Death and Glory

Surfing's Greatest Rivalry Comes to an End

Textbook AI, composure under pressure at Teahupoo. (Right) Irons handed Kelly Slater the most heartbreaking loss of his career at the 2003 Pipeline Masters. Photos: Joli

Before Andy Irons died, I don't remember thinking that his long mid-career rumble with Kelly Slater was the absolute final word on surfing rivalries. If the subject had come up, say, two or three years ago, I would have felt obligated, as an AARP-member-in-training, to put in a word for Richards/Horan, or Farrelly/Young, or even Dora/Fain. Great surfing rivalries are a gift from Kahuna—all that hatred, jealousy, and gamesmanship, yoked and directed, means a better show for the rest of us. But there is no single, definitive surfing rivalry. If it comes down to Dora at Malibu whipping his board past Fain's head like a samurai sword, versus Slater kneeling beside Irons on the beach at Pipeline to whisper "I love you" just before their big world title showdown heat—hell, who's to judge?

That was my thinking a few week ago, anyway. Now I'm swinging over to the prevailing opinion. The Slater/Irons union belongs to a different, higher order of rivalry. Not so much because of the crazy epilogue—although as I write this, just three weeks after the ASP event in Puerto Rico, its pretty much impossible to not begin there: Irons dying alone in a Dallas/Forth Worth Airport hotel room, Slater's pulling down a 10th world title, one surfer carried off on the shoulders of a delirious throng of fans, the other quietly taken away on a stretcher. That's drama taken to a level the sport has never seen before. Mark Foo's on-camera death at Mavs would probably be next on the list, and it doesn't even rate by comparison. Fifty bucks says there are already a half-dozen Slater/Irons screenplays zinging around the Hollywood digisphere.

But 2010, really, was just a coda. The rivalry expired years earlier. Irons' death and Slater's victory sent me back to those viciously entertaining campaigns, from 2003 to 2006, when the two surfers were stomping over the ASP schedule like Godzilla and Mothra. The relationship between Slater and Irons during this time was as symbiotic as it was antagonistic, as all great rivalries are. But they took it further than any other pair in surfing. Dora would have been the same surfer without Fain. Richards, Horan, and the rest—ditto. Irons and Slater lifted each other to their best levels of performance. True, Slater won a half-dozen world titles before Irons was in the game. And sure, Irons won his first title in 2002, before Slater was back in fighting shape after a long break from the tour. There was plenty of time in their respective careers, in other words, where the two surfers didn't have much to do with each other. But throughout the middle of the '00s, Andy Irons wouldn't have been Andy Irons without Slater, and vice versa. "This thing consumed us," as Slater later put it, and by "us" he might as well have included anyone who follows pro surfing. Those were great years to be a pro tour fan.

Yeah. Best rivalry ever.

Andy's inherent ability on a surfboard - a raw combination of power, style, and aggression - put in in a league of his own throughout the early 2000s. Photo: Ellis

On paper, it looks like a pretty even exchange, or maybe even advantage Irons. The Hawaiian won his second consecutive title in '03, with Slater at full strength and pounding at his heels, then added a third in '04. Slater won the next two, with Irons finishing runner-up both times. Man-on-man, Irons dominated during this period: seven heats, six wins.

But dig a little deeper, and Slater comes up as the real beneficiary. He needed more, and took more. Irons, for one thing, wasn't looking for a rival. He already had one in younger brother Bruce, and if he surfed better in '03 and '04 because of Slater's presence, my guess is that he would have slammed home those two titles regardless, and maybe added a couple more, just to keep a foot on Bruce's neck. "I always thought he was a way better surfer than me," Andy once said. "So I had to work way harder for it."

Before Irons, Slater never had a rival worthy of the name. He wasn't unbeatable, exactly. But through the 1990s he'd held ASP challengers off like one of those chess freaks walking from table to table, keeping six or eight opponents locked down at the same time. Irons changed all that. He demanded every bit of Slater's attention, and did so in ways that extended beyond the ASP tour. He was near Slater's level for raw talent. In big, reef-dredging waves, he had the softer touch, and his line was smoother, more polished. Yes, Slater is responsible for more wave-riding miracles than anyone in the sport's history, but you can see the gears working; at 38, with his talent fully developed and matured, you still catch glimpses in his surfing of the nut-brown Floridian preteen from 25 years ago, wiggling and pumping his way across a knee-high Cocoa Beach dribbler. Andy Irons? He was born in that cool gunslinger crouch, with a massive cloud of spit blowing past his head and shoulders.

Then there was the matter of character, where the differences between the two were even greater. Slater was just a half-step below squeaky clean, with his Just Say No views on drugs, his abiding devotion to golf, and his Sir Galahad white wetsuit. He was also articulate, open, easy to talk with, and so spectacularly good-looking that he could hold his own in a fashion shoot with Pam Anderson. Nick Carroll meanwhile described Irons as "a white-hot, forceful, reckless, [and] nervous." In public, he seemed to have two modes: angry, or about to get angry. Not as charismatic as Slater, but not far behind, and handsome in the bargain—Irons was a damn hard surfer to look away from.

In 2002, after pissing away the first couple years of his big-league career—"too much partying," to use the still-current euphuism for excessive drinking and/or drug use—Irons channeled his volatility into bulletproof focus and confidence, and won his first world title going away. More than that, he seemed to close the lid on the Slater era. One year passed, and Irons was standing on that lid with nails and a hammer, after beating Slater in their winner-take-all death-match world title bout at Pipeline. Last-minute heroics had always been Slater's trademark, and in 2003, at age 31, he was completely back in form. But at Pipeline that year, Irons had his number. There he was on the winner's stand, hoisting the trophy overhead, with Slater, to his left, looking upwards with an open-mouthed, shell-shocked expression.

The legendary final wave of the 2006 Pipeline Masters where Irons defeated Slater (in red, first frame) in the dying seconds. Irons won the contest, but Slater claimed his eighth world title that year. Photos: Joli

It was the first and only ball-breaking loss of Slater's career, and it took a year to shake off. Irons snatched his third straight title in 2004, while Slater failed to win an event. Surfing magazine at that point announced the arrival of Generation Now, and put Irons on the cover, standing with a group of seven other pros who together were said to be "not just the best in the world, [but] the best ever." Slater wasn't in the picture.

This was the moment, in my humble opinion—Surfing's cover shot, the Generation Now hype, and Irons saying things like Slater was "just another competitor out there"—when the power struggle shifted. Not much, but enough to throw the advantage back to Slater. In 2005, with his devastating Pipe Masters defeat behind him and Andy Irons waving back and forth in his mind's eye like a red flag, Slater found a new gear, won four out of five events through the middle of the season, and pulled down a seventh world title before the tour left for Hawaii. Irons was runner up. Then Slater opened 2006 with back-to-back wins, and while Irons again made a race out of it, Slater earned another championship. Generation Now? You don't hear that one anymore. It was like Slater took a huge Sharpie pen and blacked the phrase out of the record.

Those were hard years on Irons, 2005 and 2006. "If I can't get first I'd rather get last," he told Stab magazine. "Second is the first fuckin' loser." He slipped down the ratings in '07, and then dropped off the tour altogether in '08—watching from a distance as Slater found other worthwhile challengers, defeated them as well, and added a ninth world title.

Irons folded his hand for reasons that still aren't entirely clear. No doubt he was sick of touring, and exhausted after a failed three-year struggle to get back on top of the ratings. Depression may have played a part. It wasn't made public at the time, but the drug problem that he'd supposedly got on top of years earlier had returned.

I'm guessing that Irons was also getting tired of being a surf-world bad guy. It was a fine role early on, and he played it perfectly. He rocked those Imperial Japanese Army kamikaze boardshorts. He nailed his spread ad with Metalica, scowling at the camera while holding a flaming surfboard. And let's not forget black-humored brilliance of the "shotgun claim," during the Teahupoo contests, when Irons flew out of a long tube, pump-loaded an imaginary rifle, aimed at his opponent (not Slater), and pulled the trigger. The anti-Slater crowd—a not-insignificant minority in the sport—loved Irons for telling filmmaker Jack McCoy, on camera, right before his world title run got under way, that his "whole driving force right now is to just take [Slater's] pretty picture and just crush it."

But that's a hard role to sustain, and by 2008, as the newly-married Irons turned 30, it must have been wearing him down.

Irons' hiatus from tour in 2009 seemed to rekindle his love for surfing and travel. Photo: Frank

Irons began his world tour comeback at the start of the 2010 season. He was pale and a bit subdued, and wasn't burning through heats the way he used to, but he got a couple of middling results over the first four events. Then he suddenly regained his footing and won in Tahiti. Ran the table, in fact. Took down Fanning in the quarters, Slater in the semis, and CJ Hobgood in the final—world champions, all three. The waves weren't great, but Irons was the most in-form surfer of the contest.

I remember at that point thinking that Slater was now going to floorboard it to the finish line. The 2010 season was already at the halfway point, and Irons' slow start meant he didn't have a real shot at the title. But he could play the spoiler, and keep Slater from winning. And if Slater fell short in 2010, there was a chance he wouldn't even come back for another try. Plus if Irons really and truly got his groove back, there were more contests—world titles, even—he might yet take. Hell, he was almost seven years younger than Slater. His comeback program was already ahead of schedule. Slater was second in the ratings after Tahiti, but Irons had jumped from eighteenth to seventh, and was breathing fire.

That's how things looked in Tahiti, anyway. Or rather, that's how a lot of us wanted things to look.

Slater answered back. Calmly, and with overwhelming force. Three wins and a second over the next four contests, a tenth world title on ice before the tour left for Hawaii, and the door wide open for the cleanest, most triumphant exit in professional sports history.

Do I think Irons' win triggered Slater's second-half run? I don't know. Maybe. A case can be made that suddenly it wasn't just 2010 in play, it was legacy as well, and an Irons' victory may have gotten into Slater's head in a different way than if it been Fanning or Smith up on the winner's stand. All of a sudden, there was the possibility of another serious blow from the guy who'd already once crippled him.

The tour moved on to Trestles. Slater won. Irons took a 13th, followed by a pair of 25th’s in Europe, his comeback over before it got started.

The dramatist in me wants to believe that if Irons was present during Slater's four-contest charge to the title—literally at first, metaphorically at the end—then Slater, or some kind of dark funhouse-mirror version of Slater, was also present, one demon among many, when Irons closed the hotel door behind him in Dallas. During an interview a few years back, Irons said that "in the water [during competition], I hate every single person," and that losing made him feel as if the "whole world is over; everything sucks." Slater no doubt put Irons in that frame of mind more than anyone else.

But no. I think those days were over by 2007. Not being able to focus his hatred on Slater or anybody standing between him and a trophy—that's what took Irons out of contention. Tahiti, looking back, wasn't a harbinger of things to come, it was just a still-great surfer catching the right waves and hitting all his marks. He was good enough to win, without being especially interested in doing so. If Slater did in fact use Irons' win in Tahiti to fuel his sprint to the championship, I don't think there was any blowback for Irons. Slater didn't kick the legs out from Irons' comeback last summer, because the comeback never meant that much to Irons to begin with.

There was nothing left of their once white-hot rivalry during that shocking first week in November. Just embers that somehow flared into a tragic coincidence.

For more about the tragic loss of Andy Irons and Kelly Slater’s road to a tenth world title, look for out February issue, on newsstands now.