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World Title Contenders, Ranked

I'd bet the farm on one of these five locks for the 2015 crown

With the anything-but-quick Quik Pro and the Bells slopfest in the books, predicting contenders for the 2015 WSL crown is a breeze. This is especially true because, unlike, say, baseball, which will occasionally produce champions that nobody on earth would predict (see: San Franciso Giants, years 2010, 2012, 2014) top tier pro surfing hasn’t had a surprise World Champ since CJ Hobgood way back in 2001. That means Mick or Gabe are the most likely to hoist the, uh, cup, or whatever the WSL champ gets at the end of the year. Since they’re both well-positioned for a championship run after two events, they’re one and two on this list. To fill out the contenders roster to an even five, I watched enough heat reviews to melt my laptop, consulted the Encyclopedia of Surfing for historical comparison, and read through a whole bushel of tea leaves. Kelly Slater didn’t quite make the cut [ducks], only because he’s finally looking a little bored in a jersey, and where’s the drama in predicting a Kelly Slater title run anyway? This of course guarantees he’ll win every event the rest of the year, en route to title number 12.

A Pipe Masters trophy is likely in Gabby’s future too. Photo: Lowe-White

1. GABE MEDINA
2014 Ranking: 1
Wins: Quik Pro Gold Coast, Fiji, Tahiti
Top-10 finishes: 9

Damien Hardman. Remember him? Goofyfoot who seemed permanently bolted-on to his full-deck traction pads? Two-time World Champ, won his first at age 21 in 1987, then for the next six years, he never finished lower than fourth, with his second title coming in 1991. Reticent guy, kind of unknowable, didn’t get a lot of love or press until he cemented himself as a world-beater. And even once he was a star, he was never really anybody’s favorite surfer. Made competing look like awfully hard work. But by God, he was good at it.

In some ways, Medina’s career arc thus far resembles Hardman’s early days. Hardman seemed completely unbeatable, almost as if his surfing was sculpted entirely based on some kind of universal contest judging criteria. He never fell, caught a bazillion waves, had just enough flair to turn heads, and was always, always a podium favorite, though not really a fan favorite. Did Hardman even enjoy surfing? Does Medina? Who knows. Hard to tell sometimes. But he’s driven by competition, and has to be chomping at the bit to reel off another handful of title belts in the next few years. Medina likely senses a place for himself in surf history that’s bigger than “First Brazilian Champ.” Barring injury or psychic failure, he’s podium-bound at the end of the year, no question. Although! If Margie’s is as epically-huge as the forecast suggests, it’d be hard to pencil Gabby in as one of the favorites. A bad result there on the heels of his Quik Pro surprise, would leave him with much less room for error as the season chugs along.

Four-time World Champ sounds so much better than three-time champ. Photo: Gilley

2. MICK FANNING
2014 Ranking: 2
Wins: Bells, J-Bay, Portugal
Top-10 finishes: 8

Sometimes vanilla ice cream is the best ice cream. It’s so simple. Just cream, milk, sugar, vanilla bean, eggs. But when it’s prepared with care, and with the finest ingredients, it’s exquisite. Are there more interesting flavors of ice cream in this world? Sure. But vanilla: it gets the job done. No, that’s not quite right. Vanilla: it’s better than you remember. Hmm, getting closer. Vanilla: so much more than the sum of its parts. No wait, this is it: Vanilla: classic for a reason. 

Just like vanilla ice cream, Fanning goes with everything. Big Pipe? No problem. Roping Bells? Thing of beauty. Tiny, tiny Snapper? Better than Dane. Of the post-30 set on Tour, who, it should be said, finally look like they’re about to be defanged, it’s Fanning who should last the longest. If he didn’t have the Eugene-driven party miles on the old body clock, there’d be a very real possibility that a couple decades from now, it’d be Fanning that we think of when it comes to surf career longevity. Not Slater. Fanning is currently the Tour’s most complete package of heat savvy, adaptability, and impeccable talent.

John John. The next Dane? Photo: Craig

3. JOHN JOHN FLORENCE
2014 Ranking: 3
Wins: Quik Pro France
Top-10 finishes: 6 (including the last 5 events straight)

If John John decided to hang up his jersey and never compete again, would you be a) surprised? or b) bummed? or c) neither? I’m going to nominate John John for “Pro Surfer Most likely to Follow in Dane’s Footsteps.” He seems to genuinely enjoy competition though, and he’s better at it than Dane, but he’s so damn non-plussed all the time, it’s easy to imagine John John gradually fading away from the ‘CT--if he doesn’t win a title in the next year or two. In fact, as Dane falls further and further from surfing’s collective eye, we’re going to need somebody else who’s too good for the Tour to walk away from competition, to focus on…whatever the hell it is pro freesurfers focus on. That could be John John. At this point, he has to have socked away enough cash to live comfortably for the rest of his life, just tearing up the zone from Rocky Point to Log Cabins.

So, will this be the year the prodigal son wins the title that keeps him interested? (Shakes up Magic 8 Ball): Reply Hazy, Try Again. Maybe a better question is: Is it possible that this is the year the prodigal son wins the title? Absolutely yes. Sure, he’s sitting at #21 in the rankings after Bells, but he’s actually performed better through the first two events this year than last. Two 13ths in 2015, compared to a 13th and 25th in 2014. So there. Still though, it does require quite the mental leap to actually picture Florence as world champ. It’s almost better for the their mystique when savants like John John can’t quite put a championship run together. Think about it: Would you rather have Damien Hardman’s career? Or Brad Gerlach’s?

Powered by Lamborghini. Photo: Ellis

4. JORDY SMITH
2014 Ranking: 7
Wins: Hurley Pro
Top-10 finishes: 6

I struggled for a while to come up with a historical surfing antecedent for Jordy, but now I think I’m on to one: Sunny Garcia. Sunny showed up on Tour in a brilliant flash of promise and power and style. Surfed like a power-footed throwback who had nevertheless learned the newest of new school tricks. Sunny was a world-ranked surfer in his teens, with Tour domination all but assured. Except that, well, it’s not that easy. Sunny had his own demons to battle, and they stalled his promise for a few years before he learned how to win. He finally took advantage of a Slater-less Tour in 2000 to win his only World Title at age 30. Much of this, except the drug-fueled career derailment, applies to Jordy too. The power, the promise, the chip-on-the-shoulder, the early struggles. Jordy once showed up at an awards show in a rented Lamborghini. I don’t know if Sunny’s ever done that, but it sort of feels like he would have. They’re both big dudes. They both love blondes. See? Same surfers.

Jordy’s finished as high as No. 2, back in 2010, so he’s come close. If it’s giant at Teahupoo and Pipe, his chances probably suffer a bit. He’s also the sort of surfer who seems to thrive on confidence, so if he can pick up a podium finish at Margie’s, Jordy will have the mental foundation to make a run.

Can Julian keep 2015 rolling after last Year’s Triple Crown win? Why not? Photo: Ellis

5. JULIAN WILSON
2014 Ranking: 14
Wins: Pipe Masters (Triple Crown, too)
Top-10 finishes: 2

This last slot was tough. Could just have easily been Filipe Toledo’s name here. He’s tied for first in the world heading into the Drug Aware Pro, and looked nearly unbeatable in winning the Quik Pro. But there was pure fire in Julian’s Hawaiian season last winter. Consistency is the only chink in his golden armor; Julian solves that, and he’s a title contender for the next decade. Filipe, for all his otherworldly ability, feels one year away.

Plus, as Julian ages, his surfing is starting to resemble Fanning’s a little bit. Jules is a little more unpredictable, for better or worse, and has more flair. But the technicality, the razor sharp rail work, the easy forehand carve, it’s all starting to look a little Fanning-ian. As is Julian’s jockish approach to the Tour. More than some of the other wunderkids we’ve seen approach Tour life with a kind of aloof listlessness, Julian’s starting to develop a hardened competitive edge.

There were moments last year when it looked as though Julian might actually stumble off the Tour. But when he roared back to win the Pipe Masters AND the Triple Crown, he showed that he could win any event at any time. Pretty sure that’s a Natural Law, actually. I’m betting that a mostly lackluster 2014 lights Julian’s fires, priming the Sunshine Coast heartthrob for a serious 2015 run. A runner-up finish at the Quik Pro opener didn’t hurt.