WHY WE’RE LIVING IN ANDY IRONS’ WORLD
By Chris Mauro
By now most people have forgotten there was a time when Andy Irons' career was on the verge of total collapse. When he was routinely getting beat down by the surprising level of competition he found on tour. During his rookie season, his hopes for re-qualifying dimmed at every stop, and Irons grew disillusioned and bitter.
He went charging full steam down a dangerous path, running fast and loose all over the world, a young star with too much time to kill and no shortage of money. We know Andy took his career to the brink of the abyss, but that wasn't the half of it. On more than one occasion, he'd put his life on the line.
Turning your life around is no small feat. It's much easier to surrender to adversity, blame other for your ills and simply play victim. But after watching some friends attain lofty heights on tour—friends he grew up surfing with regularly—the excuses were no longer sitting well with Andy. At some point, he took a long hard look in the mirror and decided he wasn't happy with who he'd become. So he set out to change his course. With the help of friends and family he did just that…and things got better—a lot better. The incredible turnaround is a personal victory Irons considers the most significant of his life, an accomplishment bigger than any other, even bigger than his incredible run of three consecutive world titles.
Ever since his turnaround Irons has been on fire. He's won 2 WQS events, 12 WCT events, two Triple Crown titles, and three World Titles in a row. Though hardly anyone realizes it, Irons has already become one of the most dominant surfers in pro surfing history.
How dominant? Well, put it this way: Do the names Mark Richards and Kelly Slater mean anything to you? Because out of the 15 men who've won world titles, Andy, Kelly, and M.R. are the only to go back-to-back-to-back. By surpassing the achievements of celebrated greats like Carroll, Curren, Potter, and Occy, Irons' dominance can no longer be ignored, not even by him, or you, because face it, if you're like most everyone else out there, you're still adjusting to the fact that we're living under new leadership.
So how did this happen? How good is this guy? And how long can his supremacy last? Perhaps now's the time we really start asking these questions because, to date, nobody really has.
A quick peek beyond the headlines will help us understand just how heavy-handed Irons has been, and make no mistake, he's been slapping people around. Over the past three years he's won a staggering 83 percent of his heats. As of press time, he has 150 wins compared to just 29 losses. But what's even more impressive is his virtual ownership of the Top 10 over the same period, where his win rate remains at a stunning 82 percent, with 39 wins and only 10 losses. That's 16 percent better than his closest rival over the same period. "Oh, you mean Kelly Slater?" Ah, no. His closest rival over this period has been Billabong cohort and this year's title contender Joel Parkinson. Parko has won 66 percent of the vs. the Top 10, with an 18-9 record, and a 73 percent overall win rate. By comparison, Slater's record vs. the Top 10 is just above the line, at 53 percent over the past three years with a 21-18 record, the he has a 74 percent win rate since coming out of retirement.
What's so impressive about Andy's numbers is that he's accomplished this in an environment where the competitive field is stacked, more so today, perhaps, than at any other time in history. Aside from an ever-expanding list of super freaks, five surfers on tour already have world titles. Depending on whom you ask, there are up to five more legitimate contenders.
Consider the following names on tour: Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning, C.J. Hobgood, Damien Hobgood, Taj Burrow, Taylor Knox, Bruce Irons, Dean Morrison, Shane Beschen, Cory Lopez, Mark Occhilupo, Sunny Garcia, Luke Egan, Kalani Robb. Each is familiar with winning at the big league level, and so too are a half dozen other spoilers like Jake Paterson, Michael Lowe, and Neco Padaratz, who consistently lurk in the shadows of their more celebrated peers. One could easily argue this year's class is the most stacked deck ever assembled. No matter how nostalgic you want to get, you'd be hard pressed to find a larger group all capable of reaching the same lofty realm of high performance on any given day. But it's Andy Irons who's consistently reaching down deepest and pulling out his best. When it comes right down to it, that's why he is the best.
According to four-time world champion Mark Richards, "The best thing a competitive surfer can have is an aura of invincibility and to be feared by opponents. Andy has this by the bucket load. I this his World Title win last year was the single greatest competitive performance in the history of surfing. He actually came from behind to win against the greatest competitive surfer of all time in Kelly. If you think about this: Kelly has never been beaten before, ever, when he wanted to win something badly, and he badly wanted to win that World Title.
Slater has definitely found the tour to be a far more competitive place than when he left it after 1998. His close friends say that's why he actually enjoys being on tour. Truth be told, during most of his reign Slater was seldom pushed to the brink. His invincibility mirrored that of basketball legend Michael Jordan. Both were living on higher planes, performing at levels far beyond their closest competition. It's interesting to note that Sports Illustrated even asked (on their cover) if Jordan was so good that he was bad for the league. Surfing insiders wondered the same of Kelly. Rivals? What rivals? Slater rolled through the '90s, but there are plenty of nails on the highway now.
With 13 WCT to his credit so far in his career, Andy Irons has already tied Mark Occhilupo's career win total. It's too early to tell if he'll have a shot at breaking Curren's career win record of 33, let alone Carroll's 26 or Slater's current mark of 27, but Andy should stand a chance because he's proven he can win anywhere: Huntington Beach, Pipeline, Bells, Teahupoo, J-Bay, Sunset, Haleiwa, France, Spain, Tavarua. He's won them all. In fact, he, Slater, and Carroll are the only surfers to collect nearly every piece of hardware there is to be had. What's noteworthy, however, is Slater has still never won at Sunset, not even at the WQS level, and while this may seem trivial, it's one that certainly cost him a world title last year. But Slater's legacy as "the best surfer ever" was only perpetuated by his incredible push to the final heat of 2003. Imagine the hoopla if Jordan did the same to Shaq and Kobe last year. He'd undoubtedly top the polls as the world's most popular player, just as Kelly Slater did in this year's SURFER Poll.
Unfortunately for Andy, that was the price to be paid for being Kelly's nemesis last year. He was hardly aided by the web of media proliferation that caught him by surprise and fed on his every stumble. Facing the most popular surfer ever in a world title showdown, he did his best public relations job for the ASP, giving the press all the juicy quotes they wanted. But he lacked the perspective to realize that he would be cast as the evil, money-grubbing, contest-loving anti-hero in surfing's biggest story of the year.
Whether it works for him or not, Andy Irons always wears his heart right out there on his sleeve. Pride, pressure, love, loathing…there's no mystery to what he's thinking, because for Andy, spades are spades, friends are family, and actions continually trump words. The problem is all those attributes play right into the spin cycle of the press, and his candid words were used time and again against him.
So you'll have to pardon Irons today for declining offers from mainstream magazines, TV networks, and casting directors of cheesy lifeguard shows. He's no longer interested in taking the media bait because he'd rather do his promoting of the sport in the water.
Yes, Irons is more fallible than surfing greats of the past, and he knows it. He lacks the aura of Richards, the mystique of Curren, and the gloss and polish of Slater. And he's misunderstood because what he lacks in holiness he obviously makes up for in attitude. Not the ultra cocky dancing-in-the-end-zone variety, but the "Nope, that's bullshit" kind.
In the end, as each of us comes to accept Irons' reign, it's his attitude that we should respect the most. Considering how "mainstream" surfing has become, we're in need of a champion like Irons, because it's high time pro surfers back away from the dancing bears routine. They should just be true to who they are…surfers. That's been Andy's plan for some time now, and he's got more than three world titles that prove his plan is working—he's got his life back.