn it into a story of redemption.