The 10 Greatest World Title Showdowns In Surfing History – Part 2
By Sean Doherty
With just one full day of competition between us and the crowning of a World Champion, Sean Doherty analyses the 5 greatest World Title showdowns in history.
5. KELLY SLATER, 1995
The symbolism ushered in a new era of brotherly love on tour. Here was Rob Machado flying out of the Pipeline barrel and high-fiving good friend Kelly Slater, halfway through a heat that would win one of them the World Title. They should, for all intents and purposes, be trying to kill each other, but in the new spirit of the times were bro-ing down at this most critical and bloodthirsty of junctures. Tour surfers from the ‘80s and ‘90s – where spearing each other in the head with your board was a scoring move in the ASP rulebook – were leaving the beach in disgust at this wanton display of sportsmanship.
The real story at Pipeline in 1995 however had unfolded a few days before. Sunny Garcia was leading the ratings going into Pipe – leading with daylight in second place. Everyone in the islands wanted Sunny to win, and as a result everyone he surfed against in the event also thought Sunny winning was a good idea. It started with Sunny drawn against Gerry Lopez and Ross Williams in the first round. Sunny got a saloon passage, including Gerry losing on a double interference. That interference – the second one being scored in the dying seconds – would prove crucial. If Gerry hadn’t dropped in a second time he would have progressed, and as the lowest seed would have met Sunny again in the next round, where you’d imagine he’d have given Sunny a clean run at the heat. Instead Sunny was drawn against the next lowest seed – Occy. On the verge of his comeback Occ was torn – he was close with Sunny, but at the same time he was trying to resurrect his career. Occ did his best to lose the heat, but the harder he tried to lose the better he surfed. Sunny snapped a leggie and swam for a lot of the heat. It was the kind of situation that could only happen to Occ, and when the siren went Occ was gutted. He’d won, and Sunny’s first World Title had evaporated.
Occ then surfed all the way to the final, where he was drawn against Kelly, who’d just beaten Machado but still had to win the final to take the World Title. Occ snapped his board early, and his caddy – Joel Fitzgerald – ran down the beach with Occ’s back up board… without a leggie. It was a vintage Fitzgerald soul move and it worked. Occ hung onto his board for grim death inside a Pipe barrel to score a nine, and in the dying seconds he pulled into what would have been the winning wave, only to get clipped on the Ehukai sandbar. Kelly was king again, Occ was back, and Sunny would have to wait another five years for his Title.
4. DAMIEN HARDMAN, 1987
It was, as they called it in the ‘80s, a promoter’s dream. The final event of the season was the Coke Classic at Manly, and there were four guys still in with a shot at the Title… and they were all Aussies. The dayglow might have been fading and the era of the beachbreak contest was coming to a close, but there was still one last great show to be staged for all those bums on seats.
On the hill at Queenscliff the Manly boys jostled with the Narra and Newport boys, as Barton Lynch, Damien Hardman and Tom Carroll were set to battle Kong Elkerton for the World Title. The energy on the beach at Queenscliff however wasn’t exactly matched by the ocean, with Queenscliff serving up some sludgy two-to-three footers for finals day. Tom Carroll went out first, losing to Barton in the quarters, who then subsequently lost to Tom Curren in the semis, his dream of a World Title on his home beach scuppered. The beach literally fell silent… with the exception of the guys from Narrabeen who seemed pretty chuffed with this new development. “That really for me was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my career,” BL reflects. “I thought it was my destiny to win the World Title on my home beach in front of my family and friends. That’s the way the script was supposed to go. I felt it as the year went on, but I just crumbled under the pressure for the second time.”
As Daryl Eastlake erupted like Krakatoa on the live Channel 9 broadcast, Elko paddled out against Dooma in the second semi that would decide the Title. It was all so 1980s. Elko was wearing a white short arm steamer, while Dooma paddled out in a tubesuit and surfed a board with double deck grip, looking like he was going to a fancy dress party in 2013 dressed as Damien Hardman in 1987. Elko – who’d dropped the “Kong” tag earlier in the year in the name of professionalism – wished the tour was still wrapping up in Hawaii as he struggled in the chest-high rights. Dooma meanwhile, turned on the backhand windscreen wiper and never looked like losing. In an era with wall-to-wall superstars (think who wasn’t in the World Title mix that year but surfed on tour, Pottz, Curren, Occy) Dooma had done what Dooma did best. He’d won. As the banner being waved on the hill by his Narrabeen mates said, “He’s a Hardman to beat.”
3. CJ HOBGOOD, 2001
This day was madder than a bag of syphilitic cats. While most of the entries in this list celebrate some kind of come-from-the-clouds heroics or moments imbued with a deep pathos, this World Title was precipitated by a disaster, then decided with a series of calamities, screw-ups and chokes. It almost appeared the goal of the whole thing was to actually lose this World Title.
The Rip Curl Cup at Sunset Beach was the fifth and final event of a tour that had been cut short by the September 11 attacks. Even the Hawaiian leg (minus Pipe which wasn’t a tour event in 2001) was in danger of being abandoned and was only called on at the last minute. As a result, heading into it there were nine – yes, nine – guys in with a shot at the Title, and all nine would lose in one of the most batshit crazy days pro surfing has ever seen.
Ratings leader CJ Hobgood was the first to go, losing to Sunset specialist Myles Padaca. Ceej, 22 at the time, took off down to surf Pipe, convinced he’d butchered a gilded shot at a World Title. But then they fell like dominoes, and the other eight challengers would all lose within the space of six hours. It was dubbed by those watching it as “The Sunset Massacre”. Most of the guys who’d lose, including three World Champions, would lose to obscure guys from the back end of the ratings – Russell Winter, Renan Rocha, Ben Bourgeois amongst them. And it wasn’t like the surf was patchy – Sunset was six-to-eight feet and running all the way to the Bowl – but as Sunset has a habit of doing, it threw everyone’s game plans out the window.
Occy and Andy went first. Then Sunny. He was followed by Cory Lopez and Taylor Knox. Powelly and Jake Pato went soon after. And by late in the afternoon only Danny Wills was left with a chance to take the title from CJ. By that stage though you’d seen enough madness go down that you almost knew Willsy was somehow going to find a way lose his heat against Ben Bourgeois, which is exactly what happened. CJ, who’d been crying in the channel earlier that morning when he’d bombed out, was now crying tears of joy. “I was getting ready to go surf at Pipe, thinking whatever happens, happens, and then they called and told me I should probably come back down here.” Holding the trophy and reflecting on one strange old day, he said, “Brother, the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
2. BARTON LYNCH, 1988
“This was my life playing out right before my eyes in these huge, crazy waves.”
Barton Lynch might have dreamt of this day as a kid, but when he walked down the beach on the morning of January 4, 1989, he didn’t dare that it might actually be happening. The Billabong Pro was the final event of the season, it was mobile across the whole North Shore, and it didn’t disappoint. Pipe pumped on finals day – eight-to-12 and trade-brushed all day long. Tom Carroll was a runaway leader in the ratings, and with Pipe being his spot, was expected to cakewalk it home. Tom’s problem, however, were the waves were too good. In his heat against Floridian Todd Holland he tried to catch all of them, including a wave Todd was already surfing. All Tom did was paddle for it, but the rules were far more Draconian back then and TC was out of the contest on a priority interference. Everyone on the beach was stunned. He’d drowned in honey.
Dooma Hardman was still in the mix but got taken out by Occy, leaving only Lynch, whose Title chances were still mathematical at best – he needed to make the final, and while his pedigree in beachbreak events was impeccable, he had no real history at Pipe. But BL strapped on his yellow Gath helmet, ignored history, paddled out and got tubed out of his mind. He sewed up the World Title when he beat Glen Winton in the semis, then for good measure rolled through and took out the final against a young Luke Egan. Having lost the World Title the previous year on his home beach of Manly to now win on surfing’s biggest stage in perfect waves delivered him both a perfect moment in time and one huge cosmic square-up. “It was just lucky my destiny had Pipeline waiting around the corner for me. Manly or Pipeline? I wasn’t too unhappy in the long run.”
1. ANDY IRONS, 2003
Easy decision this, as a decade on Andy Irons’ win at Pipeline in 2003 remains the gold standard of World Title deciders. This time it wasn’t the rating points nor the waves nor the quirks of fate that have made other deciders so compelling… this one had feeling. Real feeling. This one had heart and fire and a blood feud that took years to cool. This was Andy and Kelly, the two biggest surfers of their (or any) generation). And this time while there would be professions of love, there would certainly be no high-fiving.
Before the war broke out – before even the cold war – it all started with a conversation. Mick Fanning, who was staying with Andy in Hawaii that year, recalls Andy confessing to him one morning as they drove the five minutes up the road to Sunset Beach that he thought Kelly was too far ahead in the ratings and couldn’t be caught. Mick pointed out that with two events left – Sunset and Pipe – Andy was actually closer than he thought. Andy’s eyes glazed over. He paddled out at Sunset that morning and duckdived a 12-foot, 12-wave west set without losing a yard. In fact he made ground on it. Mick got washed to Kammies, and recalled, “Then and there I knew he was going to win the World Title.” Kelly bombed out at Sunset, and as Andy paddled past him in the Sunset channel immediately after, said, “Yousooooooo left the door open, brah!” Andy finished second at Sunset, setting up Pipe as the decider.
The cold war began. One morning Kelly walked into Andy’s house at Off The Wall, looking for a friend who he thought was staying there to go play golf. Kelly left and Andy imploded. Kelly had done it on purpose. Mick Fanning recalls Andy storming into his room, letting out a series of gutteral “Fwaaaaarrrrkk”s and steaming the paint from the walls. Kelly started surfing out the front of Andy’s in a white wetsuit. Real or imagined, for Andy this was now war. After 22 years Bruce Irons finally got two weeks break as Andy swung his focus squarely over to Kelly, who was in a different place altogether. Kelly’s father had passed away not long before, he was fresh back from a three-year hiatus from tour, and he was searching for the sort of emotional equilibrium a World Title might provide.
It came down to Pipe and then – almost by fate – it came down to the final. Whoever finished highest would take the Title. Kelly famously walked over to Andy on the shore before they paddled out, put an arm around him and said, “I love you, man,” Andy was momentarily discombobulated, unsure how to react, before deciding it was some form of chicanery and paddled out with a red mist settling over the lineup. It was a four-man final with Parko and Phil McDonald also paddling out, both of whom were firmly in Andy’s camp. In fact, the clutch moment of the final belonged to Parko. He took the wave of the final, but took off deep, too deep, and kicked out only after making sure Kelly couldn’t catch it. The wave was a 10. The wave was a World Title. Instead, late in the final Andy hustled inside Kelly and caught the winning wave on Backdoor. The siren sounded, the Hawaiian crowd erupted, and Andy was chaired straight up to the Volcom house. Kelly, meanwhile, stood under the shower in the Johnson’s backyard and wept.
The greatest World Title was settled as the greatest rivalry in modern surfing was born.
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