When the hero and the villain clash repeatedly, over time they may develop respect for their opponent's abilities. After all, their adversary is able to keep rising to oppose them battle after battle. In the heat of battle the hero or villain's true capabilities and determination could be revealed. Or perhaps one of them was simply looking for a challenge. For whatever reason, the battles have created a sense of respect (which may or may not be mutual).
This leads to a declaration by one of the two that they have found their adversary a worthy challenge, or some variation of that. It can be privately said or publicly admitted; what matters is that the character in question acknowledges and respects their opponent for their skill.
This declaration is more commonly made by villains than heroes, given that the villain's less scrupulous nature doesn't exactly help earn a hero's respect. The exceptions to this tend to involve Spirited Competitors or otherwise less principled protagonists on the heroic side, or a Noble Demon on the villainous side.
This can lead to The Only One Allowed to Defeat You, depending on the mindset of the character making this statement. See also Friendly Enemy and Evil Counterpart.
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Anime and Manga
Wham from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. He's the only one of his group who has any semblance of a code of honor when it comes to combat and the only one to end up sharing mutual respect with Joseph Joestar.
Played with where Wham's comrade, AC/DC, is concerned - in the end, Joseph respects him because he's willing to not only sacrifice himself, but tarnish his name by resorting to the most degrading, dishonourable tactics in order to help out his friends.
After getting his ass kicked by Jonathan Joestar in Part I, Dio Brando eventually came to see Jonathan as a worthy adversary. Jonathan is notably the only person Dio ever shows any real respect.
In Part III, Jotaro acknowledges Daniel D'arby as one after bluffing him into a Villainous Breakdown. Jotaro claims that D'arby was too skilled a gambler for him to cheat with Star Platinum, and he praises D'arby for being brave enough to take on the entire group by himself. When Daniel's brother faces them later and mocks Daniel for being a cheat, Jotaro and Joseph respond by beating him with cheating, capping it off with Jotaro telling him that Daniel would have easily seen through it.
Yusuke Urameshi and Younger Toguro in YuYu Hakusho. Younger Toguro even has to pretend to kill Kazuma Kuwabara in order to greatly increase Yusuke's Power Level for him to truly become his Worthy Opponent
Straw Nihilist Schwarzwald of The Big O, although initially antagonistic to hero Roger Smith, became an unspoken ally of Smith later in the second season. Both searched for the truth behind The Event: Schwarzwald preferred fear, aggression, and mass murder to spread his message, while Smith opted to protect the citizens of Paradigm City from Schwarzwald's attacks and was nearly killed by Schwarzwald in the process. Smith later spoke fondly of Schwarzwald, who left clues for Smith in an attempt to lead him to the ultimate truth behind The Event.
s-CRY-ed is built around this trope, having two main characters who start off on opposite sides of the conflict and are bitter enemies, but actually have a lot in common, unite against a common enemy in the second half of the series, and become sorta-friends, though they still have an intense rivalry and can't have a conversation without it devolving into insults. But ultimately, they seem to like it that way; each time they step up their game, they just get more excited.
Although they are enemies, Ankoku Daishogun and Tetsuya Tsurugi (both from Great Mazinger) respect each other as warriors, and when the first falls, Tetsuya gave him a salutation for being a Worthy Opponent. Obviously, this gets carried over in Super Robot Wars.
In Martian Successor Nadesico, Tsukumo Shiratori and Captain Akiyama seem to consider themselves the Worthy Opponents of the "heroic" mecha pilot Akito and the "brilliant" captain Yurika, neither of whom really seem to care. The pilot pair do become friends for a brief while before, yep, Shiratori gets offed by a scheming fanatic on his own side.
Eyeshield 21 has this kind of relationship between the Devil Bats and many of the members of the other football teams they play, but especially the Oujou White Knights. A couple of times, you get the feeling that Sakuraba and Monta, and Kurita and Otawara, could've been the best of friends if they were on the same team. On the other hand, Shin and Sena are probably as close as they'll ever get, as fiercely competitive yet friendly rivals with deep respect for one another.
Same with Sena and Panther. Both are from different continents, different cultures and speak a different language and yet have a deep respect from each other and are always in friendly competition.
Gaou regards anyone who has the guts to face him as a Worthy Opponent and expresses an open liking to them, particularly Banba, Riku and Kurita. In fact, Gaou's Berserk Button is if anyone insults those he considers to be his Worthy Opponent and he will go on a rampage to find said person to tear them to pieces.
Mugen and Jin of Samurai Champloo, from the moment they first meet. Within seconds of coming into contact, they fight to the (almost) death, then get arrested together and commiserate (half naked, too), all while swearing to murder each other once they escape.
Father Anderson and Alucard in Hellsing (at least, in the manga and recent OVA). In one sequence from the manga, Alucard watches admiringly as Anderson slices his way through an army of mooks Alucard summoned in order to have a final showdown with Alucard. And then, when Anderson invokes a Dangerous Forbidden Technique, Alucard shows genuine shock, then regret as Anderson crosses the Moral Event Horizon, and in doing so loses his final chance to defeat Alucard; he becomes He Who Fights Monsters in a world where only humans can defeat monsters like Alucard.
Applies best to Vegeta, who's Goku's rival/Lancer. He hates Goku with a passion through most of the series and spends half that time trying to kill the latest Big Bad so he can finally get his fight with Goku. First, he learns to respect Goku, then, he learns to understand Goku's motivations. Finally, ultimately, he makes his peace, recognizes that Goku is simply the better warrior, and, if you don't count Dragon Ball GT, may even have found peace in his life.
Earlier in the series, during the Namek arc, Captain Ginyu treats Goku as a worthy challenge for his skills and refuses to take advantage of Jheese's surprise attack. However, when he realises that Goku is actually a third more powerful than he is, this attitude goes out the window and he uses his body change technique instead.
Vagabond has Miyamoto Musashi, who has this dynamic with various other characters even before they fight; in fact, in his first major fight, he survives because Yoshioka Denshichirou wants him to become this. (Unfortunately for Denshichirou, Musashi makes far better use of the year between their duels and ends up defeating him easily.) In'ei trains him specifically because he's the one for Inshun (no one else can threaten Inshun's life), but Musashi's two most clear Worthy Opponents seem to be Yagyuu Hyougonosuke and Sasaki Kojirou.
Although he starts out their match aiming to injury Tezuka (and succeeds), rival captain Atobe from The Prince of Tennis ends the match considering Tezuka a Worthy Opponent (and becomes it himself, in turn), to the point that once he finally wins the match after a ridiculously long tiebreaker, the first thing Atobe does is raise Tezuka's hand in a sort of shared victory.
In the Pokémon Special manga, Bruno is the only Elite Four member who isn't evil, he just wants a worthy opponent to fight with. He finds one in Red.
It's confirmed midway through the Hoenn arc that he mentored Brawly as well. From one badass to another, it seems...
Fate considers Negi this, and the feeling is slightly mutual.
In Full Metal Panic!, apparently Gauron feels something of this sort towards Sousuke. It's one-sided, though - Sousuke really, really hates him. The first time they meet, Gauron even wanted to take Sousuke in. However, Sousuke refused. As an ally or as an enemy, Gauron has a great appreciation for Sousuke's stoic-ness and skill. His affection and obsession, however, may have actually deepened because they became enemies...
Kenshiro and Raoh. The ending of series one even credits Raoh as helping restore stability to the world.
Code Geass gives several examples of this relationship. The most obvious example is Suzaku and Kallen in their piloting skills. Lelouche and Schneizel have this in their Magnificent Bastardry.
Gino Weinberg sees Kallen as this; he's the type who enjoys a good, honest fight. She doesn't see it the same way, but she holds nothing against Gino personally; he's on the other side, she's going to beat him to get past, that's all. They eventually end up on the same side (against Lelouch) towards the Grand Finale.
Vice Admiral Garp was the Worthy Opponent of none other than Gold Roger himself. So much so that Roger, knowing he would soon die, entrusted Garp with the life of his unborn child.
Luffy and Smoker acknowledge each other as Worthy Opponent. Smoker is the first marine to realize and acknowledge Luffy's potential of becoming pirate king. Luffy who usually fights an opponent no matter how strong he is, even if they are invincible Logias, chooses to run from Smoker everytime he sees him, as he never managed to beat him, yet. Also Luffy chooses to postpone their fight, when they meet after the timeskip, because he doesn't want to fight Smoker, who was in Tashigi's body at this moment, when he's not at full power.
Luffy and Koby are probably going to end up like this, now that Koby knows Soru and they are on opposing sides, yet remain best friends. And either or both Eustass Kidd and Trafalger Law for the Pirate rival.
Mihawk to Zoro. In fact, Mihawk sees Zoro so much as his Worthy Opponent that not only does he decide to spare Zoro's life after their first battle, he also trains Zoro during the timeskip!
Fleet Admiral Sengoku and Whitebeard. The commander-in-chief of the Marines also says he was the best of the pirates.
Whitebeard and Shanks are both counted among the Four Emperors, reigning over the New World, but when another Emperor, Kaidou, attempted to attack Whitebeard when the latter was distracted trying to rescue Ace from the World Government, Shanks stopped him. And later, after Whitebeard's death, Shanks stepped in and allowed the Whitebeard pirates to bury his and Ace's bodies without the Marines defacing them.
Azumanga Daioh plays this rather humorously as Kagura is transferred to the class midway through the series. She immediately decides to take on the tall and popular Sakaki as her rival, believing that the feeling of competitiveness will be reciprocated. However, Sakaki wants to do nothing but dream of cats and do cute things and doesn't even realize that Kagura believes that they are rivals.
Legend of Galactic Heroes has Reinhard von Lohengramm expressing this sentiment towards Yang Wen-li for much of the series, even while he has yet to meet the man in person. Yang, on his side, does not have the personality nor the strategic luxury of being able to consider any of his opponents as 'worthy', but he does at least seem to respect Reinhart's tactical and political acumen. Yang does express sentiments of this nature towards Reinhart's second-in-command, Siegfried Kircheis, after the two met during a hostage exchange and cessation of hostilities agreement, but nothing more comes of it as Kircheis is assassinated not long afterwards.
Sayoko of Ah! My Goddess seems to view Belldandy as this. When Sayoko finally wins and reduces Belldandy to her maid and personal plaything, she even declares it a pointless victory as she relied on the power of another to achieve this and didn't succeed in truly crushing Belldandy.
Kisame towards Might Guy and, in turn, Guy to Kakashi in Naruto. Guy has trouble remembering who Kisame is, and Kakashi would rather not deal with Guy's idea of a rivalry.
In the Shinobi World War arc, we learn that Hashirama is this to a revived Madara.
Madaratends to lose his cool whenever he finds somebody that can give him a challenge. When Guy opens all eight gates he's absolutely thrilled and even views delivering a finishing blow to Guy as a compliment.
Mifune and Hanzo were this as well.
Bleed/Jotaro Kaga towards Hayato Kazami in Future GPX Cyber Formula, especially in ZERO and SIN, in which the arc was focused on their rivalry. Near the end of the final episode of SIN, Kaga manages to beat Hayato once and for all, and the two shared a final hug.
Before Kaga, Randoll considers Hayato this. One for a Love Triangle problem with Asuka Sugo, second for the fact that he's the first one to beat him in a race.
Leon Earnhardt and Henri Claytor for secondary characters. Even though they hated each other's guts, Henri wants to find a worthy rival in Cyber Formula and he finds in in Leon.
Hisoka of Hunter × Hunter, being an Ax-CrazyBlood Knight, is always searching for a Worthy Opponent to fight and kill. He believes that Gon and Killua could grow up to become such opponents, and has taken steps to help them do just that. He is also trying to restore Chrollo's nen abilities in exchange for a chance to fight him.
A one-sided case appears in the latest chapters. The Chimera Ant King Meryem comes to admire the Hunter Association Chairman Netero's near flawless martial arts. Though the blows cause minimal damage, he cannot avoid them. Netero just sees Meryem as a monster that has to be exterminated.
Subverted, and played straight, in Black Lagoon's Japan arc. Chaka sees Revy as a Worthy Opponent...however, she doesn't see him the same way...and, later on, we find that Revy does see Ginji that way.
In Star Blazers/Space Battleship Yamato, Desslok is a very honorable opponent. In the first season, when the Star Force escapes traps which he'd thought unbeatable, his reaction is typically to send them a message of congratulations rather than strike them again while they're wounded. The main reason for it, at that point, is that he doesn't consider them a serious threat, yet. In the second season, when he has been reduced to being Zordar's dragon, he takes them very seriously and is on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge—but, in the end, when he has a wounded Wildstar and Nova at his mercy and can finally strike them down, he realizes that he's come to respect them too much to do it. He declares their conflict over, offers them a bit of advice on how to defeat Zordar, and departs in friendship.
In the movie on which the second season was originally based, the rolls are reversed — it is Dessler who is seriously wounded and faced off with a healthy Kodai/Wildstar. In this case, he becomes the Graceful Loser, telling them how to defeat Zordar before committing suicide.
In Lupin III, Inspector Zenigata and Lupin the Third have an intense rivalry that is based on their Criminal and Cop relationship. Zenigata views Lupin as a worthy opponent, because aside from Lupin, Zenigata is able to capture any criminal he sets his eyes on. Lupin has affectionate nicknames for the old policeman, while eliminating people who he actually considers dangerous. This doesn't stop him from mocking the cop at every opportunity, but he seems to do so more from love than from hatred, despite the fact that the two are near-mortal enemies. The respect between them forms an unstated Gentleman's Agreement where neither attempts to deliberately harm the other.
Kenpachi Zaraki from Bleach constantly seeks a worthy opponent, aka an opponent who can last longer than a second and is strong enough to hurt him. Kenpachi, and later Grimmjow, consider Ichigo this. Kenpachi then adds Nnoitra to the list. Aizen, after gaining the incredible power of the Hogyoku, informs Ichigo that he is bored and wants Ichigo, the one with the potential to become as powerful as him, to become stronger so that they can have an epic battle. Once Ichigo obliges, Aizen drops this attitude and has a Villainous Breakdown once he realizes that Ichigo is stronger than him.
Later in the Fullbring arc, Byakuya informs Tsukishima that he has enjoyed their battle after defeating Tsukishima with a last-minute tactic.
TakedaShingen and UesugiKenshin of Sengoku Basara show nothing but respect for each other, and see the other as a truly destined opponent. Takeda's second-in-command practically quotes the trope, saying that the two warriors share a "worthy rivalry of the rarest kind". Even when Kenshin is beaten in The Last Party, Takeda compliments him for being such a great rival.
In fact, the whole series is one giant blend of this and Foe Yay.
In Tantei Opera Milky Holmes, the main antagonist Secret Identity Henrietta/Arsene guides and protects the Protagonists because she wants someone worth defeating, as she is bored of easily tricking the police.
Several times in Sword Art Online: The duel between Heathcliff and Kirito impresses Heathcliff enough that when Kirito figures out Heathcliff is really Kayaba Akihiko in disguise, he offers him a chance for a rematch: a fair fight to the death, for the chance to clear the game early. By the end of the Fairy Dance arc, it's clear the respect is mutual.
Kirito tends to treat his opponents like this in Alfheim Online, earning him the respect of the Salamanders: In his first fight he lets the PK group leader Kagemune go, who later repays the favor by backing up Kirito's EPIC bluff to General Eugene. In the underground passage, after absolutelythrashing the Salamander force, he immediately compliments the survivor on giving him a good fight, noting that the Salamanders' strategy was excellent and he'd have quickly lost if he'd been alonenote (He then strikes a deal with the survivor to give back all the gear and money he looted off the other Salamanders in exchange for information. Having heard that Kirito had previously spared Kagemune, the survivor agrees). Finally, Kirito's duel with General Eugene where he reinvents his Dual Blade style in ALO through sheer determination and muscle memory is so spectacular that everyonenote (Leafa, Alicia, Sakuya, the Cait Sith delegation, the Sylph delegation, and the Salamander army) gives him a standing ovation. Eugene is so impressed that he not only calls off the attack on the treaty meeting, but later joins Kirito and the other SAO players in clearing the recreated Aincrad... and brings his army with him!
Lunatic towards Kotetsu/Wild Tiger in Tiger & Bunny. He promises to watch out for Kotetsu in the future and even does some research into Tiger's background. But most noteworthy was when Kotetsu was framed for a crime he didn't commit and being chased by his brainwashed friends, Lunatic saved him on the grounds that he only punishes true criminals.
Reiner Braun and Annie Leonhart towards Eren Yeager (and the other Trainees, to a lesser degree) in Attack on Titan. This results in them beginning to genuinely respect him regardless of circumstances requiring them to be enemies. That he turns out to be a Living MacGuffin doesn't hurt things, leading them to attempt to capture rather than kill him. Erendoesnotreciprocate.
Kankuro tries with all his might to invoke this trope with Miki. Sadly, one is the Idiot Hero and the other is The Bully, so he will never pass the Unknown Rival ceiling.
Episode 6a, Fight! Bark Bark vs. Nya Nya, chronicles how Idiot Hero Kankuro was recognized as one by Noble Demon Toshiyuky.
And Miki recognizes Toshiyuky as one, but fitting the Noble Demon, Toshiyuky doesn't respect The Bully Miki.
In Shakugan no Shana, Sabrac praises Wilhelmina Carmel's strength and skills as the only warrior in history who has ever survived a fight with him and escaped. The feeling is not mutual. She's terrified of him and fights each rematch solely to finally get him out of her hair.
In Seirei no Moribito, the weaponsmith refuses to repair Balsas spear unless she explains why she is wanted for the death of the kings son and why he shouldn't inform the guards about her presence. As it will be much easier for her to protect the prince while everyone thinks he is dead, she can not give him a honest answer. Minutes later, her hunters arrive at the weaponsmiths house to pick up their weapons that had been damaged in their fight with Balsa, and tell the smith about the encounter, while Balsa and the prince hide in a storeroom. Though they were hunting her as a kidnapper and responsible for the princes death, they highly praise her skill as a warrior and her refusal to deal any serious harm to her persuers, even though they almost mortally wounded her. Hearing her enemies vouch for her integrety is good enough for the smith to trust her with one of the greatest weapons he ever made.
The DC Elseworlds story Red Son, in which the infant Superman's rocket ship crash lands in the Soviet Union and Kal-El is brought up to become a Communist leader, the American scientist (and, later, President) Lex Luthor is Superman's Worthy Opponent, impressive for a man with no superpowers. Their rivalry is much more personal than the international politics they are embroiled in, and though they are constantly seeking to destroy one another, Superman, at one pivotal moment, refers to Lex as "old friend". Lex, the irony lost on him, at one point muses that he and Superman could have been close allies had Superman been raised in America.
Every incarnation portrays their relationship this way. Luthor is the one person Superman can't defeat with strength and Superman is the one person Luthor can't control with his wealth.
This is only true of the post crisis continuity, since the golden and silver age Luthor was a known criminal rather than the perceived philanthropist he is now.
One "Imaginary Story" involved a minor villain named Dimension Master killing Lois Lane, and Superman having to deal with it. Dimension Master then has his shapeshifter wife briefly disguise herself as Lois just to further torment him. At this, Dimension Master is suddenly defeated by Luthor and Brainiac. Supes asks in astonishment why they are helping him, and they tell him that even though they are his enemies, they respect him, and they couldn't stand watching D.M.'s pointless cruelty.
Similarly, Charles Xavier and Magneto, despite wildly differing views on mutants and their role in normal (well, for the Marvel Universe) society, get on fairly well. When Grant Morrison blew up Genosha, Xavier even went to help Mags clean up. Since about 2005, and Xavier's slow and self-imposed eradication of his ethics, he's getting some rightly Not So Different accusations from his X-Men.
The Joker, to an even greater degree. He sees Batman, not only as a worthy opponent, but as "the only human being that can keep up with him."
There's also an incredibly minor subtext of this in Fantastic Four, between Reed Richards and his ARCHNEMESIS!!!Doctor Doom. The two of them regularly top canon and fanon lists of the smartest men in the Marvel Universe, and Reed steps in and out of feeling guilty for what happened to Doom in college. Part of it comes from the fact that they don't have to talk down to each other — smartest men in the world and all that.
Doctor Strange teamed up with Doom in his final (and successful) attempt to rescue his mother's soul from Hell. Though it was a reluctant partnership at best (Strange had just beaten Doom for the position of Sorcerer Supreme and tradition mandates that the winner owes the runner-up a favor), they walked away with a grudging respect for each other.
Enemy Ace Hans von Hammer is often portrayed as a Worthy Opponent. He is obviously inspired by the real-life Red Baron, mentioned below.
Captain Marvel (no, not that one), after Nitro exposed him to a certain gas, developed cancer. On his deathbed, Mar-Vell was visited by many heroes and champions, but by none of his own creed (little pun there). Yet he was visited by a Skrull high commander, the people who had been in war with his species since fuck knows when, who then commemorates him with the highest honour an opponent of the Skrull could have.
But wait! There is more! As Mar-Vell reaches Death's door...He sees Thanosof Titan, who was dead at that time. He walks up to him and says that an end like this was unworthy of his greatest enemy and then proceeds to battle him, calling forth upon the souls of defeated enemies of the Captain until he reaches Death, and hence, relief and rest from life's burdens. Some say this is Starlin's best work.
In the X-Wing Series comics, readers encounter the Baron Soontir Fel, the Empire's best pilot since Vader died. He's death on a pair of twin ionizing engines, but unlike nearly every other Imperial in the series, he doesn't wallow in evilness. Far from it: he knows what he is in the dark and is moral, devoted to his wife, and just generally isn't hateful. When the Rogues shoot him down, he asks to speak in private to Wedge Antilles - the best New Republic pilot since Skywalker left to go Jedi-ing - and compares himself to Skywalker. Defeat Means Friendship, and Fel's wife is Wedge's sister and only surviving relative, and the Empire that Fel was so loyal to is dead...
in the 2000 AD title Meltdown Man Nick Stone is this to Leeshar, the only other non-decadent human in their world. After arranging for some security for the decadent humans in his city...
Leeshar: "I said stand aside! I'm going after a REAL HUMAN BEING!"
Scrooge McDuck and Arpin Lusene have a Rich Victim - Gentleman Thief type of mutual respect in Don Rosa's comics. Lusene is a very good sport about losing, and Scrooge admits that the Frenchman is the greatest threat his fortune has (which says a lot, coming from him).
In one issue of Marvel's G.I. Joe comic, Ace and Wild Weasel (with Lady Jaye and The Baroness as co-pilots) accidentally encounter each other while flying their jet fighters one day. They spend the entire issue using every trick they know to try to shoot the other out of the sky. At the end, they both realize that they're completely out of ammunition. They fly their heavily-damaged planes past each other close enough to salute, then fly home (while their respective co-pilots ask, "That's it? We're just going to let them go?").
The Flash and his Rogues have great respect for one another in nearly ever incarnation to varying degrees. In fact most of the time the rouges plans are just ways to get Flash to become a better hero.
Usagi Yojimbo is a celebration of samurai myth, so this trope appears several times.
Captain Torame in "The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy" has this relationship with Usagi; both are good samurai (Torame exemplifies loyalty and he'll stay by his lord's side even though he knows his lord is wicked) and express regret that they have to be enemies.
Usagi's sensei, Katsuichi, has the same regard for Nakamura Koji.
Marvel Comics have traditionally referred to their rivals DC as "The Distinguished Competition".
The Death of Spider-Man arc averts this big time. Peter is faced against the Sinister Six with a bullet in his hip and takes the time to say Electro was his greatest adversary and it was an honor to fight him. But naturally this being Spidey he says he didn't really mean it and he doesn't even give Electro a second thought.
Hilariously subverted in the Firefly fanfic Forward, where the Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy Si Quan confronts River, sizes her up, and considers her a worthy opponent who can test his abilities. River disagrees, and shoots him in the head.
Katara and Azula in Avatar The Last Airbender Revised. Over the course of various battles and confrontations, the two develop a begrudging respect for each other.
In the Teen Titans fanfic Jewel Of Darkness, resident Psycho for HireGuerra views Cyborg as this, as he was the only one of the Titans to provide him with a decent fight, and actually managed to defeat him. It gets to the point that, during a fight with Robin, Guerra compares his fighting style with Cyborg's, and while he loses all interest in the Titans after his contract with Midnight expires, he's still looking forward to a rematch with Cyborg.
In the Evangelion fic Nobody Dies, Zeruel appears to consider Shinji Ikari to be this. According to the Angels, Zeruel actually fears Shinji, and this is why, when he attacks, he singles Shinji out among all other opposition. Shinji himself is rather astonished by that revelation.
Shinji: "That... that thing killed three Cherubim, took a nuclear missile to the face and it's afraid of me?"
Armisael:You have battled the Father. You have slain more of that which you call Angels than any other. You are the one whom the Angels fear, Pilot Ikari. He is coming to do battle with you, as you are the only one upon the Earth whom he feels is his equal.
In Imperfect Metamorphosis, Yuuka regards Yukari as this, partly because she's one of the only beings in existence with enough power and cunning to challenge her, and takes great pleasure in setting up this big show before their actual battle. The feeling is not mutual however, and Yukari does everything she can to ensure their showdown is as unequal and in Yukari's favour as possible. Unfortunately, this annoys Yuuka, feeling Yukari broke the rules, and Bad Things happen.
Subverted in episode 13 of Futari Wa Pretty Cure Dragon after Cure Dragon kills the man in black by burning him alive. He then uses deliberately sarcastic language to describe what had happened, e.g. "a glowing tribute" (a phrase borrowed from Diamonds Are Forever).
A running duel between Otto Skorzeny and Mad Jack Churchill in Uplifted involving: A truck with a Gestopo agent used as a battering ram, Machine Guns, Pistols, Churchill's famed Compound Bow, A sword fight and a fist fight.
The Total Drama story, Legacy has a delayed example. After ten years, the more mature Heather is finally ready to admit that a once-despised rival was in fact a valuable teammate before the merge and a formidable opponent after.
Queen Of All Oni: Blankman shows a certain amount of respect towards Jackie during their fight in the Vault of Endless Night. To the point that even though Jackie outmatches in physical combat, he refuses to just shoot him (he brings out his sword, but that's just pragmatism).
Tarakudo felt this way about Hiruzen, the Eldest of Shadowkhan. When they faced each other in combat at the climax of Tarakudo's rebellion against the Oni Elders, Tarakudo tried to convince Hiruzen to defect, and when he (barely) defeated him, ordered his troops to treat his body with respect.
Socrates 2: It's been so long since I met a worthy adversary. Socrates 1: You've only been alive for a few days!
The Lyrical Nanoha fanwork Life After Hayate has Signum discuss Chrono Harlaown's father Clyde with a great deal of affection, more than even Clyde's wife usually shows. This is because he beat the Wolkenritter twice, something no one else had ever done.
The Fate/Zero and Lupin III fanfic Just An Unorthodox Thief, this trope is both apparent frequently and weaponized by Assassin/Lupin. The most apparent use of it is between Assassin/Lupin and Zenigata as usual and weaponized against honor-bound Servants like Lancer.
The fanfic has this between Ichigo/Dead Eye and Kenpachi. After their hours-long fight, when Kenpachi is about to win, he regretfully tells Ichigo that he'd rather spare him so they can fight again but that Yamamoto would probably kill them both if he did. When Ichigo is about to win, he assures Kenpachi that he'd be honored as the most worthy of prey he has ever hunted (and likely ever will hunt) and that his memory will be passed down through Ichigo's clan. Fortunately or unfortunately, neither gets to kill the other as Unohana steps in and keeps Ichigo from killing Kenpachi. Her reason? If Ichigo kills a captain, Yamamoto will kill him and she wouldn't get her chance to fight him.
Earlier, a group of humans are sent back to Earth, never to be hunted again, as a reward of being the greatest of prey for not only surviving the hunt but also killing the Super Predators hunting them.
In Walkure Romanze, Lisa and Akane consider each other worthy opponents after they fail to win in a jousting match due to both of them being unable to gain the upperhand against the other.
Film - Animated
Towards the climax of Mulan, when Mulan reveals that it was she who destroyed the Hun army, Shan Yu isn't at all shocked and calls her "the soldier of the mountains." And then he comes at her, not wasting any time with the usual "I've been beaten by a woman" stuff villains usually spout when facing a female opponent.
Rango receives this from Rattlesnake Jake at the end of the film. "I tip my hat to you. One legend to another."
Patton: "You know, Dick, if I had my way, I'd meet Rommel face to face; him in his tank and me in mine. We'd meet out there somewhere... salute each other, maybe drink a toast, then we'd button up and do battle. The winner would decide the outcome of the entire war."
In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Naval officer Lt. Groves seems to hold this view of Captain Sparrow. At the least, he openly admires the pirate's ingenuity. "That's got to be the best pirate I've ever seen!"
Used on Groves by the Spanish Captain in On Stranger Tides with the Spaniard telling his aides to "take a note of that man's bravery"
In The Princess Bride, both Inigo Montoya and Fezzik have become bored with curbstomping opponents in their respective fields. They both go out of their way to give the Man in Black the opportunity to fight them at his full effectiveness. He ultimately bests them both. They're so impressed that they join forces with him.
In the World War II movie The Enemy Below, U-boat captain Von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens) is the honorable and worthy opponent of destroyer escort captain Murrell (Robert Mitchum).
Star Trek: Nemesis is about an equal and opposite opponent to Picard, a clone of him who grew up in different circumstances.
Bill Cutting from Gangs of New York considered Priest Vallon, the leader of the Irish immigrant gang, the last man he could truly respect. After the gang battle in the beginning of the movie ends in Vallon's death, Cutting orders that Vallon's body "will cross over whole", while the other dead are mutilated for trophies, and is himself buried beside Vallon at the end.
The Operative from Serenity, who genuinely respects his opponents for their ingenuity and tenacity: "We should have done this as men - not with fire."
In Troy, Achilles eventually comes to feel this way about his nemesis Hector, despite having already killed and desecrated him in vengeance for the death of his cousin. Also, Hector's father, King Priam's attitude towards Achilles himself ("We are still enemies tonight. But even enemies can show respect.").
Detective Lt. Vincent Hanna of the LAPD and master thief Neil McCauley in Michael Mann's Heat are excellent examples of this trope; see especially the scene where Hanna pulls over McCauley's car and suggests they go grab a cup of coffee.
Ellie Driver from Kill Bill considers the Bride one of these, going so far as to murder the Bride's "killer" in revenge for depriving her of her foe. The feeling is not mutual.
She does, however, consider O-Ren Ishii a Worthy Opponent, once they're down to one-on-one combat, and likely the only DiVA she honestly respects.
In the 2000's film King Arthur, after Arthur threatens the Saxon leader, played by Stellan Skarsgĺrd, to his face and rides away, the Saxon leader mutters, "Finally! A man worth killing."
Kingdom of Heaven features this with the rivalry between King Baldwin of Jerusalem and Saladin of the Muslims. The backstory mentions that they've been warring on and off for at least a decade, with Baldwin winning a smashing victory when he was only 16 before he contracted leprosy. When their armies meet again, after Saladin marches to avenge his sister's death, they meet in the middle of the battlefield and Baldwin promises that Raynald, the knight who raided a caravan under Saladin's protection, will be rightfully punished. Saladin accepts this and offers his physician's services to Baldwin, whose condition drastically worsened due to the forced march. After Baldwin dies and Guy takes over, Guy provokes an open war, marching his army into the middle of the freaking hot desert with no water or supplies, where they are cut to pieces. He is taken captive by Saladin, who asks him, "Were you not in the presence of a great king long enough to learn by his example?" When Saladin reaches Jerusalem, Guy is stripped down, tied to a donkey, and paraded before the city walls to the raucous laughter of the Muslim army.
"I will say that I had the opportunity to admire the moral strength, intelligence, and wavering idealism demonstrated by Ben M'Hidi. For these reasons, although remembering the danger he represented, I do not hesitate to pay homage to his memory."
Hannibal Lecter seems to view Clarice Starling this way, if not as her Evil Mentor, at least in the film versions. (Seriously, in the climax of Hannibal he could have just as easily escaped by severing her hand, but chose to do so to his own for some reason. Clearly he has more respect for her than he does for most people.)
Near the very end of Smokey and the Bandit, there's a moment where The Bandit and Sheriff Buford T. Justice share a moment of mutual admiration for each-other's tenacity, and Bandit goes so far as to pass up a chance to trick Buford so they can properly continue their chase. It happens again in Smokey And The Bandit 3, with Snow Man/Bandit II explaining that "You can't have a Bandit without a Smokey" as his reason for letting Bufford take the shark. It happens again, at the very end, with Bufford giving up the chace to finally arrest Snow Man (who he thinks is the real Bandit) in order to resume the chase, so he won't have to go back into retirement.
Hook feels this way about Peter Pan. A large part of the conflict of the movie is Hook's depression at the fact that he feels that Peter no longer lives up to it, and has to wait for him to remember who he really is. And when he finally does, and defeats Hook:
Hook: Well done, Peter. Good form.
In Red Dog, this is mentioned as a possible reason as to why Red Dog and Red Cat became friends.
Likewise, it's also implied to be a big part of the reason behind Holmes' and Irene Adler's mutual obsession.
Zatoichi has met several in his long career, but a notable one is the roninHirate from the first film. Ichi sheds tears after their inevitable duel to the death, pays for Hirate's funeral and returns to visit his grave later.
The 2013 CBC movie Jack shows even Jack Layton's opponents (eventually) admiring his courage and perseverance.
In the X-Men films, Magneto and Xavier have this relationship.
Magneto: Charles Xavier did more for mutants than you will ever know. My single greatest regret is that he had to die for our dream to live.
Averted in Star Trek Into Darkness. Harrison clearly gains some respect for Kirk after witnessing Kirk's grit and guts in the space jump the two share. He still considers regular humans to be inferior, however, and delivers a beatdown the moment he has the opportunity to, and he unceremoniously dumps Kirk back into that same cell he was being held in before he tries to destroy the Enterprise.
In The Expendables 2, Jean Vilain views Barney Ross and the rest of his team as fighting men that he can respect...but he also says that respect is something that needs to be taught, and he proves this by killing Billy right in front of them.
At the end of Hellraiser: Bloodline, Pinhead notes he relished his centuries-long fight with the Merchant family and wished it could continue.
In the Honor Harrington series, Thomas Theisman would qualify, taking into account that Honor fears and respects him at the same time. Lester Tourville, too, particularly after that business in the Selker Rift. And then there's Javier Giscard, Warner Caslet, Eloise Pritchart, Shannon Foraker... Basically, despite the horribleness of the People's Republic's regime, Haven is a hotbed of these for Manticore. Which is why the Mesan Alignment is scared out of its pants when it learns that Manticore and Haven (which has undergone a rather substantial shift in government in the meanwhile) have signed a military alliance.
Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki.
In David Gemmell's Ravenheart. One of the Villain's men, Huntsekker, kills one of his own men for breaking a promise made to one of the enemy
When Maurice Le Blanc needed a worthy opponent to his own character, Arsčne Lupin, especially as Ganimard simply wasn't cutting it, he instead decided to use Sherlock Holmes, though for copyright reasons, his name was changed to Herlock Shears or Homlock Sholmes (who lives in Parker Street with his roommate Wilson). The first Crossover, where Sherlock Holmes arrives too late, kept the original names, however. Since Holmes became Public Domain, most editions today change it back to the original names.
Also, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty: at their fateful last encounter, gentleman Moriarty lets Holmes write a farewell letter to Watson before starting their fight to the death, and Holmes knows he can trust Moriarty to wait patiently until the letter is finished and not to push him into the nearby falls while his attention is on the paper.
In the Animorphs series, Big Bad Visser Three is revealed to see Prince Elfangor this way. Later, he comes to regard team leader Jake as such too, repeatedly complimenting his tiger morph.
The Sharpe books often included this type of character among the French ranks. Often, the character would be a portrayal of a real French officer whom the author respected. In a military context, this character makes more sense.
In the Aubrey-Maturin books, several French officers (Captain, later Admiral, Christy-Palliere and his nephew, and Admiral de Linois, for example) are this to Jack Aubrey and his men. Also, Captain Lawrence of the U.S.S. Chesapeake.
Sergey Golovko or the Soviet Union as a whole in the Jack Ryan novel series.
In Dan Abnett's Warhammer 40,000Eisenhorn novels, Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn regards the Sealed Evil in a Can Pontius Glaw as a being who is intelligent, erudite, charismatic, and likable, and regretfully remarks that if Glaw hadn't chosen to follow Chaos, then they would have been the best of friends.
Rudyard Kipling's The Ballad of East and West is a prolonged exploration of this trope, culminating in the purportedly villainous character being so impressed with his enemy that he sends his own son to serve as the hero's bodyguard.
In Scott's The Talisman, Sir Kenneth and the Saracen.
The titular magicians from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell never lose their mutual respect for each other's abilities, even as their rivalry grows more intense.
The Canim from Codex Alera series consider one of these better to have than a friend.
Specifically, they have a term for "trusted enemy", which is gadara. To be a gadara is to be highly respected, both as an opponent and a peer; for example, a gadara can enter his own gadara's camp and expect to not be attacked by the guards, as only gadara can spill their blood. Gadara are, however, still technically enemies, just friendly ones. Warmaster Varg considers his own son as gadara to him, and vice versa.
Subverted in the Star Wars Expanded Universe; Han Solo tells his evil cousin, Thrackan, that the Emperor's enemies mourned him as a worthy opponent, though Han knows full well that news of Palpatine's death provoked dancing in the streets.
General Han Solo and Admiral Teren Rogriss, respectively the New Republic and Imperial commanders responsible for ending Warlord Zsinj, have a great respect for each others' talents and ethics, seeing their counterpart as an enemy, but a far preferable one to the skilled by cruel Warlord. In Solo Command, this extends to a brief sort of truce where Rogriss brings an Interdictor cruiser into battle alongside Solo's fleet in a trap that nearly destroys Zsinj's own flagship. (Since the admiral working with the New Republic in this way is technically treason, Solo arranges for its escort to be composed of captured Star Destroyers so the crew is none the wiser.) The two also share information on Zsinj's tactics, worlds, and holdings — including an extensive corporate empire that funds all of his other projects — that allows their respective intelligence agencies to dismantle his support.
Jelaudin in Bones of the Hills - having survived the fall of Samarkand, he understands the Mongols' tactics and is able to counter them. Genghis Khan privately admits a grudging respect for him. Just to drive the point home, his life after the loss of Samarkand is a compressed repeat of Genghis' own. When he dies, Genghis himself comments on his courage and honour.
Rana Sanga in the Belisarius Series is the Worthy Opponent to Belisarius as a general, and to Raghunath Rao and Valentinian in individual combat. He has the latter healed and treats him as an honored guest after (just barely) defeating him in single combat and taking him prisoner; when Sanga's army is forced to retreat from the invasion of Persia, he releases Valentinian. In the last two books, Valentinian's role in protecting Sanga's wife and children from a plot against them by Link and the Malwa dynasty is key to Sanga's Heel Face Turn, and he eventually sends his own son and heir to be Valentinian's apprentice in the art of combat.
Also, Domodara, to a lesser extent, and before theirHeel Face Turns, Kungas and Vasudeva. In fact, the Rajputs and the Kushans in general, being Proud Warrior Races, kind of qualify for this.
In The Mists of Avalon, Uther Pendragon cries because the death of a viking king he slew, calling him a good enemy.
Lancer and Saber in Fate/Zero. Neither one is really a bad or good guy, they just happen to be on opposite sides pursuing the same goal. And their Masters are both a lot less noble.
Another example would be Rider( Alexander the Great) and Archer(Gilgamesh), which is completely shocking considering that this is the only instance of it in any official timeline involving Gilgamesh where he actually respects someone enough to try before it's too late. Which is incredibly considering that he has the power to One-shot every Servant, which really makes you think about how awesome Rider is. They consider each other worthy opponents to the point that before their final clash, they stop to finish their wine and have one last conversation before each casually walks to the starting positions of the duel. And it was a duel too, again only time Gilgamesh actually respects someone enough for it rather than just standing around casually flinging Noble Phantasms.
Emeth, the good Calormene from C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, tells Peter that he'd be glad to have him either for an enemy or for a friend, and that there's a Calormene poet who wrote, "A noble friend is the best gift and a noble enemy the next best." (Possibly, he sought to invoke a legend about the Real Life Muslim conqueror Saladin, who was famous for his "noble" treatment of Christian enemies.)
Harry Dresden and Gentleman Johnny Marcone seem to invoke this trope even though they seem to end up working together more often than not. Both mistrust yet respect the other's accomplishments. Marcone seems to always keep his word and, in Small Favor, refused to be rescued before the twelve year old Archive. Also, when Harry found out about the comatose girl, he told Marcone that he could keep the Shroud of Turin for three days as long as he mailed it back afterward.
Harry also earned this status with the Erlking, Faerie Lord of goblins and master of The Wild Hunt. He initially pissed off the Erlking by trying to bind him in place to save the world (long story, involving ghosts, ghouls, necromancers, and a couple of very important books) and the Erlking intended to kill Harry for the offense, but then Harry raised a freaking T-Rex zombie and rode it to war, which impressed the Erlking so much that he put off the impending wizard-killing until their next meeting. When they do meet again, the Erlking sarcastically refers to Harry as a "guest" and Harry latches onto that like a bulldog, further impressing the Erlking with his quick mind and Politeness Judo.
Varr in Ben Counter's Warhammer 40,000 novel Chapter War. When he learns that the Soul Drinkers are renegades, he admits to being in a penal unit for having revolted, for much the same reasons. He does not fight them until compelled by the Howling Griffons, and apologizes for it.
Rizzett: You know, if the Tyranni were all like him, damned if I wouldn't join their fleet.
The Earl of Thirsk is regarded by the protagonists in Safehold to be the single most dangerous commander the enemy has. Given that he was able to score the first victories against the otherwise Curb Stomping Imperial Charisian Navy, this assessment is completely justified.
In the Iron Man 2 novelisation, Tony eventually admits to seeing Ivan this way.
Given that it's set in a war-torn universe with prominent Humongous Mecha, BattleTech fiction features these every so often, with perhaps the most iconic example being the rivalry between Morgan Kell (honorable mercenary) and Yorinaga Kurita (classic samurai and follower of bushido) that forms one of the plotlines in the Warrior trilogy.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy of Poul Anderson are full of worthy opponents; in fact, the opponents in most of his works fit into this type. For example, in the novel Star Fox, a relationship of grudging respect is built up between the hero, space privateer Gunnar Heim, and his enemy, Cynbe, an exceptionally gifted member of the alien Alerione, trained from a young age to understand his species' human enemies to the point of being alienated from his own kind. In the final scene, Cynbe challenges Heim to a space battle which only one of them would survive. Heim accepts, whereupon Cynbe says, "I thank you, my brother."
Captain Marco Ramius and the titular submarine to Captain Bart Mancuso and the USS Dallas in The Hunt for Red October. The two actually ally and help command the same submarine in the later book The Cardinal of the Kremlin several years after the former's defection.
Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal relates the battle of wits between the Jackal (Chacal in French) - an assassin hired to kill French President Charles De Gaulle - and Deputy Commissioner Claude LeBel of the French police, charged with stopping him. Lebel and the Jackal develop a grudging respect for each other, without ever meeting - with the Jackal again and again evading Lebel's clever traps and Lebel again and again penetrating the Jackal's clever disguises. Lebel certainly appreciates the Jackal far higher then he does the government officials he has to work with. When they at last meet face to face, they look, for a split second, into each other's eyes, Lebel saying "Chacal" and the Jackal saying "Lebel" before they scramble to kill each other. Lebel, being a split second quicker, wins. On the following day, he attends the Jackal's burial in a nameless grave, saying nothing to the handful of other people present.
Ned Stark felt this way about the Kingsguard he and his companions had to slay in A Song of Ice and Fire. One particular instance that highlights this is when Ned makes it a point to return Arthur Dayne's sword, Dawn, back to his family.
Martel is portrayed this way in The Elenium, despite his betrayal of the Pandion Knights. Before the final duel, he espresses a similar sentiment about Kurik. When Martel is killed, Sparhawk and Sephrenia both mourn over him, and Martel calls them "the only two people that I ever loved"
Erich Von Stalhein in the Biggles books is of a similar mould. A clear-cut case of My Country, Right or Wrong with a stubborn sense of honour and no particular loyalty to any of the regimes he serves under, except perhaps Imperial Germany, he eventually ends up betrayed and imprisoned by his Soviet superiors in East Germany and imprisoned on Sakhali precisely because of this trope.
The Norwegian detective Harry Hole and Rudolf Asayev, the urbane, intelectual and utterly ruthless drug lord Hole confronts in "Phantom", the ninth book of the series. When Hole finally unmasks Asayev and they come face to face, Asayev congrtulates Hole for the ingenious way Hole escaped the fiendish trap which Asayev set for him an hour earlier, and says "I really like you, Harry, what I heard of you was not exaggerated". The two then engage in a long philosophical conversation, discuss the moral merits of drug-pushing vs. police work and the complicated relations both of them have with their relative sons, and Asayev tells Hole quite a bit of his life story - and all while talking, both of them prepare their hidden weapons and get ready to kill the other one by surprise. The confrontation, when it comes, ends with Asayev severely wounded and Hole in possession of Asayev's knife - whereupon Asayev whispers: "The iron. Bless me with my iron, my boy. It’s burning. For both of our sakes, bring this to an end.’ Harry Hole, however, cannot bring himself to kill Asayev. Only when Asayev provokes Harry beyond measure by threatening to kill Harry's son by slow torture does he do it.
British statesman Lord Chesterfield regarded the Jesuits as the "most able and best governed society in the world." in Letters to His Son (letter 85).
This is how the Nadir ruler Ulric views Druss the Legend, Deathwalker, in Legend by David Gemmell. When Druss falls, Ulric gives him an epic funeral pyre, and honourably accepts some of Druss's allies on the walls to the ceremony.
In The Candlemass Road, when the Red Bull is killed, Reivers and March Wardens alike come to his funeral out of respect.
Live Action TV
The Romulan commander in the Star Trek episode "Balance of Terror", as quoted above. This episode was specifically inspired by the movie The Enemy Below (see the Film section above).
It is extremely common throughout the original series (and its movies) for the opponent to be a Worthy Opponent of Kirk or, at the very least, have a very healthy respect for him (albeit one full of hatred). Most notable of these was Khan Noonien Singh, originally a Worthy Opponent of Kirk— as well as the only one who was also an actual Earth-man (vs. simply a metaphor); in Space Seed, the two Worthy Opponents parted in mutual respect and honor, with Kirk dropping all charges against Khan and granting him his original wish of a new world to command.
In the movie Wrath of Khan, he was changed to a Big Bad with a serious grudge against Kirk, as the new world ended up becoming an inhospitable wasteland after six months due to a Negative Space Wedgie and his wife subsequently dying from brain slugs.
Also from Trek (and also Romulan), Commander Sela was Data's Worthy Foe - a concept TNG constantly beat us over the head and chest with whenever Sela showed up.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "By Inferno's Light". Worf has spent the last several days fighting Jem'Hadar in death matches. When he finally faces the biggest and most badass of them, his refusal to quit makes the Jem'Hadar back down.
Ikat'ika: I yield. I cannot defeat this Klingon. All I can do is kill him. And that no longer holds my interest.
Similarly, Starfleet Engineers are respected by the Dominion as the undisputed masters of technology, fabled to be able turn "rocks into replicators."
Quark viewed Odo this way, and thought the respect was returned, although even in the finale it seemed that Odo did not view Quark as at all worthy. Quark was visibly hurt by this.
Even the Affably EvilVillain Dukat also held an unrequited view of Sisko as this, until "Waltz" in which Sisko pushed Dukat to a Heel Realization, with the undesired effect of Dukat embracing his villainy and becoming unambiguously evil.
Of the three men who pursue The A-Team over the course of the first four seasons, only Colonel Decker actually seems to view the team (particularly Hannibal) in this way. He has a definite grudging respect for them. Hannibal, in turn, actually seems to admire Decker's relentlessness.
Played with in The Colbert Report segment "Formidable Opponent," in which Stephen asserts that the only person worthy of debating him is himself. Two versions of Stephen hold a debate over the current topic, with each side color-swapped red and blue. In a subversion of the trope, one side is always a Strawman Political who is casually dispatched by the other Stephen's Insane Troll Logic. Stephen once called a guest "a formidable opponent" as a Stealth Insult, implying an unfavorable similarity between their relationship and his alter-egos.
Hauptmann Hans Dietrich of The Rat Patrol. Though he was rarely able to stop the Allied commando unit, he was smart and always honorable.
Mr. Wolf, leader of a bank-robbing team of former Marines, who engages in an epic duel of wits and will with police negotiator Horst Cali in Kill Point.
Baron von Richthoven: Ah, and the Lord Flasheart. This is indeed an honour. Finally, the two greatest gentleman fliers in the world meet. Two men of honour, who have jousted together in the cloud-strewn glory of the skies, face to face at last. How often I have rehearsed this moment of destiny in my dreams. The panoply to encapsulate the unspoken nobility of a comradeship.
Lord Flashheart: (Shoots him) What a poof!
However, Blackadder and Captain Darling, who detest each other for most of the series, approach this in the final episode, when they're about to go over the top.
FBI Agent Alexander Mahone, Worthy Opponent to Prison Break protagonist Michael Scofield in the second season. Mahone frequently expresses his professional admiration of Michael, and is the only person that Michael really fears will catch him (out of, you know, the entire United States law enforcement community). However, while he fulfills every other requirement to a T, Mahone subverts one aspect of the trope by being genuinely committed to killing Michael, and offs a fair few other characters along the way.
The Wire: Detective McNulty is proud to be chasing clever criminals, since stupid criminals make stupid cops. Especially evident in his grudging respect for Stringer Bell.
FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy was this to the titular character of Dexter in season two. Dexter even uses the term himself after Lundy's death in season four.
Isaac Sirko sees Dexter this way in season 7. He also believes that under different circumstances they could have been great friends.
The West Wing: Republican presidential candidate Arnold Vinick. He had an almost sure-fire way of beating Santos but didn't use it, simply because it would have been dishonourable.
In The X-Files episode "Pusher", the supernaturally persuasive Robert Patrick Modell is looking for this. He finds it in Mulder, whom he then tries to destroy (it fails). In the sequel episode, Modell's sister tries to pick up where he left off.
In "Two Fathers", The Cigarette Smoking Man reveals that he sees Mulder as this by telling his son "You pale to Fox Mulder."
Before that, there was Grey from Choujin Sentai Jetman, who formed this type of relationship with The Lancer, Gai. Over the course of the show, the two dueled every time they saw each other. This culminated when the two had their final duel (which Gai won), and ended with Gai lighting a cigarette in remembrance of Grey. In the end, they were Not So Different.
The Doctor, from Doctor Who, is seen as a Worthy Opponent by just about anybody with the slightest martial tilt to their culture. Notably, Dalek machinery that normally needs to scan in pure Dalek DNA to work will also accept the Doctor's testimony of an individual's Dalekness instead.
While not precisely canon, "The Destiny of the Doctors" has The Master express this sentiment toward his longtime adversary. Interestingly, he does not feel this way about ALL of The Doctor's incarnations. He talks smack on Four, Five, Six and Seven, but seems to genuinely have great respect for Three. One and Two also seem to fall under Worthy Opponent. In his first appeareance in the series ("Terror of the Autons") he actually uses the phrase "Worthy Opponent" to describe the Third Doctor.
The Doctor actually viewed Sec, a Dalek, as this. He considered Sec the "cleverest Dalek ever", the only one capable of redeeming the Daleks. Naturally...
In Terra Nova, when Taylor and Mira have to team up to save themselves from some slashers, Taylor finding out Mira's backstory leads them both to this understanding. When they've survived, they peaceably go their separate ways back to their communities.
Sherlock: the whole reason Moriarty messes with Sherlock's life. Sherlock doesn't seem to mind - in fact, he rather enjoys their Game - until his friends' lives are threatened.
Also a pretty brutal deconstruction. Moriarty is so smart that only one man can really challenge him: Sherlock Holmes. As a result, he's so fanatically devoted to taking him down that he will go to any lengths to win: namely, ruining Sherlock's entire public reputation, hurting his loved ones, and shooting himself in the mouth.
In Baa Baa Black Sheep (now called Black Sheep Squadron), the episode "Hot Shots" has Col. "Pappy" Boyington facing off against long time rival Tomio Harachi. After they manage to shoot each others' planes down and both bail out, they meet on the shore of the island they both land on and share cigarettes and chocolate while they await rescue.
There's a variation in Person of Interest. Carl Elias laments that it's hard to find a worthy opponent in prison, then finds one when Harold Finch agrees to visit him from time to time. It's not a typical example of this trope because Elias is referring to chess.
Spartacus War of the Damned Crassus clearly respects Spartacus for rising to what he is now, his skills as a warrior, and his brilliancy as a leader. At the end he's defeated Spartacus' forces and lost to Spartacus in personal combat, and is clearly in awe of him. Spartacus for his part, clearly recognizes Crassus as his most dangerous foe and seems to have a grudging respect for that. However, he also hates everything that Crassus stands for, namely Rome.
The Folksong "Vive el matador" has the matador praise the bull as a Worthy Opponent.
The Devil Went Down To Georgia and its sequel do this with Jonny and the Devil.
Snoopy and the Red Baron view each other this way in Merry Snoopy's Chistmas by The Royal Guardsman, the Baron making Snoopy land to offer him a Christmas toast.
The 19th Century opera "Prince Igor" by Alexander Borodin, taking place in the semi-legelndary times of Medieval Russia, includes a dialogue between the Polovtsian Khan Konchak and his enemy, the Russian Prince Igor of the title, who had been defeated and captured by the Polovtsians. The Khan asks Igor if all is well (Konchak's Aria) and he replies that the falcon cannot live in captivity. Konchak says that as Igor did not ask for mercy he is not a prisoner but an honoured guest equal to a Khan. Igor reminds him that he too knows what it is to be a captive. Konchak offers Igor freedom if he will promise not to wage war on him again, but he refuses saying he cannot lie. Konchak regrets that they were not born to be allies. They would then have captured all of Russia. He summons the Polovtsian slaves to entertain Igor and himself and offers Igor his choice of them. As the slaves dance the Polovtsy sing of Konchak's glory (Polovtsian Dances). In a later part of the opera Igor manages to escape, which makes the Khan respect him all the more.
Hector and Achilles of Homer's The Iliad. Hector was an honorable man and considered a worthy foe by many of the Achaean heroes fighting at Troy. Achilles had no such feelings for the man; he spent the early parts of the war pissed at his own leaders and the later parts in nothing less than a homicidal rage toward everyone after Hector killed Patroclus, and spent a lot of time and effort trying to desecrate Hector's corpse. Although he did relent after he'd taken his revenge and cooled down a bit. Achilles actually seemed to think more of Hector's father, Priam, as a worthy opponent (in the overall war) when the latter came to beg for his son's body for proper burial. Achilles agreed to allow Hector the honor he deserved, but Priam's love for his son and his bravery in coming alone to the Greek ships also got to him.
Also, the Amazon queen Penthesilea to Achilles. In fact, this, according to some commentators at least, goes all the way into I Love the Dead territory (see the trope's page in question).
...along with The Epic of Gilgamesh: the very reason Enkidu was created was to be Gilgamesh's best friend and Worthy Opponent and give him another way to expend his power and Super Strength besides sleeping with every woman in Uruk.
Thor of Norse Mythology once visited a Jotun who offered him three challenges to test his legendary strength: to pick up the Jotun's pet cat, empty a largish drinking horn, and wrestle with the Jotun's old nurse. Thor could barely raise one of the cat's paws off the ground, took three superhumanly huge draughts from the drinking horn but couldn't come near to emptying it, and was thrashed by the old nurse. The severely frightened Jotun informed Thor that he had, in fact, just succeeded in lifting the head of the Midgard Serpent, lowered the worldwide sea level, and put up a very good fight against the personification of Old Age. The Jotun told him this while escorting him from his kingdom, upon which he congratulated and complimented Thor and hightailed it home.
CM Punk has become this for John Cena. Cena, the family friendly company man, runs opposite to Punk's more abrasive, Anti-Hero character. Yet they generally respect each other, even if they disagree with the other's methods. In the ring, they're shown to be on the same level.
Cena himself outright stated on an episode of RAW in 2011 that Punk was the only man in the entire company that could go toe-to-toe with him. He was obviously ignoring the WWE SmackDown! roster, otherwise he would have also included Randy Orton onto that list, seeing as Cena has acknowledged Orton in the past as the same.
Cena has on record stated that Chris Masters is the physically strongest opponent he has ever faced. Masters is the only competitor who has legitimately rendered Cena unconscious, and he has done so three times.
Jerry Lawler became this for The Miz up to their match in Elimination Chamber 2011. The Monday before the match, The Miz announces that Lawler's mother passed the Saturday before and gives him his deep condolences. Instead of bad-mouthing him, Miz takes the time to state that he doesn't want this passing to get in the way of their match and to have a good fight (although thanks to Michael Cole, it didn't turn out to really be a good fight).
Ric Flair ended his 1989 feud with Terry Funk by submitting the Texan in an "I Quit" match. True to his word, Funk shook Flair's hand, saying "you're a hell of a man, Ric Flair."
Both Terry Funk and The Undertaker have been known to see Mick Foley in this light, largely because of the amount of punishment the man is willing to take in the course of a match.
* Peter/Regulus and Caramon/Jacques in Yu Gi Oh East Academy. Both of these duellists view each other with a great deal of respect despite being rivals.
To a lesser extent, Marcus has this attitude towards Peter, though it is far from being reciprocated.
In college football, few rivalries are as heated as the one between the Texas Longhorns and the Texas A&M Aggies, whose fans often sport shirts with the Longhorns' logo's horns sawn off. However, when they aren't actually facing each other, both teams will occasionally show a little in-state solidarity. During the 2006 Rose Bowl championship, when the underdog Longhorns defeated the favored USC, some Aggies fans donned t-shirts with an image of their rival's logo with bandaged horns and the caption "Today Only: Gig 'Em, Horns!"
Some British football rivalries can take this form at times, particularly if the teams in question share a town, such as Liverpool and Everton, or a particular region, such as Newcastle and Sunderland, particularly if fans of each team are playing the Fish out of Water in another part of the country.
Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic are attempting to recast the Old Firm rivalry as this in an effort to curb anti-sectarianism, with mixed success. The rivalry in question is rooted in ethno-religious conflictsfar older than mere football.
Almost every hockey fight between two enforcers, who's main job is to fight and add toughness, is this. All of them follow an unwritten code and respect the other player for their efforts.
The rivalry between legendary basketball players Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson is the ultimate example between athletes. After first meeting in college in the 1979 national championship game, Bird and Johnson revitalized the struggling NBA during the 1980s, meeting in the NBA Finals three times and winning a combined 8 NBA championships and 6 MVP awards between them. Their rivalry was a proxy for multiple cultural issues in the United States at the time: West Coast vs. East Coast, Hollywood glitz and glam vs. blue collar work ethic,note Bird and Johnson, both emphatically working-class Midwesterners despite their different backgrounds (Bird being a white hick from rural Indiana, Johnson being the son of a black GM autoworker from Michigan's moderately-large capital), found this somewhat confusing, although they did embrace it to some degree (Johnson in particular loved the LA lifestyle). even the racial politics of black (Johnson) vs. white (Bird). Johnson claimed that the 82 game season was divided into two levels of importance, with 80 regular games, and two games against Bird. Similarly, Bird said that the first thing he did every morning was check the newspapers to see how Johnson had done. However, despite the rivalry, the two had great respect and admiration for each other, and eventually developed into friends (starting around 1986, when they filmed a Converse commercial together). Bird was the man who formally inducted Johnson into the Basketball Hall of Fame during the induction ceremony; on the occasion of Bird's retirement, Johnson attended and described Bird as a "friend forever".
Similar to the Bird/Johnson example, we have Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. They epitomized Statistical dominance vs Championships , the charismatic larger-than-life attitude vs politically militant disciplined stoicism, playing for many teams vs staying with one, and individual brilliance vs the consummate team player. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced each other 37 times, Chamberlain and Russell faced each other 142 times. Outside of basketball, they were great friends, though the friendship soured after 1969 and was only revived in The Nineties.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings have one of the most storied rivalries in professional sports, meeting in over 800 games since they joined the league, however their relationship has gradually moved much more towards that of Worthy Opponents in recent years. Despite their history there is a great deal of mutual respect for each other, particularly in contrast with more recent rivalries such as the one the Hawks currently have with the Vancouver Canucks and the Wings had with the Colorado Avalanche in the 90s, each of which are/were much more overtly hostile. The outrage over Detroit moving to the Eastern Conference following the 2013 season was rooted greatly in a belief by fans of both teams and even the sport as a whole who believe that meetings between them almost always result in the best hockey anyone will ever watch. The one thing that people are almost universally happy about with the realignment is the potential for the two to meet in the Stanley Cup Finals which has not happened since 1934 in the original six era.
Traveller: the Sword Worlders and the Aslan in Darrian service believe in this so much that they have a system of bars for them to visit each other when they are not busy killing each other.
In one side-story, it was told how there was a clan dispute that was to be solved by an Aslan style (with claws) duel to first blood between two female Aslan. One of them was completely untrained but she held steady while her opponent circled around. Finally, her opponent nicked herself on the newbie's claw and said "I submit to the stronger spirit."
In Warhammer 40,000, Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka thinks this way of Commissar Sebastian Yarrick, to the point that, after he captured and tortured him for a while, he let him escape because an Ork needs a good enemy. Yes, a very old, almost entirely unaugmented human is considered a Worthy Opponent by the largest, meanest Ork in the entire galaxy. However, Yarrick is disgusted by the Ork and has devoted his life to hunting him down and killing him by any means.
Infernal Exalted can burn off Limit by adopting an enemy as one of these and taking steps to haul them into conflict. The Act of Villainy in question is even referred to as "Best Enemy Recognition", and was developed for the Yozi Szoreny, who would periodically spare his Solar opponents because he didn't want to lose such interesting foes.
1776 has John Dickinson for John Adams. When Dickinson refuses to sign the Declaration, saying he cannot in good conscience sign such a document while still hoping for a reconciliation with England, he then says that while he cannot sign, he "regards America no less than does Mr. Adams" and vows to "join the Army and fight in her defense". Adams' response to this is to lead a standing ovation, saying, "Gentlemen of the Congress, I say, 'Yea, John Dickinson.'" In real life, Dickinson would go on to become a signer of the United States Constitution.
Coriolanus: Coriolanus and Aufidius acknowledge quite near the start that they respect each other greatly ("He is a lion I am proud to hunt"), which is why (along with absolutely bucket loads of Foe Yay) Aufidius immediately accepts Coriolanus' offer of an alliance.
Gogandantes, the Greatest Swordsman ofallthe Demons, from Onimusha 2, is essentially a demonic Samurai. He appears to be entirely invincible, but repeatedly refuses to finish off the hero, since that would be dishonorable. During the hero's final fight against him, he rescues the main love-interest from a fiery death before engaging him in an honorable duel. When, thanks to a magic flute, you actually defeat him, the hero acknowledges his honor and skill as he dies. What a senseless waste of demon life...
Given that the higher-ranked demons in Onimusha are of a western bent and Gogandantes uses a straight sword and a fencing stance, he's probably closer to a demonic knight than a samurai. Still, chivalry, bushido, close enough.
It is stated repeatedly throughout Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney that one of the primary reasons Phoenix became a defense attorney is that he could meet his childhood friend Miles Edgeworth in court, as Edgeworth is a prosecutor. Despite their positions as adversaries in court, their mutual desire for justice leads them to jointly take down quite a few criminals. In the fourth game, Apollo Justice gets his own Worthy Opponent, Klavier Gavin.
Vergil from Devil May Cry fills this role in the third outing and, arguably, somewhat in the first, as well, being Dante's brother, with a definite tendency towards only using melee weapons. He nearly invokes this trope with his devil triggered catchphrase 'You are not worthy as my opponent!'
The Drakengard games have two examples. The first game has Caim and Inuart. Inuart bemoans early in the game how he is never as strong as Caim, but when he turns evil, he gains the power of a pact with a dragon and handily defeats Caim in a tense cinematic. They hold each other to a certain standard as Inuart doesn't take advantage of the situation to kill Caim. The second game has Caim appear as the Worthy Opponent to Nowe, the protagonist of that game. Caim's duel with Nowe is only a formality as Nowe isn't the one Caim wants dead, and Caim only fights Nowe long enough to weaken him and achieve his real objective, which, once learned, is actually quite sympathetic.
Tales of Symphonia features an...unusual Worthy Opponent in the form of Forcystus, one of the Desian grand cardinals, who is posthumously constructed as a Worthy Opponent in a discussion between Kratos and Lloyd and is easily the most tolerant and sensible of the lot. However, considering that he's still a spluttering racist who enslaved humans and used them as Human Resources, repeatedly kicked the dog by going beyond the call of duty in retaliating against you by turning Marble into a monster, and finally died when he tried to shoot an innocent bystanderIn the Back, their discussion on how racism and war makes noble people enemies comes off as a little...odd.
Forsythe from Advance Wars: Days of Ruin fights on the side of the Lazurian army, but is a kind-hearted general who stands by a strict code of honor and turns down Caulder's offer to resort to dirty tactics when fighting against Brenner and the Rubinelle army. When he is defeated, he promptly surrenders without resistance and is killed by Admiral Greyfield, leaving his subordinates Tasha and Gage to fly the Lazurian banner for him after his loss.
Hawke, being the Magnificent Bastard he is, subverts this beautifully in the hard campaign of Advance Wars: Black Hole Rising. He claims Andy is a worthy opponent and challenges him to an Aerial/Naval only battle. Upon victory he praises you and leaves... only to have Andy's comrades berate him for being distracted by Hawke while the rest of Black Hole's army marched right across the line Andy was supposed to be guarding.
In the Wars World-based Advance Wars trilogy, Hawke of the Black Hole army holds some grudging respect for young Orange Star CO Andy. In Dual Strike, he and his Perky Hench-Goth Lash switch sides and help them fight the remnants of the Bolt Guard during the last few missions. Hawke and Andy even get a bonus when teaming up in Dual Strike multiplayer.
If you're a named villain in the Fire Emblem series, it's pretty darn certain that one of the following will happen to you:
The Black Knight in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn. Although he murders Greil in cold blood, it's only after he offers a powerful sword and insists that he use it. He fights Ike honorably as well, in fact, more honorably than Ike, if Mist appears. This is exacerbated in the sequel, Radiant Dawn, especially once you discover his true identity: General Zelgius of the Begnion military. He fights his opponents on equal ground, grants them mercy if their deaths are unnecessary, and, in his final battle with Ike, emphasizes how he is mainly fighting Ike to test his own strength - hence why he won't accept having unfair advantages over his foes. This isn't quite the case when the Daein army controls him, as he can easily wipe out their enemies without breaking a sweat, although it is not recommended.
General Bryce in Path of Radiance too, contrasted with GeneralTauroneo. Even after Ashnard tells him that he murdered anyone between him and the Daein throne, Bryce still fights for Daein.
There's also General Eagler, The Dragon of Lord Lundgren, who mentored Kent and Sain and was a contemporary of Wallace. Additionally, the heroes constantly gush over how amazing he is. He's also somehow being manipulated by Lundgren into fighting the heroes, though we never find out exactly how.
In Metal Gear Solid 3, Ocelot and Naked Snake view one another as Worthy Opponents even though they stand at opposite sides of the Cold War. This causes Ocelot to act like a Stalker with a Crush.
Also, The End seeks to end his life with a sniper duel against a worthy opponent - the player.
After defeating Sniper Wolf, Snake comforts her and delivers the final blow while telling her that she died without betraying her ideals.
Shinobu from No More Heroes gains the respect of Travis Touchdown, who spares her life with the intent of fighting her again when she's stronger. This turns out to be the right move when she later saves his life. Henry, as well.
Incidentally, they're both playable in the sequel.
Speaking of the sequel, Travis gradually gains more respect for his opponents as part of his Character Development. There's Ryuji, who Travis believes fought honorably and is disgusted when he is promptly gunned down after his fight. Then there's Captain Vladimer, whose body Travis refuses to let the UAA destroy. Then there's Alice Twilight, an assassin with ideals so close to Travis' own, that he undergoes a Heel-Face Turn after being forced to kill her.
Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies' Yellow Thirteen calls MobiusOne this after Mobius One makes a name for himself, and it's reinforced after Mobius One destroys Stonehenge and shoots down Yellow Thirteen's wingman, Yellow Four. Mobius One, however, proves that he's actually better, shooting Yellow Thirteen down during the Siege of Farbanti.
Ace Combat, as a rule, tends to do this quite a bit, throwing entire squadrons of Worthy Opponents at the player. In fact, the Knight path in The Belkan War was specifically designed for the player to be a Worthy Opponent to the enemy aces. Also, from the Soldier Path, Erich Hillenberand (Schnee 1) considers Cipher a worthy opponent and says that he would be glad to fly with him again (even though he became a civilian pilot instructor after the war).
Admiral Gregorio in Skies of Arcadia. A completely honourable man and the adoptive uncle of Defector from Decadence Enrique, he is killed by Big Bad Galcian after the latter betrays the Valuan Empire. Intriguingly, even Galcian seemed to consider Gregorio a Worthy Opponent and insists that his body be shipped back to Valua with the highest honours.
The soldier in charge of shipping the remains is told that the corpse is more valuable than his life.
Elvis, That One Boss from God Hand. He gives his Mooks a Megaton Punch for disrespecting the bodies of their victims and treats Gene like an old friend when he sees him. Gene even comments that he and Elvis could have been good friends if Elvis wasn't a demon.
Several bosses from Mega Man Zero count; most notably, the Four Guardians.
Captain Narville of Killzone 2 sees Colonel Radec as one, and Radec, in turn, sees Templar as one.
The Amarr and Minmatar roleplayers in EVE Online view each other this way. Out of character, they recognize that the only real difference between them is which fictional nation they chose to fight for.
An excellent example is this video, made by the Amarr alliance CVA in tribute to their enemies, the Minmatar alliance Ushra'Khan.
The Suffering: Ties That Bind has a strange variation on this. Copperfield is the ghost of a slave catcher, and as Torque's ancestors were slaves, Copperfield continues to hunt Torque down. He seems rather pleased that Torque puts up such a struggle, especially when compared to everyone else who just died, and compliments him on his actions and fighting style. The feeling is not mutual.
Canderous: We wanted to fight the best in a battle that would be remembered for centuries, and Revan won. I don't hold a grudge against Revan, and neither do any of my people. (Not realizing at the time that he's talking to the mind-wiped Revan. Dialogue is slightly different if it's accessed after The Reveal.)
Played with in Mass Effect 2, where Grunt, the resident Proud Warrior Race Guy who was apparently built from the ground up to be the ultimate example of the krogan species, lays out the krogan definition of a Worthy Opponent: an enemy who does indeed test you in battle, but then whom you utterly destroy. Apparently, the krogan mindset says that the greatest honor that can be offered to an enemy is to completely wipe them out; to the krogan, the worst insult they can offer is to say someone isn't worth fighting and slaughtering.
If Wrex dies in the first game, Urdnot Wreav will treat you with "the respect due a worthy enemy", and has no problem with you serving as Grunt's krantt in his Rite of Passage and letting you run about the Urdnot base indefinitely unmolested - even bringing along turian and salarian allies, which says a lot given that the krogan utterly loathe both species with the fury of a thousand supernovae.
In the firstMass Effect, Saren finally considers Shepard this, which is something, knowing Saren's bigoted attitude towards humans.
The Reapers see Shepard as a genuine threat, who continues to thwart their efforts at a galactic harvest and just won't die. Harbinger labels him/her "an annoyance", probably the biggest compliment they're going to make to an opponent, and in Mass Effect 3, after killing the Reaper on Rannoch that was controlling the Geth, it is revealed that it knows your name, despite never meeting you before. When Shepard asks about how it knows who they are, it responds that Harbinger speaks of them and it's heavily implied to be the reason why Reapers now target Shepard on sight, even taking their sights off entire fleets to do so.
Confirmed in the twitter feed tie-in for Mass Effect 3. While the Reapers have dismissed all opposition with a tone of casual indifference, during their invasion of Earth, a priority is issued for confirmation that "Hostile Target Shepard" is dead. When none comes, the Reapers get very scared that Shepard is still alive.
Leviathan, which predates even the Reapers, notes that Shepard is the only being in history (over a billion years of existence) to ever make the Reapers feel fear.
In Mass Effect 3 it is revealed in several recorded videos in Chronos Station that the Illusive Man, despite considering Shepard his enemy, has considerable respect for him/her. By contrast, Kai Leng stubbornly refuses to accept how skilled s/he really is and to really take him/her as a true threat. The Illusive Man continuously warns him not to underestimate him/her and to respect his/her badassery (in fact, he actually takes being compared to Shepard as an insult to his skills). He doesn't listen and it ends up being his undoing.
Even the conversation with him in Cerberus Headquarters gives a look into his respect for Shepard. He sounds genuinely saddened that Shepard refuses to join his cause and at the same time sounds deeply admiring of Shepard's idealism and will.
Illusive Man: Your idealism is...admirable Shepard. But in the end our goals are simply too disparate. I believe destroying the Reapers would be the biggest mistake we could make. And nothing you say will convince me otherwise.
This is how the turians saw the humans after the First Contact War, with the turians noting that it was the first REAL military opposition they had faced in over a millennium.
In the third game, Kasumi Goto has one in Spectre agent Jondum Bau. She sees him as a great person that the universe would certainly benefit from having more of (his only fault being that he's chasing her) while Jondum respects Kasumi's intellect.
In Halo, particularly in the books, it is shown that the Elites consider the Spartans to be Worthy Opponents, especially in the latter parts of the Human-Covenant War. This is particularly shown in Halo Legends, where Elite Major Thel 'Lodamee throws the disarmed Master Chief an Energy Sword, so that they could have a fair fight.
In fact, a number of Elites end up feeling this way about humanity in general towards the end of the war, due to humanity's tenacity in holding out against the overwhelming forces of the Covenant for about twenty-eight years. Some Elites even go as far as to question the decision to exterminate humanity, thinking that it would be more logical to simply assimilate them into the Covenant. This may be one reason the two species were able to form an alliance in Halo 3 after the Covenant dissolves into civil war.
Hell, there's a moment in First Strike where the Elite special ops trooper on the bridge of the Covenant ship actually decloaks and issues a direct challenge to the Chief to engage in one-on-one battle. Keep in mind, this is an Elite with active camouflage tech and is armed with ranged weapons, but rather than use them to ambush the Chief, he instead deliberately reveals himself and moves to fight the Chief in hand to hand combat.
Most recurring characters in Touhou view Reimu to be this trope, someone that will beat you to a bloody pulp but will make it a lot of fun in the meantime (as opposed to Marisa, who uses her victories as excuses to take everything not nailed down and/or on fire). Suika, in particular, considers Reimu worthy enough to actually live with her for a while after her defeat.
In Dragon Age: Origins, If the player chooses to personally challenge Loghain to a duel, he'll tell them this:
"'A man is made by the quality of his enemies.' Maric told me that once. I wonder if it's more a compliment to you or me."
In Dragon Age II, Hawke can become this to the Arishok, to the point that, right before the final duel between the two, he'll say this in regard to him/her to the nobles that he's got at his mercy.
Arishok: (To Hawke) "You alone are Basalit-annote an outsider worthy of respect." (To the nobles) "This is what respect looks like bas! Some of you will never earn it!"
Worth noting that if you extend certain courtesies to the Arishok, you'll get an Achievement or Trophy that's actually entitled "A Worthy Rival."
In Mark of the Assassin, Tallis reveals that this extends to all Qunari. Hawke is one of the few "bas" outside of Par Vollen to be considered an equal by the Qunari, who is worthy of requesting assistance from and to parley with.
Sten and Tallis' dialogue heavily imply that the Warden is also considered this by the Qunari.
In the comic Those Who Speak, Sten, now the Arishok after the previous one was killed by Hawke, also refers to King Alistair as basalit-an.
Thassarian and Koltira Deathweaver in World of Warcraft regard each other like this following the end of the Scourge war. However, in a twist, it is Thassarian's fault to begin with that they're on opposite sides, as it was he who told Koltira to join the Horde instead of coming with him to the Alliance.
Arthas views Tirion Fordring as this in World of Warcraft. The overused "only one he ever feared" line is used a few times in regards to how Arthas views Tirion.
A SMALL PIECE of the soul of Arthas almost kills Tirion AND Arthas. Tirion destroys it, but Arthas is knocked down to 30% health and Tirion is knocked out completely. If it weren't for the timely arrival of Friendly Enemy Darion Mograine, Tirion (and the player) would have been killed.
Tirion is wielding the MacGuffin however, so was protected by Plot Armor at the time. He ends up killing Arthas with his MacGuffin, proving that killing part of the soul of the Lich King really didn't do him THAT much harm, it just knocked him out a bit.
Bowser of Super Mario Bros. considers the Mario Brothers to be worthy opponents, and enjoys fighting them, even though he really wishes he could win against them. But, hey, they're the Mario Bros. He beat Mario once, in tradition with most examples of this trope, he sees it as quite a feat.
The GaroNinjas in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, although minor in their appearance, consider Link a worthy opponent. They not only praise him upon their defeat, but also provide him with some helpful tips as a token of their respect before they finally dispose of their own bodies. (Majora itself deliberately provokes Link at the end, seemingly for the amusement of battling him.)
Ganondorf has shades of this in the The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the tragic circumstances of the storyline have granted his feud with the Hero a rather profoundly personal significance. He goes so far as to declare his belief that Link must be the "Hero of Time, reborn" and their clash a matter of fate. This is a notable departure from the majority of the games, where Ganondorf is either completely Ax-Crazy or suicidally overconfident to the point of dimissing the Hero outright.
Demise from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword also takes this view of Link, calling him a pinnacle of his kind and fighting like no human or demon he's met. And keep in mind, this is the demon king who managed to best the goddess Hylia.
Wings portrays Allied and German fighter pilots as developing increasing respect for enemy pilots as time goes on.
"I waved to the single approaching Fokker, partly in greeting, partly to say goodbye. There probably wasn't a reason to risk our lives, yet what better way to say goodbye than one final man-to-man dogfight?"
This is applied especially strongly to the case of Baron von Richtoffen, who killed many Allied fighters, and yet was admired by them. Truth in Television, as this mirrors the Allied perception of him in real life.
In the air combat game Crimson Skies 2, a mission requires you to commandeer a Zeppelin. At the end of the mission, you receive a letter from the Captain of said zeppelin thanking you for your mercy and courtesy regarding the passengers, and finishes his letter by saying "I wish we had met under different circumstances".
Dr. Eggman has this view of Sonic the Hedgehog, once even solumnly refering to him as his "admirable adversary" when he believes he has finally taken him out. Sonic Adventure 2 as a whole revolves around this relationship between both the hero and dark counterparts (even the rival boss theme is titled "Worthy Opponent" in the games OST).
In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the dragons see the player character, who is "Dovahkiin" ("Dragonborn," a mortal blessed by the gods with the soul of a dragon) as a worthy adversary, both due to personal prowess and also out of respect toward a fellow dragon. Despite the fact that they are terrified of the player (because only the Dragonborn can permanently slay them by consuming their souls) they will still attack the Dragonborn and refuse to back down, willingly testing their Thu'um against your own. The fact that Alduin, their leader, flees when you overwhelm him with the Dragonrend shout eventually makes the other dragons question his leadership because he fled rather than stand and fight to the death.
Exactly what Dagoth Ur thinks about the Nerevarine in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind fluctuates over the game, but it usually is somewhere within the spectrum of this trope, especially in the conversation before the final battle. If the Nerevarine denies his/her status, saying that they have made their own destiny rather than been guided by fate to that point, Dagoth Ur goes as far as to say that the Nerevarine's story shall be what teaches the gods their limits.
In Distorted Travesty, The Darkness reveals near the end that the Shroud Lord considers Jerry to be its Worthy Opponent, and it insists on having a final showdown with him before allowing the peace talks to go any further.
Rivals in the Pokémon series start thinking of you as such during the second half of the game. The first half they are just JerkAsses.
In Bastion, the Ura remnants decide that the Kid is truely worthy if he chooses to save Zulf, and in the process carries Zulf on his back through the entire Ura army, enduring a constant barrage of crossbow bolts. Eventually, after witnessing this single act of sheer, selfless determination to save the Kid's own enemy, coupled with the fact that the Kid has singlehandedly smashed through their entire army to rebuild the Bastion, never yielding or backing down or surrendering to such innumerable hardships, the Ura cease attacking and stand aside. One Ura crossbowman tries to take a shot at the Kid as he is trudging past with his burden, and is immediately cut down by his commander.
The title character of Iji is considered this by Assassin Asha, after she defeats him in battle. In something of a subversion, Asha is furious that anyone could possibly give him a challenge, let alone defeat him, and goes out of his way to organise a rematch with Iji which only one of them will leave. If that fight is skipped, then Asha is Driven to Suicide out of despair.
Hakumen, being as fight-happy as he is, gets a lot of this. Most notably, he gets like this with Bang, openly praising his heroic nature and fighting spirit. This also manifests in his interactions with Ragna, Valkenhayn, Kagura, and, bizarrely, Terumi.
Another example of a strange Worthy Opponent relationship, Relius Clover also considers Valkenhayn to be one. They had a very long-running rivalry in past, and with Relius' return, the rivalry is back in full swing.
In Cross Edge, York and Lazarus consider each other as a worthy opponent since they both wield firearms as weapons and they even have a 1 on 1 duel for their final battle with each other. Lazarus joins the party afterwards.
As noted below in Real Life, Kenshin Uesugi and Shingen Takeda in the Samurai Warriors series consider each other this and come across as two guys who like to fight each other. In the Empires expansions, putting them on the same team leaves the two bros very happy.
Lancer (again, see above Fate/Zero entry) or Assassin for Saber in Fate/stay night. The first is so disgusted by his Master that he turns on him in both routes he plays a part in and is also rather tetchy about Archer's tactics and lack of pride despite his ability. Assassin lets Shirou go and helps fight off Archer, as he has an agreement with Saber to fight again and therefore will not allow Archer to give him an unfair advantage. His Neutral Evil alignment actually doesn't really make much sense since he doesn't do anything even immoral. He is also a Graceful Loser even to True Assassin.
Despite their fierce and often ruthless battles, Battler often inspires the same respect he gains for his opponents. They include Beatrice, Erika, Knox, and Bernkastel, though with the last one it's unknown if she returns the sentiment, or if she really is just mad at him, and the first one evolves into something more.
The extra material also implies that Belphegor and Leviathan hold Rudolf and Kyrie in high regards after their respective battles, a notion that is probably reciprocated.
Father Bloodrage and the enemy commander in Looking for Group serve this role to each other.
Dominic Deegan has one in Celesto Morgan. Although he is only treated that way for a combination of 'increasingly possesses cosmic powers' and Dominic just being that nice a guy, because an overview of his conduct and associates over the course of the series would give Dominic every right to loathe him utterly.
The guy blew off Dominic's leg in revenge for saving his life and soul. Well, actually, revenge for being right when Celesto was wrong, but still.
The fact that they're each the only powerful seer the other one knows and keep running into each other in extreme contexts mean that they get one another in ways no one else does, which may be part of why their rivalry isn't as bitter as it may be.
King David, ruler of Callan, "father" of a Cosmic Horror, master mind-manipulator who put the other ancient, inhuman archmages under his power, and the series' (presumed) Biggest Bad is very proud of his successor mage Miranda Deegan (Dom's mom):
JosephWongKS: Final villain of the series, who's the first Archmage of his race and also the Kingnote elected king! of the most dominant and magically power nation in the world, on 5 December 2012: "No, it's Miranda Deegan. I've under-estimated her too often. Never again."
...on 11 December: "A dragonheart empowerment. How very rare. You've got quite an arsenal on your side, Miranda."
...on 13 December: "My undead dragon is distracted and my battlecasters' magic is deflected. Very good, Miranda."
...[also] on 13 December: "Let's see if you accounted for this... Excellent, I expected nothing less from you, Miranda."
Hank seems to be one of these to Haley, to contrast her Arch-Enemy Crystal. In the Back Story, he warns Haley that Crystal will be after her when she leaves the thieves' guild, and when they meet again as opponents, they clearly have some mutual respect.
More recently, General Tarquin views Roy as one, respecting him as an intelligent, resourceful warrior. It gets to the point that he appoints himself to the Linear Guild in place of Thog, who Roy does not view as either a proper Evil Counterpart or Worthy Opponent, just to get the chance to fight Roy himself. When the entire Order (minus V) assaults him (thinking he's Thog thanks to some quick acting) Tarquin's response to seeing five high-level adventurers charging straight toward him? "Magnificent." This is later deconstructed when Tarquin sees that Roy is so effective that he believes that he is preventing his son, Elan, from achieving his full potential as a hero, so he orders his forces to kill him.
Colonel Pranger's mercenary company, Pranger's Bangers, from Schlock Mercenary functions as a one-time opponent in the House Phica story arc; they're portrayed as equally competent and equally skilled, if not more so, than the protagonists. Later on, due to Time Travel fun, Tagon's crew actually ends up hiring Pranger's Bangers for that same mission. There's a good deal of mutual respect between Tagon and Pranger.
The Paladin considers Sebastian this in True Villains. And when he cheats and uses his sword in a no-weapons fight, the Paladin steps down and goes on a pilgrimage to better himself. Because of Sebastian.
Jack Noir and Bro Strider from Homestuck. They are an unusual case, since they are not Worthy Opponents because of any sort of warrior camaraderie, but because Bro is quite simply the only person who could fight Jack to a standstill in single combat. It took Jack becoming a Physical God in order to defeat Bro.
Later on, Vriska is the Worthy Opponent to Jack. And this is after becoming the aforementioned Physical God. She was able to stand up to him (in an alternate timeline, anyway) mostly because of her God-Tier powers and having gained ALL the levels. Of course, Vriska being a worthy opponent didn't stop Jack from killing the rest of her friends before the battle...
Caliborn sees Jake English as a worthy opponent, and goes so far as to groom him for an eventual confrontation.
On a more general level, this is a requirement for a Kismesis (i.e. Hate-romance) in Troll culture. One must both hate the enemy and respect them for a proper Kismesissitude.
Karin-dou 4koma: Seren and Tamaryu's previous incarnation acknowledged each other as worthy opponents at the conclusion of their battle to the death, hence how well they get along in the present.
In The Antithesis, Yahweh, the leader of Heaven, and Lucifer, the leader of Hell, become friendly enemies when a Civil War between the angels and demons tragically force them to oppose one another. Previously, both had worked together as scientists in Heaven's main corporation for Technology and Science, 'The Plexus', and though now friendly enemies, they still strive for the same objective: peace between Heaven and Hell.
In the SCP Foundation, there is SCP 076-2, or Able, who was upset when one of the Agents at his holding facility was killed by an explosion meant to contain him. The reason being that the Agent was one of the few who could keep up with him and he felt that he deserved a death in combat.
There is also SCP 738, a set of two chairs and a table that offers people a Deal with the Devil. The last test consists on sending one of their lawyers to deal with him. Forty-one hours later, the lawyer falls unconscious due to exhaustion, while in the middle of a discussion over the exact meaning of the word "shall", after having drafted at least nine hundred pages of the agreement they were going to reach. An envelope in one of the lawyer's pocket has a note saying "Please come back any time. I haven't had so much fun in years."
The Nostalgia Chick and Kyle Kallgren of Brows Held High. Both snobby, self-righteous and think they're better than everyone else, she beats on him but is pleasantly surprised to see him call her out over it (even if she does ignore it), and she's his inspiration for reviewing but knows how awful she can be.
Mara Wilson stated in the Chick's Matilda review that her rivalry with the The Nostalgia Critic was "organic". This is after she's told that he's sorta dead, which disappoints her.
After the fight with ZZ in Vaguely Recalling JoJo, he claims that Kakyoin had an impressive Boost Fire attack before dying.
In Worm, the Endbringers - a set of Nigh InvulnerableKaiju monsters who have been regularly attacking humankind for thirty years by the start of the series - are implied to be created specifically to act like these for Eidolon by his powers. In this case, the revelation that this is happening stuns the Chronic Hero Syndrome Eidolon so badly that he falls into a Heroic BSOD.
Prince Zuko filled this role for Aang in the first season. In fact, after Zuko frees Aang from the Fire Nation (because Zuko needed to be the one to capture him), Aang says something very similar to the Romulan Commander quote at the top of this page. Zuko responds by flinging fire into his face. But, about two seasons later, surprise surprise...
Amon: I'm impressed. No one has ever gotten the better of me like that. It is almost a shame to purify someone so talented. Almost.
Robin and the second Red X in Teen Titans. One could argue that Slade considers Robin a Worthy Opponent but Robin simply sees Slade as a diabolical villain.
X also has a crush on Starfire; in one episode, he pinned her, then called her "cutie" and remarked that the "only crime" between them was that they hadn't gone on a date. (However, her response was to blast him with her Eye Beams.)
"Farewell, Kim Possible. You were a worthy adversary. You were indeed All That..."
In a non-combat related example, look at Huey and the government agent in one particular episode of The Boondocks. Yes, Huey is suspicious of the man, who may or may not always be watching, but they both understand where the other is coming from and engage in calm and intelligent conversation. The agent even mentions at the end of the episode that if Huey ever needs to talk about something, he'll lend an ear.
In the "Red Ball" episode, Huey gains another one who even calls him this: Ming, another 10-year-old trained into being the perfect kickball machine and the only one to match Huey's skill, and is the whole reason Huey participates in a kickball game for his whole town. The two's final standoff results in both getting cracked bones and STILL CRAWLING TO THE FINISH.
A warrior cursed by Aku to spend eternity encrusted in the rockbed but who then managed to shape himself into a huge lava monster actually begged Jack to become his Worthy Opponent and strike him down in a battle in order to lift the curse and free his spirit.
Desperate to beat Jack, Aku enlisted a tribe of superb hunters from another planet to capture the elusive samurai. They scored a success but, unfortunately for himself, Aku didn't know that, by the hunters' custom, a prey that demonstrated such remarkable prowness as Jack deserved to run free.
The titular character of Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? is sometimes depicted as viewing Zack and Ivy in this way, genuinely liking them and enjoying the long-standing battle of wits she has with them.
"There will be no war on this day, Optimus Prime; You have earned Galvatron's respect."
Several of the villains on Gargoyles are like this, owing in part to their frequently grey-shaded nature.
Xanatos in particular has a lot of respect for Goliath and actually rather likes the guy, not that it'll stop him from making Goliath a pawn or target of his latest scheme; the respect is a bit more grudging on Goliath's end, but it's still there, and Goliath is generally willing to ally with Xanatos if that's what it takes to defeat a greater threat. Tellingly, many of Xanatos' schemes in the series consist of creating an Evil Knockoff of Goliath that will serve him, ranging from Mecha-Mooks that look like Goliath, a personal suit of Powered Armor that looks like Goliath, pseudo-Gargoyles, and finally an outright clone. Goliath really made an impression on him.
Macbeth is also one of these; he's one of the only humans who can match Goliath in hand-to-hand combat, but he also shares a similar code of warrior's honor and though he's clashed with the gargoyles on several occasions- and would likely do so again if his goals called for it- there's little real malice, and a good deal of respect, on both sides.
When Roman general Pompey the Great lost the Battle of Pharsalus against Caesar, he was forced to retreat to Egypt, where the current pharaoh Ptolemy had him executed. Upon arriving in Egypt, Caesar was greeted with Pompey's severed head and signet ring in a basket as an offering. Caesar was so offended by this offering of his former friend and worthy opponent that he had the parties responsible for it executed.
Darius III of Persia to Alexander the Great. Read this ancient passage describing his reaction to Darius' death:
"When Alexander came up he showed his grief and distress of the King's death and un-fastened his own cloak, he threw it over the body, covering it. Later, after he captured Baptus, who had murdered the king, Alexander had the tops of two straight trees bent down so that they met. And part of Baptus's body was tied to each. Then when each tree was let go and sprang back to its upright position, the part of the body attached to it was torn off by the recoil. As for Darius body, he returned it to his mother for it layed out for in royal state."
Also, King Porus to Alexander. While it's debatable whether Alexander even won, in the legend, after Alexander defeated Porus' army in the Battle of the Hydaspes, Alexander asked Porus how he wanted to be treated. Porus' answer, "like a King", impressed Alexander so much, that not only did Alexander allow Porus to remain a king, he even enlarged Porus' territory.
After the Russian army defeated the Swedes in the Northern war, the Russian emperor, Peter the Great, treated the captive Sweden officers with great respect and allowed them to keep their swords. During the celebration feast, Peter raised a glass to the Swedish king, Carl XII, and called him his teacher.
WWI German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, better known today as the Red Baron, was greatly admired among the Allied powers. Upon his death, he was given a full military funeral by his Australian opponents. Erwin Rommel, the Wehrmacht Field Marshal from World War II, known as the Desert Fox by his enemies, was similarly praised by his opponents, especially his legendary archrival, George Patton. Both the Red Baron and the Desert Fox were the living Magnificent Bastards of their time (in fact, the trope Magnificent Bastard was named after Rommel). Rommel, while not a member of the Nazi party, was still under the command of Adolf Hitler. However, he had Jewish friends and consistently defied orders to execute both Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners of war. In fact, his Afrikakorps was well known for being fairly humane and were not charged with any war crimes under his command. Though not directly involved, he knew enough about the German Resistance's July 20 plot to kill Hitler to become entangled in the aftermath and was given the choice of suicide over execution. The fact that he managed to become the only German general from the Second World War with his own museum just shows how well he exemplified both Magnificent Bastard and Worthy Opponent.
"If I had to take hell, I would use the Australians to take it and the New Zealanders to hold it." - Erwin Rommel
Origin of this quote is questionable though.
Though nowadays overshadowed by Rommel, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (commander of the German forces in Tanzania during WW1) qualifies as well. So Badass was he that he surrendered after the war was over in Europe, despite being completely cut from any source of supplies and reinforcements. The British were so impressed that they paid his retirement pension. It also helped that he gained the reputation for giving Hitler the shaft. An anecdote had Charles Miller ask the nephew of a Schutztruppe officer, "I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go fuck himself." The nephew responded, "That's right, except that I don't think he put it that politely."
There's a very clear reason why he didn't like Hitler, unlike Rommel - with half of his force made up of local soldiers, his men were living proof that Hitler's ideas were bullshit.
Karen von Blixen - who would later write the novel Out of Africa - actually travelled on the same ship with von Lettow-Vorbeck on her way to Africa. She would describe him as the strongest example of what the German Empire truly stood for.
In the same vein as Erwin Rommel, the German WWII officer Hans von Luck (seen by Rommel as a sort of adoptive son) could count. He was all over the map in WWII, being first of the German Panzer forces to the sea, furthest into Moscow, in the Africa campaign (he even captured the founder of the SAS, who escaped during a lavatory break), on the defense during the battle of Pegasus Bridge, and eventually spent years in a Stalag before arriving back in West Germany. When he visited the site of Pegasus Bridge, the British commandoes, to a man, pretended he was Swedish to get him past the embittered old woman who had been liberated decades before. He also gave lectures to former Allies' military trainee officers, and generally was completely accepted. His opinion of the Allies in WWII was more of the same - he mentions that he and the Allied desert scouts had a ceasefire every night at 6pm, arranged prisoner exchange, and on one occasion, his car was attacked by a fighter - which refused to shoot until the Germans were out of the vehicle.
Hasso von Manteuffel, a German panzer commander who later became a German politician and named the Bundeswehr, Germany's post-war armed forces. Eisenhower invited him into the White House and the Pentagon, and he worked as an advisor on many American war films. He was pretty Bad Ass too - when he served under Rommel, he commanded for several days without food or rest, beating back Allied attacks, before he collapsed. When he was defending Berlin, Soviet troops broke into his command post. He shot one and killed another in a knife fight.
Another World War One example was German fighter ace Werner Voss. After his skillful flying managed to let him go toe-to-toe against seven British aircraft for over ten minutes, one of the British Aces he fought against had these to say:
James McCudden: As long as I live I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single-handed fought seven of us for ten minutes, and also put some bullets through all of our machines. His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion he is the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight.
James McCudden:Rhys-Davids came in for a shower of congratulations, and no one deserved them better, but as the boy himself said to me, "Oh, if I could only have brought him down alive," and his remark was in agreement with my own thoughts.
At the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans shouted to each other when they were resting at night, and there's also the famous Christmas truce of 1914.
During WWI, German Feldmaschall August von Mackensen led a campaign through Serbia, coming up against incredible resistance when laying siege to Belgrade. Although the city eventually fell to the Austrian and German armies, von Mackensen remarked that "We have fought against an army we have only heard about in fairy tales" and had monument erected in the Serbians' honor.
The rivalry between Takeda Shingen and Uesegi Kenshin, two Daimyos in Japan. Although ruling different territories, and often waging war against one another, legend says they developed a deep respect for one another, to the point where Kenshin reportedly wept openly and loudly at the death of Shingen, and never again attacked Shingen's territory.
Kenshin went so far as to break a blockade against Shingen during his opponent's most dire hour, sending him salt (for preserving food) and saying: "Wars are to be won with swords and spears, not with rice and salt."
King Fredrick the Great of Prussia once commented on Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, "I warred with her, but I was never her enemy." The feeling doesn't appear to have been mutual.
Union and Confederate soldiers in The American Civil War sometimes conducted temporary truces to trade for tobacco, food, or alcohol, with or without their superior officers' knowledge or consent. There is at least one documented instance of soldiers deserting and joining the opposing side because their commanding officer killed a soldier they had made a truce with.
Also from the Civil War: General Robert E. Lee was well respected by many members of the Union, including Abraham Lincoln. Before the Civil War, Lincoln had requested that Lee be the commander of the Union Army. The only thing that kept him from joining was because he had been born in the confederate state of Virginia, and couldn't bring himself to fight against the place he was born.
Ulysses S. Grant was similarly well respected by Lee, who, after the war, never, ever tolerated an unkind word about Grant in his presence. Joseph Johnston was similarly disposed towards his rival. Considering that the rival in question was the oft-villainized William T. Sherman, that's saying something. Johnston even served as a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral, and refused to cover up despite poor health and the bone-chilling cold. Because of this, he caught pneumonia and died shortly afterwards. When a friend advised him to at least put on his hat (hats aren't worn at military funerals as a sign of respect), he told him "If I were in his place and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat."
Exemplified by Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. To quote the other wiki: "Dressed in an immaculate uniform, Lee waited for Grant to arrive. Grant, whose headache had ended when he received Lee's note, arrived in a mud-spattered uniform — a government-issue flannel shirt with trousers tucked into muddy boots, no sidearms, and with only his tarnished shoulder straps showing his rank. It was the first time the two men had seen each other face-to-face in almost two decades. Suddenly overcome with sadness, Grant found it hard to get to the point of the meeting and instead the two generals briefly discussed a previous encounter during the Mexican-American War." Grant was surprised that Lee, a cavalry colonel from a famous military family, remembered who he was, as at the time, he was a very junior infantry lieutentant.
Joshua Chamberlain ordering his men to carry arms as a salute to the surrendering Confederates at Appomattox comes to mind as well.
Indeed, the Civil War was full of this, as most of the Confederate officers had been Union officers until just before the war. Old West Point men were fighting their classmates. Even worse, Sherman, who had headed a military academy in Louisiana just before the war, may have found himself fighting boys he had taught. Families were divided and brothers really did meet on the battlefield and fathers in one uniform find their sons in another among the dead or captured.
William T. Sherman and his Confederate adversary Joseph Johnston became good friends after the war. After Sherman died, Johnston, being ill himself, insisted on being one of his pallbearers despite cold and snowy weather. Johnston himself died of pneumonia shortly afterwards.
Raizo Tanaka was considered by American officers, both during and after the Second World War, to be one of the finest officers in the Imperial Japanese Navy and a veritable wizard with destroyers. American officers were mystified when he was relieved of sea duty in 1943; it turned out that Tanaka really was that smart and he knew most of the objectives he'd ordered to support were impossible. His protesting this got him beached, much to the relief of many American officers fighting in the Solomons.
Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor, has gone back and forth on this trope in the United States. During the war he was widely hated by his American opponents. After the war, as various Japanese veterans published their stories and they were translated, Americans came to believe he was simply doing his duty as best he could based on these accounts. This was followed by a drought in publications being translated and historians in the two countries staying mostly out of contact until the internet reconnected everyone in the late 1990s. At that point primary sources available in Japan but not translated before showed that much of what was published about Yamamoto earlier was not accurate. That combined with modern American reexaminations of his decision-making being quite critical means that opinion on Yamamoto is swinging back towards contempt.
The military ethic has analogies to the legal ethic in that it presumes that a professional soldier will do his best for the State he serves (barring Very Exceptional Circumstances like Those Wacky Nazis) just as a lawyer does the same for his client. Thus many soldiers do not think it contradictory to try to kill someone and yet admire them, as killing is their job but hating isn't, as, after all, enemy soldiers aren't much different from themselves.
"Casabianca", also known as "The boy stood on the burning deck", is a poem by British poet Felicia Hemans, first published in August 1826. The poem commemorates an actual incident that occurred during the Napoleonic Wars. In the 1798 Battle of the Nile, the French ship "Orient" caught fire while fighting the ships of the British Royal Navy. Giocante, the young son (his age is variously given as ten, twelve and thirteen) of commander Louis de Casabianca, remained at his post and perished when the flames caused the magazine to explode. Many generations of romatic young Englishmen were taught to admire the heroic young Casabianca and seek to emulate him, despite his having been an enemy who died fighting against their country.
What with the glorification of chivalry, the Middle Ages should have been full of these, but one outstanding example is Saladin of the Third Crusade who treated Richard the Lionheart with a profound respect. Given the contention surrounding the events that took place during the Crusades, how true this really was may never be known.
Since a good deal of Saladin's praise comes from Christian monks who chronicled the events, it's hard to argue. On the other side, muslim chroniclers exclaimed that Balian, who had defended Jerusalem, held a rank in their eyes equal to a king. He had asked Saladin for leave to evacuate his wife and children from the Holy City, and Saladin agreed on the condition that he does not return to take up arms. When Balian got there though, the people implored him to stay, citing the greater need of Christendom. He stayed and defended the city, and when the time came to negotiate terms with Saladin, the sultan reportedly held no ill feelings to Balian for breaking his oath, and sent an escort to guide his family back to Tripoli.
Richard the Lionheart was apparently this back to Saladin, as he was in general. In fact, he ordered the crossbowman who had mortally wounded him to be pardoned and set free. Unfortunately, after Richard died, a certain mercenary captain in his army, named Mercadier, said screw it, Richard won't argue, and had the poor kid flayed alive.
In Budapest's historic Castle District, which had seen hard fighting in 1686 when a Christian army (re)conquered it after 150 years of Turkish rule, can be seen "The Monument of the last Turkish governor" erected by the victors, with the following epitaph:"Here fell the last Turkish governor, Pasha and commander of Buda, Abdurrahman Abdi Arnaut on 9 late-summer month of 1686, in his 70th year of age. He was a noble enemy and a hero, may he rest in peace." 
One of the first things the Israel Defense Forces did after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1967 was to build a memorial to the Jordanian Arab Legion, who had defended East Jerusalem and the West Bank valiantly but suffered from a complete lack of air support (the IDF had taken out more or less the whole Royal Jordanian Air Force within 45 minutes of the opening of the war).
Australians and Turks respect one another a lot. Why? Because they were the very embodiment of this trope to one another in World War One, during the Gallipoli campaign - Australia was Turkey's worthy adversary, and Turkey was Australia's. Though both sides fought with extreme tenacity and dedication, they also fought one another with a great degree of honour. The Turks eventually renamed the beach where the invasion took place "ANZAC Cove" in honour of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps; in return for this, the Australians established the only war memorial in the Australian capital ever dedicated to a former enemy - a tribute to the Turkish commander at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's own opinion about the ANZACs can be read here◊.
Many of the old guard in the United States military regarded the Soviet Union as having been a fine and worthwhile adversary - at least when the prospect of nukes wasn't involved. The two superpowers stood toe-to-toe for decades without managing to get into a [direct] shooting war with each other, and often copied each others' tactical doctrines and combat innovations. Especially among the United States Navy and double among the submarines, now largely without a job, it's not unknown for senior American officers to lament the fall of the Soviet Union - fighting terrorists just isn't the same, and mileage varies on the idea of China as a replacement adversary.
There are several instances of the Victoria Cross being awarded (posthumously) in World War II partly or, in one case, entirely on the recommendation of German officers:
The destroyer HMS Glowworm fought the much larger German cruiser Admiral Hipper, ramming the larger vessel before being sunk. The captain of Glowworm, Lieutenant Commander Gerard Broadmead Roope, received the Victoria Cross in part at the urging of the commander of the Hipper, who wrote to the British via the Red Cross of the courage displayed by the skipper of the much smaller Royal Navy vessel.
Sergeant Thomas Frank Durrant was a British Army commando killed while engaging a German destroyer in his small boat. Durrant's commanding officer was captured, and the captain of the German destroyer met him in a POW camp and recommended the sergeant be decorated for his bravery.
Flying Officer Lloyd Allan Trigg of the Royal New Zealand Air Force received the Victoria Cross entirely based on the testimony of the men he was trying to kill. He attacked the German U-boat U-468 in his B-24 Liberator bomber; he sunk the enemy submarine, but in doing so, his aircraft was shot down with no survivors. Trigg received the Victoria Cross based only on the testimony of the survivors of the U-468 (including its captain) when they were rescued by the Royal Navy.
United States Navy Captain Charles McVay was court martialed after World War II in response to the sinking of his ship, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, during the final days of the War while delivering the nuclear material and other parts for the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Imperial Japanese Naval Commander Mochitsura Hashimo, the commanding officer of the submarine that sunk the Indianapolis, testified on McVay's behalf at his court-martial, and years later, joined the surviving crew members of the ship in a campaign to exonerate him.
During the Thirty Years' War, the Protestant King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden apparently respected devout Catholic commander Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, enough that he sent his personal physician to tend to the man's wounds as he lay dying. Tilly, in turn, told the physician, "Your king is truly a noble knight."
Adolf Hitler, who had fought Canadians in World War One, paid his respects to the Vimy Ridge Memorial. During the Germany occupation of France in World War II, he posted guards to make sure that the site was not desecrated in any way.
The legendary World War II dogfight between Saburo Sakai and James 'Pug' Sutherland, which saw both men display astonishing courage and skill in a dogfight that lasted several minutes in an era where dogfights were typically over in seconds. It eventually ended when Sakai shot down the crippled and disarmed F4F Wildcat, but he had such respect for its pilot that he took care to aim his finishing shot at the engine rather than the cockpit so as to give the pilot a fighting chance of surviving. He did, but unfortunately died in a jet training accident in 1949.
Both were fighter aces. Sakai finished the war with 64 victories, while Southerland's eventual tally was 6. Southerland's weapon systems had been damaged by a hit from the return fire of Japanese G4M bomber, which he had shot down before the encounter with Sakai.
Perhaps all the more poignant for the fact that the Worthy Opponent's name or even his unit is not known, Israeli pilot Asher Snir's story of an encounter with a Syrian MiG-17 during the 1970 War of Attrition: The Man in the MiG
Carlos Hathcock and the Viet Cong sniper known only asthe Cobra. Hathcock, considered by the United States Marines to be the greatest sniper they ever produced (and they produce some damn fine snipers) had a bounty of $35,000 put on his head by the North Vietnamese, and the Cobra was sent to collect. The day started with Cobra spotting Hathcock in camp, unawares, lining up a shot...and killing another marine a few feet from Hathcock, just to get his attention. Hathcock geared up and the two (along with Hathcock's spotter) proceeded to stalk each other around the valley they were in for the rest of the day, cat and mouse. Finally, as the sun was going down behind Hathcock's back, he caught a glimpse of sunlight glinting off a scope, and took the shot. When they found the Cobra, the bullet had passed straight through his scope, without even touching the side. Hathcock admitted that it was mostly luck, but had he not been the quicker on the trigger, the outcome would have been reversed; the shot was only possible because the Cobra had been trained directly on him. He would later admit in an interview to having a sneaky respect for the Cobra, saying "I figured he's almost as good as me...but nobody's that good."
Duke Cunningham also found a Worthy Opponent with the still not reliably identified North Vietnamese fighter pilot variously called Nyugen Toon or Tomb who engaged him in a dog fight he only managed to win by the skin of his teeth.
To this day, the Mexican military respects the French Foreign Legion a lot for the Battle of Camarón. A Mexican soldier meeting a Legionnaire salutes...even if the Mexican is a general and the Legionnaire a private.
After the Zulu War, the British built a monument...to "the Zulu warriors who fell here for the old Zulu order."
The Zulu themselves have noted that they felt much the same way about the fighting discipline the British troops; they were impressed at how the Western enemy soldiers stood their ground regardless of the overwhelming odds like stones while their older enemies of native nations were routed in the same situation.
Billy Bishop, the top Canadian ace of WWI and arguably the top ace of the British Empire, was nicknamed "Hell's Handmaiden" by the Germans, and after the war, he was invited as a guest of honour to a gathering of German aces in Berlin.
The Canadians in general were well respected and feared by the German soldiers in World War One, and earned the nickname "shock troops".
The English for the French and vice-versa, throughout history, to the point that they joined forces and ultimately stood united through two World Wars, after eight hundred years of intermittent but plentiful warfare.
A less violent version can be found in Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly ; they seem to be as close to friends as their differing viewpoints allow.
Politicians almost always invoke this trope when acknowledging an opponent they've just defeated, and occasionally under other circumstances such as their opponent's retirement or death. In 2010, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted after a successful leadership challenge by his deputy Julia Gillard. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott described Rudd as "a worthy opponent" and said "he deserved better".
George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev called up Bush to tell him it was his last day in office; his resignation meant the end of the Soviet Union. Still, Bush related, "There was a kind of sadness. Of course it was Christmas time, and I felt that a friend was hurt, and I wasn't happy about that."
Barry Goldwater and John F. Kennedy: Goldwater was looking forward to running against Kennedy in the 1964 election, and was crushed by the assassination.
The two were such good friends outside of their jobs that there was even some anecdotal evidence that the two planned to campaign together, having a long series of debate-style campaign stops.
Goldwater, an amateur photographer, always cherished a candid photograph he took of Kennedy during a White House reception. Goldwater sent Kennedy the photo, only to have the President return it to him with a friendly inscription.
In the convention of US Presidential and other races, once the final results are published and the loser phones the winner to concede defeat, in this conversation they are expected to treat each other as worthy opponents - whether or not they actually feel this way.
Napoleon I of France and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, were this at least early in their life. Justified in that Napoleon's style completely transformed contemporary military science, teaching, and application. Curious in that it never was mutual; Wellington found out in 1814 that the Emperor had left money (which he didn't even have) to a man who had tried to assassinate Wellington in his will, which left him absolutely disgusted at this ungentlemanly behaviour. Napoleon meanwhile had never faced Wellington in battle and suspected his marshals were to blame for their losses in Spain. This changed after Waterloo, with the Emperor having nothing but praise for his defeater.
On a larger scale, this was basically what the British and French armies in the Peninsular War were like. Both armies consisted of professional, relatively disciplined and regular soldiers fighting in a strange and hostile environment with little supplies. The only other people were Spaniards and Portugese, who hated the British almost as much as they hated the French due to the former being arrogant Protestant hooligans and the latter due to brutally occupying their country for five years, which sparked many brutal backlashes against French soldiers. Hence, it was only natural that there should be some kind of bonding between both armies. At one battle early in the war, thirsty soldiers from both sides rested at the same well in the centre of the battlefield and attempted to talk. This was much more widespread amongst the officers, many of whom would have spoken the other's language (mainly British officers speaking French). One anecdote relates that a British major had met with a French colleague for dinner at the latter's camp, and gotten so drunk he had to be carried home by four French soldiers.
King Henry VII of England apparently considered King Richard III this, at least in the sphere of combat. His official account of the Battle of Bosworth Field, where most victorious kings would paint their slain foes as weaklings and cowards, instead had Richard dying "in the thickest press of his enemies", having made a desperate charge against Henry himself, and personally unhorsing one of Henry's best knights.
Richard also struck down Henry's banner. In most circumstances, this would have meant routing the foe. Both sides fought literally to the bitter end.
After the execution of Marhsall Michel Ney (one of Napoleon's generals), a Russian officer expressed happiness over it, and was immediately dishonorably discharged from the Russian army by the Czar, who immensely respected Ney.
In December 1914 the British Royal Navy won decisively the Battle of the Falkland Islands, sinking all but one of the German ships opposing them. Afterwards, the civilian British Governor of the Falklands held a dinner for the victorious British captains. The governor proposed a toast "Damnation to the German Navy!" but the captains remained seated, none of them joining the toast. Then the senior Naval officer present proposed an alternative toast:"We drink to the memory of brave sailors who had gone to the bottom" and was joined by all the other captains.
During the Second World War,in April 1941 the German General Wilhelm List commanded the forces attacking the Metaxas Line in northern Greece. He admired the courage of the Greek soldiers opposing him, who went on fighting even when outflanked. When finally winning the battle, he refrained from taking the Greek soldiers prisoner, declaring that they were free to leave with their war flags, on condition that they surrender their arms and supplies. He also ordered his soldiers and officers to salute the Greek soldiers [https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Metaxas_Line&action=edit§ion=2]
During World War II, SOE Major Patrick Leigh Fermor led an Anglo-Greek commando team to kidnap General Heinrich Kreipe, the German military governor of Crete. (This exploit is depicted in the book and film Ill Met By Moonlight.) Leigh Fermor and Kreipe, much to their surprise, found common ground in both their education and life experiences and gained immense respect for each other. The erstwhile adversaries met years later on a Greek television show and seemed thrilled to be reunited.
During the Battle off Samar in WWII, a powerful force of Japanese battleships and cruisers (including the Yamato, the biggest, most-powerful battleship the world has ever seen) came under attack by a force of escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts (jokingly called "The Tin Can Navy") as the Japanese closed to attack the American landing beaches on Luzon Island. It was a real life David Versus Goliath battle, in which the American escorts closed to almost-point blank range with the Japanese heavies, launching torpedoes, dodging return fire, and firing so many 5-inch shells some ran out of ammunition. The destroyer USS Johnston was finally sunk after nearly sinking a Japanese cruiser and setting several other ships aflame (Johnston's commander was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his daring). As she was going down, a Japanese destroyer passed close by, her captain standing out on the open bridge, saluting.
In August 1943, the German Navy was ordered to seize and take over all vessels of the Danish fleet, which until then was allowed to maintain itself in German-occupied Denmark. The Danish admirals, anticipating the German move, ordered all their captains to scuttle their ships. Thirty-two ships were scuttled, four managed to escape to Sweden while fourteen were taken undamaged by the Germans. In the aftermath, on the evening of 29 August, Admiral Wurmbach, Supreme Commander of the German Kriegsmarine in Denmark addressed Vice Admiral A H Vedel, the Commander in Chief of the Royal Danish Navy, as follows "Wir haben beide unsere Pflicht getan" (We have both done our duty).
In December 1943 after spending a year harassing the Arctic Convoys, The Battlecruiser Scharnhorst was cornered by The HMS Duke of York - A Battleship, a Cruiser, three light cruisers and nine Destroyers. Blinded by a snowstorm, the Scharnhorst returned the attack. It took twelve hours, 52 salvos and four direct torpedo hits to capsize the Scharnhorst. of the 1,968 men on the Scharnhorst, only 36 survived. Upon the mission debrief, commander of the taskforce, Admiral Bruce Fraser said: "Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today."
When George Washington died, the British Navy was ordered to fly their flags at half-mast.
In Somalia, the battle to rescue the crews of two downed helicopters during the 90's that we know as Black Hawk Down is known as the Day of the Rangers, out of a grudging respect for the skill of the Americans involved.