Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater sat in the lineup Friday, waiting for the final of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach to commence when the capacity crowd rose to its feet and gave a one-minute standing ovation to the late three-time Bells winner, Michael 'MP' Peterson, who died March 29.
As the applause died down, the theme song of the Bells Beach contest, ACDC's "Hells Bells," blasted across the crowd and reverberated from the sandstone cliffs that line this surfing amphitheatre.
"I wanted to start doing air guitars on the wave," said Fanning, who on Friday won his first Bells event since he did it as a wild card in 2001. "Every time [that song] plays out here it sends shivers down my spine -- from the first years I was getting up for the early every morning [it's played at first light every day of the contest] with Nathan Hedge to now being in the finals."
With music blaring and the beach announcers amping up the crowd, the hype was on par with a Lakers/Celtics game. But make no mistake, this crowd was on the beach to witness Fanning and Kelly Slater battle it out for 40 minutes.
Slater, the 11-time world champ who'd beaten Josh Kerr and Jeremy Flores to get to the final, had caught two insignificant waves (1.5 and 4.33 points) before Fanning cherry-picked a Bells Bowl wave and milked it all the way to the beach, nailing a frontside air in the closeout shore break. The crowd went wild and the score -- 9.1 points -- reflected the intensity that Fanning used to attack the wave.
In most normal heats, a score of this nature virtually assures a win, but this was no normal heat, this was the final of the 51st Gathering of the Tribe, Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, and it had Slater, the greatest surfer ever to pull on a contest singlet. Where he's concerned, you can expect the unexpected. Exhibit A: his perfect 10-point wave midway through the final.
At 2011's Quiksilver Pro New York, Slater pulled a perfect 10 for a massive no-handed 360 air against Josh Kerr. When he repeated the feat against Fanning Friday, you could feel the momentum shift.
Standing on the podium after the Bells presentation, Fanning explained he'd stuck to his game plan and was not worried when Slater scored the 10. "I'm not going to do those crazy airs like old mate over there," he said, pointing to Slater who was being interviewed just behind him. "I just stuck to my game plan, and I'm stoked it worked."
When asked about his strategy, he replied, "Get the big ones and just go mad." "In the semi, when we hit the Bowl, the boards started feeling good, the body started feeling good and I just knew that everything was on song. So in the final I just had to wait for the waves."
Fanning picked his waves carefully and surfed them going from one rail to the other with clean driving turns.
While Fanning waited for waves, Slater stayed busy catching a few small ones, even heading towards the Rincon section of the wave, a 100-meter paddle away from the Bells Bowl section. He had tried sitting next to Fanning but there wasn't much chit-chat between the two. Fanning was playing the Ice Man in the line up, a tactic that almost worked against him.
"Yeah he is, he's a total d--- in the water," Slater said, laughing, "He wouldn't talk to me. I tried, because he got that good score and I said, 'What did you do, a big air reverse to finish?' and he literally didn't say one word to me, so I'm like, 'Alright, if that's how it's gonna be, let's do this.' But whatever, if that's how he wants to compete, who am I to try to change that? It really focused me actually. It put me in a space where I focused that energy because then I'm out there talking to myself."
When Slater gets upset in a heat sometimes he paddles splashing water with each stroke and that happened at one point in Friday's final.
"I was splashing the water because I thought I'd got the score," he said, explaining why he'd paddled out of the Bells Bowl section and across to Rincon.
"I was trying to make a little space and I did see some waves that were medium-size that would break from Rincon all the way through. I figured if I could sneak one of those, I could maybe throw a couple big airs and a few big carves and I could maybe be looking at a score. Otherwise I'm sitting there doing nothing. Chances were that there weren't going to be any more sets," Slater said.
Earlier Friday, contest favorites Owen Wright and Jordy Smith had been eliminated. Defending champion Joel Parkinson was eliminated in the semifinal against Fanning -- a replay of 2011's final, a tough heat with mate vs. mate.
"It's always a good battle," said Parko, last year's champ. "I think he'll never forgive me for the loss here at Bells last year, so he was pretty keen to beat me right then."
Fanning also gave his friend the silent treatment in the water until after the heat was over.
"No chatting," Parko said, laughing. "I just said afterwards, now that I'm out and you've dusted me you better beat Kelly and go on and ring a Bell that you've been trying to ring for so long. He hasn't got a real one since he's been on tour."
"For some reason we get so close every time we come to Bells. We both put so much emphasis on it, that it's really special for both of us," Fanning said about his semifinal with Parkinson. "Whoever gets through that final, you've just got to win, otherwise we're not going to talk to you for a week."
Within an hour of the contest finishing, a massive storm hit the Bells Beach area with driving rain, howling offshore winds tearing across the ocean and whipping up dust and sand storms with lightning flashing across the sky -- symbolic for Fanning, who is known as White Lightning.
RIP CURL PRO BELLS BEACH FINAL RESULTS:
1 Mick Fanning (AUS) 18.80
2 Kelly Slater (USA) 18.07
RIP CURL PRO BELLS BEACH SEMIFINAL RESULTS:
SF 1: Kelly Slater (USA) 15.10 def. Jeremy Flores (FRA) 7.83
SF 2: Mick Fanning (AUS) 15.83 def. Joel Parkinson (AUS) 14.43
RIP CURL PRO BELLS BEACH QUARTERFINAL RESULTS:
QF 1: Jeremy Flores (FRA) 14.06 def. Owen Wright (AUS) 13.66
QF 2: Kelly Slater (USA) 17.97 def. Josh Kerr (AUS) 16.10
QF 3: Mick Fanning (AUS) 18.00 def. Kai Otton (AUS) 10.27
QF 4: Joel Parkinson (AUS) 14.63 def. Jordy Smith (ZAF) 14.63
RIP CURL PRO BELLS BEACH ROUND 5 RESULTS:
Heat 1: Jeremy Flores (FRA) 14.93 def. John John Florence (HAW) 14.00
Heat 2: Josh Kerr (AUS) 17.40 def. Adriano de Souza (BRA) 15.36
Heat 3: Kai Otton (AUS) 14.27 def. Brett Simpson (USA) 12.90
Heat 4: Jordy Smith (ZAF) 17.27 def. C.J. Hobgood (USA) 9.04
CURRENT ASP TOP 3
(After Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach)
1. Kelly Slater (USA) 13,200 pts
2. Adriano de Souza (BRA) 12,000 pts
3. Taj Burrow (AUS) 11,750 pts
3. Mick Fanning (AUS) 11,750 pts