Florence Gets His GOAT, Medina, and a Pipe Masters to Boot - Stab Mag
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A long time coming.

Florence Gets His GOAT, Medina, and a Pipe Masters to Boot

This is gonna be a good (and highly sanitary) year of competitive surfing.

news // Dec 21, 2020
Words by Michael Ciaramella
Reading Time: 9 minutes

What better way to start the day than Jack Robbo v. Kelly Slater at Pipe?

Jack, the young gun ready to mow down the Tour. Kelly, the Civil War-era musket that often misfires, but when focused properly, can still shoot with the best of ‘em.

Despite being one of surfing’s greatest-ever talents, Slater has rarely relied on raw ability to get himself through heats. If you think those 11 World Titles came from simply out-surfing his peers, you clearly don’t follow this sport. The best surfer of any given year loses the majority of events. It’s how and when they lose that matters. 

If ever there was a doubt that Kelly sees surfing like a chess match, it was dispelled today. After besting Jack Robbo in metronomic fashion, Slater went on to sanctimoniously explain how they’d actually missed the best wave of the heat, and that despite being out of position, Jack messed up by not forcing Kelly to go on it. 

“No point in going on a wave I don’t need…”

Kelly went on to describe his lingering foot injury (no, not the one from J-Bay a few years back) which he originally suffered while trying to go all Mat Hoffman on an e-bike*, then re-injured it out at Pipe a few nights back. Kelly originally thought he might have broken his heels, but an X-ray confirmed they were just bruised. “Luckily I don’t feel it when I surf,” he said. “The adrenaline kicks in.”

Foot seems ok to us. (Photo by Brent Bielmann/World Surf League via Getty Images)

In a later heat, Medina drew Australia’s Jack Freestone. To the naked eye, the match appeared heavily lopsided in the Brazilian’s favor. However, Jack had consistently clocked the highest heat totals at this event while Medina had been middling at best. 

All seemed to be going in Medina’s direction until the last 30 seconds, when Jack, needing just a three-something, threaded a misshapen orb and squeaked out the doggy door. However, the wave’s many chandeliers had thrown Jack aslant, resulting in a layback from which he could not recover. Adding insult to the off-balance was Medina on the very next wave, plowing straight through a foamball and stomping a clean air rev en route to Charlie’s warm embrace. 

Medina is so incredibly strong, both mentally and physically, that he appears to be surfing on a different plane from the rest of the field. 

Except for John John.

I walked away from the screen for 10 freaking minutes, and when I came back John Florence had 17 points. The next wave he caught was better yet—a nine for a deep Backdoor cave into a vicious hack. Such poise, such control. An absolute delight to watch.

It was a good run for Leo, but the fairytale had run its course. 

This is just what he does. Every day. (Photo by Tony Heff/World Surf League via Getty Images)

Kelly hobbled out to his quarter with Jordy and managed to snag the first wave. Jordy went on the second wave, which as a result of the first, was much shallower and more refined. Despite a seemingly straight-forward route to the exit, Jordy never re-emerged.

“Kelly would have made that one,” my dad texted me. Perhaps true. Jordy is a phenomenal surfer, but he doesn’t seem to have that intangible tube wizardry that defines the greats of our sport. This point was confirmed in the dying minutes of the heat, when Jordy took off on a hollow Backdoor runner, needing a mid-range score for the win. Smith did everything he could to worm his way through the portal, but in the end he was denied an exit. 

Italo took a heavy beating in quarter three. Following a fall at Backdoor, the Brazilian emerged looking dazed and concussed. Moments later, the webcam cut to a shot of his bleached white head, now a burnt shade of orange. Our world champ had a cranial hemorrhage! A few waves later, following a tidy air reverse that finished practically on the sand, Italo clutched desperately at his left side. After taking a moment with the Hawaiian Water Patrol, he then paddled back out to finish off the two-time Pipe Master, Jeremy Flores. The pain, however, persisted.

“Nobody makes me bleed my own blood.” – White Goodman
– Italo Ferreira

Speaking of persistence, that Gabriel Medina guy sure knows how to win. Despite an event filled with uncharacteristically low scores and an abysmal make ratio, Medina just. kept. pushing. 

Against a clearly lesser competitor—sorry, Kanoa—Medina knew that if he could just make a couple waves, he’d win the heat. After several failed attempts, Medina finally survived an acrobatic exit then followed it with another, driving the Japanese surfer out of contention and completing the stacked semifinal bracket: Slater, Florence, Ferreira, Medina. Wow! 

But first, the women. 

Just a quick refresher: The final five women from the Maui Pro competed at Pipeline in response to the fatal shark attack against a recreational surfer that occurred at their original event site, Honolua Bay, last week. This would be the first-ever women’s CT run at Pipeline. 

The first heat was underwhelming. Tatiana Weston-Webb sent it on a few lurching demons to no avail. Sage mostly played it safe, though the pig-dog approach made her appear hungry for a tube. Tati came out on top via a well-surfed wave in the final minute. Nonetheless, she was disappointed in her performance. 

“I want to do women’s surfing proud,” Tati said in the presser. “I didn’t want to win like that. I want to get barreled.”

Tatiana at Pipeline
Not for lack of effort. (Photo by Keoki Saguibo/World Surf League via Getty Images)

And who can blame her? Winning this event would net her the not-insignificant sum of $100k USD. But in the grand scheme of women’s surfing, there’s much more value in validating their place at Pipeline by putting on a noteworthy performance. In other words, one great ride would have a greater impact on any/all of these women’s careers than would a fat check for flaccid threes. 

In the next heat, Tyler Wright found a tube. Not an especially deep one, but on a scale of tube to not-tube, it was tube. Judges gave it a mid-six, which was a bit high for me, though the cutty after the tub helped to justify the score. Tyler more or less moonwalked over Sally Fitz, from whom I expected more.

Then came Carissa Moore—the pinnacle of female competitive surfing. I know, I know—Steph has seven Titles to Riss’s four. But riddle me this: if Steph had to deal with a fully-matured Carissa through the peak of her Title-winning years (as Carissa has had to do with Steph), would that split be more even, or perhaps even in Carissa’s favor? I believe so. 

Hypotheticals aside, Carissa opened with a seven for a clean Pipe tube. Then she got fucking smoked on her next wave. But the 4x World Champ was not fazed. She shook off the beating and stroked straight into a spitting cavern at Backdoor for a 9.67. A 9.67! 

Despite her best efforts, Tati could not rebound. 

Angel’s breath. Gotta work for it. (Photo by Brent Bielmann/World Surf League via Getty Images)

And if you had to guess, what was the split between Kelly and John in their eight man-on-man heats prior to today? 7-1? 4-4? And in whose favor?

A look through our favorite surf-data-driven site, The Breakdown, tells us it was 6-2 in Kelly’s corner. GOATman took the first four match-ups consecutively, then they split the latter half. 

With 2021 (likely) being Slater’s last year on tour, this heat would prove pivotal in their father-son career standings. A win for Kelly would all but seal his statistical supremacy over The Second Coming. A win for John would give him a shot at evening the leaderboard, if not potentially overtaking Kelly at some point in 2021.  

It’s worth keeping in mind that Kelly has won just one of his past eight semifinal appearances. He also hasn’t made a final at Pipe since 2013 (v JJF, which Kelly won). On the other hand, Kelly is the winningest surf in Pipe Masters history with seven total victories. He’s also knocked John out of the Pipe even three times, the most of any surfer. 

Meanwhile, John had never won a Pipe Masters, nor any event at a hollow reef for that matter (shocking, right?). However, he has won three of his past four semifinal heats, the most recent being at Margaret River in 2019 (he won that event). 

So statistically, this heat was a fucking toss-up.

The opening exchange was reminiscent of Kelly and John’s infamous 2014 Teahupo’o heat, just slightly less exceptional and in reverse. Kelly took the first wave for a mid-eight, with John on a slightly throatier one behind for a low-nine. John then backed up his opening ride with an 8.98, leaving Kelly in need of a near-perfect score. Try as he might, and despite a borderline excellent wave near the end of the heat, the King couldn’t sway the people in his favor. 

His response was majestic. 

Kelly Slater flips off John Florence

Next came Italo and Gab in semi two. Like Kelly, Italo’s got a significant advantage over Gabe in their career match-ups, boasting six wins to Medina’s two. He also hasn’t lost a semifinal in general in his last eight attempts. However, Gab has made four of the past six finals at Pipe, and Italo sustained a serious injury earlier in the day, rendering all historical advantages moot. 

Italo wore an impact suit in the semifinal. I’m not sure if it made him less dexterous or if the injury had instilled in Italo a sense of hesitation, but our reigning World Champ didn’t quite look like himself in this heat. Please don’t mistake this as an accusation of fear, as Italo continued to send it steep and deep on the heaviest waves Pipe could muster, but his ability to jive and weave through tubes wasn’t what it had been in all the heats prior. This is likely why, despite another low-scoring total (for his standards), Medina squeaked through to the final.

Gabriel Medina at Pipeline
Not his best day. But not his worst day either. (Photo by Brent Bielmann/World Surf League via Getty Images)

Tyler and Carissa’s first two attempts were the most thrilling of the final, with both women pulling into proper caverns with full control and little (apparent) trepidation. After proving they were willing to subject themselves to Pipe’s lethal chambers, the gals’ strategies seemed to shift toward winning. In their defense, there was $100,000 and a yellow jersey on the line.

Tyler slapped a couple turns together for a mid-range score, then Carissa threaded a small Pipe corner to take a late lead. Not knowing what type of score she’d need (if any) to regain pole position, Tyler snuck into a slopey Backdoor wall and S-turned her way to a three. This score proved pivotal in the end, allowing Tyler to swoop victory and reach the shore as a Pipeline champion.

Despite an anti-climactic finish, the women proved that they can handle Pipeline at this size. No, they haven’t mastered it yet, but for the most part they look in control and willing to take their lumps. That’s as good a start as we could hope for, and we’re looking forward to seeing their progression in 2021. 

Tyler Wright at backdoor
Commited ay-eff. (Photo by Keoki Saguibo/World Surf League via Getty Images)

John Florence vs. Gabe Medina is the only match-up that matters in surfing. Everything else, everyone else, is but a sideshow to their unconscionable greatness. Overall, their 15 heats have skewed heavily in Gabe’s favor: 11-4. Before today, we’d never seen them in a final together.

As he is wont to do, Gab got off to an early start. Two mid-rangers gave him a numerical lead, which meant little to John who waited patiently out the back. 

Then came a mistake for the local. Going on the first wave of the set, John got clamped on the end bowl and didn’t ride out. Worse still, Medina was waving through the next one and out in time to regain priority.

“John’s fucked,” a friend texted me. 

Not so fast.

Using Medina’s priority against him, John scoured the inside, securing a bushel of fives and sixes that would swiftly turn the lead. Having been done by his own trick, Medina was livid but had no other option than to sit and wait for a bomb. When it came, he fought ferociously to reach the channel, but the wave bent out to sea and offered no exit.  

Despite making five of the last seven Pipe Masters finals, Medina’s record of 1-4 must be gnawing at him. Contrastingly, John Florence has finally gotten the gorilla off his back. 

*apparently there’s video evidence of this. DM me if you’ve seen it!

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