Heading into this week's Go RVing Match Play Championship (click here for the complete bracket and to sign up for the official PBA Bracket Battle game), I thought now might be a good time to go back and rank the greatest rivalries in the history of the PBA Tour.
With the greatest players in the world all participating in head-to-head, do-or-die, best-of-seven matches all week long (starting Thursday, actually) you'd imagine that there would be some potential knock-down-drag-out match-ups.
Unfortunately, in thinking about it, the last great bowling rivalry in our sport is probably the ongoing saga between Walter Ray Williams, Jr. and Pete Weber. The only problem with this one, though, is that the two guys genuinely like each other and it appears that Walter Ray has a seemingly insurmountable lead on who will finish with the more successful career resume.
There have been a few good man versus machine rivalries in the meantime, the best being, of course, Chris Barnes versus TV cameras, Marshall Holman versus foul lights, Randy Pedersen versus the 8-pin and Del Ballard, Jr. versus the right gutter, but for this story, we're just going to stick to good old-fashioned man versus man.
That aside, I will list my top four rivalries, then add three more modern-day match-ups that I feel could be the rivalries to watch heading into this week's tournament and in the years to come.
#4 - Don Carter vs. Dick Weber
More than any other two men, Carter and Weber ushered in the golden age of bowling, when the popularity of the sport in the 1950's begat all forms of success for bowling on television and throughout the country.
The two shared the spotlight on the famous Budweisers bowling team, each contributing to a five-man team scoring record that amazingly stood for more than 40 years. Once the PBA was formed in 1958, Carter, who had utterly dominated the sport in the years prior, began to relinquish the spotlight to the younger Weber.
But for years after (up until the mid-1970's), the "Greatest Bowler of All-Time" debate centered around these two legendary icons.
#3 Dick Weber vs. Earl Anthony
With his 30 career titles setting the early standard for winning on the PBA Tour, along came Earl Anthony to challenge that record.
Much like the Arnold Palmer/Jack Nicklaus rivalry in golf, this match-up had many of the same ingredients: a beloved, telegenic, swashbuckling older star (Weber) trying to hold off a younger, machine-like, disciplined newcomer (Anthony) who was out to rewrite the record books.
Earl finally surpassed Weber's victory total in the late 1970's and kept his foot firmly on the gas pedal until he retired in 1983 with 42 career wins. (He added another in 1984 when he un-retired for a week and won the ABC Masters). Much like Nicklaus, Anthony transformed his image later in his career from cold-hearted competitor into that of a world-class ambassador for the sport and was absolutely beloved wherever he went.
#2 - Earl Anthony vs. Mark Roth
Probably the greatest rivalry in terms of contrasting styles, Earl Anthony versus Mark Roth was a clash of pure accuracy and raw power.
The two traded Player of the Year titles throughout the late 1970's (Earl took the '74-'76 seasons, while Roth took '77-'79) and put up staggering numbers of wins (Roth won an astounding 15 titles in '78 and '79) over the course of the second half of that decade, which still stand as some of the greatest single seasons in the history of the PBA.
Many of the contemporary stars on Tour are Roth disciples, who were drawn to the power game by his aggressive, no-holds-barred method for attacking the pins.
#1 Walter Ray Williams, Jr. vs. Pete Weber
As I mentioned earlier, this is probably the last great rivalry in bowling. It has everything that the previous rivalries had in terms of contrasting styles (accuracy/power), night-and-day personalities (aw shucks/over-the-top), and gaudy amounts of winning and TV appearances (WRW leads in both categories 47/176 to PDW's 34/125).
The fact that both players are almost the same age (Williams is 50 and Weber is 48) and you'd think this would be a rivalry that fans and the media would have gotten behind so much more over the years. Maybe because the players like and respect each other so much or because the rivalry has been so one-sided on TV (Williams has never lost to Weber in a title match in six tries...think about that for a second, if Weber had won all six, their respective title count would only be 41-40 in WRW's favor) it's never really propelled the sport of bowling into the stratosphere like the Weber/Carter rivalry in the '60's the Anthony/Weber rivalry in the '70's or the Roth/Anthony rivalry in the late '70's/early '80's.
So, which players have the potential of creating the new rivalries that might one day spark the imagination of the fans and media in the years to come? Here are my favorite picks:
#3 Wes Malott vs. Rhino Page
I've talked about this one before, but out of all the up-and-coming generation of PBA Tour stars, these guys have the most obvious history against one another on TV.
Although publicly, they claim there is no bad blood, simply watching the tenacity with which they go at one another when paired up head-to-head, you have to think there's something going on here.
Of course, Rhino is the ultimate competitor and will always look at any opponent standing between him and a trophy as the enemy, but when Wes bowls Page there is something different about his usually placid expression...almost like he wants to beat Rhino especially bad.
Their history suggests a pretty even record head-to-head, but Wes has a slight advantage in titles (six to Rhino's three), Player of the Year awards (one to none) and TV 300 games (two to Rhino's one, although Page's was worth $100K and Wes's zip). I'd imagine if they both stay healthy, this could be a pretty interesting one to watch for quite some time.
#2 Bill O'Neill vs. Chris Barnes
The consensus on Tour is that Chris Barnes is the most technically sound player in the world. The consensus among Chris Barnes is that Bill O'Neill is the player most likely to fill that role once Barnes moves on...although even though Chris turned 40 a couple weeks back, it doesn't look like that will happen just quite yet.
Similar to the Anthony Weber rivalry, this one has a bit of the "passing of the torch" feel to it, the only problem being that Barnes, because of his low titles to TV appearances ratio, has never fully put his stamp on "owning" the PBA as Weber, Earl and Roth did. (I mean, just imagine if Barnes had the TV record of Tommy Jones...he'd have 30 titles by now!)
But as O'Neill closes in on his first PBA Player of the Year award (he leads heading into the final three events of the season) and Barnes fights to finish his career off strong to establish himself among the Pantheon of all-time greats (where he absolutely deserves to be) I imagine that these two will be running into each other quite a bit over the next five years at least.
#1 Jason Belmonte vs. Osku Palermaa
This one is interesting because, obviously, these two burst onto the bowling scene at about the same time with the same, unique two-handed bowling style.
Although Belmonte gets most of the credit for "developing" the two-handed game, both of these electrifying talents invented their games separately and independently of one another, and both appear to have equally jaw-dropping talent and the results to back it up.
With the success both players have enjoyed (Belmonte won his first title in last season's Bowling Foundation Long Island Open and is among the top 10 in points on Tour this season, and Osku nearly won last week's Etonic Don Johnson Eliminator and starred in a much-watched trick shot in the season-opening telecast), it appears that the historical legacy of which player ushered in the era of two-handed bowling (which certainly looks like it will be the next step in the evolutionary process of the way the sport is played by future generations) will rest on who can keep it going.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (WITHOUT AN OBVIOUS FOIL)
Although there doesn't appear to be a clear rival to "Brash" Rash (I made that one up myself...hey, it's better than "Diaper"), as long as he keeps bowling well and can put his recent TV maladies behind him, there's a good chance that one will emerge. He's definitely in my top five young guns who might one day end up in the Hall of Fame, and he's definitely an in-your-face kind of guy (especially on TV) so that's why he's at the top of my list.
Already a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame at the tender age of 31, Jones has been so good on TV that he's simply had no rivals. Probably the best candidate in terms of skill and talent is Wes Malott, but, alas, the two are best buddies. Bill O'Neill is another potential rival, and he got the best of Jones in their last TV match-up in the U.S. Open.
After his breakthrough win a few weeks back and an extremely consistent season, Fagan is part of the young Brat Pack (with Bill O'Neill and Jason Belmonte) that is emerging as the next generation of Tour stars. The question for Fagan is whether or not the Tour will hold his interest long enough for a rivalry to develop. Probably the most interesting potential rival would be someone who's game is not as physically gorgeous to watch, but has equal success. I'm not venturing to say whom that might be since I have to see these guys on a weekly basis, but maybe it's some freakishly talented college kid with an ugly Ron Williams-like armswing.
That's all for now folks. Let's hope that this week's bracket extravaganza helps bring some of these rivalries to light...or better yet, uncovers new ones that thrill us for years to come.