Surly Hawaiian power surfer from Waianae, Oahu; 2000 world champion and six-time winner of the Triple Crown; described by surf journalist Derek Hynd as "a modern-day Cassius Clay...a slick, black nightmare come to whup some ass."
Garcia was born (1970) in Honolulu, the son of an auto mechanic father and housekeeper mother, and raised in the rough westside town of Waianae, near Makaha. He began surfing at age five, won the boys' division of the 1984 United States Surfing Championships, then dropped out of ninth grade to turn pro. Two years later, at age 17, he was the 17th-ranked surfer in the world, and already regarded as one of the sport's great stylists—influenced primarily by Hawaiian great Dane Kealoha—as well as an instant contender for the pro tour title.
The following year Garcia developed a cocaine habit, lost 20 pounds, and rolled his brand-new Pontiac Trans Am. "In one year," Surfer magazine wrote, "Garcia has self-destructed. The gift he once had is a strewn memory." Garcia got clean just prior to the 1989 competition season, and began a slow but steady march up the ratings, finishing 10th in 1990, sixth in 1991, and third in 1992, by which time he was being described as the last of the old school power surfers. Floridian Kelly Slater had just won the first of his six world titles, and was heading up a group of young surfers who were reinventing the high-performance standard with aerials and tailslides. Garcia continued to rely on a simple but devastatingly effective set of power turns. He also became the world's most elegant tuberider, using a longer and thicker board at places like Backdoor Pipeline in Hawaii, where he often assumed a tranquil parade-rest stance as the wave whirled and exploded around him.
Slater was justly regarded as the best all-around surfer in the world, but Garcia was nearly untouchable in the powerful Hawaiian waves, winning the Triple Crown a record six times (1992, 1993, 1994, 1999, 2000, and 2004). In 1993, he also finished ahead of Slater to win the Australia's Surfing Life Magazine Peer Poll Award. Garcia's tour ranking remained high: he finished third from 1994 to 1996, seventh in 1997, and sixth in 1998 and 1999.
Garcia meanwhile developed a reputation for being outspoken and difficult. In 1993 he got into a fistfight with fellow Hawaiian pro and world champion Derek Ho; in 1995 he threw a muffin at a panel of contest judges in response to a decision that went against him. He didn't like the French leg of the world tour because "I hate the food and the waves suck," and responded to a nonenthusiastic notice in the surf press by calling the journalist "a fag." In The Billabong Challenge, a video documentary of the 1995 contest of the same name, Garcia gazes out to a lineup of beautiful waves in Western Australia, and says, "I don't care how good this looks, it's shit."
An extra-fit Garcia (5' 10", 180 pounds) won the first two contests on the 2000 tour, and held on to the ratings lead through the remaining nine events to easily win the championship, an achievement only slightly compromised by the fact that Slater had taken the year off. Garcia, 30, was at that point the world tour's aggregate prize-money leader, having earned $826,330 over his 15-year pro career, and was the only male pro surfer to finish in the top 10 for 11 consecutive years. He was also elected president of the World Professional Surfers, a 2000-formed union group for pro tour competitors; threatening a "surf stoppage," Garcia was able to help raise the minimum per-event men's division prize-money purse, beginning in 2001, from $135,600 to $250,000. His year-end rating began to slip in the early '00s, as he finished #13 in 2001, and #23 in 2002. Garcia retired from full-time competition after the 2005 season.
In 2006 Garcia was sentenced to three months in federal prison for failing to pay taxes on over $400,000 of contest earnings over a five year period. The federal judge allowed Garcia to postpone his sentence until the completion of that winter's Triple Crown; he entered Lompoc Federal Penitentiary in January 2007. Fresh out of prison, and sporting a new "Death and Taxes" tattoo across his broad chest, Garcia resumed competing in select events in 2008, and narrowly missed a seventh Triple Crown victory in 2009. He also finished third in the 2009 Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau contest at Waimea Bay, and in 2012, at age 42, he won the HIC Pro at Sunset. He took the winner's podium while holding his baby grandson, also named Sunny.
Garcia's tough-as-nails reputation remained intact into his forties after a 2011 contest incident in Australia during the Burleigh Breaka Pro. Just out of the contest zone, Garcia and French pro Jeremy Flores teamed up to punch out a local surfer who had hassled Garcia's 16-year-old son in the shorebreak. Garcia also reportedly assaulted a cameraman who captured the attack on video. In the aftermath, Flores and Garcia were suspended from the event, Garcia was banned from the next ASP contest, and an arrest warrant for Garcia was briefly issued by the Queensland Police Service. The charges were later dismissed. (There were plenty of other fights, too. "If you Google 'Sunny Garcia fight'," surf journalist Ted Endo wrote in 2011, "the question is not 'where?' or 'when?' but 'which?'”)
One of the sport's most filmed and photographed surfers, Garcia has appeared in more than 75 surf movies and videos, including Filthy Habits (1987), Rolling Thunder (1991), Focus (1994), Nine Lives (1999), Globe WCT Fiji (2005), and One Track Mind (2008). Sunny Daze: A West Side Story, a sponsor-funded surf video documentary, was released in 2000. Sunny Garcia Surfing, a video game for Sony's PlayStation 2, was released in 2001. Garcia was also featured in Boarding House: North Shore, a 2003 reality TV series for the WB channel, and to nobody's suprise, he was best remembered for being verbally and sometimes physically abusive.
Garcia ranked #14 on Surfer magazine's 2002 list of the "25 Most Powerful People in Surfing." In 2010, he was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame at Huntington Beach, California. Garcia has been married three times. His second wife was Raina Cabell, daughter of 1960s surf hero Joey Cabell.
In 2015, Garcia was elected to the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame.