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 others 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 peak 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% 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 staggering 82%, with 39 wins and only 10 losses. That's 16% 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% of the time vs. the Top 10, with an 18-9 record, and a 73% overall win rate. By comparison, Slater's record vs. the Top 10 is just above the line, at 53% over the past three years with a 21-18 record, though he has a 74% 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're 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 think his World Title win last year was the single greatest competitive performance in the history of surfing. He actually came form 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 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.