Inside the Rip Curl Pro Portugal

Mick Fanning wins at Supertubes as Medina, Slater, and the rest of us watch in shock

Mick Fanning seemed to have snuck himself into the World Title race. We shouldn't be surprised. Photo: ASP

Ol’ White Lightning seemed to have snuck himself into the World Title race. We shouldn’t be surprised. Photo: ASP

Mick Fanning went full-Mick Fanning today, and seemed to sneak into a Final and World Title race by doing the exact thing he’s always done. His consistency in Portugal was unparalleled, but drowned out by the noise from the hype machine of days past. Today, the buzz quieted. Fanning did as Fanning does, and things got interesting as the Tour and its top three head to Hawaii. More on that later.

First, finals day in Peniche. The Euro doof was silent. There was no Port-oo-gesh Borat beach commentary and the promo girls were gone. The Portuguese masses of yesterday in their swimming jeans and logo surf-wear had disappeared down the A8 back to Lisbon. The beach was empty at dawn this morning and the high drama of yesterday at Supertubes that saw the two world title favorites beat seemed like a lifetime ago as Kolohe Andino sat staring into the dark, watching the lineup in preparation for his first heat.

"Wanna see that wave?"

He hands me the phone and there he is, dropping into the river mouth a few days ago. It's like Backdoor but about three times as long and the alley-oop he sticks is possibly the greatest move he'll ever make. It's quite a wave. He doesn't say anything, keeps a straight face, but then breaks into laughter.

An hour later and Kolohe is punching his board violently. He's just lost to Filipe Toledo and his breakout season has broken down. He's not the only one to take their frustrations out on their board. Yesterday after losing to Aritz Aranburu and blowing a gilded chance to make the world title race really interesting at Pipeline, Kelly silently stewed as he walked into the privacy of the locker room. He placed his board on the ground, stepped back for a run up, and fly-kicked it with both heels. The board however–quite possibly a multi-stringered EPS–didn't snap, instead Kelly's wet feet shot out from under him and he flipped backwards onto the astroturf floor. The champ went down. The ignominy was complete.

Kelly's afternoon and his demeanor soon improved. He dusted himself off and fronted the swarming press and dismissed his chances of winning the title at Pipe even though his chances are very real. He then drove back north to the slabbing left he's been surfing all week (he'd surfed it before his heat yesterday as well). The waves were ridiculous, the kind of barrels he'll be lucky to find in Hawaii this winter. He left the water with his equilibrium re-established…only to find his car bogged in the sand and going nowhere. An hour later and the car was being towed, and not for the first time Kelly was contemplating the roller coaster of life.

Gabe Medina meanwhile was back in the lobby of the Atlantico last night. There were no burning effigies of head judges and his crew were drowning their sorrows quietly. Gabe's loss by a fraction of a point didn't bring with it the same volcanic reaction that it had when he lost the Final here in Portugal two years ago, and even though the stakes are immeasurably higher this year Gabe's better equipped emotionally to take his lumps. It's been a huge week for the kid. He'd managed to crush down the pressure of expectation into a tiny dense marble, which he kept in suspended animation, until it exploded like a supernova at the end of his heat yesterday when he stormed out of the water with still two minutes and forty seconds on the clock. It's going to be a character building month for Gabe, because what he's going to experience in Hawaii is going to make yesterday seem like a walk in the park.

John Florence on the other hand seemed be unaware there was a world title race going on or that he was actually part of it. After dropping another perfect 10 in his heat this morning, he sent his filmer Blake Kueny out into the high-tide expression session. "He [Blake] was smoking a cigarette five minutes ago!" John Laughed. When John breezed through his Quarterfinal on the back of a mere 9.87 wave (which would have been his third 10 in three heats), it appeared my clairvoyant prediction of him winning Portugal and Pipe back to back was looking solid.

He drew Jordy in the semifinal, and while John had been flying, Jordy was running a couple cylinders short. Nothing was really clicking for him, but in stark contrast to the rest of his season he was winning while surfing below par instead of catching fire and losing. Paddling out against John it was clear his intention was to knock him out of his orbit early and that's exactly what he did. He hustled from the hooter, and had two eights before John had even had a wave. He then parked next to him and when the ocean ran out of juice for 15 minutes it meant John never got going. The loss meant John will go into his home event one heat short of being in the world title equation, which bites for all concerned. Just the faintest chance of a Florence world title would have added several dimensions to the Pipe Masters, one of which would have been the entire island of Hawaii galvanizing behind their boy…and Gabe Medina not getting a wave at Pipe.

Instead John hit the beach at Supertubes and was mobbed. The Portuguese aren't immune from the mania surrounding him and they went mad. It was like he'd actually won, and Jordy meanwhile trudged up the beach and watched on as the crowd swarmed around the guy he'd just comprehensively out-surfed.

The crowd was a mix of doe-eyed teenage girls and tattooed and potentially deranged middle-aged men, and I watched as one girl reached out and touched John's hand, then turned around and touched the hand of her friend…who had now touched the hand that had touched the hand of John John Florence. I'm guessing that hand ain't getting washed in a while. He finally broke free of the crowd, ripped off his jersey, and threw it into the crowd sparking the kind of violent struggle usually seen at UN food drops. John Florence won't be your world champion this year, but you won't have to wait long.

The world is quaffing the Kool Aid and so they should. Every potential leader of the free surfing world in some way polarizes. Check 'em out…Kelly, Gabe, Mick, Dane…there's love and hate, admiration and indifference in equal measure, splits along party lines. But I challenge you right now to bring me the person that isn't on the train with John Florence right now.

So long a shadow has John's performances cast, so completely has he blocked out the sun over the past month that there's been some great surfing by other guys quietly sliding by without us even noticing, and some of that's been done by Mick Fanning. Talking today I commented on his flaring wetsuit tan around his neck. He's been on the road and in a steamer since Trestles seven weeks ago, and has been quietly chipping away. He hasn't set the world on fire, he's hardly rated a mention in the press releases, but he's positioned himself perfectly in the pack for a run at the finish line. Today at the Rip Curl Pro at Supertubes he was the last man standing and it's a Mick Fanning signature. He’s done it three times this year; you haven't noticed he's even in the event until he's won it. Bells, J-Bay, and now Supertubes, all won in great waves and with surfing that couldn't be denied. He now goes into Pipe alongside Kelly and Gabe, and this whole world title thing just got a lot more interesting.

WATCH: Finals Day Highlights