At twenty to eight this morning John John Florence and Gabriel Medina were jockeying for the peak at Pipe.  It was almost like a heat. Medina was even wearing his contest singlet, as he warmed up before his round two match up with Dusty Payne. Gabriel dominated the lefts while John came in after a classic right corner at Backdoor.  No words were said between them and the tension was apparent. As the day unfolded both would find themselves at the centre of major dramas; much of it the result of unlikely cameos in this extended world title saga.

It wasn't epic Pipe but there were still a few teepees. photo: bosko

With John John watching on intently, Medina readily overcame his first, prickly obstacle in Dusty Payne. Not even the Volcom house support crew could save Dusty from Medina’s hungry presence and after a pair of rapid fire mid-sixes he eventually went nuclear with a nine. The ensuing eruption on the beach made it apparent that there were gazillions of Medina fans in Hawaii too. 

With plenty of time time to ruminate on Medina's commanding victory over Dusty, John John paddled out against a cursed Ethan Ewing in heat six. The match up pitted the Jeep yellow jersey wearer against the tour’s least successful surfer in 2017. While both Ethan and John John had enjoyed boy-wonder tags, only John John had thus far lived up to expectations. Given the spectacular disappointment of his rookie year, Ethan Ewing has long known that he is returning to pro surfing’s purgatory, the WQS. Meanwhile, John John was on the cusp of affirming his status as a modern surfing God.

Everyone expected the heat to be a stroll through for John John. The Hawaiian crowd in particular seemed like it had been lulled into a false sense of inevitability about John John’s second title. If you write 'Go John John' on enough posters and shirts (as the Hawaiians have)  it almost seems like the title is already won. Sure enough when John paddled out and needled through a couple of barrels within the first few minutes, it looked like everything would go to plan. The take-off on his first wave saw him melt into the lip and then under it, maximizing his time in the tube via a technical approach very few could match. However, after Ethan dropped a 3.93 the ocean went all Mediterranean.  If you were watching there was time to go for a long lunch and a Mai Tai before anything really happened. Suddenly there were only five minutes left to go and no one really saw Ethan Ewing coming. John John had left the door wide open because the tour’s rookie-tragic only needed a 6.24 and he was due for a win, having only made it through four heats all year. Five minutes of shock and awe followed for John John and the Hawaiian crowd.

Ewing slides into a frothy little nugget and floats to the flats and suddenly everyone feels as if they are watching the impossible unfold. The score goes an agonizing 0.04 short. Read the fine print and two out of five judges gave Ewing the digits he needed at that time. Two judges felt he’d done enough to eclipse the world champion at his home break and thwart his second world title quest.

Ethan Ewing nearly spoiled the John John party today. Photo: Bosko

Suddenly in survival mode John John marginally improved his situation with a better back-up, only to see Ewing come at him a second time. Again the score was mercilessly close. This time three out of five judges gave him the 4.67 he required but once the three middle scores were averaged out he was still 0.07 short. Earlier in the day someone had told me, John John Florence keeps bees for a hobby.  Well, he made it through his round three heat by a bee’s dick.

After the heat, John tried to play it cool but he was obviously shaken.

However, he still had the presence of mind to answer questions about his rivalry with Medina. Quizzed about the vibe when they’ve surfed alongside one another in the Hawaii free surfs John John chcuckled. “It’s pretty mellow. We’re both competing, we’re both just surfing, we both want to win. There’s probably a little tension.”

“Was there any dialogue between you?” I pressed.

“No,” John John assured me, before continuing, “But we’re friends. We’ve been friends on tour for a long time.”  

 John also conceded that part of him thrives on the rivalry they share.

“I respect his surfing a ton… he’s an amazing surfer and an amazing competitor and he brings the best out in me. It’s fun to have him on tour to compete against because he really gets that fire going.”

While John John was breathing a sigh of relief and being chased up the each by hordes of adoring grommets, Gabriel had his own battles to fight against Josh Kerr. As he paddled out he was probably wondering how John John had survived the surprise attack from Ethan Ewing. Just as Medina and Kerr hit the water the wind went funky and confused the criteria. Suddenly Medina was trying to grind a victory by doing backside snaps in onshore crumble. Kerrsy, on the fast train to retirement had nothing to loose and quickly claimed the upper hand with a couple of burrowing rides, one backed up by an ankle-snapping floater.

While Medina bashed the lip fellow countryman Italo Ferreira pulled a slick backside rodeo in the parallel heat. The move seemed to inspire Medina and on his next wave he joined the rodeo show, but got bucked off. Italo was making Medina look ordinary, but at least he woke up the monster. Somehow Medina hunted down a decent left barrel (6.57 score) on a day when almost no one had claimed a scoring ride at true Pipe. The completed air reverse at the end was performed over the ugliest of triple ups. Medina’s bitter determination was impressive to witness and gave the title race the kind of gritty quality it so deserves. Although two, swift backside snaps ultimately delivered Gabs the meager score he needed, he came close to pulling off a miracle back-flip. Friends sometimes offer help in unexpected ways and it had taken Italo to drag Medina out of the hole and propel him towards victory. He might not be able to call upon the same sources of inspiration tomorrow.

Someone may have to make it past Kelly to claim the title. Photo Bosko

As it stands we are poised for an intriguing final day of surfing. With Julian mathematically out of the equation and that crafty old cat, Kelly Slater, ending Jordy’s hopes, it’s down to two – John John and Medina. If today proved anything it’s that both are not infallible. Thrown into the melting pot of potential scenarios are surfers like Leo Fioravanti who are surfing to keep their WCT status alive. Then you have Julian Wilson who wants to prove a point and Kelly who loves nothing more than showing he can still rumble with the kids. And of course everybody still wants to win the Pipe Masters. 

The scenarios and tomorrow’s heats are below. 

If John John makes the Final of the Billabong Pipe Masters he will clinch the 2017 World Title.

2. If Gabriel Medina wins at Pipe, he'll clinch only if Florence finishes no better than 3rd (semis)
3. If Florence does no better than 9th  (round 5), Medina can clinch with a 2nd place finish.

Billabong Pipe Masters Round 4 Match-Ups: 

Heat 1: Julian Wilson (AUS), Conner Coffin (USA), Ian Gouveia (BRA)

Heat 2: Joel Parkinson (AUS), Caio Ibelli (BRA), John John Florence (HAW)

Heat 3: Jeremy Flores (FRA), Gabriel Medina (BRA), Italo Ferreira (BRA)

Heat 4: Leonardo Fioravanti (ITA), Kanoa Igarashi (USA), Kelly Slater (USA)