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.