The rivalry between Australian wunderkind Mark Occhilupo and California soul champion Tom Curren produced the most exciting competitive clashes in the history of surfing. Their 1986 heat at Bells Beach is critically considered the best heat ever surfed in pro surfing.
During the 1980’s no rivalry was more heralded than the Tom Curren/Mark Occhilupo challenge. Whenever the two surfers came up against each other in heats, sparks flew, temperatures rose and onlookers gathered to witness unmatched and historic wave-riding duels.
“I saw Occy before he became a household name, when he was first breaking out, it was at Jeffreys,” said Curren. “He had so much energy, just pushing every turn with so much speed and power.”
“I watched his footage over and over and seeing him for the first time I remember thinking his anticipation going into every turn was something great; something amazing.”
Occy – amped, animated, and outspoken – was a young Aussie mischief-maker and a powerhouse hell-competitor beloved by everyone. Curren – enigmatic, humble, and deceptively understated – was a precise but devastatingly savage contest opponent idolized globally.
“I first saw Tom surf when I was really young in Cronulla, it was at Wanda Beach,” said Occhilupo. “He was staying at Jim Banks’ house, I walked over the hill to the beach after school and it was like solid 6-8ft and he was the only one out.”
“I think he won the Beaurepaires that year and the first time I saw him he was at his peak, he was just ruling.”
No matter where the event was held or who else was in it – there were always two camps, the Occy troop and the Curren crew. It was goofy vs. natural, radical power gouges vs. the sublime style-master, Australia vs. America.
“Tom was already schooling guys when I came on tour and he was in some serious form, no one could touch him,” said Occhilupo. “I couldn’t get close to Tom, I had to scratch and work to get to that level.”
“I beat him at the OP Pro in Huntington twice in a row and the rivalry probably started there and then went to Bells and various heats around the world tour,” said Occhilupo. “There were literally thousands of people on the pier and they were all shouting for Tom, I had to come out and upset the motion.”
“I only remember being in the zone,” said Curren. “Occy was pulling out every trick, he had that little extra.”
“Both of us were pushing as hard as we could, but he won that one with a wave at the end, I just remember it was very tense and very tiring as well.”
Curren went on to win 353 heats, 33 events and three World Titles while Occy won 380 heats, 12 events and one World Title. Both featured in spectacular comebacks – Tom returning from a two year hiatus to clinch his third crown from the trials in 1990 while Occy’s well documented rise to the 1999 crown after a decade in the wilderness is one of the greatest feats in sporting history.
The Billabong Pro Jeffreys Bay held Round 1 of the Occy vs Curren “Clash of the Icons” in South Africa last year and we’re putting the duo back in the water and on the webcast again this year at Bells.