Both of them were unfairly handsome, ridiculously talented. Bruce Irons was the mellow one. His older brother Andy was, shall we say, more tightly wound. The 2001 OP Pro Mentawai Islands, off the coast of Sumatra, was nine years ago, and I still remember the tantrum Andy threw one morning. The guys had been surfing a lot of left-breaking reefs; Andy wanted to surf a right. The officials chose another left, so he pitched a fit.
I thought quarterbacks were divas, I remember thinking. There we were in paradise, this guy was about to spend his day paddling into perfect tubes. Dude, I wanted to tell him, Get over yourself!
Of course,it was that same intensity, that desire -- coupled with vast talent and fearlessness -- that made Irons what he was: the best surfer of the previous decade not named Kelly Slater.
Irons was found dead in his bed last Tuesday morning in a room at the Dallas-Fort Worth Grand Hyatt. Gravely ill with dengue fever, according to his family, he'd pulled out of a contest in Puerto Rico, and was trying to get home to Kauai. Too ill to board his connecting flight in Dallas, Irons checked into a hotel, and died in the night. His widow, Lyndie Dupuis, is due to deliver their first child next month. Andy Irons was 32.
While he didn't win that contest in Indonesia, Irons was on fire nonetheless, about to launch on an otherworldly roll. Starting in 2002, he won three straight world titles. What you always heard about the Irons brothers was that Bruce had more natural talent, but that Andy was better when the contest horn sounded.
"Andy was incredibly driven, almost mono maniacally focused," recalls Matt Warshaw, a surf historian and the author, most recently, of The History of Surfing. "When he was really on, he just didn't make mistakes. He surfed with what seemed like complete abandon, yet he wouldn't fall off. It was an amazing combination of precision and progression."
As Warshaw noted, it was Andy's fate to have his peak years, if not eclipsed, bookended by Slater, who won six ASP world titles before Irons hit his peak, then, following his semi-retirement, clinched three more decided to get back in the game, in '05, '06 and '08.
Like Gretzky and Lemieux, Magic and Bird, Shakespeare and Marlowe, those two pushed each other to performances they might not have otherwise have found within themselves. "Andy had more versatility than anyone this side of Slater," said Warshaw. "And in certain conditions, like those waves in Indonesia, or Pipeline or Teahupoo" -- a thick, violent reef break in Tahiti -- "he was a natural. Those were the waves he grew up on."
Slater, for his part, grew up in Florida, honing his mind-bending aerials and cutbacks on the underwhelming waves of Cocoa Beach. "On a ten-foot vertical drop at Teahuppo," said Warshaw, "Andy had a softer touch. Where Kelly would make the wave as often as Andy would, somehow you could see how he'd made himself into that surfer. For Andy, it was just as natural as breathing to drop into those huge waves, hit that turn and just pull into the tube."
Last September's Billabong Pro Teahuppo was the site of what turned out to be his last victory. After edging Slater in the semifinals, Irons defeated CJ Hobgood in the final, then dedicated the win to his pregnant wife.
It was a huge victory for him. Irons had taken the 2009 season off for personal reasons. (What reasons might those have been? In addition to Xanax and Ambien, police found Methadone in that hotel room, according to the Honolulu Star.) He admitted that he'd stopped having fun; that his competitive fire had been banked.
The win at Teahuppo made it clear that his fire was back -- that he was back. What, exactly, was he back from? Without putting too fine a point on it, Irons admitted in a short video produced by Billabong, "I have a lot of inner demons. If I didn't have surfing, to get those out of my system, I would self-destruct. Surfing's the only [thing] that keeps me in a normal state. It keeps my life at an even keel. Without it, [I] would just tip into oblivion."
His face in the video is slightly puffier than the young man I met in the Mentawais, but the fire is back in his eyes. After touching on those demons, and his fluctuating will to compete, the joy returns to his voice as he talks about the first time he ever rode a wave:
"I remember to this day, clear as day. I went left, right, left, and the wave never broke. And I thought right then, 'This is the coolest thing in the WORLD!'"
He gave his father no peace after that, pleading to be taken out surfing. "It all started with me going left, right, left on a wave at the pier. And I literally will never forget that wave. To the day I die ..."