For VanDam, Clunn, it's all about respect

Kevin VanDam hadn't completed his victory lap around New Orleans Arena before fans and media started making the inevitable comparison of VanDam and legendary bass pro Rick Clunn.

VanDam had just cemented his place in bass fishing history by tying Clunn's record of four Bassmaster Classic titles, as well as equaling Clunn's feat of winning Classics in consecutive years.

VanDam's domination on the Louisiana Delta also marked his 20th career victory on the B.A.S.S. circuit, surpassing another fishing legend, Roland Martin, for all-time victories.

In 2005, ESPN initiated "The Greatest Angler Debate," devoting television programming to the question of who was the best bass angler in history. At the end of several months of programming and Internet coverage of the discussion, a fan poll picked Clunn as the greatest of all time. Martin was a close second.

So where does that put VanDam? And does VanDam's ranking among the sport's elite climb closer to the top in light of his record-tying fourth Classic title? And what about VanDam passing Martin on the career victories list? Or VanDam's ever-growing record for career B.A.S.S. earnings?

Is he the greatest of all time?

Clunn doesn't think so.

"Everybody wants to get into that comparison," Clunn said. "He's obviously the best there is right now. But is he the best ever? No."

Don't discount the Zen master's take as sour grapes.

"The only way to determine the best ever is to put me and Kevin and Tommy Martin and Roland Martin and Larry Nixon and a lot of other guys on the same body of water at the same time while we're all in our prime," Clunn said. "And guess what. That ain't gonna happen."

Clunn's point is that it's an impossible question to answer. It would be like comparing Ty Cobb and Ted Williams. Or Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.

It's slightly different because VanDam and Clunn are still active competitors on the same Elite Series circuit. But VanDam, 43, is 22 years younger than Clunn, and while no one doubts Clunn's ability to find and catch fish, it's hard to argue the younger VanDam has a physical edge in a head-to-head matchup.

But they'll never be in their fishing prime at the same time, so there's no way to make a realistic comparison. Of course, that doesn't stop fishing fans and the outdoor media from trying.

But don't expect VanDam to make any such comparison.

"Rick is the greatest bass fisherman I've ever known," VanDam said. "He's an icon. I'm flattered to be even mentioned in the same sentence with Rick."

VanDam has been a fan of Clunn's since his youth. Venerable pros Larry Nixon and Tommy Martin were also heroes to the young VanDam. 

Shortly after winning the Classic, VanDam told the story of meeting Clunn, Nixon and Martin as a 10-year-old aspiring fisherman. VanDam's brother owned a sporting goods store in Kalamazoo, Mich., and the three pros came to town for a meet-and-greet at the store, signing autographs and sharing their knowledge with local anglers."I was so nervous I could barely talk to them," VanDam said. "I remember watching Rick win his fourth Classic, and it was just unbelievable to see."

Even after VanDam joined the pro circuit, he still felt a little star-struck."When I first started out," he said, "I was just in awe of those guys."

Clunn is ready to challenge VanDam to see which one is first to claim a fifth Classic title."I sent Kevin a letter after he won his third last year," Clunn said. "I told him that it took me 15 years to win four Classics. I told him, 'I want you to catch up so we can go head to head.' Now I've got to hold up my end of the deal. And I'm not getting any younger."

Perhaps more than anyone else, Clunn understands and respects VanDam's achievements."He's found that space where only a few have been," Clunn said. "And he's not even in the next-to-last chapter of what he's writing."

For his part, VanDam isn't thumping his chest or claiming to be the best ever."I don't compete to break records or for how other people view me," he said. "I compete to win. I love the competition."