Bad-Mouthing, Board Stabbing & Fist Fights in the Water: These Are The Greatest Rivalries Surfing Has Ever Seen
Can you be best mates but hate each other at the same time? These pro surfers think so...
From battling for the world title to surfing the world's biggest wave, the path to success has never been easy. There's always some bastard getting in your way, stopping you from reaching the top - nowhere more so than in surfing.
So here they are - the greatest rivalries to ever grace the world of surfing...
Mark Richards and Cheyne Horan
From 1979 to 1982, Australian Mark Richards won four consecutive word titles. Until Kelly Slater arrived, he was acknowledged as the best competitive surfer in the history of the sport.
However each year Mark Richards won, the runner-up trophy was given to his great Australian rival Cheyne Horan. This was the formative days of pro surfing and even to this day Horan claims that some of his losses were dubious.
"In both years, Horan lost the world title by a tiny amount of points... and never recovered"
In 1979 in Hawaii, one of Horan's heats was called in early and in the Bells Beach final in 1981, it was universally agreed that he won the final over Simon Anderson, but wasn’t given the result by the judges.
In both those years, Horan lost the world title by a tiny amount of points, the closeness of the race further heightening the competitive tension between the two.
Richards retired after his 4th world title, while Horan never recovered from his narrow four losses.
Mark Occhilupo and Tom Curren
As with most rivalries they tend to arise between two very different personalities. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, surfing’s most talked about battles occurred between Tom Curren and Mark Occhilupo.
Curren was the smooth natural footer from California whose mellow and aloof act on land didn’t hide his fierce competitiveness in water. Occy was a powerful gooyfooter whose childlike exuberance and flamboyance couldn’t have been more different to Curren’s.
The battle reached its high point in 1986 in the semifinal of the Rip Curl Pro, a contest dubbed the best heat in professional surfing, with both surfers pushing themselves to produce remarkable performances.
Curren would win that heat and go onto to win the World Title, but the two very different surfer’s intense rivalry pushed surfing in a whole new direction.
“We weren’t friends, but we weren’t enemies either," Occy told Mpora recently. “But when we put the contest singlets on, we both knew we had to surf as good as we possibly could."
Kelly Slater and Andy Irons
Until Andy Irons arrived in professional surfing, no one came close to Kelly Slater for supernatural talent and competitive smarts. Again the difference between the two personalities fed their much hyped antagonism.
It was Slater with his good looks and articulated thoughts against Iron’s brash animal magnetism. The rivalry reached its peak between 2003 and 2005 when Slater couldn’t wrestle the title from Irons.
“I loved and hated the guy, but I probably only hated him because I envied what he was capable of"
“We wanted the same thing and knew the other was in the way." Slater would say later, summing it up simply. The end point was when Andy defend his title against Kelly at the Pipe Masters, winning with a wave on the buzzer.
After that high point Andy’s competitive desire drifted, while Slater’s stayed strong. However in that brief time, surfing had never seen a rivalry like it.
In a tribute to Andy after his death in 2011, Kelly said, “I loved and hated the guy, but I probably only hated him because I admired and envied what he was capable of."
Gabriel Medina and John John Florence
It’s early days, but you can sense the rivalry between Brazil’s Gabriel Medina and Hawaii’s John John Florence is one that will dominate the sport for the next decade.
Both in their early 20s, 2014 is the first year that both have been in contention for a World Title.
Again the differences between the two are marked. Florence has been a childhood prodigy that grew up in front of Pipeline and started surfing the wave aged six. Medina grew up a broken home and in the small beachbreaks of Brazil.
Through both possessing a once-in-a-generation talent, their careers and lives have dovetailed. A slow start to 2014 cost Florence a shot at the title, but as Medina could close in on his first (he will be the youngest since Kelly Slater) Florence’s performances meant it was obvious that it is these two surfers that will pushing each other, and the sport, for the next 15 years at least.
Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning
The two Coolangatta surfers were in the same 7th grade class and have been dueling it out in surf competitions since the age of 12.
They both announced themselves on the world stage as 18 year olds, with Mick Fanning winning the Rip Curl Pro as a wildcard and Parkinson doing the same at the Billabong Pro in Jeffreys Bay.
"He's one of my best mates, but that just means I want to beat him even more"
Two years later, they both qualified for the World Tour and have both been a fixture in the top five for the last 13 years. “I wouldn’t be where I am without Joel," Mick told Mpora, “we have been pushing each other since I can remember."
While both have claimed world titles (Mick with three and Joel one) they have remained the best of friends on land, but still fierce rivals in the water.
“Look he’s one of my best mates," said Parko, “but that just means I want to beat him even more. I still hate losing to Mick, always have."
Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo
Ken Bradshaw was the square jawed 6’2" Texan that built himself a reputation as one of the biggest chargers on the North Shore and one of its most intimidating enforcers.
Mark Foo, of Chinese extraction, was a slight, lightfooted bundle of energy who loved the limelight and made a name for himself surfing Hawaii’s biggest waves, especially Waimea Bay.
"I can't be at war with Mark Foo. If I wanted to go to war with somebody, they would cease to exist. I would win"
For over a decade, they waged a running battle of exposure and credibility, each vying for the mantle as the world’s best big wave rider. Their rivalry is chronicled in the excellent book Stealing The Wave by Andy Martin.
In it he says, “We talked of this and that, and then I said to him: 'Ken, I've heard rumours, is it right that you're at war with Mark Foo?'
He gave the question serious consideration. 'Andy,' he finally replied, in his most meditative, professorial style, 'I can't be at war with Mark Foo. If I wanted to go to war with somebody, they would cease to exist. I would win.'"
They would eventually reach some sort of truce. However, in a final tragic twist, Bradshaw was just one of the last people to see Foo before he drowned surfing the Californian big wave spot Mavericks in 1994.
Martin Potter and Brad Gerlach
The ongoing feud between Martin Potter and Brad Gerlach was revisited recently when the two surfed a heritage heat at the Hurley Pro at Trestles.
“I really hope Pottz has been training for this heat," Gerr said, “because while the hate maybe gone, I still plan to tear him apart at Trestles."
The hate can be traced back to the ‘80s, when the two had a running battle that featured an endless run of niggling, board stabbing, jersey tugging and paddle battling which eventually led to a physical confrontation in the water during competition.
"Years after he and I quit the tour, we ended up talking about how much we hated each other, but how it drove us to be better surfers," Gerr said recently. For the record, Gerr took out Pottz in the Heritage series heat and 20 years on after the rivalry reached its peak, embraced on the water’s edge.
Nat Young and David Nuuhiwa
This was a rivalry that started back in the ‘60s, but still has relevance today.
It was more than just two surfers as the antagonism was more symbolic. It stood for American vs Australia and old school vs new school, themes very much around today.
"The animosity between the Aussies and the Americans never really went away..."
Nuuhiwa's longboarding smooth, fluid style and noseriding was worshipped in California. When Australian Nat Young, nicknamed the Animal, used his rougher, more powerful and radical approach on a shorter board to beat Nuuhiwa in the 1966 World Championship in San Diego, a famous article by Australian John Witzig in Surfer magazine claimed “We’re Tops Now."
The animosity between the Aussies and the Americans never really went away with Gary Elkerton in the ‘80s labeling all American surfers, “soft cocks". In fact it was only Kelly Slater’s dominance that stopped the conversation.
Michael Peterson and Rabbit Bartholomew
For five years, Michael Peterson dominated professional surfing and was unbeaten in from 1972 to 1975. No one could come close to the enigmatic Australian whose blinding talent was matched with an impenetrable aura, more a result of drug abuse and undiagnosed schizophrenia than a planned act.
He had taken a young Rabbit Bartholomew under his wing, with the young upstart first learning from and then matching his brooding hero.
Their freesurfing and competitive battles were legendary and culminated in the 1977 Stubbies competition, the first ever man-on-man event, where Rabbit took out MP in the semifinal in perfect Burleigh Heads.
It was a heat that has gone into surfing folklore and signaled the demise of MP. He would retire from competition while his nemesis and student would claim the World Title the next year.
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