Kelly Slater and Andy Irons

We could probably use more of this in pro surfing, eh? Photo: screenshot

The Inertia

Quick, think about the great individual sports rivalries: Ali and Frazier, Martina and Chris, Magic and Bird, McEnroe and Bjorn, Brady and Manning, Federer and Nadal…Igarashi and Fioravanti? Yeah, somehow doesn’t have the same ring to it. And it’s certainly by no fault of Kanoa and Leonardo, or any of the current crop of World Surf League competitors, men or woman, who apparently show little interest in fostering rivalries, but rather are much more focused on putting down enough seven-point rides in the early season’s events to avoid the dreaded mid-season cut. The fans and pro circuit-orientated media don’t contribute much, either; judged by coverage and comments, the only rivalry in competitive surfing today doesn’t include any surfers, but instead exists between the two aforementioned entities and the sport’s organizing body. Some have even personified the perceived rival, assigning the WSL a derisive nickname: the “Woz.”

Truth is, competitive surfing has never been blessed with many intense rivalries. Perhaps the closest thing to have almost qualified piped up in the mid-1960s, when, in response to a SURFER magazine feature touting California’s cadre of “high performance” surfers,
respected Australian surf journalist John Witzig stirred the tea cup with a deliberately provocative feature titled, “We’re Tops Now.” In no uncertain terms, Witzig, along with asserting that country’s surfing performance preeminence, attempted to gin up a rivalry between nose-riding maestro David Nuuhiwa and Down Under’s brash, “Power School” champion Nat Young.

“After our Nat Young completely dominated competition at the [1966] World Championships at San Diego, we might well have expected a more accurate assessment of California surfing than “The High Performers,” wrote Witzig, with not even thinly-veiled derision. “Yet not, since this history is indicative to an absolute degree of the California scene as a whole. Has everyone forgot that Nuuhiwa was beaten? Thrashed?”

Yeah, Witzig laid it out there, but it didn’t stick. Recall that 1967 and the “Summer of Love” was just around the corner, when this sort of nationalistic rabble-rousing would be replaced by a pervasive sense of collective brotherhood. Oh, competitive surfers still wanted to win their heats, and eventually a bit of prize money, but not by “thrashing’ their opponents, and certainly not by publicly asserting their dominance. Ask 1978 World Champion Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew how that worked out for him, when, after penning his own version of “We’re Tops Now” in a 1977 SURFER article titled “Bustin’ Down the Door,” he was met with considerable, let’s say, pushback when next arriving on the North Shore for the annual winter season. Back then, even alluding to a rivalry was taboo.

In a recent post, surfing historian Matt Warshaw pointed to a well-chronicled competitive match-up of the late-1970s, early 1980s that, paradoxically, we knew very little about.

“We knew Mark Richards and Cheyne Horan hated each other’s guts during their repeat world title battles,” wrote Warshaw, referring to MR’s four championships, and Horan’s four runner-up finishes. “We 100 percent did not know that Lynne Boyer and Margo Oberg also pretty much hated each other during the same period, when they too were in what amounted to a five-year world title cage match…The Oberg-Boyer rivalry was the first and best in women’s pro surfing history.”

Of course, when Warshaw uses the “we” he’s talking about the period’s pro surfing insiders and media types, the wider surfing public hardly perceiving the existence of a grudge match between MR and Cheyne. Perhaps that’s because during their respective reigns at the top of the ratings they never consistently met head-to-head in the finals. Take, for example, Australia’s venerable Bells Beach event, where during the entire period of his world title dominance – 1979-1982 – Richards never once faced Horan in the final, or even the semi-final. The best rivalries, it seems, require some sort of direct confrontation.

Looking at more modern surf history’s rivalries (and Sunny Garcia vs the Rest of The World doesn’t count) only one stands out – but it’s probably the sport’s greatest: Kelly Slater vs Andy Irons, two multi-world title winners who jousted like Knights of the Round Table throughout the late ‘90s, early 2000s. This is because their match-up checks all the boxes when establishing a true rivalry.

A recent study, published by the University of Memphis, offers a decidedly academic definition of rivalry in sport as “a fluctuating adversarial relationship existing between two teams, players, or groups of fans, gaining significance through on-field competition, on-field or off-field incidences, proximity, demographic makeup, and/or historical occurrences.”

Kelly and Andy: Check.

In another study from the same source titled “Rivalry and Performance: A Systematic Review and meta-analysis,” posits: “Rivalry is a unique and common type of competition in which the competing parties have a long-standing relationship.”

Kelly and Andy: Check.

And yet another study in the Sage Journal’s “Organizational Psychology Reviews” states: “When rivalry is present the competing actors have an increased desire to win and invest extra effort into the competition, leading to enhanced performance.”

Kelly and Andy: Check and check (and, like, duh.)

It just doesn’t seem like these two dislike each other enough. Photo: WSL

You don’t have to be a social scientist to understand how a legitimate rivalry leads to advancements in performance, especially in the realm of individual sports. But what about the fans? Do rivalries enhance their experience, as well? Don’t worry – they study that, too. Take the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures study titled “The Phenomena of Sports Rivalry on Fans,” for example, which though not applying its findings directly to fans of pro surfing, still illuminates much of their behavior.

“Within sport, rivalry can offer positive benefits such as the feeling of uniqueness and excitement for upcoming contests. Rivalry can also encourage people to consume the sport product, whether involving a favorite and rival team or a rival team against a third neutral team.
Rivalry also influences the way in which fans consume the sport product, and it can cause attendees to pay higher price premiums to attend a game.”

So, in conclusion, it appears that so far as pro surfing is concerned, rivalry is good for the competitors, good for fans, and good for event organizers, sponsors and various websites. So why aren’t there more? Or, in the case of today’s pro tour, why aren’t there any?

Hard to say, exactly. Could be the unapologetically laissez-faire career approach of John Florence, the current “best surfer in the world,” who has so many other cool things going in his life that aside from backyard Pipeline events, the contest heats he surfs in are, by comparison, mere sidebars to a bigger, infinitely more impressive story. Or, for example, that the current world championship tour’s ratings leader psyches up before battle with quiet transcendental meditation and positive mental visualization; no shadow boxing or trash talking for “Bodhi” Colapinto.

Certain camps have tried to pit everyone else against the many talented Brazilian competitors, but the vitriol doesn’t appear to be reciprocal, unless you count three-time world champion Gabriel Medina taking the WSL judges to task for allegedly displaying cultural bias (on multiple occasions). Yet this public confrontation, leveled at an organization, not an individual, doesn’t come close to meeting the stated criteria for rivalry.

Then again, what can we expect from a championship tour populated not with a handful of the world’s best, like in, say, 1985, when the wrecking crew of Tom Curren, Tom Carroll, Mark Occhilupo, Martin Potter and Gary Elkerton absolutely dominated, but primarily by a roster of young, highly-skilled up-and-comers who seem to express no overt desire to crush their opponents on their way to the top, but who are simply happy to be participating, wherever they happen to land in the rankings. Just don’t drop off the tour!

The women? Look, maybe it is like the old days, when the two most dominant competitors apparently hated each other…but I don’t think so. The sisters are finally getting their due, and there’s more than enough love to go around.

Nope, no real rivalries these days. But is this a bad thing? Depends. If you happen to be into pro surfing, today’s competitors are still paddling out and fighting for those sevens, some will win, some will lose, champions will be crowned at the end of the year, and if it’s all in fun, and everyone’s just happy to be there, who are you to object? And if competitive surfing isn’t your thing…well, then none of what I just told you matters even a little bit. No doubt you’ve got enough to worry about, out there at your local, day after day, looking for your own sevens.


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