In the history of surfing–and in the outdoor sports industry as a whole–few, if any, rivalries have ever come close to matching the intensity that was Andy Irons versus Kelly Slater. And it wasn't just the competition in the water that made the rivalry burn so bright: Andy was vocal that he was gunning for the king.
"He’s had six world titles — it’s my turn,” Andy famously stated in the surfing documentary Blue Horizon. “My whole driving force right now is to take his little pretty picture and just crush it.”
Prior to Andy's emergence on scene, Slater had six world titles–including five straight from 1995-1999–and had then essentially quit the tour because he was bored of it. But a new crop of fresh talent–surfers like Mick Fanning and Andy and Joel Parkinson–had re-awakened the inner competitive spirit in Slater and drawn him back into contest surfing.
The problem with that was, Slater decided to return just as Andy was hitting his peak. And Andy wasn't afraid to let him know that.
"You couldn't not be aware of the rivalry between Kelly and Andy," Sal Masekela told TGR. "But to me, I never really understood it. I never understood it from the perspective of Andy and Kelly, 'cause I always knew that Kelly was Andy's favorite surfer. I mean I remember distinctly, in Andy's house, him having Kelly posters and talking about Kelly, talking about that I was friends with Kelly and how cool that was. But I think finally having somebody... I mean Andy decimated the field in 2002, decimated the field. And Kelly was also just getting his wheels back... Now Andy had someone who could go at him and push at him, and also it's the guy who's his hero. And he was competitive as a human could be. So, naturally, he was gonna go at Kelly."
There were multiple moments where the rivalry between the duo spilled over into more than just words to the press, the most storied of which came the day before the 2003 Pipe Masters event when Slater supposedly ignored the pecking order during a Pipeline freesurf and sent Irons into a frothing rage.
"If he knew something would get under my skin he'd do it, and if I knew something would get under his skin I'd do it," said Irons. "But with me it was more passive, with him it was more aggressive."
The duo both made it to the finals of Pipe Masters–Andy surfing like a man whose head was on fire, Slater surfing as methodical and surgical as ever. With the world title on the line, and Andy still fuming from the perceived lack of etiquette from Slater in the day prior to the event, Slater famously came up to Andy before the event, wrapped his arm around him and whispered a simple phrase.
""I love you, man," Slater said. "Good luck."
Irons was convinced that Slater–known for his mental battles with other competitors, was again trying to get under his skin and wouldn't have it. He surfed angry, won the contest and dethroned the king.
That was the second of Andy's three consecutive world titles and really signaled the height of their rivalry. In later years, the duo would grow rather close as friends, with Irons at one point confiding to Slater he wanted to make a movie about his struggles with bipolar disorder and asking if Slater would help him make that film.
But even then, as the two became close, there was always a little competitive fire.
"Even though we liked each other, aside from the contests especially in later years, '09 or 2010 or whatever, we liked each other and were friendly, we became more friends than competitors," Slater told TGR. "But there was still that little tinge of uncomfortableness, 'cause there was still that competitive edge to both of us."