50 greatest business rivalries of all time

These stories of no-holds-barred competition, contempt, and all-out conflict shaped the modern business world. Here's what you can learn from them.

A little competition
RIV08 greatest business rivalries

There was the time Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant to demonstrate the danger of a competitor's technology. The day that Nike (NKE, Fortune 500), desperate for an advantage over a surging Reebok, signed a college hoops player named Michael Jordan. And the time the Central Pacific Railroad laid an astounding 10 miles of track in 24 hours to grab government payments that the hated Union Pacific would otherwise claim.

Rivalries make great stories, and the greatest rivalries make the greatest tales -- reason enough to read the following portraits of brilliance, skullduggery, nobility, mendacity, victory, and failure. But if you're the driven type who demands more practical benefits, you'll find those here too. After all, monumental business battles have changed the world. We cannot imagine life without cellphones or the Internet, but if tiny MCI hadn't challenged the titanic AT&T (T, Fortune 500) (the No. 4 rivalry in our ranking), the communications revolution would have played out much differently. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (No. 6) ended up selling few competing products yet contended for 35 years to impose radically different visions of computing. And a global economy that couldn't function without air travel is far faster and better because Airbus and Boeing (BA, Fortune 500) (No. 9) have had to fight each other every day for 40 years.

But powerful rivalries can be blinding, obscuring events beyond the combatants' battlefield. Coke (KO, Fortune 500) and Pepsi (PEP, Fortune 500) (No. 1) were so busy pounding the daylights out of each other that they missed an entirely new notion, and today, inconceivably, the bestselling energy drink in U.S. convenience stores isn't made by either company. (It's Red Bull.) General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) and Ford (F, Fortune 500) obsessed over each other until one day Toyota (TM) had stolen the bulk of their profits.

What comes through most strongly in these stories is each conflict's sheer human intensity. Only a brave novelist would have imagined the brother vs. brother saga of Adidas vs. Puma (No. 20). Venice vs. Genoa (No. 7) may look like a dusty tale of feuding city-states, but it set the tone for hundreds of years of European competition. The rivalry between the railroads was economic, ethnic, and spectacular, involving sabotage, deception, and death.

Who needs such lessons? Oh, right, you do. So think of these dramas as guilt-free pleasures. Then, well prepared for the task, go forth and pulverize your rivals.

--Geoff Colvin

- Last updated March 21 2013 05:44 PM ET
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