Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning have been competing against each other on the ASP World Tour for over 10 years. Since then, they have won seven world titles between them. However, in all of that time they've never had a showdown at Pipeline, until now.
Fanning holds a 7,200-point lead over Slater with the final event, The Billabong Pipeline Masters, set to begin Sunday. If Fanning makes it to the semifinals he wins his third world title, no matter what Slater does. Slater, for his part, has to win his seventh Pipe Masters trophy to keep his hopes alive -- and he has to hope Fanning goes down in the quarters or before. If that comes to fruition he'll be the owner of a record-setting 12th world title.
Slater has a history producing dramatic, come-from-behind wins at Pipeline. Going into the most fearsome and prestigious event in surfing, he was third behind Rob Machado and Sunny Garcia in 1995, and in 1998 he also sat third behind Mick Campbell and Danny Wills. Both of those Pipe Masters featured epic surf and Slater's performances in them became the stuff of legend. Who could ever forget him high-fiving Machado when his curly haired friend exited a tube. Of course, one could always question the ferociously competitive Slater's motives there because Machado's decision to forgo a kick out to turn down the face and slap Slater's hand, cost him a chance to keep priority in the heat.
Don't look for such niceties from Fanning. Ice runs in "White Lightning's" veins. In 2007 he basically lapped the field en route his first world title. He scored his second title two years later after his childhood mate Joel Parkinson suffered an injury midway through the season and Fanning was able to claw his way past him.
Fanning has been by far the most consistent surfer on tour in 2013. While Slater, at 41, still thrills and excels in epic surf, (remember his wins at Kirra and Cloudbreak?). However, Slater struggled to find form whenever the waves weren't perfect and barreling. It's hard to say whether it's age, injury or just a general malaise that affects Slater when the waves don't get his adrenaline pumping for a heat, but it's a trend that will make it difficult for him to stave off yet another generation of young surfers nipping at his heels. In many heats this year, especially during a crucial Round 2 loss to Portuguese wildcard Frederico Morais in terrible conditions, Slater has looked unprepared and disinterested.
Fanning, meanwhile, methodically works out on his medicine ball before heats, listens to Tool at full blast on his head phones and consistently performs at a high level no matter what the conditions are. His lone 2013 win at the Quiksilver Pro France over Brazilian upstart Gabriel Medina in small, sloppy surf was testament to his tenacity. While many pundits thought Medina's high-flying act should have won over Fanning's old-school workmanlike approach, Fanning's performance made a point that transcended results. Anyone who watched saw that in order to take down Fanning you have to beat him convincingly, because he's never going to beat himself the way Slater often does.
The great thing about the Pipeline Masters is that the wave itself will be the ultimate decider. There's nothing that metes out brutal justice like a 12-foot set on the first reef. Whoever wins will earn it. With a double-to-triple overhead swell arriving during the first three days of the waiting period it doesn't look like the surfing world will have to wait long to find out whether Fanning or Slater will prevail this time at the Banzai. Both will get barreled, but only one will win. And we'll be watching on the edge of our seats.