He may have the appearance of riches, but beneath the clothes we find a man, and beneath the man... we find his nucleus. Nacho Florence stuffs the burrito on a sand-covered Backdoor. (Van Dyke)

Last Ever Showdown At The Pipeline?

“The two best surfers of this generation!”

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This might be the last time a World Title is won at Pipeline.

From 2019, the WSL is planning to start the season with Pipe Masters, not end it. Pipe will be replaced, we hear, by a Mentawai boat trip finals series featuring the top men and women. Sounds intriguing, dreamy even, although I’m not entirely sure I want my world title deciders to be dreamy. No, give me Second Reef Pipe, ten feet at 16 seconds. Give me a limestone sandwich. Give me beating hearts bursting from chest cavities. Give me grown men delaminating, so busy surfing for their life they forget they’re even surfing for the title.

But before the world title sails off into equatorial waters to a Jack Johnson soundtrack (what are the chances he’ll stow away and play Bubble Toes live?) we’re at least going to see two surfers walk through the fire one last time. We’re at least going to see John Florence surf for a world title at Pipeline, surfing for his birthright… against the one guy on tour he’d truly fear out there.

The last time a Hawaiian won the men’s world title on Hawaiian sand, John John was 11.

You might remember it, as it’s remained the gold standard for world title finishes ever since. Andy. Kelly. The pair paddling out for the final of the Pipe Masters, the winner taking both Pipe and the world title. Kelly telling Andy on the shore that he loved him, Andy confused then furious, unsure if he was being played. Andy’s winning Backdoor wave. Andy being chaired up through the rapturous Hawaiian crowd. Kelly, a broken figure, standing under the shower in Jack Johnson’s backyard in tears.

Brah, that one ran deep.

Gabby whisking up a storm. Will he rain on JJF’s parade at Pipe? Time will tell. (Wilson)

That day, however, was merely the final battle in a psychological war the pair waged against each other in the weeks beforehand. Kelly walking into Andy’s house looking for a phantom golf companion. Andy barking at Kelly in the channel at Sunset, just after Kelly had lost his heat, “Brah, you lost the title!” It was surfing’s Rumble In The Jungle. The two best surfers in the world with genuine beef, sweating in the North Shore steam oven, scrapping for a title that meant everything to both. The gravity was enormous. It forced everyone around them to take a side and if you weren’t with them, you were against them. The episode echoed through the lives of both men… still does today for Kelly, did ’til the end for Andy. And no world title ever meant more for surfing itself. It outright saved it as a relevant sporting concern.

Why did we bite so hard? The waves weren’t epic and while the surfing itself was good, it wasn’t accompanied by angels strumming harps. No, it was because we knew Andy and Kelly like family… or at least we thought we did. They were complex bastards but we knew what made them tick. They told us. They told each other. It played out publicly. It was unfiltered, unalloyed, but more than anything else deeply human. Andy became a God. Kelly became a man. The psychology was messed up.

And so we find ourselves back at Pipeline, 14 years later, with two guys who for all purposes are the Andy and Kelly of today. Heavy call, that chemistry can never be recreated, but the prospect of John Florence lining up against Gabriel Medina for the world title at Pipeline promises something future historic. This is the first all-Millennial world title showdown, the first one without the faultlessness of a Fanning campaign or the psychological Godzilla of Slater. The last time Pipeline decided a world champion without either of these two guys involved was 1993, so this marks a real milestone. You always wondered what the tour might look like without those guys and suddenly here it is.

We knew Andy and Kelly, they hung it all out there, but what about John and Gabe? How well do we really know either of them? They’ve both been on tour seven years now, both have already won world titles, but we don’t possess a nuanced understanding of what thoughts occupy their quiet moments. Who are they? Like, really? With Gabe it’s not just the cultural or the language barrier. We know Brazilian guys like Adriano well. John, meanwhile, is a still pool of deep water. He possesses an artistic and certainly an aquatic intelligence, but never wears his heart on his sleeve. Both guys are shielded inside superstar bubbles that restrict unauthorised accounts of their lives. Ironically then, as the two highest profile surfers in the world today – outside of Kelly of course – we don’t know them that well, which makes them going head-to-head for the title during a North Shore winter instructive on all levels.

Before we go too far, we need to note that Julian Wilson and Jordy Smith also have a mathematical chance at this title, but need both John and Gabe to screw the pooch royally, and that won’t happen. John and Gabe are the two best surfers on tour today. Johnny has done it easy. Always has. Gabby meanwhile goes through the gears. He scraps, and when he really wants to win, he wins. Mick Fanning recently described him as “a beast” and that’s exactly what he’s been while winning the past two events to set up a title showdown that seemed impossible mid-season.

The dynamic between John and Gabe is interesting in the way it doesn’t really exist in a mortal form. They compete, but they don’t engage, and on the North Shore this December there’ll certainly be no sparks if they don’t even see each other. They’ll keep a respectful distance. John lives down at Log Cabins, having abandoned the family nest at Ehukai and dropped a couple of mill for some privacy at the quiet end of the strip. Gabby meanwhile will post up in the Boat House at Off The Wall. This year he might even be offered the upstairs bedroom, the same one Andy slept in 14 years ago. That winter, Andy and Kelly marked their territory. They were everywhere. It seemed like there were four Andys on the North Shore, and Kelly would simply materialise in your loungeroom unannounced. John and Gabe, however, will play it cool. John in particular is anti-Millennial in his aversion to bright light. You’ll be lucky to see either of them before the contest starts.

Those eggs were a lie, Gabby. A LIE! They give me no eagle powers! They give me no nutrients! (Wilson)

In 2003, Kelly was the White Knight and this time around it will be John. When was the last time you heard someone utter a bad word about him? It simply doesn’t happen. No surfer has ever been universally adored the way Florence is, and Hawaii’s favourite son will have the islands with him. The vibe on the North Shore will be fizzing. The build-up will be something.

But Medina was born to play the Black Knight. He has Andy’s raw competitiveness, but more importantly he also has Andy’s ability to channel it into big moments in big heats. He’s two heats short of John going into Pipe, so he needs to make the moves. He’ll need to somehow knock John from his carefree tropical orbit. He’ll need to crush pretty little pictures. Make a statement in an early heat. But most importantly Gabe needs to ask himself at every turn this winter, what would Andy do?

No surfer on tour has a better home advantage than John does at Pipe, yet you sense he’s strangely vulnerable. Considering he’s the best guy out there his Masters record isn’t stellar, and he certainly hasn’t surfed for a world title at Pipe. Medina has, and did it so comfortably that after winning he came straight in, did a 10-minute interview while his semi final was in the water, then paddled back out and still won. Is John losing sleep over all this? Is John sleeping like a baby? He retires to bed at the same hour as most 80-year-olds, and as the best surfer in the world on a seven-figure salary living an idyllic Hawaiian life there isn’t probably much that would interrupt his sleep, but the idea of losing the world title to Gabe Medina on his home beach would be one of them. Medina wants this. Bad. After winning in Portugal he was supposed to do a contractually obliged sponsor trip to the Maldives, but arrived at the airport with an out-of-date passport and promptly turned around and went home to prepare for Pipe. You can bet his passport will be legit when he flies to Hawaii.

Once the contest starts they’ll be shadow boxing, as they won’t surf against each other unless they make the final, by which stage John will have won the title anyway. It becomes about allies in the draw and old favours being called in. 

Can we look at the what-ifs for a minute here. Both guys will draw wildcards, potentially in a sudden-death heat. Would a guy like, say Jamie O’Brien roll over if he drew John, who he’s surfed with since the kid was six? What if someone like Jamie drew Gabe? What happens if they get to the business end and it’s three-foot slop with Kona winds? What happens if it’s Third Reef and falling from the sky?

The biggest what-if though is what if one of them draws you-know-who? Kelly’s low seeding would mean that it would happen at a crucial early stage of the contest. If he drew Gabe, Kelly would need little encouragement to take him out of the game and win the title for John. But what if Kelly draws John? That would be some real Jedi shit right there. Peak Vader/Skywalker would be witnessed. Kelly has never surfed to lose a heat at Pipe, so could he reprogram himself for 30 minutes to do so? After two decades of creating head noise in everyone else during Pipe, Kelly might be wrestling with a few voices of his own.

“Both guys are shielded inside superstar bubbles that restrict unauthorised accounts of their lives.”

Can John John find the secret tunnelz he needs to claim his greatest victory to date? The world title and the Pipe Masters are his destiny, only Gabriel Rameses stands in his way! (Klein)

So who you taking?

If it comes down to good surf, you’d have to go with the silky walk of Florence. The joint is his, he’s been doing it since he was in diapers, he was raised by wolves out there and he’s two heats to the good. But even at legit Pipe you still wouldn’t discount Gabby. He was a minute away from winning Pipe in good surf three years ago. If it gets scrappy – imperfect, Pipe over Backdoor, turns (who swore?) – man, it kinda swings back toward Gabby. If John wins, the party will last til Christmas. If he doesn’t, the crowd will just stand there on the beach stunned like they’ve just watched the Challenger explode on take-off. That will give me just long enough to retreat to the panic room.

We might not know John and Gabe that well, but one thing is for sure… we’ll know both a little better if this thing goes into the late rounds at Pipe and they have to start surfing for their skin. It’s unlikely we’ll have a profession of love between them on the beach as they paddle out, but we’ll have the two best surfers of this generation walking through the fire at Pipeline.

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Sean Doherty