David Dudley is no stranger to last-minute triumphs. At the age of 26, he gambled on a hunch, running new water on the final day in what was then the richest bass tournament in history, capturing the M1 title as a result. Ten years later, Dudley trumped Jacob Powroznik’s miracle run at the FLW Angler of the Year title by winning the final event of the season, and taking AOY with him. This time, however, Dudley’s really got his work cut out for him.

There may be no more dangerous tournament fisherman in America than John Cox. A threat to win anytime, Cox excels on fisheries where bass inhabit shallow, clear water; his lackadaisical style of junk-fishing fitting the bill perfectly for Lake Champlain, the site of FLW’s season-ender.

This week, I spoke to each about their head-to-head battle for Angler of the Year.

For Dudley, it’s all about the record.

“I don’t even know what you win” he claimed. “I think Ranger Cup (the award) is a boat.”

For the record, the FLW AOY features a $100,000 payday. But, to those who know Dudley, it may come as no surprise that cash purses are the furthest thing from his mind. He’s made it a point in recent interviews to stress his desire to become the all-time AOY leader with four titles, but why?

What’s so bad about just riding along as the all-time money winner, satisfied with a rock-solid career?

“When you’re satisfied, you hit a plateau and level off. You become complacent,” Dudley interjected. “And that’s when things are gonna crumble; that’s when you’re gonna fall down.”

Dudley insisted that he’s more excited about the potential of winning this AOY title than any of his previous three, again citing the record: “It’s another belt I can hold; momentarily.”

Without question, Dudley’s constant push to rewrite the record books is the motivator that drives him. But I wonder, can such a drive last forever?

His take on retirement got nowhere. “Yeah, I think about it. I’d like to; 25 years at a job is a long time. But it’s the only thing I know, and I like what I do,” Dudley said. “My wife says I’ll never quit. I’ll probably just be like Larry Nixon and fish forever.”

Dudley mentioned that his newest passion is developing content for his YouTube channel, David Dudley Outdoors. But our conversation turned back to the race at hand almost immediately.

“It’s going to be a good battle, I can tell you that. It’s going to come down to day 3 or 4.”

When asked about his closest competitor, Dudley confirmed winning will be no cakewalk. “Cox was born with polarized lenses in his eyelids. He’s gonna find his strength and capitalize on it. He is who he is. And he’s good.”

You’d never know that talking to the man himself. Cox has a humility about him not common in bass pros, where confidence can sometimes be overwhelming.

“I got to watch Dudley win Angler of the Year (in 2012), and I remember thinking, Man, that would be awesome one day."

With a Forrest Wood Cup title to his credit, as well as a handful of other national wins, by now Cox must feel deserving of his accomplishments. “I never (expected) I’d win any of them,” he rebutted “but I envisioned that I’d like to be in that position.”

While Cox admits that the title – and the money – would be a plus for him, winning is everything.

This season has been one of major turmoil in Cox’s career, as he cut ties with a major sponsor and currently competes without a title brand. Tournament wins help fill in the holes financially, but they also solidify a career based on an old-school mentality.

Cox falls back on the belief that a professional bass fisherman’s primary job is to compete successfully in tournaments, not excel at the negotiating table, under television spotlights or on social media outlets. Fish for money, and win.

I joked with him, mentioning how such was the theme behind the careers of yesteryear, when guys like Tommy Martin and Ricky Clunn were starting out. Cox mentioned how things have changed in modern times: “I had a company talking to me about sponsorship and they said they didn’t even care if I won,” he mentioned in disbelief. “I told them it wasn’t for me then.”

As a consummate grinder, Cox values nothing higher than Angler of the Year as a way to prove his ability. He defined Champlain as his “favorite lake," but I quickly reminded him that he recently said the same thing about Lake Chickamauga, sight of his last two wins.

“Yeah, Chickamauga was my second favorite, then I said it was my first; I don’t know. I just like Champlain. It really starting clicking the last time I was there (the 2018 Bassmaster Open, where Cox finished 11th), and I wanted to go back ever since.”

When things start clicking for John Cox, the leaderboard reflects it.

In the end, the FLW Angler of the Year title will be a battle between two of the Tour’s best. Sure, an outside competitor could win, but my money’s on the guys at the top. Dudley’s always on ‘em, and Cox is on fire.

They’ll both go down swinging.

(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)