On finals day at Bells a major plot line was quickly established. Mick Fanning, a surfer who had found a way to maximize his talents throughout a brilliant career was hanging up the leggie. On the other side of the draw was Italo Ferreira the highly gifted Brazilian who one sensed was yet to reveal his true potential and establish himself as a legitimate world title contender.

As the siren sounded for the start of Mick’s quarter his Mum, Liz, raised her hands above her head as if to say ‘let’s go’. Of course Mick hadn’t caught a wave yet but Liz had an entire career to celebrate. She might have done well to leave her arms above her head. Owen was having no trouble finding the sweet spot with his backside hooks, but when he failed to ride out of the finishing move on his first wave he missed a major opportunity. Mick chipped in to an insider and let the well-rehearsed Bells choreography unfold. ‘Wind up, arms wide, knife the inside rail, torque the body, drop the inside shoulder, pull the arms in, hold the rail… hold the rail… hold and then engage the outside rail before too much speed is wiped and do it all again – at a slightly different angle to ensure the judges don’t grow weary of the same line.

Mick may have had the entire Bells crowd, every surfing luminary and almost the entire internet viewing audience on side, but it was obvious he wasn’t relying on favouritism. He’d been in the water all day yesterday refining his act; determined to exit pro surfing’s grand stage while performing at his absolute best. He was obviously in top form. The little claims after a couple of his rides were testament to how determined he was to do well. These were moments of personal conviction rather an appeals to the judges, but as far as anyone watching was concerned he could have surfed nude if he wanted.

Owen was the first casualty of the Mick train and was openly displeased after his quarter final, but he shouldn't be too distressed. He goes into WA ranked number four (technically three because Mick's out) on the Jeep Leaderboard and looks sharper and stronger than he has in a long time. For Owen fans the open display of bitter dissapointment indicates how passionate he is about joining his sister, Tyler, as a world champion.      

In his heat against Zeke Lau, Italo Ferreira took a 5’11, Timmy Paterson knife to the battle and made it rapidly apparent that Zeke wouldn’t get close to him. The stand-over tactics Zeke employed against John John were quickly nullified when Italo slashed his way to an 8.83. However, it was on Italo’s second major ride that he really summoned the ‘super-mario’ within. The final manoeuvre was arguably the turn of the tournament, as Italo climbed a mountain of Bells wall, planted his pin-tail flag in the lip and then ran down the face before the avalanche of whitewater could catch him. He celebrated with a stand-tall, arms-akimbo claim he later explained was inspired by the video game character, Super Mario. Was John John watching on from somewhere and punching the sky as Italo completely out-surfed Zeke and posted the highest heat total of the event against the stand-over man? Surely JJ at least allowed himself a quiet chuckle at the expense of his Hawaiian sparring partner. 

Italo was going to places in the Bells lip no other surfer can reach and his backside whip is so quick he can get in and out of there before the monster-lips chase him down. When asked by Tracks if he was really gunning for the big moves Italo summoned his best English and stated emphatically, ‘‘ Yeah for sure, that’s the game here.”  

Italo Ferreira exploring the upper reaches of a Bells wall. Photo: Steve Ryan

In the semis Mick produced a display of merciless, mistake free surfing to apply early pressure to an over-achieving Pat Gaduskaus. Again Mick proved that, for frontside surfers in particular, Bells is perhaps best surfed as a kind of perfect dance, with the wave as the partner who leads. It wasn’t so much the weight of individual moves, but the sublime sequencing of perfectly-timed turns that impressed. 

Pat Gaduaskas laid down his much celebrated “hammer turn” but he was lacking a few nails. Bells offers the opportunity to load up on a single big hit, but if you don’t have a measure of restraint on the opening move and preserve a little speed, that big ball of white-water will steamroll right past you. Pat loaded up and got left behind. Still, it’s probably his biggest moment since he rodeo-flipped to requalify at Teahupoo in 2010, the year of the infamous, half-year cut-off.  Pat surfed beyond the expectations of most to make the semis. He’s certainly not in the yellow jersey but his trademark yellow board will be seen as a symbol of danger  for other competitors going forward.       

        

In the semi against Medina, Italo was consistently hitting the lip a yard deeper and two yards higher than Gabriel. That was the difference. Again he courageously employed the hit and run tactic on the collapsing inside section to great effect. It was thrilling to see the two Brazilians matched so closely. For mine Italo again established himself as the custodian of the most lethal backside attack on tour.     

The final was a cauldron of competing pressures. Italo, the form surfer of the event chasing his first career victory, the elusive Bell and confirmation of his status as a surfer who deserves to be acknowledged as a title contender. Meanwhile, Mick was carrying a head full of memories from a career that would be over when he reached the top of the famed Bells stairs. He was also shouldering the hopes and expectations of fans, along with many of his best friends and close relatives, who were in the stands watching.

The pressure showed. After Italo went deep to win the jostle for the first wave he missed the first section and only managed a 4.67. He fell uncharacteristically on his second ride. Mick also fell on his first wave and it was deep into the heat before the first meaningful exchange took place; Mick swooping his way to an 8.5 while Italo needled the sky repeatedly for a 6.33. At first glance the spread looked a little generous in Mick’s favour but Italo had wound up the windows after his second turn and likely lost points for a lack of flow and control.

As the Fanning fairytale looked like unfolding it was standing room only in the stands. Only the AFL players from Geelong Football club, including Gary Ablett Jr, were given seats so that everyone else could see. The crowds chanted and screamed, whistled and whooped for Mick, but Italo had his own history to write and in his wicked backside snap he possessed the necessary means to do it.

Despite falling on a soft finishing turn he whipped his way to a 7.33. and left Mick chasing a 5.56 with six and a half minutes to go.

When Mick, despite holding priority, allowed Italo to take a mid-size wave the crowd and probably every internet viewer wondered why Fanning didn’t claim the wave for himself. For a ravenous Ferreira the reef-hugging bender was all that he required to swing upside-down on multiple occasions. His passion erupted as he rode out of the final turn, looked to the judges and screamed, demanding to be rewarded for moves, which he knew were hyper-critical, on-rail and completely committed. The arbitrators complied and rewarded him with an 8.33 that left Mick chasing a 7.57 for a few long, painful minutes.

As we all know the miracle wave never came, but in many ways it was the most fitting of endings. Mick Fanning, a lion of a competitor who had always surfed at the upper-limit of his abilities, had been beaten in the end by a surfer who had matched him for passion, commitment and skill. This was no flimsy fall over the line victory for Ferreira. Italo had taken the biggest risks all event and maintained the same brave approach in a final that cast him as a kind of villain.

Mick knew he’d been beaten by a worthy opponent and admitted as much. “That was one of the greatest things I’ve seen at Bells. Well done Italo, I’m really stoked for you bro,” he told the crowd from the Bells podium. Five minutes earlier Italo had walked into one of the competitor’s container sheds just to have a moment to himself before the media and masses descended. All that could be heard was the loud banging and screaming of someone drunk with glory and elation. Like Mick, this was a champion who wasn’t afraid to celebrate.

Italo Ferreira hoists the Bell and howls with delight. Photo: Steve Ryan

Now on equal points with Julian Wilson he goes into Margaret River sharing the yellow Jersey and very much at the forefront of an increasingly intriguing world title race that already has John John and Jordy Smith amongst the back markers.   

Meanwhile for Mick there were hugs all round and a call for more beers amongst the friends and family who had travelled here to be with him in his final event as a full-time competitor. It is not the last we will see of Mick Fanning; according to the stickers he is already on The Search. Who knows he might pop up in a random lineup alongside you somewhere, soon? In future years he will likely be tossed wildcards (particularly at Bells) if he wants them, but for those who were left disappointed by his runner-up result it’s worth remembering that Don Bradman scored a duck in his last match while Mick Fanning made the final. That’s the sort of company he deserves to be mentioned in.