With the pudgy, clammy fingers of our favorite North Korean dictator presently hovering over a large red button, we contemplated, heading to the Democratic Republic of Bells Beach, that short of a global calamity of this order, nothing was going to stop John Florence from cleaning them up here at Bells.
Nothing seemed surer, and nothing that's happened so far this week at Bells has done anything to disprove that. When this morning dawned—big, gray, and with a feathering sideshore perfect for launching John skyward—it only reinforced the notion. Johnny couldn't have custom-ordered a better day to win Bells.
Like, who the Hells Bells was going to stop him?
So accustomed to John stopping himself in the past, we're quickly starting to run out of contenders to shorten him up this year. He's had answers for everyone and has won with a glorious insouciance that hints at any moment, when pressured, he can lazily slap his pockets, pull out some brilliance, and send his opponents back in time.
So who, then, could beat him?
Maybe it'd be an old Bells hardass, a guy as old and granite-y as the Bells cliffs themselves? Maybe a serial underachiever? A serial overachiever? The feel-good story of the summer? A Brazilian ninja? That rarest of flowers; a rookie who actually knows what they're doing at Bells? We had them all out there today, but in the end, it was none of them. The guy who took John down was the one guy John didn't want at this stage of his year. Yesterday, John found himself a nemesis.
It's a special kind of loathing I save for the whole idea of Round Four.
Just as the contest gets some momentum, just as some kind of consequence enters the game, just as some compelling storylines start writing themselves as the last 12 guys paddle out, suddenly nothing happens, and nobody loses, and not even that – it then creates another round of guys who've all just lost. I can count on one hand the number of Round Four heats that have kept me awake at night since they brought it in a few years ago…but yesterday’s were something else.
Mick Fanning had two goes at Johnny Florence yesterday, and should've got him at least once.
Mick had a lot on the line at Bells, personal pride as much as anything. John's season so far has checked everyone's ambition for this year. As noted over the weekend, Mick's return season has seemed calibrated against him, two close losses so far, and he's been feeling the heat at Bells. We saw that in the Kelly heat. When drawn against John John and Seabass yesterday morning, though, in a big, jumbled lineup, he looked better than he's ever looked at any time, possibly, in his career. He had John John on toast, the only problem being that sideshore wind. A groomed offshore and Mick probably wins the whole event. Instead John hangs up in the breeze like one of local paragliders that circle the cliffs and lands something else for his career highlight reel.
Round Four then finally got some drama in the following heat.
To understand what went down, let's first take a journey into the psyche of coach Jake Paterson. It's a complex world inside that bald skull. The Pipe Master, J-Bay, and Sunset winner can tactically slice and dice pretty much any scenario on Tour. He's lived and surfed through most of them, so when his boy Zeke Lau looked to shut down Filipe Toledo with priority in the dying, dying seconds – hell, it turned out to be the very dying second – he couldn't have been prouder. It was Snake's own signature move.
But when they stalled reading out the score, he sensed trouble. Standing on the stairs, he knew something was up. Before they even announced what was going on, he knew what was happening—they were calling his boy up after the hooter, which would have earned Zeke an interference (priority dies with the hooter) and it would cost him the heat. The cords in Snake's neck bulged and his blood pressure shot up before they even announced it.
"This is BULLSHIT!" He barked once they did, and immediately stormed the judging tower and burst through the door uninvited. Zeke has surfed like Sunny this week, and channeled Sunny yesterday when following Snake for a free and frank exchange of thoughts. It reminded me of the year Kelly was called up-after, threw his board theatrically in the air, only to watch the footage and realize he actually was up-after, the speed of sound accounting for the delay in him hearing it.
The judges have their own camera to review scores…only thing is, it doesn't have audio. They reviewed the contentious call with footage from the broadcast – watched it eight times – which had Zeke up after the hooter. In the meantime, the broadcast is showing footage of him up before the hooter, and joining Jake and Zeke in the inquisition of the call. Long and short, the judges got hung out to dry, but as everyone raced to the Outragemobile, this, of course, was lost.
The call wasn't rectified for a full 15 minutes, at which point Snake's outrage was shifted onto Ricardo Toledo, Filipe's dad.
As much as someone like Parko is born for Bells, a guy like Phil Toledo should simply not work out here. This is the Land of the Long Arc and Phil is a short-rail ninja…but Phil surfed great yesterday. In fact, the short arc stuff worked for him as he provided a counterpoint to everyone else who thought they were John John at Margarets, all parabolic curve. The sideshore chop helped Toledo, turning a 200-yard wall into twenty 10-yard sections, but his was the only sharp rail in the water yesterday. It was a great leap forward for him here, and if he can make similar great leaps forward in Fiji and Tahiti – and they'd have to be great – maybe he could be the challenger for John.
Zeke Lau eventually took Toledo down, and it was a marriage of Snake cunning and a sheer physical presence in the Bells shorebreak, that was both brutal and crucial yesterday. Zeke – along with Frederico Morais – both rookies, surf like they've been on Tour for five years already. As Zeke dropped his winning wave against Filipe, the celebrations were tempered by the news that down the coast, where the waves would have been four times what we had at Bells, young Russell Bierke had just been rescued and revived after a two-wave hold down. Kelly had rescued him.
John John's nemesis turned out to be the least physically intimidating presence in the field yesterday, but a guy who's found a way to needle the champ like nobody else. Caio Ibelli was, of course, responsible for dispatching The Champ here at Bells last year, but with the waves yesterday still six foot and pulsing, few gave the diminutive, hamstery Brazilian much of a chance against John in the semis.
Caio has a way with water under his feet. On a howling onshore layday in Fiji last year, he came over to Namotu Island, strapped on windsurfing gear, and began to weightlessly carve up the tropical saltwater muck. It was more surfing than windsurfing, but there was an instinctive way he moved between the junky swell that was still there yesterday morning at Bells while the wind was blowing. Mind you, Caio surfed it just as well once it cleaned up, his winning wave against John John anchored around three big swooping turns. His positioning – drifting across to Inside Maurie's for the winning wave – had a little something to do with Maurice Cole himself being in his corner.
Working on the beach commentary, we joked toward the end of the day how Bells, the longest running pro contest ever and the Tour's legacy event, loves nothing more than to celebrate, well, anything. It's always the 50th anniversary of something, 30 years since someone rode some groundbreaking surfboard, a decade since someone ran naked down the beach on live TV. It's an institution, layered thick with an historical paste, and we joked the logical cultural extension of this was Bells: The Musical. Listening to Hells Bells for the third time in the day (the first heat of the day was restarted after a Marine Layer bank of fog moved in), there is a strong musical theme running through this event. Australian Crawl – an iconic Australian band – once sponsored the whole contest for Chrissakes. We began running through the casting for the musical. We figured Claw Warbrick would be played by Christopher Walken. Kelly played by arch-villain Billy Zane. Mick Fanning? Maybe The Boy From Oz, Hugh Jackman. Caio Ibelli could surely be played by Tim Minchin, complete with eyeliner.
Jordy Smith paddled out for the final with the number 23 on his back.
The significance of course ties back to Michael Jordan, a little known American basketballer, but in Victoria, the number 23 was made famous by the chain-smoking, beer-guzzling, Liz Hurley-dating cricketer, Shane Warne. In this sports-mad corner of the world, Warney is God and is possibly the only major celebrity to never visit the Rip Curl Pro and paddle out and surf Bells. And like any major sports star in Australia, Warney, naturally, has his own musical.
Jordy did little earlier yesterday to earn a final, but over a decade has done plenty.
He's been the best guy to not win here for a long time, and against Caio Ibelli, you figured the weight of history – and the weight of Jordy himself in six-foot surf – would win out. With things going his way at the halfway mark, however, Jordy started to think he actually was starring in Bells: The Musical. When he beached a high-nine-pointer, 16 minutes from the final siren, he began theatrically ringing an invisible bell as a claim. Sixteen minutes! In terms of audacity, it was up there with his Jordy The Redeemer claim from Brazil a few years ago, and my phone lit up immediately with three past Bells winners, all of them outraged he'd done it. "Disrespectful!" They barked via text message. At that point they started silently willing sets to Caio, just to somehow, some way, see Jordy lose.
But he didn't. Few could argue he smashed the final yesterday, and more importantly, put on a show.