Encounters With Andy Irons And Kelly Slater During Their Historic Rivalry
Brushes with greatness.
Florianopolis, Brazil November 2005
I knew going to the Billabong house was a bad idea.
It was late. No one had invited us. But Sherm—famed photographer, Steve Sherman—tried to reassure me.
“It’s all good,” Sherm said. “We’ll just stop by and say hi to the boys.”
Sherm and I were both in Brazil working for Quiksilver, and we were on our way to the HQ of the brand’s biggest competitor. Enemy territory.
Sherm, with his Che Guevara buttons, chain wallet, trademark ranger's hats and Doc Marten boots, fashioned himself as a Vietnam era photojournalist. He loved the idea of going—in the spirit of Apocalypse Now—up-river.
But it scared the shit out of me.
We drove up a small hill and parked near the front of a large mansion that Billabong had rented out for its A Team: Andy Irons, Joel Parkinson, Taj Burrow and Mark Occhilupo.
The door was open, so we just walked in. Andy was on us straight away.
Breathing fire, he lit into Sherm.
“I know why you’re in Brazil,” he said. “You’re fucking here to shoot Kelly!” Sherm started talking fast, trying to calm him down.
“No, no, no, it’s not like that,” said Sherm.
“Bullshit! Don’t lie to me Sherm!” Andy shot back. “Quiksilver is paying you to be here.”
I didn’t know what to do if Sherm got punched. Did he expect me to step in and defend him from Andy Irons? 3x time world champ, Andy Irons? The Wolfpak's Andy Irons?
Because honestly, I had no business being there.
Here I was, former substitute teacher-turned glorified intern, now somehow on the front lines of the most exciting World Title race in the history of pro surfing: The full-on war between three-time world champion Andy Irons and then-six-time champ Kelly Slater.
I sat down on a small couch, tried to avert my gaze as Sherm and Andy’s argument moved into the kitchen. No smartphone to distract me. No one else to talk to—I just sat there.
“Andy, it’s not like that,” said Sherm. “I love you, bro. We did that Mr. President shoot for you. That was my idea!”
Sherm was the photo editor Surfing at the time, and was referring to a cover shoot they did, where Sherms had dressed Andy up to look like a president.
Sherm kept talking, but Andy wasn’t buying it.
He knew the truth and the truth was that Quiksilver was set to handsomely reward Sherm with a full buyout of a handful of images he’d shoot here, of Kelly clinching his long-awaited seventh crown at the Nova Schin Pro.
I knew that because I helped him get the deal.
I listened to them, but didn’t say a word. Andy was tiring of the bullshit. He looked away from Sherm and right at me.
“And who the fuck are you?”
I froze. I was wearing a Quiksilver t-shirt.
Andy had been sponsored by the brand as a kid and still had bad blood for them. The fact that Kelly was their number one guy made it all the worse.
Andy had seen me at Quiksilver events that fall in Japan, Trestles, and France. We had talked, hung out a bit, but I couldn’t tell if he remembered me. I was one of thousands of people he’d casually come across around the world on tour.
Andy stood over me. His eyes looked tired, bloodshot. I don’t think he’d slept in a while.
“I’m working here, for Surfing Magazine,” I said, which was not a total lie. (I was moonlighting as a freelancer for them. No one in the surf industry in those days cared that my “journalism” was a flagrant conflict of interest.)
The truth was, I was there for Kelly — had a surfboard bag filled with “Congratulations Kelly!” T-shirts, hats, and foam fingers sitting surreptitiously in my hotel room. I was to pass the swag out on beach the moment Slater cliched the thing.
If Kelly clinched the thing. Because Andy Irons certainly wasn’t going down without a fight.
Andy looked me over. I think I saw on his face some sense of recognition: he knew who I was. He wasn’t happy I was in Brazil, or there in the house, but he also knew, without words, I didn’t want to be there, either.
Maybe he felt sorry for me. He was a tough guy, but not a bully. On this night, he would bark at Sherm and me, but not bite.
“Fuck Surfing Magazine,” Andy said before he walked away. “And fuck you, too.”
2005 was by no means the Golden Age of the sport.
Watching Lee Winkler square up against Trent Munro in 3 foot waves at Phillip Island over a stuttering, pixelated live webcast in an office cubicle must never be equated to the misty, watercolored memories of say, being on the rocks at Lennox with Nat Young and Bob McTavish, when they ushered in the shortboard revolution, during the Summer of Love.
The 2005 Association of Surfing Professionals Tour wasn’t actually all that professional. It was loud, proud, a little unhinged—especially compared to the well-oiled machine of the World Surf League today.
Pros were human billboards, draped head to toe in sponsor’s latest gear. You’d see them walking to their heats in shoes, shorts, shirts, hoodies, sunglasses, hats, towels and surfboards that were plastered with giant logos.
The brands ruled. They owned the athletes, they owned the ASP Tour and they were making money everywhere.
Quiksilver, in February 2005, was valued at over 2 billion dollars on the NYSE.
Hurley was an upstart, and Rip Curl had a rising young star in Mick Fanning— but Quiksilver and Billabong were the titans of the day.
Billabong’s A-Team was stacked with the Trilogy: Irons, Parkinson and Burrow.
Quik stood on the broad shoulders of Slater coupled with the creative brilliance of its “Young Guns” squad: Dane Reynolds, Clay Marzo, Julian Wilson and Ry Craike.
What made 2005 special, though, wasn’t money, fame or commercialism, it was Kelly and Andy: The human drama of two transcendent talents going head to head, their contrasting looks, charisma, polar opposite personalities...
But what made the rivalry over the top—once in a lifetime, really—was that they couldn’t stand each other.
That was the best part.
If you were a surf fan in 2005, especially if you were a surf fan working in the surf industry in 2005, you were either Team Kelly or Team Andy. You had to choose sides. You wanted to.
If you were from California or Florida, were clean cut, worked at Quiksilver, liked to play golf with the boys, listened Pearl Jam - you were Team Kelly. If you were from Hawaii or Australia, were a little rough around the edges, worked at Billabong, liked to play “Call of Duty” with the boys, listened to Mickey Avalon—you were Team Andy.
Party lines were simple and that’s what made it fun.
The 2005 ASP Tour featured 10 events. Kelly and Andy won 6 of them. They were, without question, the best surfers in world, and that year they were both at their peak. Their heats were required viewing, controversial judging calls from their finals are still being debated around the world.
Everything would change so fast after that. One would rise higher and higher, while the other would climb and tragically fall. The industry that fed them both would implode. The game would never be the same.
Life on tour then was still rock n’roll, a time before personal coaches, trainers, filmers, chefs, vegan diets. No one lived in a bubble. Everyone stayed in same houses and hotels, surfed the same waves, ate in the same restaurants, partied in the same bars and nightclubs.
Gossip and innuendo ran wild, but there was zero public documentation of the shenanigans.
Cell phones didn’t have cameras. Social media didn’t exist, which meant there were few if any consequences for bad behavior.
Guys could rage, get drunk, do drugs, crash rental cars, get in fights, hook up with groupies, sleep on the beach, miss their heats…and nothing would happen.
Kelly Slater had left this world behind in 1998. Growing up in Florida—with a single mom struggling to make ends meet and not wanting to be like his alcoholic father—Slater developed a relentlessly driven, competitive and sober personality.
Kelly won six world titles by the time he was 26. Then he was over it. The schedule was packed with contests all of the world, held in mostly shitty beach breaks. He wanted to chase waves, make movies, play golf and pursue business ventures.
Then Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew’s Dream Tour drew him back. Rabbit took over as president and CEO of the ASP and convinced the brands to put on events at Snapper Rocks, Tavarua, Teahupo’o, Jeffrey’s Bay and Mundaka. “Best surfers, best waves” was the new (and unquestionably better) formula.
Kelly returned to tour in 2002 where he promptly ran into a buzz saw in Irons.
Irons grew up surfing much better waves than Kelly, but his Kauai upbringing was just as humble and difficult. He arrived on tour in 1998 as a wild and angry young man. He nearly died from a drug overdose on an Indonesian boat trip a year later, fell off tour, then clawed his way back.
Four years later he had honed that aggression and raw talent into a contest act that was second to none. Kelly had never come across someone more confident, focused and ruthlessly competitive than himself.
Kelly got smoked.
Irons ran away with the title in 2002.
Slater hit back in 2003, winning Tahiti, J-Bay, Spain and Brazil. Irons countered with victories at Bells, Fiji, Japan and France. It was exciting! Kelly went to the last two events in Hawaii with a lead. He lost early at Sunset, but made the final against Irons at Pipeline.
Before they paddled out, Slater famously said to Irons “I love you.” A film camera caught the exchange with no audio. As Slater mouthed the words, Irons frowned and pulled away.
Whether it was a psych out or a sincere attempt at affection or a weird combination of the two didn’t matter.
Kelly got smoked again. Andy was the undisputed champ.
Slater, reeling from the fall out from the defeat and the death of his father, was a shell of himself in 2004. He was no match for a seemingly unbeatable Irons.
In 2005, Slater got off to the worst start of his career. He lost on the Gold Coast to Chris Ward in the quarterfinals, and to rookie Bede Durbidge in Round 3 at Bells. Not only was he losing, he was going to down to surfers he’d normally beat with ease. At 33, he was long past the age when most of his heroes had started to slip.
Irons, meanwhile, was riding high. He took second at Bells and had ratings lead once again.
One wave in Tahiti changed everything for Kelly.
On a rainy day, he was losing again, this time in the early rounds to Andy’s uber talented brother Bruce. The surf was lully, inconsistent, but every once in a while a gem would roll through. Kelly caught a bomb and looked nonchalant as he paddled into it. He realized his mistake at the bottom. He was on a screamer. He nearly fell backwards head over heels on his bottom turn, but somehow corrected, set his line and grabbed his rail. He disappeared into the tube and looked impossibly deep. While racing for an exit something clicked in his brain. He’d been doing everything wrong - holding on too tight, buckling under pressure. He needed to let go of his hurt, disappointment and fear of getting older.
His inner mystic unleashed, Kelly burst through that barrel to the screams of the spectators in the channel.
“Sometimes,” he said to me later. “A wave like this just happens.”
He went on a roll, scored two tens in the final and even celebrated in an uncharacteristic way by chugging a Hinano beer in the tube on his last wave. A few weeks later, he backed it up with another win in epic waves in Fiji. Suddenly now he was back on top and it was Andy’s turn to hit back.
In magical surf at Jeffrey’s Bay, Slater and Irons were both in peak form. It seemed preordained that they would meet in the final. The conditions unfortunately fell apart when they hit the water. In tricky onshore surf, Irons built a healthy lead. Slater had one final chance at the end. With time running out he followed the path of a dolphin up the point and became convinced that it was leading him to the spot to catch the best wave of the heat.
The wave arrived on cue and Kelly paddled into it. He needed a 9 and surfed it precisely and patiently, he set up a long closing floater that would clearly seal the deal and…fell. The ride, especially by today’s high-fi standards, was hardly worthy of the requirement, but in 2005 it was.
Kelly got the score, the win and Andy…
….Andy got angry.
At the next event in Japan, he showed up dressed for the occasion in his new signature Billabong Andy Irons “Rising Sun” board shorts and demolished everyone who came up against him.
Kelly survived a few close early round heats and built a small lead against Andy in the final. Near the end, the biggest wave of the contest appeared on the horizon and Andy had priority. He caught it, threaded a long tube and then smashed the end section. No controversy this time. Andy won fair and square.
I was there for that one. I ran into Andy and Taj Burrow having dinner and a pitcher of beer at the Denny’s near the contest site. I was freelancing for Quiksilver to create website content and as a perk had gotten the nod at the Quik events on tour. Japan was my first one.
From a distance, I waved hi at Andy. He was basking in the afterglow of his win.
“Hey,” Andy said to me. “You were working at the contest, right? Do you know where Kelly’s staying.”
“Yeah, at the big hotel up on the hill behind here,” I replied.
“Is there a party there tonight?”
“I think there probably is, yes. You guys want to go?”
We got a cab and headed up the hill to the hotel.
Kelly and Andy’s dislike for each other was no secret. They’d sniped at each other in magazine articles and had even come to blows after exchanging insults on a boat ride to Tavarua.
We got to the lobby and headed to the top floor, where a party was in full swing in the penthouse suite. Kelly was there along with some Quik executives, marketing guys, and Taylor Knox.
I arrived with Andy Irons and Taj Burrow and waited for someone to ask me, “why the fuck did you bring them here?”
To my surprise no one did. A funny thing happened. Andy and Kelly shook hands. They even hugged.
Kelly congratulated him and then they sat down in a corner of the room, just the two of them.
They spent the next four hours talking to each other.
The next morning I thought about the night and didn’t know what to make of it. No one did. These were two of the most competitive guys on the planet. They wanted to rip out each other’s throats. But they also needed each other to be as good as they could possibly be. They knew how special it was for them to surf as well as they could against each other. They fed off the rivalry. It made them both better.
Andy tended to run hot and cold and he lost early at the next event at Trestles. Kelly took advantage and won again. Heading into France, Kelly was in the lead and that’s when things got weird.
The European leg had been the been the wildest stage of the tour for over 20 years. The Hossegor area in particular was where everyone would let their hair down.
In 2004, a Cuban smuggling boat pushed five tons of cocaine overboard while being chased by the Coast Guard. All that blow washed up on shore and tore through the surf community.
The effects were still being felt a year later when the circus rolled into town. The bars and discos in the central square were packed every night and the surf was pumping. The early rounds were held in 10 foot glorified (and glorious) shorebreak.
In the late afternoon on the second day of the event, Andy fell behind in Round 2 to Kiwi journeyman Maz Quinn. Venerable tour statistician, Al Hunt, did the math and told everyone that Kelly would win the title right then if Andy went down.
There was suddenly a flurry of activity. Champagne was brought in. Plans for a victory party and press conference were hastily arranged. A group of people crowded around Kelly, wanting to be part of the moment when he won.
“So many people were in my face. Everyone wanted my reaction, the first picture, and that energy made it not happen,” said Kelly later.
Andy found an eight point ride in the dying minutes of the heat and regained the lead. On the beach, he heard about what happened and took particular offense to the champagne. That was all the fuel he needed for his fire. He rampaged through the rest of the event and won going away.
“Merci BEAUCOUP!” He bellowed to the huge crowd on stage during the awards. “I heard Quiksilver brought a bunch of Champagne here thinking that Kelly was going to win. Guess they’ll have to keep that champagne on ice.”
Now it was Kelly’s turn to be rattled. He wasn’t the “letting go” guy anymore. He was holding on. He was clearly worried the Andy was going to steal the title from him again, just like had done in 2003.
Kelly showed up alone at the Hossegor party zone after the final. I had been casual golf buddies with him for a few years and was on asignment in France writing a “7 days with” profile on him there for Surfing. Sherm and I had spent a couple weeks in Europe, trying and mostly failing to get some time with him for an interview and portrait. But now Kelly was ready to talk.
That night, which ended around 4:30 in the morning, Kelly decided to hitch-hike alone from the Safari Club, to the guest house of the late Pierre Agnes, where he was staying a few miles away.
I didn’t see Kelly again until a few weeks later in Brazil. The surf forecast was terrible and he got mobbed by fans everywhere he went. He spent 90 percent of his time holed up in a house rented to him by Flavio Padaratz, playing guitar and reading on the internet.
Andy meanwhile was doing his thing at the Billabong house. It was clear to Sherm and I that both of them were losing their minds in their own individual ways. The build up, the pressure, the emotion, the media, the constant questions… were dragging them down.
Andy was the People’s Champ. He had close friends with him at all times. He wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was raw and plainspoken. He partied hard and surfed harder.
Kelly was more of a loner, smooth and magnanimous in public, but often guarded and aloof in private. He could coolly and analytically break down his wins and losses, but seemed much less confident and in control in his personal life than he let on.
After a week of laydays, the contest finally got going and Kelly promptly lost to South African Travis Logie. He wanted to leave the beach - unwilling to again suffer the nausea of helplessly watching Andy roll through heats like he did France.
“I thought, oh my god, this is happening again,” said Kelly. “I was sure he was going to win that contest."
Fellow Floridan CJ Hobgood convinced him to stay by employing a nifty bit of reverse psychology. He told Kelly it would actually be better if Andy won here and the race went to the final event at Pipeline.
“Nobody wants to see this go down here,” he said. “They want it to happen at Pipeline, in good waves, with everyone watching."
Kelly, ever the showman, realized he was right. He’d waited seven years for this. He could handle one more month. It would be better for him to get his long awaited title at perfect barrels than in sloppy two foot beach break.
But as Nathan Hedge approached Kelly before his upcoming heat against Andy, he had a wildly confident look in his eye.
“This is going down right here, right now,” said Hedge. “No way is Andy winning this heat.”
Kelly watched from the competitors’ area with the hood on his sweatshirt pulled over his entire face. The cameras gathered below could only see the bright green of Kelly’s eyes as the heat ended with Hedgey making good on his promise.
I ran to Sherm’s rental car and grabbed the swag from the surfboard bag. The Brazilian fans immediately donned the hats and the shirts, but had no idea what to do with the foam fingers. I tried to show them how to wave them in the air. Most of them ended up on the beach.
Kelly cried and called his mom. To this day he says that his 7th title was by far the most special of the 11 that he’s won.
I interviewed him a few weeks later on camera in Hawaii. My boss at Quiksilver, Greg Macias, knew I had a film background and wanted me to be a part of a “promo DVD” the brand was making on the 2005 season.
The interview lasted for over four hours. Kelly wanted to rehash every moment of the year - relive it all.
His publicist interrupted a few times because we’d gone long over the allotted time and he had other media commitments that day.
Kelly didn’t care. He kept going until he’d said everything he needed to say.
That interview became the basis for the “Letting Go.” I spent that winter in Hawaii tracking down the other key people involved in that title race to appear on camera. No one, of course, was more important than Andy. I reached out to his people as asked him for an interview, but was turned down.
A few days later, I was walking on the bike path towards Pipeline and saw Andy with Lyndie near the Billabong house. I introduced myself to him and gave him my best pitch.
“We really need your side of the story in the film,” I said. “Otherwise it’s all Kelly”
“That’s the Quiksilver project?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied meekly. “But we want it to be honest. If you’re not in it, we’re missing half of the story.”
“Not interested,” he said as he walked away.
I didn’t talk to Andy again until 2007, when I was in France working on the Clay Marzo film, “Just Add Water.” I asked him if he wanted to do an interview about Clay, and to my surprise, he jumped at the opportunity.
“That Kelly movie sucked,” he said. “But I love Marzo.”
Andy gave me an amazing interview. The next day, the tape of it was stolen, along with a video camera from one of the filmer’s car. Gone forever. I sheepishly explained to Andy what happened when I saw him at the surf contest.
“I really opened up in that interview," he said. “But I’m happy to do it again.”
He was even better on camera the second time.
I randomly ran into Andy a couple years later at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Andy was there snowboarding with Lyndie and friends.
When I walked in the door he looked at me and said, “Hey, I know you. How do I know you?”
I explained how’d we met in 2005 and how much I appreciated what he did for the Clay movie in 2007.
“I loved the Clay movie,” he said. “It’s so rad that you put it out there that he has Asperger’s. I’m bi-polar, but I’ve never admitted it publicly.”
I talked to Andy for awhile about what he was going through. He was open and honest. We laughed about that night with Sherm in Brazil.
“I never would have punched you guys,” he said.
I got the sense that deep down Andy was someone who wanted to be loved. He hated the way he got turned into the villain of the rivalry story. It gnawed at him, twisted his guts.
Yes, he was flawed, sometimes angry, self destructive, but he had a heart that was big—maybe too big for him to handle, and which failed him in a Dallas hotel room a year later.