Kelly Slater is, without question, the greatest competitive surfer to ever walk this Earth.
The 46-year-old Cocoa Beach, Florida native holds damn near every record there is to hold in surfing. His 55 career CT victories are easily tops all-time and his 11 world titles are more than twice the amount any other surfer has, a seemingly unassailable record in line with Cal Ripken's ironman streak in baseball.
But nobody is unbeatable. And for three years at the turn of the century, Andy Irons showed surf fans across the globe that Goliath could, in fact, be defeated.
When Kelly Slater joined what was then the ASP World Tour in 1990, his arrival heralded a new era of competitive surfer. He surfed in a way never before seen. He incorporated unparalleled tube riding abilities with intentional fin release, above-the-lip artistry and an aerial game to set the surfing world on its ear. He won his first world title at the tender age of 20 in 1992 and then ticked off five straight titles from 1994-1998 before retiring from the tour at age 26 when he became bored with the tour.
By that time, Slater was a household name. He had modeled for Versace. His band, The Surfers, had opened for Pearl Jam. He had starred in a season of Baywatch and had a very public romance with Pamela Anderson. He could often be seen on the golf course with movie stars. He was, in short, the all-American surf star.
But every true sporting star must have his or her foil. And Slater found that in Andy.
After four years of retirement, Slater saw a new crop of talent coming into the pro ranks headlined by Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson and–most notably–Andy Irons, and decided to rejoin the tour full-time in 2002. This just happened to coincide with Irons kicking his surfing game into a whole new gear.
"I'm not sure what brought me back on tour," Slater told TGR. "A lot of people like to try to romanticize it and say it was trying to beat Andy, but it had nothing to do with Andy 'cause, to be honest, I wasn't aware of Andy as a threat at that point ... Andy got on tour in '99 and fell off that first year so I think he just had some stuff to learn. And then something stoked that fire and he finally figured it out ... I don't know what it was that clicked for Andy but all of a sudden he was the guy that you couldn't beat."
While Slater might not have initially thought of Irons as a threat when he came out of retirement, he quickly realized as their rivalry became supercharged.
Irons won three straight world titles from 2002 to 2004, and he didn't just win them, he let the world know he won them. If Slater was the polished king, Irons was the brash phenom who had no problem telling him he was coming for the crown.
"Competition in surfing is pretty pedestrian and gentlemanly," Sal Masekela told TGR about the birth of the rivalry. "It's almost frowned upon for things to get flared up.... and now here's this kid from Kauai who's like, 'You're my hero, but I'm not gonna worship you and I'm gonna take it to you.' It brought out a fire in Andy, the depth of the fire in Andy, that we hadn't seen before. And also Kelly had never seen that. Kelly, prior to that, he got off tour because he was essentially bored ... And here's this kid, this young, young angry Jedi who's not having it. Kelly didn't know how to deal with that at first. And it was the first time you saw Kelly visibly rattled and not able to just do the thing that he does."
The rivalry became so heated it began to spill over into the mainstream. The New York Times took note of it. ESPN paid attention. Competition heats between the two were filled with real, visible tension between the two. And surfing fans across the globe had to choose one or the other.
"All of a sudden we had, for the first time in a long time, something that maybe resembled the old Laker/Celtics rivalries where there was a line drawn in the sand," said Masekela. "It was like Biggie and Tupac. You were either west coast hip-hop guy or an east coast hip-hop guy, and you had to sort of pick a side. Even if you quietly liked Tupac, if you were a Biggie fan, you didn't say that in the streets. I think that's what it was in surfing."
It culminated with the 2003 ASP World Tour, still the single greatest title race in surfing history, when either Irons or Slater combined to win 9 of the final 10 contests with the world title hanging in the balance at the season's final event: the Billabong Pipemasters.
Irons ultimately won the final in front of a raucous home crowd, became the first Hawaiian to ever repeat as a world champion–truly earning his title of "The People's Champion"–and put his stamp on the greatest rivalry the sport has, and likely will, ever see.