“HE HELD MY FEET TO THE FIRE.” – KELLY SLATER ON MICK FANNING
You’ve heard the news. Bells Beach is to be Mick Fanning’s last ever event on the World Championship Tour, and to celebrate his career we’ve put together a Mick Fanning Special Edition. And now we ask you, who better than an 11 x World Champion to introduce Mick’s tribute? Who better than the GOAT – the most winningest man on the planet – to share his innermost feelings about the one guy other than Andy Irons who really stuck in his competitive craw? Take audience with Mr. Robert Kelly Slater as he reflects on the bouts, mateship and fierce rivalry with the man they call White Lightning…
The words that come to mind when I think of my relationship with Mick Fanning are antagonistic and playful. We’re competitors, but we’re also friends, and over the years I think we’ve really enjoyed each other as mates and rivals. I think he’s one or two up on me head-to-head. We’ve had really good, close heats and we’ve surfed a bunch of finals together, a bunch of semi-finals and a lot of really important heats outside of that as well.
The thing I love about Mick is he leaves it all out in the water. On land before surfing, in heat prep time, he’s very serious, he doesn’t want you to talk to him. He wants his space. In the water he doesn’t want to talk or be chummy, he’s like, “We’re fighting.” Soon as the heat is over, the pressure valve is let out and he’s like, “We’re done.” I’ve always really respected that about Mick, he doesn’t carry anything back onto the beach. He’s a very fair and straightforward competitor.
I’ve had a lot of encounters with him in party mode and all I’ll say about that is I’ve also had a lot of phone calls from him the next day apologising, haha! That makes him one of a kind because there are not a lot of guys who can apologise or face the music. Mick owns it. But he’s also the kind of person who keeps me honest. He and I had a situation in a semi-final at Trestles once, I was on the peak and had priority and he was further down the line. He looked back at me as this wave came and saw that I wasn’t going and he turned and paddled for the wave fully committed. In this game we make so many last second instant decisions, and when that wave popped up my decision was: “That wave’s not good enough to get the score.” But when he saw me back off and he committed I went into panic mode and thought, “Oh shit, he’s going to get the score!” And so I paddled for the wave and took off behind him. He didn’t see me, and as soon as I stood up my mind was going, “Oh that was lame. That was really sneaky.” He rode the wave not realising what I’d done. Then, as he was paddling back out, he realised from where I was in the line-up that I’d got him on an interference and he was super pissed off at me after that. When I say he leaves it in the water, this was one of those occasions that needed to be dealt with after. We both went out that night and had a few drinks, but Mick went full Eugene. He was bumping me at the bar when I wasn’t looking and coming at me like, “Fuck you! Outside. I’ll smash you!” It was pretty tense, but nothing really happened until the next day when he called me up and said, “Hey mate, I’m really sorry about last night, but you also need to apologise to me because what you did was really bullshit.” I was kind of trying to explain how it had happened, and he said, “No. You just need to apologise.” And I felt so bad because that’s not how I like to surf professionally and especially against someone like Mick. If I’m surfing against someone who does that technically, I’ll throw it back at them, but that’s not the way I like to surf heats. I want to see who surfs the best and win that way, and Mick’s always been straight with me about that. So he held my feet to the fire and when I apologised he just said, “Sweet. All good.” That’s the kind of person Mick is.
“There are not a lot of guys who can apologise or face the music. Mick owns it. But he’s also the kind of person who keeps me honest.”
During my career I’ve enjoyed some really wonderful and challenging rivalries and experienced so many different dynamics with each person. Obviously there’s been a lot written about me and Andy over the years, and I would still consider him to be the biggest rival of my career, but number two would be Mick. And the only reason he’s not number one is because there just weren’t those further differences in personalities that created the tension and the friction. I have always considered Mick a friend, we’ve always gotten along pretty well and socialised, and it took Andy and I a while to build up to that.
That’s not to say we didn’t go at it. There is that Aussie versus American dynamic, and the fact that Mick and I both wanted the same thing. I think a lot of heats I’ve had with Mick have brought out the absolute best in me.
Strangely, I actually feel less nervous surfing against Mick than almost anyone because I know exactly what I have to do; I have to go out and surf my best. There are no technicalities or loose strategies, it’s just: “I have to out-surf this guy.” It’s nice to know what you have to do when you go out. Almost all of our heats are late in the contest and a lot have been at waves like Snapper, J-Bay, Fiji. And if the waves are good, you know he’s going to be shredding, so you have to put your best surfing in if you want to come out on top.
Mick had a little taste of life off tour a couple of years back and he’s had his own personal journeys and challenges, but he seems very clear-headed. That he’s ending it at Bells, his sponsor’s event and where he won his first major contest as a wildcard, is fitting. He’s arguably the best of all time at Bells and I really hope he wins the contest because that would be awesome. If I’m not there, I hope it’s Mick and Parko in the final, and I hope he smokes Parko! Although, I think Parko has the wood on him in finals.
It’ll be fun to see where his surfing goes from here too. In the mid-2000s me and Mick and Andy were surfing Hossegor and Mick was really getting into doing airs. For this one wave, Andy and I are sitting out the back and we see Mick bust this big frontside air and Andy was like, “WOAH! FUCKEN AIR GUY!” And then, on the very next wave, Mick took off on this left and threw a big backside air. Andy was freaking, going, “What! He’s a fucken air guy now? What the fuck?!” Haha! It was so funny. Maybe he’ll spend the next few years surfing like Chippa Wilson? Although that’s not the base of Mick’s approach, so the air guy thing may have passed on. But I do think he’ll become part of the culture and enjoy the experience of being wherever he goes and tap into that side of surfing, which is the greater side of surfing for most people. Maybe he’ll go Curren and disappear for years at a time and only turn up every now and again to surf better than everyone. I will say this, however, I really hope Mick doesn’t end up on skimboards.
– Kelly Slater, 11 x WSL Men’s World Champion