Image by Jack Barripp

Spring loaded

This story is from the latest issue of SW on sale.

The first time I met Italo Ferreira I had no idea who he was. I was in a lift at the Rainbow Commodore apartments in Coolangatta, the day before the new surf season was about to start at Snapper. As the lift door closed a hand shot in and pried it open. The hand’s owner soon followed it in; a short, spring-haired Latino guy in boardies, dripping wet and carrying his board. I asked him how the waves were. “So goodch,” came the soft reply, an awkward smile covering his lack of further English to elaborate. Rainbow De Janeiro was full of itinerant Brazilian surfers at that point and this guy didn’t look out of place at all. What I didn’t know was that the following day this guy would paddle out in the contest and beat Kelly Slater.

Italo Ferreira is a bit harder to miss these days. He’s rocked frosties all year – his hair colour ranging between platinum and orange – and the party shirt has been his contest uniform. His primary form of locomotion walking around contest sites is a swivel-hipped shuffle, dancing to a soundtrack only he can hear. His energy has been contagious, but it’s his surfing that’s made Italo Ferreira the star of the show this year.

This is the fifth year of the Brazilian era. Ever since Gabe Medina won the title back in 2014 these guys have dominated the tour. Gabby, Electric Phil Toledo, and now Italo. The power balance has well and truly shifted but the language barrier has prevented us – the English-speaking surf powers – from truly getting to know our new surfing overlords. Our Portuguese is, as you might say, is deselegante. It’s only now after years of them schooling us that we’re starting to understand who they really are. Phil Toledo is the more considered, mature, family man. Gabe Medina has been more cold blooded than hot blooded, more than willing to play Black Knight at a time when pro surfing badly needed one. Italo meanwhile has the least English of them all, yet we probably get a better sense of him.

Italo in France 2019 shot by Ryan Miller

There’s a physical expressiveness to the way he gets around, both on land and in the water, that says more than a post-heat interview ever could. The WSL have worked it out and keep a camera on him at all times. They even kept a camera on him after he walked into a portable dunny at Bells last year, filming the dunny shake and roar as Italo conversed with the Big Guy before the final. The fact his English isn’t great just fuels the pantomime. He’s there to win, but he also knows he’s there to entertain, and that’s why he might be the WSL’s most valuable commodity right now. He’s a fun cat to watch.

But while he’s showy, the guy has also surfed tough this year. At Bells he got washed across the Winki Button on the big day… the biggest day we’d seen at Bells maybe since ’81. Guys have died on that rock, and by the time he’d been washed into Winkipop, Italo had a sense of how lucky he’d been. Margaret River next. When the event got switched across the channel to The Box, Italo had every right to feel a gurgle deep inside. It was six-foot-plus, wind howling out of the river valley. Cold. Sketchy. He’d caught just one wave out there before. The Box meanwhile had already become a pine box for countrymen Toledo and Medina. Instead, Italo paddled out and took off blind as near-dry reef waited below, licking its chops. Italo freefell into the pit, jammed an inside rail, felt the lip tickle his frosties… and was somehow shot into the channel. Half skill, half sheer will. Italo has showed up every time it’s been serious this year.

He’s also won a dozen dizzy heats, oscillating wildly. His two event wins this year were in anaemic beachbreaks at D-Bah and Supertubes, both secured with wild backhand rotors. I might have used this before but his beachbreak surfing reminds me of an 8-bit Super Mario Bros game. He just boings down the line, clearing obstacles. The pop he gets feels almost comical.

He’s by far the most watchable surfer on tour… if not the most watchable surfer in the world. Last year I sat and watched him surf an onshore eight-foot day at Pipe, alone. He didn’t just sit on Pipe and focus on the lefts. He focused on everything. He surfed lefts, but took a couple of Backdoor waves. He surfed an Off The Wall right and even a left. He rode a bunch of these to the beach, doing shovits in the shorebreak. It was shit nobody else ever does – just him – and it’s because he surfs what’s in front of him. He doesn’t come from surf lineage back home. He learned to surf on his own. He doesn’t drag coaches around with him on tour, and has learned that too on his own. There is no conditioning with Italo; just instinct.

Italo just won the Surfer poll, the first time a Brazilian surfer has taken out pro surfing’s annual popularity contest. By the time you’re reading this – God bless print – Italo Ferreira may have won the world title. An Italo world title will look very different to what we’re used to. We’re used to seeing world titles won on intensity. A winning system. Some blinding natural talent.

No one yet has danced to a world title.