"It's about as close as surfing gets to boxing."
That's Rob Cloupe's take on the Smith Optics Garden State Grudge Match. And since it's inception in 2002, this homegrown comp's lived up to that vision, offering all the grit, aggression and Jersey pride you'd expect from a man-on-man battle fought in the shadows of off-season Casino Pier.
There's been near brawls. Real tears. A big-name pro once left the after-party wearing handcuffs instead of the title belt. And though the contest boasts a winner-take-all purse of $3500, it's the bragging rights that keep surfers duking it out each year from Cape May to Monmouth. Actually, just getting into the event's a shitfight. If you're not one of 24 invites — or four wild cards — there's just four spots left. So you'd better be one of 48 men in the Grudge Match Trials. Oh, and you better be from Jersey. With the 45-day waiting period kicking off last week and a possible pulse on the way— plus the $1500 Grom Grudge going on-call Aug. 1— we checked with Cloupe to see what to expect between now and October's main event.
SURFINGMAGAZINE.COM: How'd a homegrown local comp end up needing a trials event?
ROB CLOUPE: Well, it started as strictly invite but that caused some controversy over who got picked and who didn't. So we added a $1000 qualifier. And two years ago we expanded to 32 competitors —four via qualifying plus four wildcards — but that also means eight guys get kicked out each year. This year, Frank Walsh, Justin Citta, Andrew Gesler all have to re-qualify. We always pull the lowest eight scores, but you can still end up losing good guys early when you draw random heats. So we're going man-on-man from Round One come the main event in October.
Do you absolutely have to be from Jersey to compete?
Pretty much. Todd Barry's from Australia but he's lived here for 10 to 12 years. And then there's guys who are from Pennsylvania originally but started surfing here — the Kelly Brothers and Jamie Moran. Every year we talk about inviting Ben Bourgeois since he was born in Jersey, but that never flies. The guys know who the guys are. That's what's cool about that the Grom Grudge is it's open to anyone under 20. Balaram Stack won in it last year. But that's a completely separate contest. You can only get a shot at the belt if you're invited or by surfing through the trials — or a wildcard.
How do the wildcards work?
Usually you have to be injured — or have a really good excuse. Zack Humphreys will get one because he was hurt last year and couldn't surf. Maybe Shane Cappone because he pulled his groin first wave last year. But no-shows gotta requalify — period. Luke Ditella skipped it once and had to go requalify — he won last year. But most guys show no matter what. Ryan Kimmel's flown home for it from California. Obviously Dean [Randazzo] has. Mikey Guarino's flown in from Tavarua — twice. So most guys do anything to be here. Even if they lose first round, they're still part of the smack-talking.
The smack-talking's pretty funny. But it's no joke. These guys really do take this contest personally. What are some of the highs and lows?
Highs are pretty easy: Randazzo's second win. Hammer and Gleason's ridiculous final last year when Hammer got that barrel at the end. We always run in solid surf, but 2008 was probably the best as far as clean and big. The lows? There's been some rashguard throwing. Randazzo tackled Keenan after an an-almost interference. Hammer got drunk the second year and wore a sign around his neck at the bar – something about Keenan surfing soft. This thing's really all about the rivalry. That's what makes it. No matter how close these guys may be, they really do want to kill each other. Nobody's high-fiving each other in the water. At the bar later — maybe — but not in the water. That's for sure.