The 2017 NBA Finals begin Thursday night with the Golden State Warriors and Clevleand Cavaliers meeting for the third-straight year with the title on the line. That's the first time such a thing has ever happened in NBA history and only the fourth time it's happened in the history of professional team sports. (The last occuring in 1956, when leagues were far smaller and the odds of such meetings were greater.)
That doesn't mean sports hasn't treated us to some great trilogies, however. Here's a list of the greatest threequels in sports history - one that Cavs-Dubs is sure to join seven games from now.
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In 2006, Roger Federer was a three-time defending Wimbledon champion who'd just broken Bjorn Borg's all-time record of 41-consecutive grass-court wins. By contrast, Rafael Nadal was a clay-court maestro who'd just won his second French Open, defeating Federer in the final to deny the tennis great the one major that eluded him. But Nadal's tennis magic was pretty much dependent on some crushed brick under his feet. On the other surfaces Nadal was merely very good. He'd won some Masters 1000s on hard courts but had only once made it past the third round at a major outside Roland Garros (and even that was only a fourth-round appearance at the '05 Australian Open).
While future prowess on those surfaces seemed inevitable, there was little reason to think that 2006 was the year Nadal would start it. He was 5-4 lifetime on grass and 3-2 at Wimbledon. And when he lost the first two sets in a second-round match against qualifier Robert Kendrick, it seemed that his ascension would have to wait. But he came back, then defeated Andre Agassi in the next round (it would be Agassi's last match at the All England Club) and made it to the final without facing a seed better than No. 18. He played Federer tough in that final, rebounding after losing the first set in 25 minutes, but more than anything it was a warning shot that there would be more to come.
In 2007, after losing another French Open final to Nadal, Federer was trying to tie Borg's record of five-straight Wimbledon titles. Once again, Nadal stood in his way. This time, for perhaps the first time since he went on the most dominant Grand Slam run the sport has ever seen, Federer looked frustrated by his inability to control an opponent. He was scared, almost. It had all come so easy and suddenly this blasting, topspinning kid was upending it all.
It's a reaction Federer would have countless times over the next decade, stymied by the Nadal game that was a perfect counter to his own. The Fed won in five tight sets but a few points here and there and Nadal could have stolen the match. Rafa sobbed in the locker room but there was the sense that next time - and there would be a next time - could easily bring a different result.
Nadal still hadn't won a major outside of France when he walked onto Centre Court for the 2008 Wimbledon final. Federer hadn't lost a match at the tournament since 2002 and was 12-0 in Grand Slam finals played on hard or grass courts. Seven hours later, neither of those things would be true and tennis history would be altered forever.
The 2008 Wimbledon final is the greatest match in the history of the sport, both for the play, the drama, the conditions and the overarching meaning, in which the king of tennis was toppled, replaced by a younger, fitter and stronger version from Mallorca. There have been books written on this match so a half-paragraph won't suffice but after three rain delays, three saved match points by Federer, an inability by Federer to convert break points, Nadal converting his, a blown 5-2 lead by Nadal in what could have been a decisive fourth set tiebreak and a 9-7 fifth set played in the gloaming, Rafael Nadal had finally gotten the best of Roger Federer. “He’s still the best,” Nadal would say of Federer, characteristically humble after the match. It was the only thing Nadal had gotten wrong all day.
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The first fight was the biggest sporting event of the 20th century, a first-ever meeting between two undefeated champions and Ali's return to the big stage following a three-year ban for draft evasion. It was held in front of one of the most star-studded crowds in sports history in the most famous arena in the world and was so big that Frank Sinatra had to ask to take pictures for Life magazine to get a ringside seat. Frazier ended up winning a unanimous decision. The second fight was bound to be disappointing by comparison, especially after Frazier's loss to George Foreman made it a non-title bout. This time, Ali got one back, winning with a unanimous decision of his own. The third fight, the rubber match, ended up being one of the most memorable bouts in boxing history.
The lead-up to the Thrilla in Manila would feature some of Ali's nastiest taunting of Frazier, who he called "ugly," "an Uncle Tom" and a "gorilla." The resentment would last a lifetime and the anger would pore over into the ring.
Fought in sauna-like conditions in the steamy Philippines, with the temperature was estimated to be about 120 degrees in the ring, Ali-Frazier III was a classic that saw both boxers physically and mentally exhausted as the match went to the later rounds. Ali told his corner late in the bout that this was as close as he'd ever been to dying. After the 14th round, a brutal affair in which Ali could barely stand and Frazier could barely see, the two sat on their respective benches. Ali asked for the tape to get cut from his hands but Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch got there first and threw in the towel, afraid that Frazier could die if he went out for the 15th.
"I'm sure I never saw a fight where two guys took as much punishment as those two did that day," said Associated Press boxing reporter Ed Schuyler. "After that fight, as fighters, neither one was ever worth a damn."
Frazier, who got the worst of it on that October morning in Manila, would later crow that he'd eventually won the fight, pointing to Ali's diminished state due to Parkinson's disease. "I sent him home worse than he came," Frazier said. "Him and me had three fights – he won two of them, I won one. But if you look at him now, you can see who won them all: me." It was an ugliness the two men took to their graves.
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Though Warriors-Cavaliers is the first NBA Finals matchup that's happened three times in a row, there's another equally captivating one that was spread over four seasons in the 1980s. Though the Celtics and Lakers had owned their conference spots in the NBA Finals through the 1960s, Wilt Chamberlain's team could never get the best of Bill Russell, giving the Celts a staggering 7-0 Finals record against the Lakers. The rivalry was rejuvenated in the 1980s, when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson led their teams to the first of three title matchups in 1984. That year, the Celtics continued the win streak, winning Game 7 at the Boston Garden after the teams traded home wins in Games 5 and 6. The '85 Finals were less exciting - the Celtics won Game 1 by 34 points but the Lakers dominated from there, breaking the 0-8 Finals skid with a Game 6 win in Boston. Two years later, they'd do it again, with another Finals that was more thrilling in theory than practice.
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Affirmed and Alydar raced before their famous Triple Crown battle of 1978 and one time after, but it was those three battles at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes that etched the rivalry into history. Affirmed, ridden by 18-year-old sensation Steve Cauthen, outlasted favorite Alydar (from the famed Calumet Farm) in the Kentucky Derby, won by a neck at a tight Preakness and then, with the Triple Crown on the line, went stride-for-stride for a full mile with his rival at the Belmont, making for one of the great races ever. (Watch it - it's almost as awesome as Secretariat's dominant run at Belmont five years earlier.) A final meeting in the Traver's Stakes would be a disappointment - Affirmed won again but was disqualified from first to second for knocking Alydar during the backstretch, giving Alydar the victory that had eluded him throughout the spring.
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This was Ali-Frazier in reverse. The best fight was the first - a bruising, brutal affair that saw both fighters cut by the end of the first round and punching out until the 10th, when Ward, who won the fight in a majority decision, threw 99 punches despite appearing to be on the verge of collapse. Fight No. 2 was a disappointment: Gatti destroyed Ward, winning 98-91 on two scorecards. The third fight, which had the most hype, appeared to be more of the same until Gatti broke his hand on a punch to Ward's hip, giving the working-class Massachusetts hero an opening. That led to a classic seventh round, but the ultimate result was the same: Gatti won convincingly on every scorecard. The two would become friends, with Ward, who never fought again, working as Gatti's trainer in his final fight. Ward's story was captured in the film The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg as Ward and Christian Bale as his brother fighting a drug addiction. Gatti died in mysterious circumstances in Brazil a few years later.
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Though this was never very competitive (Phelps won gold in 2008 without much trouble, never looked challenged in 2012, and other than a brief Lochte lead early in the race, controlled in 2016) and actually began in 2004 (when Lochte was an unknown and Phelps was becoming a superstar), the Phelps-Lochte 200 IM became the mega-showdowns of Phelps' post-Beijing Olympic career. Lochte was a star of his own in 2012 and when he and Phelps - friendly rivals - dove into the pool, Lochte was considered the favorite in the shortest IM event. He defeated Phelps in the race in the 2011 world championships, held the world record and had been having a fine Olympics, compared to Phelps, who'd been struggling in London (relatively). Phelps won that race fairly easily. Four years later in Rio, way before gas station micturition and passport pulling, Phelps-Lochte III was set to be the race of the meet. But Lochte went out too fast, faded in the breaststroke leg and by the time he touched the wall, was in fifth place, the first time he hadn't medaled in the event since the 2003 world championships. Despite owning the butterfly during his career, it was the 200 IM in which Phelps made Olympic history by winning the event in four-straight games.
After splitting their first two heavyweight title fights, the rivals fought their third bout in a small gym with no spectators, keeping the result a secret from the world. You wanna ring the bell?