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We promise this won't (really) hurt.

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Every Best Surfer Of The Last Sixteen Years

Every Best Surfer Of The Last Sixteen Years

Photo: Brian Clifford
Words: Jake Howard

Just because John Florence is champion of the world doesn’t mean that every year the best surfer in the world wins the title.

For the sake of comparison, Stab waded back through the mists of time, looked at the last 16 years on tour, and picked our own champs. Sometimes our calls jive with what the establishment decided. Sometimes, they don’t. There’s no disputing that at certain points in their respective careers Kelly, Andy and Mick have all been “the best,” but because we love ourselves some controversy, we’ve also identified a few folks that stole our hearts despite their lack of silverware.

2001: Taylor Knox

Above: Taylor Knox’s greatest skill as a surfer has always been to stay as close to, and completely harness, the power source of a wave. It makes for an approach that drips in energetic strength. And in 2001, when aerial surfing was not yet the performance requirement it is today, Taylor’s game was the hottest in the biz.

Photo: Tom Servais
Words: Jake Howard

In 1999 Taylor Knox fell off the world tour, before quickly requalifying for ’01.

Once again on surfing’s main stage, his rail game had never been better. But 2001 was a weird year in surfing. The terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC forced the ASP to abbreviate their season, which subsequently handed CJ Hobgood the world title. 

“There were only five events on tour because of September 11,” recalls Jake Paterson, who was also contending for the title. “It was a crazy year for everyone. Kelly wasn’t on tour and Taylor was in the title race. He ripped everywhere and I viewed him as the guy that didn’t change his surfing to impress the judges. He stayed pure to his own rail game, which I just simply loved.”

Without question, CJ could very well have gone on to win the title in a full-length season, but there will always be the nagging question of what could have been? Going into the Rip Curl Cup at Sunset Beach, there were a total of nine surfers vying for the title. Taylor was one wave away from winning it all, he just needed a third at Sunset (if Jake had finished first or second he would have won the title). Taylor ended up waiting out the back on the West Bowl for a bomb that never came.

“This is definitely one of the most crucial events in ASP history,” ASP CEO Rabbit Bartholomew said at the time. “Never before have there been so many contenders for the world title.”

Taylor concluded the shortened season ranked forth in the world, his best finish in his storied 22-year career on tour.

2002-2004: Andy Irons

Above: Andy Irons is a difficult surfer to talk about. How can words do justice the fury, the raw power? Stab adores this image of AI for its understated nature. It appears, at first glance, just another North Shore photo, but look closer and you’ll see a foaming, boiling, churning thunderclap, hovering on the edge of brilliance and catastrophe: Both wave and man. For a few loud years, Andy was just everything.

Photo: Ted Grambeau
Words: Jake Howard

Andy Irons burned white hot. From 2002 through 2004, nobody was better. Even the greatest of all time couldn’t touch him.

“Andy would go, he would take off on anything,” said Kelly in Puerto Rico in 2010, shortly after hearing the news of Andy’s passing. “The guy was crazy for any wave that came his way.”

In the three-year period between ’02 and ’04, Andy owned the world title. But that’s hardly all. He dominated the Triple Crown as well. And when it came to video parts, Taylor Steele’s Campaign dropped in 2003 and Jack McCoy’s Blue Horizon came out in 2004. Both are now considered required viewing. In 2002 Australia’s Surfing Life Peer Poll voted him the best surfer in the world. He won the 2002 and 2003 Surfer Magazine Readers Poll Awards, and was inducted into the Surfer’s Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach in 2003. His Billabong Rising Sun boardshorts remain one of the most lucrative campaigns in the history of the surf industry.

“Andy Irons, three years on the trot and no one could touch him,” remembers Jake Paterson. “Kelly did his best but not even the greatest of all time could stop this raging bull. For me this was the best rivalry of all time. Andy didn’t care how many titles Kelly had won. Andy was just out to destroy him and anyone else that got in his way. I loved every minute of watching those two go head to head over these years.”

No doubt, Andy was a competitive motherfucker. Nobody hated losing more than he did. More than one surfboard met its demise after a losing heat. But Andy wasn’t a surf jock, he was the people’s champ with a punk rock edge. One of his all-time favourite surfers was Archy, and it was that full-power, hammer-dropping, “built for speed” approach that came to define his impeccable style. Smashing sections that he had no business smashing, fading at Cloudbreak when every other surfer would have beelined it to the shoulder, sucking himself over the ledge at 15-foot Chopes before that was a thing, or spitting fire on anyone unfortunate enough to draw him in a heat, the man knew no fear. Andy surfed and lived life with an inspiring, and occasionally reckless, rage.

“He was fucking gnarly. There’s a reason we called that first film Raw Irons,” says Jason Kenworthy, who filmed and produced Andy’s first film, Raw Irons. “I mean, he wore his emotions on his sleeve and everything he did, he put his full heart into. By the time he started winning his titles, I don’t think there’s anyone that could have stopped him.” 

It’s been six years since Andy was found dead in a Texas hotel room and not a day goes by that the surfing world doesn’t miss him. It will never be the same. How could it be? He was a once-in-a-lifetime existence.

“Live and learn, live and learn,” said Andy in an interview the year before he passed. Both professionally and personally he’d gone through his struggles, but at the time he was piloting his own production company, was loving surfing and had a baby on the way. He had a lot to look forward to. “Unfortunately, some people like to remember what you did wrong and not what you did right, and I hate hearing about it.”

Andy did so many things right. Hopefully today he’s resting in peace knowing that we all remember him for the thunder he brought into this world. 

“There will never be another one like him,” surmises Kelly.

2005-2006: Kelly Slater

Above: Oh, how aerial surfing has evolved. And yet, look at the trajectory Kelly was gripping heelside through, over 10 years ago. No more technically-perfect, competitively-mechanical surfer will ever exist again. Kelly is the most important surfer of all time; and the height and control of this 10-year-old air serves as one sentence in a biblical volume of evidence.

Photo: Andrew Shields
Words: Jake Howard

By 2005 it had been seven years since Kelly had won a world title. He’d retired, come out of retirement, been beaten into submission by Andy Irons, and there was a big question as to whether or not the then-six-time world champ had enough left in the tank.

“Just when some people were saying it was time for him to maybe give it up, Kelly came back with an incredibly special year,” recalls Jake Paterson. “I think the three titles that Andy took from him really changed Kelly, and he knew he had to step it up – and step it up he did. He is a freak. I would love to know what motivates him. I really hope I get a coaching job on the CT in 2017 because I want to see his last charge at a title. I believe he can win if he changes back to riding normal boards and it’s a year that most events score good waves. I really can’t wait!”

One of the places that Kelly found inspiration was in the Quiksilver Young Guns program. The three-part film series featuring Dane Reynolds, Julian Wilson, Jeremy Flores and Clay Marzo, gave Kelly a chance to surf and travel with the next generation. Maybe the smartest man in surfing, he soaked up every air reverse and grab they attempted, and morphed it into his own mind-bending repertoire.

“To see where a lot of young surfers nowadays are doing manoeuvres and the way they’re looking at the wave, the way their board looks when they ride on the water, and the positions they can get in... you have to keep all that in your mind to stay fresh and to change and be able to come up with something a little innovative compared to what you’ve been doing,” said  Kelly after a 2005 team trip to the Mentawais. “I’ve always been one to soak in what other people are doing and take that into account and use it myself.”

And use it, he did. That year Kelly posted his now-famous perfect heat at Teahupoo. It was the first perfect heat in the two-wave scoring era, and still stands as the gold standard for what’s possible in a jersey out there.

“In the final, I can’t explain it… I wasn’t expecting to get two perfect 10s, but I knew it was possible out there, and that someone could do it,” said Kelly after the final. The path to his record seventh title that year would serve as the impetus behind the film Letting Go, which was released in 2006. 

In ’06, Kelly’s winning percentage went through the roof. He started the year by winning the first two events and, with the exception of skipping Brazil and a fifth in the Rip Curl Search contest in Mexico, he made the semis or final in every event after that. He got second in the last two events of the year and waltzed to an eighth world title. The only hitch in his giddy-up was the mind-blowing back-and-forth final between he and Andy at the Pipe Masters. Andy won Pipe, Kelly won the title. 

“It got to the point where I was pretty much spectating our there,” said Rob Machado, who found himself in the final with the two arch rivals. “I wish I would have seen it from the beach.”

“I couldn’t think of a better way to lose a world title,” surmised Andy.

2007: Taj Burrow

Above: Yeah yeah yeah, Taj never won a world title blah blah blah. Who fucking cares. This gent has done more to keep progressive surfing invigorated across more generations than anyone. I mean, he popularised and normalised the finner (pictured here)! Having said all that, if there was a year Taj was gonna experience the apex of competitive success… 2007 was it.

Photo: Andrew Shields
Words: Jake Howard

“God I would have loved to see Taj win a title,” says Jake Paterson. “Maybe I’m a little biased, but I think Taj was the man in 2007. Mick was incredibly consistent and took the title.

But back in those days anyone who beat King Kelly in the ratings was on fire. Taj finished second and Kelly finished third.”

Taj finished runner-up to the title thanks to two defining victories. The 1998 Rookie of the Year had been starved for wins since 2002, but somehow it all clicked in 2007. It started with a come-from-behind swoop on Andy in a banger of a final at Bells. Behind the eight ball the whole heat, in the dying seconds Taj clicked into a nine-point ride to upset the three-time world champ.

“Best win of my career, for sure,” said Taj afterwards. “I just wanted to win that one more than anything in my whole life or career. I just really wanted that one…. I’ve had so many bridesmaids over the last couple of years and to get this monkey off my back, it feels really good!”

But Taj, who’s lightning fast tail whips and comprehensive aerial repertoire was the creme of progressive surfing at the time, was just starting to roll. A couple of months later, he and Kelly went toe to toe on the bricks at J-Bay. Again, Taj took the win. Surfing four heats that day, Kelly was candid when asked about his loss to Taj. “I was just tired mentally and physically at that point, and Taj put it together. He made me sit out in the water and wait a bit which I was kind of bummed about. But it paid off for him.”

In the span of two contests, Taj had beaten the two most iconic surfers of the era. 

But TB’s act was always about more than what he did in a jersey. After a string of video hits that included Sabotaj, Montaj, and Trilogy, in 2007 he appeared in Fair Bits, which featured a cameo by comedian Ben Stiller as a parking lot derelict. “Ooo, helicopter boy!” he taunts as Taj punts.

“Everything that Taj has contributed to surfing, it’s amazing,” said John John after the two surfed heat of year at the 2016 Fiji Pro. “I’ve been watching him since I was a little kid, his airs, winning events, and he and Mick and those guys just getting me psyched to be on this tour. That was one of the best heats of my life.”

2008: Kelly Slater

Above: You’re goddamn right this is a floater shot. Good surfing isn’t all just aesthetic. It’s philosophical. It’s considering, in a split second, to change a vertical re-entry into a vertically-approached power floater (see trailing spray). And the reason he’s been surfing’s guiding spirit for so very long, is that Kelly is one of the sport’s great philosophers.

Photo: Andrew Shields
Words: Jake Howard

It’s 2008 when Kelly’s surfboard design takes an abrupt left turn. At the Pipe Masters he unveils the “Deep Six” – a 5’11” collab between himself and Al Merrick. Somehow, he wins in pumping six to eight-foot Pipe.

“Kelly worked with Channel Islands’ CAD software and library of designs to marry a 7’0” K-Step and a 6’0” K-Board into a completely original 5’11” with the wide point pushed forward,” explains Travis Lee, who was running point on team boards for C.I. before departing to help start Slater Designs. “Once our in-house CNC machine milled the blank based on Kelly’s specs, he walked the board over to Al’s shaping room to have him put his finishing touches on the Deep Six. This 5’11”x 18.5” x 2.5” round pin enabled Kelly to get into the hollow waves earlier and deeper, allowing for adjustments that only a shorter board can provide.”

The Deep Six seemed like such an anomaly at the time, but look at the cues guys like Craig Anderson and Hayden Cox have utilised in barreling Indo waves. Kelly was, needless to say, ahead of his time. Again.

By this stage in his career, his resurgence was at its zenith. He’d finally slayed the dragon on his back that was Andy Irons. And in ’08, with Mick, Parko and Taj surging, he was hungry to separate himself from the pack even more. By the time the tour rolled into rainy Mundaka, all he had to do was make a couple of heats to clinch his ninth title. And here’s where the experience of Kelly was really evident.

Before his round three heat against Basque wildcard Eneko Acero, Kelly ducked behind the scaffolding where the ASP trophy was being kept. All he had to do was beat Eneko and it was his. He walked up to the trophy, cautiously checked to make sure nobody was watching, then grabbed a beach towel and bottle of water and washed out the bowl. Thirty minutes later he was drinking champagne out of it in front of hundreds of soaked European fans.

“Mick had this thing last year. Who knows where it’s been?” he joked later.

And, the Pipe Masters win on that freaky little Deep Six? “That was fun.”

2009: Joel Parkinson

Above: Joel’s most well-known for his frontside power game. So naturally, Stab chose to run two shots of him in this feature surfing backside (where could the other image be?). Either way, Joel is a masterful linesman, and has carried back-footed power into the front-footed era with sincere grace.

Photo: Andrew Shields
Words: Jake Howard

It’s a good thing that Parko won a world title in 2012, otherwise 2009 would haunt him until the end of his days.

He started the year by winning the first two events, then made the semis in Brazil and won J-Bay. Then, at the season’s halfway break, Parko took a trip to Bali and fate jammed its head in. Practicing air reverses, he landed wrong and clicked his ankle.

“When I first did it and felt the pain, I thought it was a compound fracture,” Joel told Stab. “I thought for sure the bone had broken the skin. I actually wasn’t trying to make the air. I knew I was hurt, but I couldn’t get off. I was stuck on there, left standing there on my bad ankle. Then I rolled off my board and I don’t remember much. It made a really horrible noise. When it first happened and I couldn’t isolate the pain, it felt like it ripped right through me. It was like in my throat even. It wasn’t a flesh or a bone sound so much, but it was like tearing tarps.”

Parko tried to hide the injury a month later at the Hurley Pro at Lowers, but when he lost to Rob Machado, observers started to suspect the injury was more serious than he was leading on. He ended up tearing ligaments in the ankle and limping his way to the finish line.

“What-ifs don’t matter,” said Parko. “If there had’ve been good waves, I would’ve been sweet at Trestles. Same as Europe. I could go in a line, I just couldn’t go up and down as well. I could still carve on an open wall. F**k. It wasn’t to be.”

“He was on fire the first half of the season, then hurt his ankle playing around on a Kuta shorebreak,” says Jake Paterson. “He still almost pulled it off, but Mick nailed him at Pipe.”

In the end, Mick and Parko were in the water together when the title was decided. Parko lost his heat while Mick was waiting in the channel for his heat. 

“We just sort of sat there and hugged and chatted about what’d happened over the last few days and how nervous we both were,” Mick said afterward. “It was hard to watch what happened to him this year. He had such a stranglehold on it and then he had that ankle injury, so as a friend it was hard to watch that. If I wasn’t in the race I would have been gunning for Joel for sure.”

2010: Dane Reynolds

Above: Depending on who you ask, Dane was the best surfer in the world for far more years than just 2010. But this is an opinion piece and the thing about those is, they tend to vary (in your Stab editor’s opinion, there was no better surfer from 2009 to 2012). This turn is a violent example of what Dane could jam (and yeah, ride away from) whilst at his finest.

Photo: Ryan Miller
Words: Jake Howard

In 2010, Kelly dominated the then-ASP tour, winning four events, making two more finals and three other semis to win his 10th title world title.

By November, the surfing world was brought to its collective knees with the shocking, tragic death of Andy. It was a storybook season in many ways, and like any well-crafted novel there was no shortage of subplots… brightest among them, the barrier-smashing surfing of Dane Reynolds. 

“He’s the best surfer in the world right now,” muttered Kelly in disbelief after Dane’s much-ballyhooed final against Parko at the Quik Pro. 

At Snapper, Parko ended up with the win, but Dane was the toast of the town. After jumping on tour in 2008, by 2010 Dane was pure fire. He’d bought into the competitor’s dream and was as much a stone-faced killer as his gentle personality allowed. His surfing was radical and explosive. His web property, Marine Layer Productions, was flourishing. He was coming off a breakout performance in Kai Neville’s seminal Modern Collective in 2009 and filming for Lost Atlas, which would come out in 2011. He finished runner-up at the 2010 Surfer Poll, surf’s annual popularity contest.

“Shit, man, number two’s pretty high,” stammered Dane from the podium. “I’d like to thank my sponsors for still being stoked on me because if this was the real world and I was, like, an employee or something, I’d probably have been fired a long time ago.”

In one of the craziest seasons in recent memory on tour, Dane ended up finishing ranked forth. It would be the best competitive year of his career. By 2011, he’d grow disillusioned with tour life, slide down to 38th in the world and fall back into freesurfing.

“We really travel around the world to have people give us scores while we’re out surfing? It’s just retarded,” he said in an interview.    

Thanks to that lack of fucks given, Dane’s popularity has hardly waned since he walked away from it all, but in 2010, as Kelly said, Dane was the best in the world.

2011: Owen Wright

Above: Mr Thomas Carey captured this image of Owen down in Mexico, during filming for Kai Neville’s sophomore masterpiece, Lost Atlas. It was taken a few months before Owen would go on to make three consecutive world tour finals with Kelly Slater, and win the only world tour event ever held in New York, which came with the biggest payday in surf history ($300k for one event). This was a simpler time of tacos and sand-bottom lefts, a leisurely dance before a year of thunder.

Photo: Tom Carey
Words: Jake Howard

In 2011 Owen Wright came to New York City for the first time, smoked Kelly in the final of the Quik Pro, banked $300k – the biggest prize in the history of pro surfing – and then vanished.

“I went into the city by myself and had some fun,” laughed Owen a few years later. “I think people started to get worried, but I just wanted to check it all out and was doing my own thing.”

Owen was on his own program all year. Earlier in the season he’d announced his presence at Teahupoo. The year of the historic Code Red swell, Kelly ended up getting the best of Owen in the final a few days after the massive swell peaked, but Owen was obviously tickled by the experience.

“That tow day spun me out, I was the most nervous I have ever been,” he said. “I was sitting with Dean Bowen and I was asking, ‘Do you reckon I could do it?’ and he went, ‘Don’t do it. You’re still in the main event’ and I went, ‘Yeah, alright.’ I could use that as an excuse because a lot of me really didn’t want to do it, but looking at those barrels and not giving it a go was pretty tough.”

After Tahiti, with reef wounds still fresh on his feet, he went to New York. When he finally emerged from the bowels of the Bowery it was time to head west for the Hurley Pro. And once again, he and Kelly would find themselves battling in the final.

“Owen is definitely keeping me honest,” said Kelly in 2011, who eventually clocked his 11th world title at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. “He’s got a huge bag of tricks, he’s good in all kinds of waves, he really wants it, I think. You can see he really loves competing and he loves pushing himself against the best guys… and I love the same thing.”

In a nod to Owen’s bright future, Kelly added, “Maybe it’s fitting that he’s coming into his career and I’m probably finishing mine.”

But maybe the highest praise when Kelly compared him to his fallen rival.

“Andy was the kind of guy that really pushed it, he didn’t back down from anybody anywhere, and Owen’s kind of that same thing with maybe a different approach. He definitely has that ‘let’s do this’ attitude.”

2012: Joel Parkinson

Above: You’ll remember that one day in 2012, during the Volcom Fiji Pro. What you may not remember is that Joel, along with Mick Fanning, the Hobgoods, John Florence and select others, made up very a small number of WCT surfers who took a swing at the growing swell with the full-time brave dogs, once the contest was called off. That’s the kinda surfer Mr Parkinson is.

Photo: Andrew Shields
Words: Jake Howard

After more than a decade on tour, after all the hype and heartbreak, it finally came together for Parko in 2012.

Not only did he blitz in countless heats, ooze consistency, and freesurf all year with the aura of an unstoppable man at the peak of his performance, but he also finally got his world title. 

“He must have been super sick of being a bridesmaid,” chides Jake Paterson. “He really stepped it up.”

After his near miss in 2009, Parko stayed steady and consistent in 2012. Kelly would ultimately win three events, but Parko’s string of top five results was enough to bring the title chase to Pipe. 

“I could feel the tension between those two,” says Mick Fanning. “They’re both very aware of how good each other is at surfing, and very aware of exactly how dangerous each other is.”

Coming down to the semifinals, when Kelly lost to Josh Kerr, Parko’s dream was realised. At his victory celebration at the Billabong house, he wore a shirt that read: “I finally fucking won.”

“He just makes it looks so easy,” said Kelly, who was one heat away from his 12th title. “He’s ultra smooth, charges, pulls out wins when he needs to. I’m really happy for him.”

“He was super consistent and didn’t win an event this year until the last event at Pipe, but if you ask me, there couldn’t be a better way to win a title than winning Pipe as a kicker as well,” says Snake.

2013: Mick Fanning

Above: While there’s no such thing as too many Mick Fanning frontside wraps, Stab chose a brief departure to a moment that was celebrated thoroughly by surf photographers throughout the 90s: The backhand 12 o’clock. This one, in Hawaii. You could truly set your watch to Mick’s surfing.

Photo: Ryan Miller
Words: Jake Howard

Beaten by Kelly on his home turf at Kirra on an all-time day. Beaten by Kelly at the Fiji Pro in steaming Cloudbreak. Going into the Pipe Masters, Mick Fanning needed to make the semifinals to seal his third title. Kelly needed to win the contest.

It’s said that everything has to go right to win the title, and at the Pipe Masters in 2013, it all fell into place for Mick. A loss to John Florence and Nat Young in round four knocked him into a heat against CJ Hobgood. It wasn’t really going his way, until it was.

“The game plan going into that heat was to go out and try and get a couple of sixes and sevens early,” recalls Mick. “And then wait for the gem. That didn’t happen.”

CJ went on a tear and left Mick in a deep hole. Needing an excellent score, with less than 90 seconds on the clock, a bump hit second reef. Mick swung. Mick faded. Mick scored. 

Into the quarters, Yadin Nicol was ready and waiting. Much like CJ in the heat before, Yadin got to work early, and again, Mick would need a last-minute prayer to save his title dreams. Which, somehow, he found again. The score dropped, and he was a three-time world champion in some royal company.

“I’ve never put myself in the same circles as Tom Curren and Andy Irons,” said Mick after some time to reflect. “Tom is such an enigma and was so instrumental to injecting style into our sport. Andy... what hasn’t been said about Andy? He was such a legend and he was such a good friend. I’m honoured to be a part of this group. I was happy with one title and I was overwhelmed with two. With three? I don’t have words for that.”

The year before, Mick’s pal, Parko, robbed Kelly of a 12th world title, and now it was Mick’s turn.

“Not taking anything away from Mick’s other’s titles, but for me this was his best year,” says Jake Paterson. “In my eyes, Mick is the ultimate pro surfer. He trains hard and surfs every wave hard. He doesn’t leave one stone unturned in his preparation and is the most focused guy I know in a heat.”

“Mick has been focused all year,” said a bewildered Kelly after the Pipe Masters. “It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly where my year didn’t stack up… a world title is a yearlong thing.”

2014: Gabriel Medina

Above: This is Gabriel in his weakest surfing facet; overhead barrels. But like everything in the sport, he’s systematically improving that element. As Kelly Slater says: “Medina can win titles in his sleep, he’s so competitive and well-rounded. It will be good to see how the next few years will pan out.”

Photo: Ted Grambeau
Words: Jake Howard

In 2014, Gabriel Medina arrived and brought the Storm with him. Becoming Brazil’s first world champion, he crushed the glass of a new era in the sport of pro surf.

“He showed the world he was going to be a force to be reckoned with in all kind of waves,” says Jake Paterson. “Winning Chopes in eight to 10-foot perfect waves. Winning Snapper on his backhand. How many surfers in the world can claim that?”

Winning is one thing, but growing the sport? That’s the golden goose. Consider the impact Gabriel had on the Billabong Pro, Tahiti viewership. The WSL reports that over 12 million people tuned in. “Today will go down as one of the best days of surfing in my career, no question,” said Kelly, who didn’t have an answer for Gabriel in the final. “He was in rhythm all event and specifically in the Final, and he’s on fire this year.”

“I went home to talk to my mom, and the words she said inspired me: ‘No one is bigger than God,’ and I trust in God,” said Gabriel. “I think that was him. I am so blessed to have these conditions at Chopes.” 

Ignoring the Brazilian contingency’s love of thanking an invisible force (often rather than their own skill), Gabs all but made a god of himself at home. Reaching the level of mega sports star in Brazil, he’s singlehandedly elevated the sport to the level of soccer – which says a lot. This is a country that loves any sport they’re the best at, and Gabs was certainly the best in 2014.

“Gabriel is a very focused and he knows what he wants for his life and career,” said soccer superstar, Neymar. “The pressure will always exist for an athlete that’s always competing. Anxiety will always get you, but our dream speaks louder.”

The title race came down to Pipe, where 20-year-old Gabs mustered enough energy to fight off Kelly and Mick. Gabs finished second in the Pipe Masters to Julian Wilson, and like that, the title was his. “It is because of my support team that I’m here tonight,” Gabs said after receiving the silverware. “My family, my friends, my fellow surfers on tour and my country. Brazil never had a world champion before.”

“There’s no denying it... this guy lit it up all year,” said Kelly. “A very deserving world champion in Gabriel Medina. He set the standard of straight up shredding and competitive savvy, and in doing so switched his position from challenger to leader. With the weight of a country on his shoulders, he made all the right choices to keep his head on straight and achieve his dream.”

2015: Filipe Toledo

Above: While its death was already imminent, Filipe Toledo fell the hammer upon the reverted air-reverse, rendering it completely useless through his love of full rotations. While his bigger wave game is evolving, in 2015 he was the featherweight champ; Unbeatable in the knee to chest high realm. Big wave skill or not, what Filly does is art.

Photo: Ryan Miller
Words: 1Jake Howard

2015 was Filipe Toledo’s year, until it wasn’t. He caught fire early, sliding three wins into his wallet, and was only 200 points behind Mick going into Pipe.

Typecast as the guy that whirlybirds in three foot surf, but can’t hold a rail to save a life, when you’re dropping 10s in finals it doesn’t matter what people say. While Adriano De Souza scratched a severe itch and kept the cup in Sao Paulo, Filipe lit more fires and blitzed more webcasts in 2015 than anyone else.

To start the year, he dismantled Julian Wilson in the final at Snapper with a blistering 19.60 total. 

He made the quarters at Bells and fell on his face in Margaret River, before returning to his adopted home of San Clemente and winning the Oakley Lowers Pro. “The world title is definitely on my mind and I can’t wait to get that yellow jersey back again,” he said at the time, in increasingly proficient English.

“Toledo is the man, and the best surfer in the world in these conditions, for sure,” noted runner-up Jeremy Flores. 

Then the tour went to Rio, and Filipe mainlined the swarming crowd’s energy straight into his veins. It was hardly surprising when he waxed Bede Durbidge in the final. “Filipe is only 20 and he’s going to be hard to stop,” said Bede. 

As probably to be expected, Filipe stumbled in more serious waves. Fiji, J-Bay and Teahupoo weren’t kind to him. He wore some dings at Chopes, and slipped in the ratings.

“Filipe won all three events in the same size surf,” argues Damien Fahrenfort. “Gabs (Medina) won his events in pumping waves. Had he not been so ripped off at Lowers, he would have been a lot closer come Pipe, where he got second. Some of the most dominant backside surfing I have ever seen, too. Early world champ jitters got him even though he was surfing incredibly.”

But a third place finish for Filipe at the Hurley Pro, Lowers got him back in the mix. It was an event he probably should have won, given the roll he was on, but just the same, he left feeling pumped up.

“I was out of the water for two weeks after Tahiti with an elbow injury, but after my performance yesterday I got my focus and momentum back,” Fill prophetically remarked after an early-round win beyond the tracks.

In Portugal, he dropped hammers on Italo in the final. “If I had to describe him in one word, it would be aggressive,” suggested countryman Miguel Pupo.

Hawaii could have gone better for Filipe. In the end, Adriano De Souza won the title, but it was Filipe that stole the hearts and minds. A propensity to go big, banger results all year, an ever-present appreciation for what he’s doing, a cameo in John Florence’s View From A Blue Moon… sans the biggest trophy, it was quite a year for the kid.

“He won three events and had a 10 point ride in every final,” surmises Jake Paterson. “He pushed everyone on tour to go bigger. No surprise he isn’t the best big wave tuberider, but what he did in the small stuff was nothing short of mind-blowing.” And, continues to do.

2016: John John Florence

Above: No one has ever been better than John Florence was in 2016. But despite all his achievements, it’s his character that’ll do him the most credit over his career: “What are you surfing for? You win a world title and yes, you win this thing that you’ve done all year, but you don’t change as a human. You’re still that same exact person. For me, at least, I surf because I love it and I want to surf. I didn’t change. I still came back to my house (after winning) and was like, “the waves look fun, I’m going surfing.”

Photo: Ted Grambeau
Words: Jake Howard

In 2016, and possibly in the history of pro surfing, nobody was better than John John Florence. It’d be safe to bet that nobody will ever replicate what he did in 12 months.

By winning the Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau, the Triple Crown and the WSL World Title, he pulled off a feat that has never been accomplished, and is unlikely to ever be duplicated. Since the Eddie started back in 1984, the famed big-wave contest has only run nine times, which means in the past 30 years there have only been two surfers that could have accomplished what John John did: Kelly Slater and Andy Irons. 

Kelly won the Eddie in 2002, but he struggled on tour. He was just coming out of semi-retirement and spent most of the CT season getting smoked by Andy, who beat him at the Pipe Masters that year and won the world title and the Triple Crown – but not the Eddie. In 2004, Andy won the world title. He won the Triple Crown. But his brother, Bruce, bested him at the Bay.

At the end of 2015, when John John released his film, View From A Blue Moon, he made it abundantly clear he was going to buckle down and focus on competing. He trained with Jiu-Jitsu guru, Kid Peligro. He hired Bede Durbidge to coach him. Jon Pyzel whittled him a consistent quiver. He kept his entourage tight.

“He’s more focused than I’ve ever seen him,” said pit boss Brandon Wasserman from the channel in Tahiti.

VFABM has since become the highest-grossing action sports film of all time. Plus, John was able to parlay the cinematic success into the hit web series Twelve. He currently commands a social media audience of 1.6 million – a number that’s gone up nearly 600,000 in the last 12 months. He won 2016’s Surfer of The Year at The Surfer Poll Awards (Surfer magazine’s annual popularity contest), as well as Best Performance for Twelve – a testament not only to his skill, but also the adoration his fans have for him. When John John signed his contract with Hurley for a rumoured $4.5 million a year, it sure seemed like a lot of money for a brand to shell out – even if it was Nike money. But after last year, it’s proven to be a very good investment.

“I honestly can’t believe it right now,” said John John when he clinched the title in Portugal. 

But, he was the only one who felt that way. 2016 was the culmination of years of speculation, dedication, hard work, investment and straight up passion. John John may not have won everything he entered, but he did win everything that mattered. 

“It’s been a long year, but one of the best years of my life,” he said as the champagne sprayed around him.

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