John John Florence Backs into the 2017 World Surf Title, His Second in a Row
After taking care of business on his end in small Pipe, Florence gets a repeat world title in the semifinals thanks to France’s Jeremy Flores knocking out Gabriel Medina. But he loses the Pipe Masters to Flores in the finals.
Video: Courtesy of World Surf League
How does World Surf Champion times two sound to John John Florence? Drenched in a mixture of salt water and Champagne, surrounded by cheering groms from his alma mater, Sunset Elementary, the 25-year-old just smiled. “To win here at home has just been my dream for so long,” he said, minutes after his top rival, Gabriel Medina, was eliminated in the semifinals by France’s Jeremy Flores. “And then to do it? Oh my god. I’m still pretty nervous—in fact I’m shaking now. It’s been so awesome all year. I’m so stoked.”
In a battle of nerves as well as personalities, the Billabong Pipe Masters heats Dec. 18 had everything a live-stream broadcast could hope for: The four-way fight for the world title featured a dream face-off between John John Florence and his closest competition for the world title, Gabriel Medina. Their rivalry is officially the centerpiece of the World Surf League and with Medina showing the hotter hand in the last third of the tour, points leader Florence definitely had his hands full.
“It’s been pretty hard for sure,” said Florence. “I learned a lot about myself. It’s pretty scary, being that close in points to someone like Gabriel.”
The onstage dramatics were there, but both enhanced and muted by conditions. The waves just didn’t come through this year. As has been the norm rather than the exception in 2017, Pipeline’s perfect wave machine was sputtering all week. The winds were always wrong, it seemed.
As the Dec. 8 holding period approached, there were worries about how slowly the sand, piled up by the funky weather pattern, was cleaning up. The first day of heats had to be cut off when onshore winds started crumbling the faces. Scores in the 3s and 4s meant that one good wave could make all the difference. Medina got caught holding the short straw and barely advanced with a second place.
Next a giant pulse arrived—20 to 25 feet—along with gale force winds that rendered it unsurfable. Days passed. A sense of dread begin to cling to the proceedings: Would Pipe rally, or stay in the zone of sloppy Huntington Beach? Would Florence run into a flat spell in a heat and lose his crown? Would the World Surf League on-air commenters finally run out of things to say as the world’s best confronted 2-foot mushburgers?
Scenario No. 2 almost played out as Florence needed to catch a lucky break in Round 3 to eke out a 0.07-second round win over rookie Ethan Ewing. The 10.87 to 10.80 margin was even closer than it looks: Ewing’s last wave had everyone guessing, with many picking the youngster, before the judges hung out their numbers.
When heats resumed, the break was so strung out that competitors ranged all over the place—for sure, it was the first time that a heat winner scored big at Gums. (Yes, there’s a break called Gums. It’s just never been in a Pipe Masters before.)
Photo: Courtesy of World Surf League
But when Dec. 18 hit, the forecast for 6-to-8-foot surf promised a marathon five-heat day that would end in a world champion and a Pipe Master and Vans Triple Crown winner. No lack of drama, right? And, there was even a Kelly Slater revival, as the 45-year-old all-time Pipe Master champ started surfing well after a season truncated by a nagging foot injury.
In Round 4, Florence surfed with the aggression of a pent-up world champion, grabbing tubes at the start. Medina, who came in second in Round 1, ripped in his knockout heat in Round 2 and clinched a tight Round 3. But he continued to live dangerously, only managing a second in his Round 4.
Round 5 found Medina pitted against Slater. Grabbing a couple of early waves, Medina took his next turn as the priority surfer to block Slater from catching anything ridable. When Slater did pull into a deep tube, Medina dropped in on him—even aiming his board at him, until the two made contact. It was an unpopular if legal move, and raised questions whether the recently adopted priority system, which was introduced to allow each surfer in a heat to grab a good wave of his choice, might not have created more problems.
The quarterfinals followed quickly, with conditions fluctuating between clean and minimal. Florence hit the water with Julian Wilson, who could also win it all if both Florence and Medina faltered and he took the Pipe Masters. The sea, however, started by taking a lunch break—with light onshores bringing down the lip on the first of the small waves. Florence let Wilson take priority and then seemed to fox Wilson into using his priority on a closeout that racked up 0.77—not even a full point.
Then it was up to Florence. The two jockeyed for the first good-sized wave, with Florence taking off deep—a barrel for Florence, nothing too special except that the 7.5 put Wilson deep in the hole. Florence followed it up with a quick small wave that Wilson passed on, turning it into a long, if twee, tube ride. The 4.5 put Florence up 12 to 0.77.
Now Wilson had to scrap. With six minutes left in the 25-minute session, Wilson had yet to find a second wave. Hoarding his priority, he waited for the big score—the way he’d won the 2017 Tahiti Pro. But when he did roll the dice, he pulled into a closeout, giving Florence a shot at a wave only 30 seconds later that yielded a long sweet tube to seal the deal with an 8.77.
“I got lucky with some fun ones,” Florence said afterward. Students from Sunset Elementary lined the beach, chanting his name over and over. “I could hear them all,” he confirmed.
Medina took to the ocean with Jeremy Flores. Flores nailed a quick 4.50. The Frenchman got the best of a previous run-in in 2017 with Medina and seemed eager to take him to school again. Medina, though, answered with a small backdoor tube for a 4.77. Flores got into a strong wave but couldn’t get out. He grabbed another and dug himself into a tube with a deep bottom turn. Medina answered immediately, but the wave collapsed.
With a 7.33 on his best wave, Flores now had Medina in trouble with 16 minutes left. And if Flores could keep Medina down, he’d give Florence the world title. A lull set in that lasted another five minutes. With eight minutes to go, a wave heaved up and … ate Medina.
Flores turned his next wave into his second-best, putting Medina deeper under the gun—he had to score a 7.99 to advance, with only two minutes to go. The final result, 12.76 to 6.04, reflected Medina’s bad luck in finding a second wave. “The waves were really bad in my heat, but you’ve got to do it,” he said. “I put everything I had in the water.”
For Florence, the Word Surf Champion for the second year in a row, there was a wave of interviews and hugs—followed by the next heat. Not an easy transition to make, but, as he said, “I smell like Champagne and I have to go pretty soon. But just to go surf without that pressure is going to be a lot of fun, because it’s been pretty scary.”
An hour later he was back in the water against Brazil’s Ian Gouveia, in diminishing wave conditions. After taking a slim lead, Florence had just fallen behind when his board snapped. Bellying in on a broken stick, he grabbed a replacement and headed out with only five minutes left.
Gouveia only improved his score and Florence, unable to conjure any magic out of the fluky conditions, grabbed a small but potent barrel and ended up throwing down a 360 ending. It was a classic Florence clutch performance—and with seconds left, an 8.73 put him into the finals. This was no home field call. It was the stuff of legend. For the second time in one day.
In the finals, Florence found himself facing his benefactor, Flores, who’d shown his Pipe mastery with a deep, large barrel that Kanoa Inarashi couldn’t overtake. Florence let a handful of waves, and nearly ten minutes, go by before taking his first wave—an unusual strategy for him—and let Flores get in front with a low-scoring 3.17 wave. But that first wave, while big, closed him out after a long barrel for a 1.57.
He jumped into a second, smaller wave and got buried again. If Flores had been able to post up a second wave, Florence would’ve been in trouble. But with 22 minutes to go Florence bullied a small wave into a lengthy tube ride, popping up a 6.67 and taking the lead.
Finally, the surf seemed to wake up to the idea that this was a live-streamed final and began pumping out championship-quality waves. Flores grabbed a nice one for a 7.90 and yet Florence snapped back with an 8.93 to take a four-point lead, then grabbed another smaller, perfect tube to up his lead to five. He threw in another, with a snapback flourish at the end reminiscent of the previous heat’s winner. With eight minutes to go, it was up to Flores to choose wisely, because his next wave might be his last. Five minutes. Three minutes, two minutes—still no wave large enough to make up lost ground. And then, suddenly, the clock was counting down to Florence’s first Pipe Masters victory.
And at 16 seconds, Flores caught a nice wave. He pulled into the tube. He cruised in nice and deep. Came out looking stylish literally as the horn blew. Needing an 8.27 to win, did he get it? The judges took their time.
Flores had just stolen the Pipe Masters out from under John John Florence’s nose. But, having given him the world title, perhaps karma was on his side. “Winning the Pipe Masters against John John Florence in perfect backdoor with seconds to win? It’s perfect,” he said.
California’s young Griffin Colapinto also backed into a title—the Vans Triple Crown—thanks to a semifinal victory by fellow Golden Stater Kanoa Igarashi. For the young Colapinto the cards, and rivals, fell in just the right sequence. The first Californian to win, he joins Florence, Andy Irons and Sunny Garcia at the tender age of 19—in his first year out of the junior circuit.
For complete video of the Billapong Pipe Masters and Vans Triple Crown, go to worldsurfleague.com.