Recently discovered: John's Kryptonite. Photo: WSL
How To Beat John John Florence
Intimidation, as served up by Zeke Lau, with a sprinkle of Mikey Wright!
The first heat of the morning, featuring 2x World Champion John John Florence and his childhood sparring partner Zeke Lau, was the purest representation of competitive surfing that we’ve seen this year.
Simply watching the surf highlights wouldn’t do it justice. In order to fully appreciate this heat, and the psychological warfare employed on Florence by Lau, you must either use the Analyzer to rewatch this heat in its entirety, or simply read below.
Unbeknownst to some, this heat actually started at Snapper Rocks. In Round 2 of the Quiksilver Pro, wildcard Mikey Wright, brother to Owen and Tyler, had a heat against the reigning World Champ John John Florence. Despite being a talented surfer in his own right, Mikey realized his best route victory would be in controlling the distribution of waves, which he did by securing the inside position and coaxing John into the first paltry line that rolled through.
This gave Mikey the first real wave of the heat, which put John in a compromising position, leading to another bad wave choice, leading to another good one for Mikey, and that was that.
A 25th for the Champ.
In John’s Round 1 heat at Bells, I was surprised to see him relinquish the inside once again, this time to 16-year-old wildcard Mikey McDonagh and the rookie Brazilian, Tomas Hermes.
While John was ultimately victorious, it concerned me how much he relied on his natural ability to get through heats, as this would not always be possible against surfers of a higher caliber.
Then came John’s Round 3 heat.
Zeke Lau, under the tutelage of one Jake “The Snake” Paterson--a notorious hassler in his day--took the inside position against John on the Bells Bowl. Sitting no more than three feet from the Champ, Zeke made it painstakingly clear that he would be controlling the Bells lineup.
In the one instance that John attempted to snag the inside, Zeke quickly spun around, paddled toward the horizon and angled his board into John’s, physically hindering him from moving any deeper in the lineup.
Turpel’s voice went up an octave. “Strider, are you seeing these two guys battling out the back? Zeke is not giving him an inch out there.”
Strider chuckled. “That’s because this goes way back… all the way to the Menehune days.”
Around the 23-minute mark, the first wave entered the lineup, and despite a last-second shuffle from John, it was Zeke who would take control, scoring a 7 on four manly hacks.
Sitting out the back with priority, John was plagued by a brutal lull, allowing Zeke to regain the lineup before the next set could come. Rather than following the typical non-priority strategy of sitting inside and getting a smaller score on the board, Zeke sat directly on top of John John, literally within wet-willie range.
In several instances, Zeke paddled tightly-wound circles around the Champ, no doubt knocking his fins on John’s nose.
Of course this isn’t the first time that Zeke— a 6-foot-plus, good Polynesian-blooded, son-of-a-football coach—has employed, um, intimidation tactics in a heat. Even before his illustrious professional career, Zeke used his combined physical presence and technical skill to win NSSA heats with ease.
I once surfed against Zeke in a heat in which he had all of his competitors heavily beaten, maybe even comboed, and still was relentless in the lineup. I remember paddling for a wave in the dying seconds, and just before standing up, feeling a large, unfriendly hand grab my calf and pull me backwards up the face, before seeing a bald head and Volcom sticker glide past me and tag the wave to shore.
I was no threat to Zeke’s position in the heat, nor had I done anything to cross him. Zeke pulled my leg because he’s competitive as hell, and because he could. While arguably excessive, these intimidation tactics have proven effective throughout Zeke’s career.
Clearly rattled by Zeke’s antics, John fell on an standard-for-him layback on his opening ride, right around the 14-minute mark. With less than half the heat to go, John had no scores on the board.
With 12 minutes remaining, Zeke used priority to secure his second scoring wave, this time a 6, leaving John out the back with a 13-point combo to overcome.
Following another lull and further pestering from Zeke, John caught his first scoring wave at the 4-minute mark. After linking together a few off-balance carves, John went for a much-needed rotation on the end section but came unglued.
Another uncharacteristic error, and a high-3.
John was finally out of combo, but still needed a 9-plus ride with only two minutes to go.
Zeke then used his priority to block John on an insider, leaving the Champ out the back with priority. With 1:20 on the clock, John took off on a medium-sized right, spun a nose-pick reverse on the first section, coupled it with a few clean carves, then again threw a rotation on the closeout, but was unable to ride out.
Definitely not a nine.
After the heat, John took the time to engage his fans, signing autographs for kids on the shoreline.
A victorious Zeke walked around the crowd, his eyes beyond the commotion, with not a single Victorian youth approaching him for signatures.
“Zeke’s just giving John a bit of space,” Pottz explained.
In a post-heat interview, Zeke explained his tactics: “You know, he’s the Champ. You can’t give him any room. You know what he can do when he’s feeling relaxed, and I didn’t want to let that happen. Let’s see what he can do under a little bit of pressure.”
Then John, after a few post-heat platitudes (“tough heat”, “Zeke was surfing really well”, “waves were pumping”) was poked in just the spot to loosen up his true thoughts and emotions on the matter:
“I just kind of laugh at it… paddling over my board and stuff," John said. "It’s kinda lame, because it’s fun to surf a heat, you know… with pure surfing, and not trying to win a heat by sitting on someone’s board. But it’s a competition, and maybe I’ll do that at the next event [laughs].”
And doesn’t this uncharacteristically candid response—from a boy whose emotions, to many fans, often feel masked or manufactured—make you love professional surfing just a little bit more?
The allure of this sport is not all backflips and barrel-rolls, as some might have you believe. The nuance of competition is riveting in its own right, if you know what to look for.
Mikey and Zeke have shown that by alpha-dogging John, you can expose his very few competitive weaknesses.
Perhaps having just learned this for himself, I can’t wait to see what John does to the next guy tries to steal his inside--especially at Main Break, a wave that, if surf spots were like skate spots, would never be ridden again after what John did there it last year.
Zeke may have won the battle, but I think he just started a war.
With a 25th and 13th in his first two events, it’s John John vs. The World.