Rebel surfer canonized

A surfing icon dies, leaving behind a legacy of dual natures.

By Matthew L. Nestell/Special to The Malibu Times

The surfing galaxy and Malibu itself lost a pioneer earlier this month. Legendary rebel surfer Miklos “Miki” Sandor Dora III died at the age of 67 after a long-fought battle with pancreatic cancer. He had returned to live with his father in Montecito, Calif., after having been diagnosed in July with terminal cancer.

Just before a paddle-out in homage to the deceased Dora, Johnny Fain, a.k.a. “The Malibu Lizard,” Dora’s protg and vicious competitor, read aloud a poem he had scribed after hearing the fatal news:

Mickey was a magnificent


He was my mentor and


Who engaged me in the



That contest is


I loved


– Johnny Fain

Dora was and will remain one of the world’s most influential surfers and one of the sport’s strangest conundrums ever. He was hardcore. To the marrow of the bone he bit with every sharp point he had on his nose and rails and never hesitated to sting with his tongue. A maverick of a man, Dora came to charge the water with a certain bravado that moved some to coin him the “Muhammad Ali” of surfing.

And though he appeared to disdain the attention and celebrity cult status he invoked, some say he purposely strove to do so. The dark side of this surfing icon revealed the renegade, nonconformist that he truly was-having had several brushes with the law.

An icon

Surfing may have become a favored sport in the 1950s, Dora, however, brought it into the realm of culture and perhaps even to cult status.

Dora was born in Budapest on Aug. 11, 1934, and his family soon emigrated to sunny days in Southern California. Not too long into his youth, his parents called it quits and Dora drifted from military schools to tag-a longs with his stepfather and renowned surfer, Guard Chapin, a member of the prestigious Palos Verdes Surf Club. Dora’s schooling at Hollywood High School soon took backseat to swells.

Drawn to the ocean, Dora proved he belonged out there and, fortunately, for him, the time was right.

Surfing boomed in the ’50s, and guys like Dora, Phil Edwards, Skip Frye, Corky Carroll, Dewey Weber, Butch Linden, Johnny Fain, and Nat Young, to name a few, were eminent fathers.

Films like “Gidget,” “The Endless Summer,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” “Surf a Wild Bikini” and “Big Wednesday” all encapsulated a romance that was fresh and new, and more Americana than a cup of Joe.

Surf hedonism

With all fads so, too, come the consequences. Mike Doyle wrote in his book, “Morning Glass,” about the trendy nature of surfing with a bit about unruly surfers charging Camp Pendleton, the once-restricted military base.. Dora was the first lifeguard around the Pendleton area when the military base was becoming a popular spot. When he was apprehended, he gave his name and the sergeant retorted with anger that he had two other Doras that day and 10 in the past week and more than 500 during the entire summer. Seems Dora meant more than simply a name or even a surfer; claiming oneself as Miki Dora or Phil Edwards was staking a person into the waters of unruly hedonists.

Against the grain

But Dora was a nonconformist. He played by his rules and his alone. Before leaving Malibu, the surfer evoked his distaste for the allegiance to commercialization of a lifestyle he had offered his soul to.

He wrote: “Getting ready to bury this junk with the rest of the trashy rot that keeps bugging me! Scrap metal tokenism as a grubby little payoff to keep me in line and my mouth shut. Such outside pressures will never succeed in making me a lap dog for the entrenched controlling interests who have turned our once great individualistic sport into a mushy, soggy cartoon.” (Morning Glass.)

Fain was Dora’s nemesis. Still there is a certain amour in Fain’s depiction of his lost friend.

“He wasn’t an angel,” admits Fain, “but he taught me everything I knew. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have the drive I do today. I always feel him. The torch is passed to me now.”

Fain now has to deal with a grudge that kept the two at distant ends of the globe abiding by an unfortunate gag order.

“It was a tenuous relationship with Miki,” recalls Fain. “There was no camaraderie. All the good times were gone. All I saw of him the last time was a look that was vindictive.”

This angst stemmed from a Malibu surf contest Dora, (shocking everyone) participated in and then lost to his admiring rival.

Confesses Fain, “I was his protg. He was 10 years older than I. (Dora was 26, I was 16.) I beat him in the world famous Malibu Surfing Association Classic. Things were never the same afterward.”

Looking back

Somehow, the curmudgeon in Dora found solace and he attempted to make amends shortly before he died. Dora called Fain to “shoot the breeze,” but, Fain recalls in a cracked voice, “I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction to see him, and now I wish I did. He had called to make amends several times. The last phone call, he was affable-as if nothing was wrong, even though it had been over 12 years.”

Fain insists what drove Dora out of surfing equates to his discontent with the grim fate of the sport.

“He became diabolical toward society,” Fain enunciates, “He didn’t like the buffoons who thought they were somebody. They made him more incensed and dangerous, for instance, when people would take off in front of him.”

Dora left Southern California in the early 1970s, living first in Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa and then later settled off the coast of France.

Dora’s glitz while on the surfboard performing “el-spontaneo” and his rancor-mouthing off to the crowds that oppressed him in his strive to do what he loved most-mixed a strange brew.

The heroic surfer, who worked in several beach movies, including “Gidget,” sported full-length trench coats and shades that he would tip with thumb and forefinger and smile. At the same time he would spurn the attention of the press.

Doyle closes in “Morning Glass,” “Looking back on it now, I can see that Dora was manipulating the system to bring attention to himself. Dora was a promo man, and his favorite promotion was Miki Dora. But everybody who knew him when he was in his prime had to admit that Dora was a genius. He stimulated everybody’s imagination and an awful lot of what became California surf culture was pure Dora.”

A memorial service will take place in February in Guethary, France, where Dora lived before returning to his father’s home.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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