BEFORE one of the all-time epic finals in the 51-year history of surfing's most iconic contest, Mick Fanning paused in the line-up, gazed back at the rugged clifftops of Bells Beach and was moved almost to tears.
For a minute, the capacity crowd stood in unison and applauded the life of Michael Peterson, one of surfing's more enigmatic heroes, the man they called the Black Knight who dominated this contest for the first three years after it became the Rip Curl Pro in 1973 and had been a kind of mentor to a hungry kid from Coolangatta.
"It was just an amazing scene," Fanning, 30, remarked later. "It was one of those things where you just go, 'Wow! This is a really special moment.'
"If I'd let myself go, I would have been bawling, but Michael would have loved to have seen a great final and he got that."
Peterson was buried on the Gold Coast on Thursday after succumbing to a heart attack, aged 59. His brother, Tommy, flew down and arrived just in time to witness the extraordinary tribute and the classic final that followed. He later expressed his delight that another "Cooly kid" had prevailed.
Doug "Claw" Warbrick, the Rip Curl co-founder, likened it to one of the great AFL grand finals or Olympic showdowns the best of the best, in a combat that went down to the wire.
Fanning is the only surfer to break Kelly Slater's stranglehold on the surfing world crown since 2006 and, for the first 17 minutes of the 40-minute final, he looked set to win his second bell and deny Slater, now 40, a record fifth.
Slater fell on his first three waves, trying radical moves. Fanning, composed, controlled and calculating, had scored a 9.1 on his first wave and an 8.6 on his second and appeared to have victory in his grasp.
It was then that Slater defied gravity and performed a move that surfers call a reverse air with full rotation combining supreme athleticism with the flexibility and poise of ballet or gymnastics before reconnecting with the wave and bowing to the crowd. The one move scored him a perfect 10.
While he was in mid-air, Fanning is certain that Slater made eye contact with him, as if to say: "Beat that!" When Slater backed up the ride with another near flawless effort in the 1.5 metre surf, he took the lead.
Suddenly all the pressure was back on Fanning.
It was then that the patient Fanning produced an exhibition of power surfing that would have been rewarded with a perfect score if he had landed his final aerial move in the shore break. His 9.7 put him back in the lead, just.
When Slater was not catching waves at a frenetic pace he caught 13 in the final to Fanning's three (only the best two count) he tried to engage his opponent in conversation. Fanning ignored him. "It's Kelly Slater and I need every trick in the book not to lose to him," he later told The Saturday Age.
With six minutes remaining, Fanning had priority and Slater started paddling from the Bells bowl toward the next break around, Rincon, in a move that recalled his come-from-behind victory over Bede Durbidge in 2008. Although he caught another five waves, he had run out of miracles and conceded defeat with typical grace.
The consolation of losing was that he had been part of something very special. "Mick and I were probably the two pros on tour who were closest to Michael and for us to make the final was really cool," he said. "I'm sure he's probably looking down us us right now if he's anywhere, and smiling."
After being daubed in paint and presented with a didgeridoo by the Wathaurong, Fanning reflected on his friendship with Peterson, who suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia before finding peace in retirement.
"Michael was really nice to me and I've had some amazing talks with him over the years. He always gave me so much time of day and I felt special for that. I'm just stoked and privileged and honoured to have been out there with Kelly at this special time and stoked to lift that big bell again."