Irons was obviously a major talent, and over the years he earned a loyal following for his go-big style. He was the most fearless surfer at some of the world's heaviest breaks, often riding deep inside the tube at dangerous spots like Pipeline and Teahupoo. But he was still skilled enough at riding small waves to win at every stop on the World Tour. No other surfer offered such a complete package—except Kelly Slater, holder of a record ten surfing world championships.
But by the time Irons joined the elite ranks of the ASP World Tour, in 1998, he had also developed a reputation for wild behavior off the water. The tour, a judged ten-event global road trip for the sport’s best competitors, includes plenty of downtime, and Irons made the most of it. He also finished 34th and barely requalified after the 1999 season.
"Rumor was that he was riding the party train too hard," says Matt Warshaw, author of The History of Surfing, an exhaustive chronicle about the sport. Where college freshmen had frat parties, Andy had money to burn and groupies at every stop. As World Tour competitor Taj Burrow put it in a recent promotional video for Billabong: "Everywhere we go, it's their biggest night of the year. You can't help but get involved."
Off the tour, Irons ran with the Wolf Pack, a fearsome group of Kauai surfers who enforced localism at their home breaks—often with their fists. "Early on, Andy didn't have handlers," says Chris Mauro, a former editor of Surfer. "He had his crew."
By the 2001 World Tour, Irons had signed a sponsorship deal with Australian clothing company Billabong for a reported $650,000 per year. Far from mellowing, he achieved antihero status, and many fans loved him for it. "Andy was loud and in your face," says former World Tour surfer Shea Lopez, a close friend. "He was the rock star of surfing."
Like other hard-charging celebrities, Irons didn't necessarily see himself growing old. "He wanted to die young," surfer Koby Abberton recently told Australia's Stab magazine. "He knew it. Everyone knew it."
In 2002, when Kelly Slater returned to competition after a three-year hiatus, the assumption was that he would mop up. Far from it. Irons beat Slater and claimed the world title that year. Then he did it again in 2003 and 2004. "Andy Irons was the only worthy rival to the greatest surfer who's ever set foot on a board," says Warshaw.
Until a surfer other than Irons or Slater won—in 2007, the year Mick Fanning took the crown—that rivalry was heated and often extended beyond the waves. It also divided the surf world. You were either for Slater, the clean-living, Chomsky-quoting role model who competed in a white wetsuit, or you were for Irons, the cocky upstart who wore black and loved to talk trash.