Like so many great rivals Andy and Kelly found room for friendship and love in the years proceeding their fiercest battles. But crikey it was fun when they wanted to destroy eachother! (Joli)

Andy Irons: When We Were Kings

Kelly Slater Versus Andy Irons

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In anticipation of the Australian premieres of Andy Irons: Kissed By God, we’re taking a look back at some of the Andy stories that have stuck with us. Here, Sean Doherty dives into the Andy/Kelly rivalry and friendship, perhaps surfing’s greatest ever. 

Surfing doesn’t spawn great rivalries, not in the way, say, boxing does. The goal of surfing isn’t to loosen the other guy’s teeth and turn his porch lights out. With surfing the real opponent is the ocean. You beat the ocean; you beat the other guy anyway. Surfing mightn’t spawn great rivalries, but for three years it had Andy Irons and Kelly Slater, which was something far deeper, psychologically layered, and altogether more combustible.

Early in the new millennium, Andy and Kelly, the two greatest surfers of the modern era, went toe-to-toe from Tahiti to Pipeline, punching each other in the face one minute then professing their love for each other the next. Their rivalry was white hot, pathological, and it took the sport of surfing somewhere it had never been. As Kelly put it later, “This thing consumed us.” It was a rivalry that would spur them both to their greatest moments and sink them to their lowest points. It was a rivalry that would echo into their futures and lead, years later, to a fateful week in Puerto Rico.

Kelly Slater is the greatest surfer who will ever be. Not even Andy Irons could change that.

Through the 90s the Floridian was bigger than surfing itself, winning six World Titles, taming Pipeline, dating Pamela Anderson, and playing guitar on stage with Pearl Jam. But Slater was no Spicoli. He was a renaissance surfer who thought deeply about the world, an engaged, inquisitive soul curious about life outside the surfing bubble. When he won his sixth World Title at Pipeline in December 1998 and was being carried triumphantly up the beach, he noticed his infant daughter playing in the sand, oblivious to her father’s currently exalted status. He had an epiphany. Disillusioned with fame, bored by pro surfing, he decided then and there he was done. He walked away to find himself, surf alone, and search for new challenges.

When he got back four years later he found Andy Irons had taken his place.

The Hawaiian had won his first World Title in 2002 – daylight second – with a brash and visceral brand of surfing. Slater missed much of his comeback season after the passing of his father, and the fact Andy had won the World Title without beating Kelly outright put an asterisk next to his win. That didn’t sit well. Andy had grown up combative, his younger brother Bruce possessing twin talents for riding a surfboard and pushing Andy’s buttons. Andy almost needed an adversary, and with Kelly back he was spoiling for a showdown. That year Andy famously declared, “My whole driving force right now is to take his little pretty picture and just crush it.”

Kelly and Andy were both complex characters, both ruthless, yet at the same time highly sensitive souls. Andy was straight-up, heart on sleeve. Kelly thought more than he talked. Andy listened to Little Wayne. Kelly read Chomsky. They were two big personalities who became the two biggest names in surfing. They were two big dogs in a small yard and some heavy-duty psychological shit went down as their rivalry took shape.

On a surfing trip to Fiji they had to be separated during a drunken brawl. After being informed afterwards that Kelly’s father had only recently died, Andy broke into tears, apologising profusely and hugging him. Later in the year, after Andy had won his World Title, Kelly wasn’t sure how to mark the occasion and gave Andy a T-shirt with a photo of his dad on it. There was, as Kelly put it later, “a strange and awkward dynamic” between them.

The following year, 2003, Kelly returned to pro surfing full time, and he and Andy locked horns, all in, all year. It was on.

In a classic piece of fateful theatre, the World Title that year came down to Andy and Kelly in the final heat of the season at Pipeline. The weeks leading up to it had been intense. Living and surfing on the North Shore bubble the pair could hardly avoid each other, especially in the water at Pipeline. But when Kelly walked in unannounced to Andy’s house at Off The Wall on the pretence of looking for a golf partner, Andy clicked. Kelly was messing with him.

As Andy crouched at the waterline waiting to paddle out for the Pipe final, Kelly walked over and told him, “I love you, man.” Psychological gambit or olive branch, only Kelly knows, but it lit Andy’s fuse. Andy stole the final wave from Kelly, won the World Title, and was carried up the beach through a euphoric Hawaiian crowd. Kelly retreated to Jack Johnson’s nearby yard, stood under the shower, and wept.

Andy would win the World Title the following year, and it appeared that at 32, Kelly’s time was over. Kelly openly contemplated retiring for good this time, but just when it appeared he would walk away, he caught a miracle wave in Tahiti, won the event with two perfect 10s, won the following event, and eventually won the 2005 World Title. It reignited his career. Kelly won again in 2006, and would eventually win three more World Titles. He’s still going strong today at 43, a decade after his career was being eulogised.

As Kelly rose again like a phoenix, the fire in Andy died out.

The intensity with which Andy Irons lived and surfed, the glare of the public spotlight, and his “inner demons” – his highly strung nature in concert with prescription and party drug habits known only to his inner circle – had left him burned to a crisp. He dropped down the ratings, did stints in rehab, then dropped off tour entirely in 2009. In 2010 Andy was given a wildcard back on tour but looked a pale version of the warrior he once was… until Tahiti, where he beat Kelly on his way to winning the contest, one of surfing’s great comeback wins.

The red mist had cleared by this stage, their lives had moved on and other surfers had crashed their party. Andy and Kelly were finally able to talk, surf – hell, even laugh – about those years when they fought over who should rule surfing. Like any great rivalry it was symbiotic, and both acknowledged they’d never have become surfing kings without the other one there.

Their fates were linked till the end.

In November 2010, the surfing tour headed to Puerto Rico where Kelly Slater was in sight of his landmark tenth World Title. Andy, who’d barely won a heat since his win in Tahiti, didn’t show for his first round heat. There was talk he was sick, and doctors were dispatched to his apartment at Isabela. Andy was told to get to hospital, but went to the airport instead, his wife Lyndie heavily pregnant back in Hawaii with their first child. Andy landed in Miami, partied that night, flew to Dallas the next morning, but – reportedly unwell – didn’t board his flight home. He checked into room 324 of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Grapevine, Texas, ate a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, drank two soft drinks, and curled up in bed.

Andy Irons was found dead the next morning. The medical examiner officially cited heart attack, but also itemised a list of drugs found in his blood. Andy died alone in a hotel room thousands of miles from his family and a month away from meeting his son, Axel.

The news from Grapevine broke to the world that Andy Irons was dead at 32. As his body was carried out of the hotel room in Dallas, on his phone next to the bed was an unopened text message. It was from Kelly, sent from Puerto Rico, telling his old rival and friend he hoped he was doing okay.

The highly anticipated documentary film that will finally tell the heartbreaking story of the great Andy Irons – Andy Irons: Kissed By God — is premiering in Australia soon with four special event screenings. You can find further details on Surfing World’s event page here.

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Sean Doherty