The 10 Greatest World Title Showdowns In Surfing History – Part 1
By Sean Doherty
While we sit and anxiously wait for the Billanong Pipe Masters and the Title showdown between Mick and Kelly to start (December 8th!), lets' take a stroll around Oahu and reminisce the top 10 World Title bouts in the history of ever. This is the first half...
10. 2009 – Mick Fanning & Parko
Two months before they would head to Pipeline to duke it out for the world title, Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson sat down at Café de Paris in Hossegor, France and talked it over. The childhood friends knew one of them would win… and one of them wouldn’t. It was, as they both described it, “him or me.” They agreed that night that regardless of what happened they’d be happy the World Title would be coming back to Coolangatta. This, of course, was bullshit. They both had way too much wrapped up in it to let it slide that easily. Two best friends, one trophy. One of them was going to get emotionally violated. They hugged, wished each other luck, and went their own ways. They wouldn’t talk again until it was decided.
Going into Pipe, Mick was the logical favourite – he led the ratings and had already won a World Title two years earlier. Parko was the sentimental favourite, having finished runner-up to the Title twice and having been the runaway ratings leader that year before blowing out an ankle. Surf fans, their hometown, their friends, their families… hell, even Mick and Joel themselves were torn about how to deal with it. When asked if Joel would re-enact Rob Machado’s brotherly love high-five with Kelly Slater when he and Mick were surfing for the World Title at Pipe, Joel replied laughing, “High five him? I’ll run the c*** over!”
Mick was only three heats ahead going into Pipe, but in all reality he’d already broken Joel. When Parko fell from the lip at Pipe in the dying seconds of his heat against Hawaiian Gavin Gillette, the Title once again gone, it was poignant. “I threw myself over the falls on that wave because I wanted to punish myself. It was over. I’d lost. My whole year flashed before my eyes as I was falling; the good stuff, the bad stuff, the wins, the losses, my ankle.” Mick was surfing in the next heat (ironically against their other best mate, Dean Morrison) and when Joel resurfaced Mick was right there next to him. “You know what?” said Joel. “It was relief more than anything. Mick and I sat there and looked at each other and said, ‘F*** me, glad that’s over, eh?’”
9. 1990 – Pam Burridge & Wendy Botha
She might have had the Akubra, but Pam Burridge was a queen without a crown. From the time she was a teenager in Manly, Pam had been the much-loved face of women’s surfing in Australia, but for all her popularity a World Title to validate it never came her way. Pam had the misfortune of surfing in an era dominated first by Frieda Zamba and then by Wendy Botha, and she finished runner-up for the Title three times. With her best surfing years seemingly behind her she detached from the tour, partied, started a band (whatever happened to Pam and the Passions?) and a World Title seemed a million to one hope. Then in 1987 she met longboarder and shaper Mark Rabbidge – 15 years her senior – the pair became a couple, and Pam’s fortunes turned around. Mark got her on new boards and restored her confidence. When she ran out of money halfway through the 1990 season and looked like missing the Californian event, Mark sold his car to get her there. In what was an eventful year she won three events while almost drowning at big Margaret River.
Pam came into Hawaii leading the ratings from Wendy Botha, but needed to finish ahead of her to take the Title. The final event was at Sunset and it was solid. Both girls made the semis, but when Wendy lost to Jodie Cooper, a Sunset specialist in the first semi, the door was now open for Pam. She paddled out into eight foot Sunset towing a lot of emotional baggage, and in the dying minutes against Kim Mearig, trailing and needing a wave and with her crew on the beach – Mark included – barely able to watch, the Gods finally smiled. Cue the last minute rumble on the horizon, the set wave with 30 seconds to go, a couple of backhand Pam-jams and there it was… Pam Burridge was finally the World Champion. At that moment everything suddenly seemed right in the world. The party started in the final when Pam paddled out with Jodie, Toni Sawyer and "Naughty Pauls" Menczer and the Australian girls celebrated a day a long time coming.
8. 1998 – Kelly Slater & Mick Campbell, Danny Wills
Kelly was bigger than Backstreet in the ‘90s, but as the decade closed out he was kinda over it. He was tired of the tour, tired of winning, he was getting on (at 26, he was positively ancient), his regal hairline was in retreat and he realised he didn’t want to be Backstreet anymore, he wanted to be Jack Johnson. He’d won the past five World Titles, had six in all, but headed into Pipe in ’98 trailing badly in the ratings to Aussies Mick Campbell and Danny Wills. The two best mates had dominated the beachbreak legs of the tour, but Pipeline would prove something a little more, how would you say… challenging. Most of the talk in the lead up to Pipe was the strategy of the two Aussies, who instead of doing the whole Hawaiian winter and surfing Pipe every day, decided to stay home in Australia and train instead with the “Sandhill Warrior”, Rob Rowland-Smith. They arrived in Honolulu less than a week before Pipe.
You know how this story ends, and in the years since Cambo and Willsy’s decision to stay home has been judged harshly. But right or wrong, in all reality, it probably wouldn’t have mattered as the deck was stacked against them. Firstly, neither had any real pedigree with Pipe, and as Tom Carroll said at the time, “This place takes years, not days to get a grip of it.” Even if they’d turned up early that year, the ’98 Hawaiian winter started slowly, so they were unlikely to have transformed into Tom Carroll over the course of those four weeks… and it certainly wouldn’t have prepared them for what was about to happen.
The contest kicked off in Third Reef widowmakers. It was freaking huge, 12-foot plus and wobbly, a nightmare for everyone, let alone two young Aussie guys trying to win their first World Title. But while they didn’t have Pipe on speed dial, they gave it an honest crack and it gets universally overlooked that on the big day Cambo actually beat Johnny Boy Gomes while Willsy beat Pancho Sullivan, two of the gnarliest draws in the field.
But then there was Kelly. Once Cambo lost to Bruce Irons and Willsy went down to Ross Williams, it was scripted perfectly for Kelly who needed to make the semis to win his sixth World Title. Suddenly, with a challenge in front of him, Kelly came to life. Just as he had three years earlier Kelly drew good friend Rob Machado in the heat that would decide the Title. “It was so much like that heat in ’95 it was scary,” said Kelly at the time. There were no high-fives this time, as the pair split the peak with Kelly surfing Backdoor and Rob surfing Pipe. The waves were firing, the pair put on a show, and it was a heat worthy of a World Title. Kelly took the heat and the Title, and as he was chaired up the beach he noticed his young daughter building sandcastles, oblivious to the mild hysteria that had broken out around her father. Kelly took it as a sign. Then and there he declared he was done with pro surfing.
7. 2012 – Parko & Kelly
Just like Mick and Willsy, Joel Parkinson would head into the Pipe Masters looking over his shoulder at Kelly Slater. The pair were neck and neck in the ratings and whoever finished higher at Pipe would win the Title. It was, however, a very different dynamic to 1998. Both Joel and Kelly were supremely comfortable in Hawaii – Joel having won the Triple Crown three times and Kelly having won Pipe six times. The big difference was however, over in the World Titles column, where it read: Kelly Slater 11, Joel Parkinson 0. Beyond that, Joel had finished runner-up now four times, and a fifth loss would have seen him dig a large hole, climb in, then slowly cover himself with dirt.
The psychological battle started on the golf course when the pair lined up in the annual Andy Irons charity golf match. Joel, who golfs as well as Tiger Woods surfs, somehow drove the ball 327 yards and was a shoe-in for longest drive… until Kelly drove 327 ½ yards. Then when Joel drove into the car park at Turtle Bay Resort for the Pipe Masters press conference, there was one solitary car space left in the whole parking lot, which he was about to turn into when another car snaked him. Kelly. But amidst the pressure of failed past campaigns and Kelly breathing down his neck Joel lived in a bubble of serenity. “There must be all sorts of head noise going on in there,” said his housemate, Taj Burrow. “There has to be because no one can be that relaxed.”
The lead in the ratings swapped four times on the final day, with every heat becoming sudden death. Joel looked dusted in his semi-final with Damien Hobgood but rallied to win in the dying minutes. It was then over to Kelly, and for the first time in living memory Pipeline let him down. Kelly sat waiting for a wave that didn’t come, while Parko sat nervously watching in his backyard – the same backyard where four years earlier he’d been punching walls – counting down the final seconds of the longest drought in pro surfing history.
6. 1979 – MR & Cheyne Horan
The 1979 World Title was a four-man showdown between Rabbit Bartholomew, Dane Kealoha, Cheyne Horan and Mark Richards. It came down to the final event, the World Cup, which was held in eight-foot surf at Haleiwa. MR was the rank outsider and needed a miracle. Bugs, the reigning World Champ, was the ratings leader but snapped a leggie and somehow lost to big-wave dave, Ken Bradshaw in the first round. Dane Kealoha then did likewise to Puerto Rican qualifier, Edwin Santos. It then came down to Cheyne, who, in his second year on tour was running hot. Cheyne needed to beat Peter Townend in the semis to win the Title, and that’s when things got prickly. You see, Cheyne had just bailed from the Bronzed Aussies team and PT – the Bronzed Aussies co-founder – wasn’t impressed at losing his blonde-headed superstar. PT caught three early waves, hassled the shit out of Cheyne, and was leading in the closing minutes. Then with Cheyne paddling for the wave that would have surely won him the heat – and the World Title – the final siren sounded… at the 18:36 mark of a 20-minute heat. “I've got a World Title riding on this,” Cheyne recalled to TSJ. “I was right on the peak and this set's coming. As the set came, the announcer says, 'Ten seconds to go...three, two, one..' And the hooter goes, 'nnnnnyyytttt!'” Hawaiian judge, Jack Shipley was in charge of the clock, and Jack also half-owned Lightning Bolt, MR’s sponsor. All the conspiracy theories in the years since, however, haven’t changed the result. “I was never bitter,” recalled Cheyne, “I was upset. Fuck, I was upset! I was still a kid and so much work went into it, and it came down to this?” That day at Haleiwa was the first round of an MR and Cheyne rivalry that would run for years and feature another World Title dook-out.
But MR still had to beat PT in the final to win the Title, and any thoughts PT was going to gift MR the heat were soon dispelled. The pair paddled out and paddled each other straight out into the shipping lanes. “I was prepared to paddle to Sunset Beach if necessary rather than let him through,” said MR. Once they came back in and started surfing the heat was touch and go, but MR got the nod and took his first World Title. The über-modest Novocastrian and accidental World Champ soon after found himself standing by the side of the road in Hollywood in a yellow wetsuit, buckets of water being tipped over him, having his photo taken by rock photographer Norman Seef for the cover of Surfing magazine. It was a surreal moment for MR and it all seemed a long way from Merewether until someone driving past recognised him, wound down the window and yelled out, “Yo, MR!”
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