Why Mick Fanning is quite possibly the world's best ever surfer.
Now here's a funny thing. Mick Fanning is suddenly a household name around the world and will henceforth to many be known as the "Shark-Punching Aussie Surfer". But a much more meaningful thing shouldn't be forgotten. He is currently a 3-time World Champion, with dozens of contest victories to his name and a good shot at this year's title. But the thing that needs to be said loud and clear is that Fanning is quite possibly the world's best ever surfer.
I realise that that's a massive call, and that people will argue Kelly Slater is the undeniable holder of that title. They may also throw up Tom Curren, maybe Occy, MR or Michael Peterson for the title. I would argue, however, that whilst Slater's track record of 11 world titles makes him the best ever competitive surfer in history, whilst Curren's sheer style changed surfing forever and whilst Occy, MR and MP deserve every accolade, right now, right at this moment and for much of the past decade and certainly the past five years or so, Fanning has proven himself the best surfer, in and out of contests.
Surfing is a subjective sport of course – one person's favourite surfer may be another's least favourite. But while others may have beaten him to the world title and in contests here and there, for pure sheer ability and style, I believe Fanning exceeds all that have come before. If not for the setback of a major hamstring injury he would certainly have more world titles to his name – and most of the top 32 nominate him as their favourite surfer. That probably says it all.
There is no doubt Slater has revolutionised surfing for more than two decades and that he can still hold his own in any company, often against guys 20 years his junior. He has the competitive drive, nous and sheer ruthlessness to beat anyone on his day. But being a better surfer is not necessarily about beating other people in comps.
The so-called "Brazilian Storm" which has emerged in the past couple of years is made up of a number of surfers who I cannot comprehend are regarded in the "top 32" in the world. I see guys up and down the coast, blokes you've never heard of, who have more surfing style and ability than many of them. But their dogged determination to hone their competitive craft, and their ability to fit the current contest judging criteria, has seen many crabby styles rewarded with places on the big tour. Fair enough, I suppose, they are doing enough to tick the boxes and get the points. But style-wise? Please…
Even Gabriel Medina, the 2014 world champion who heads the Brazilian charge, I believe, has a poor style. All blocky shoulders and unpleasing stance. Sure he absolutely rips and is better than I could ever be, but I would rather watch a 100 other surfers than him. The same goes for Adriano de Souza and the other bloke. Umm, you know, what's his name. Oh, Felipe Toledo. He of the flips and trick shots and the indistinct style connecting them.
I believe that none of those blokes hold a candle to the style of Fanning, or best mate Joel Parkinson for that matter, with the latter's smoothness and flow being one of the true wonders of the surfing world. However, the combination that Fanning possesses – the sheer speed he generates, the utter water-shifting old-school power and brutality of his manoeuvres and the absolute effortlessness of his style, I believe, makes him the best we've seen. In big waves, in small waves and all in between.
A decade or so ago, I watched Fanning surf 8 to 10 ft Lennox Head on what became known as the "Weather Bomb" swell. It was as solid and as perfect as surf can get and Fanning absolutely tore it apart like no other surfer I've ever seen before. His timing, speed, positioning, courage and absolute power in the heavy conditions are the closest thing to athletic perfection I've certainly ever witnessed. Shortly afterwards, on the same swell, I watched him surf South Wall Ballina (a notoriously sharky spot, by the way) and he, with other pros also in the water, again demonstrated a prowess that I was then certain would take over the world.
And that he has done. But I still don't think he's been given his due. Perhaps it's a hangover from his wilder "Eugene" days, but I still don't think the wider populace, surfing or otherwise, has given him the credit for just how good he is. It's a funny thing that it has taken a shark attack to bring him to mass attention but it needs to be said that he is far more than that. He ain't just some mid-field chancer who dodged a shark-shaped bullet. Indeed, he is now, alongside Slater, a true surfing statesman. A good speaker and role model who treats people with respect and humility. He is someone who deserves, indeed, to be regarded as one of Australia's greatest ever sportspeople – and, in my opinion, the world's best ever surfer...