Emotion and physicality are cornerstones of any sport, but when competition is fierce and tensions are high, things can sometimes get out of hand. Bad blood, nationalistic pride, and revenge can all result in chaotic situations on the pitch, ice, court, or even in the stands. Other times, it’s simply a matter of hotter heads prevailing.
Indeed, no game can claim to be immune to the possibility of being mired by violence. But, when it comes to team sports, the potential for chaos is multiplied, thanks to the more significant number of individuals involved and the group mentality that binds teammates together. Here, we’ll be looking at some of the biggest and most infamous brawls to ever occur in sport.
Related: Top 10 Most Brutal Modern Fight Sports
10 Boston Bruins vs. New York Rangers (1979)
Brawls are all part of the hockey experience, but not when they occur between fans and players. But that’s what happened in 1979 when the New York Rangers hosted the Boston Bruins.
Players were already scuffling when Bruins player Al Secord decked Ulf Nilson following the game’s final buzzer—an apparent receipt for an earlier sucker punch. But when a fan reached over the glass to hit and then steal the stick of Boston player Stan Jonathan, things took a scary turn that saw all but one of the Bruins players head over the glass and into the stands. After that, players began throwing punches, and Rangers defensemen Mike Milbury would infamously end up beating the thieving fan with his own shoe.
Considering the hostile crowd that night, this one could have been a lot worse. Nonetheless, the incident resulted in suspensions and lawsuits and provoked the NHL to install higher glass panels for all future hockey games.
9 New York Knicks vs. Denver Nuggets (2006)
It all started with the breaking of an unwritten basketball rule—you don’t keep your starters in when you’re leading comfortably in the closing seconds, and you don’t go dunking on a well-defeated team. Some take such playing as an insult, and Mardy Collins of the New York Knicks certainly seemed to when he flagrantly fouled J.A. Smith of the Nuggets on a turnover break in the closing moments of a one-sided game.
The result was a bench-clearing brawl that saw players fighting on-court and off and would see rising star Carmelo Anthony claw at Mardy Collins’s face just as things were starting to cool down. For better or worse, the NBA, still trying to cast off the shadow of a previous fight (oh, we’ll get to that), came down hard on the incident, with fines of $500,000 for each franchise and multiple suspensions.
8 Italy vs. Chile (1962)
The 1962 FIFA World Cup may be the most violent in history. The first two days alone resulted in three broken legs, a fractured ankle, cracked ribs, and many disciplinaries. But it would be the match between Italy and the tournament hosts, Chile, that would go down in infamy as “the battle of Santiago.”
Things were already tense going into this one, not helped by the fact that the Italian press had taken issue with the decision to let Chile host the tournament. And things didn’t take long to get heated. The first foul would occur only 12 seconds in; the first send-off after four minutes. Armed police made their way onto the pitch for the first time during the match moments later. Violence continued throughout the affair, with players spitting, punching, and kicking at each other at every opportunity, resulting in bloodied faces and broken bones.
Interestingly, the referee for the match would be none other than Ken Aston, the man who would invent the concept of red and yellow cards. We can only suspect that this match may have influenced his idea.
7 Hawthorn vs. Essendon (2004)
We’ve all heard stories of half-time addresses inspiring teams to change their fortunes in the second half. But the words spoken by Hawthorn club director Dermott Brereton during a 2004 AFL match encouraged something very different—words that were something along the lines of “it’s time to draw a line in the sand.”
Hawthorn, whom Essendon was dominating in the first half, came out quite literally swinging in the game’s second half that night. The result was several minutes of violent chaos that saw headbutts, knees, and big tackles shared out between players that left players bloodied and groggy. Unsurprisingly, the tribunal that followed would be one of the biggest in AFL history, resulting in hefty fines and multiple suspensions.
6 Athletic Bilbao vs. FC Barcelona (1984)
Relations were low between Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona going into the 1984 Copa del Rey final, not least because Bilbao’s Anton Goikoetxea had broken Barcelona’s Diego Maradona’s ankle the year prior. What followed would be a scuffy encounter that saw seven yellow cards, and Bilbao shut out the Barcelona strikers for a tight 1-0 victory.
The ever-controversial Maradona, who likely imagined a very different result, took little time to vent his frustrations, attacking Bilbao-sub Miguel Angel with a flying knee to the face—one that knocked Angel out cold. Soon, the scenes on the pitch seemed to emulate something from a kung-fu movie, with players attacking each other with jumping kicks. It would take riot police armed with shields to end the violence and escort the Barcelona players out while fans threw trash onto the pitch.
5 Atlanta Braves vs. San Diego Padres (1984)
It all started when starting pitcher Pascual Perez hit San Diego’s leadoff man, Alan Wiggins, in the back, during the game’s first pitch. The Padres, out for payback, later started to throw beanballs at him, eventually hitting him on his last at-bat. The result was a bench-clearing brawl that also saw fans try to get involved (and get taken away in handcuffs for their efforts).
Things didn’t end there, though, with other fights occurring later. As a result, the game would see no fewer than three brawls and five fans arrested. Amazingly, no one was seriously injured, but Padres manager Dick Williams got a hefty $10,000 fine.
4 Miami Hurricanes vs. FIU Golden Panthers (2006)
It was supposed to be the beginning of a friendly rivalry, but the first-ever game between the Miami Hurricanes and the FIU Panthers proved to be anything but friendly. The trash-talking would begin before the game started and proved to be low on scores and high on fouls early on.
But tensions reached a fever pitch when one Miami player taunted the FIU bench following a touchdown. A successful conversion later, and hell broke loose, resulting in a bench-clearing brawl that saw 13 players ejected from the game. Miami would win 35-0, but no one was left talking about the game.
3 Soviet Union vs. Canada (1987)
Generally speaking, international hockey tends to be a little tamer in violence compared with the NHL. However, such would certainly not be the case when Canada met the Soviets toward the end of the World Junior Hockey Championships.
You’ve heard of bench-clearing, but this was a 20-minute free-for-all that seemingly no one had control over. Desperate officials would even turn off the arena lights to put the fight to a stop, but it did little to end the hostilities. Unsurprisingly, officials later ejected both teams from the tournament—a bitter blow for the Canadians, who went into the game assured of a medal.
2 Montreal Canadiens vs. Quebec Nordiques (1984)
Let’s be honest, we could have filled this list with just ice hockey brawls, but the “Good Friday Massacre” playoff game between the Monreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques might take precedent over them all. The fight had everything—a social-political backdrop (thanks to disputes over Quebec’s sovereignty), a storied and tense sports rivalry (“The battle of Quebec”), spectacle, cleared benches, and an incredible finale from the actual game itself.
Scuffles broke out throughout the game, but when Pale Hunter of the Nordiques drove Guy Carbonneau into the ice after time expired on the second third, a 40-man brawl erupted. Several more fights broke out in the 3rd that even saw brothers Mark and Dale Hunter trading blows. However, the game’s incredible finale would cement its place in Hockey Lore, which saw the Canadiens score five goals in quick succession to overturn Quebec’s lead and take the win.
1 Indiana Pacers vs. Detroit Pistons (2004)
In November 2004, the traveling Indiana Pacers found themselves with a comfortable lead over the Detroit Pistons. With only 45 seconds left on the clock, a fight broke out between players following a Ron Artest foul on Indiana center Ben Wallace. The scuffle itself was nothing too noteworthy. But when a fan threw a drink at Artest, things got ugly. Artest charged into the stands and started throwing punches—at the wrong fan, no less—leading to a full-blown brawl between fans and players, with other Pacers jumping into the crowd to save their teammates.
The last 45 seconds of the game never occurred, with the refs choosing to call it and demand the players to return to their locker rooms. The Pacers eventually would leave, being pelted by beers and sodas on their way out.
Suspensions, fines, and assault charges followed. Then, the NBA implemented new rules concerning the level of security around events and limitations regarding the sale of alcohol. Nothing quite like it has been seen again. However, the incident—dubbed the “Malice at the Palace“—continues to live on in infamy, becoming the subject of a 2021 Netflix documentary.