Italo Ferreira just made it two wins from four events on the 2018 world tour. That’s impressive in itself, but what’s even more impressive is that both victories have come at waves that should by all rights belong to natural-footers. Now he comes into Uluwatu wearing the yellow jersey and surfing every bit like he has a couple more wins in him. Most impressive of all is the fact that, in an age of child prodigies and guys who don’t quite live up to the hype, Italo’s journey to the top is about as come-from-nowhere as you’re likely to witness these days.

Let’s be honest, none of us knew squat about Italo when he qualified in 2015. In two seasons on the QS the guy tiptoed from 222nd to 7th. Among the already-opened floodgates of Brazilian qualifiers, all we knew was that his name sounded a bit like ‘Italian Ferrari’. That was good for a laugh, but it told us nothing about his surfing. Then the first real clip of him dropped on Stab. It was shot largely around Baia Formosa, on that Snapper-esque point he was lucky enough to grow up on, but while the surfing looked sharp and adequately new school, it did little to impress the keyboard critics in the comments’ section below. Cannon fodder for the world’s best was the general consensus, and while everything wrong with the world is often embodied in such forums, I wasn’t sure I disagreed. Sure, the kid could surf, but good enough for a long and fruitful career on the CT? No one was convinced.

Fast-forward to the end of 2015 and we’d all changed our tune. Skip ahead to now and we’re still picking our jaws up off the floor.

Following his performances at Keramas and Bells, it’s safe to say Italo has the best backhand on tour bar none. Owen’s is smoother and more drawn-out, but moves at a snail’s pace by comparison. Wilko’s, when it’s on, has the same kind of down-the-line momentum but lacks the fire-power. Medina’s is made of similar material, but somehow Italo’s looks spicier. No natural-footer even comes close. Then there’s his forehand. Then there’s his comfort levels in waves of clout. In many ways, he’s reminiscent of a young Manny Pacquiao—small in stature, ever-smiling, a little unorthodox in his approach but blindingly fast, deceptively powerful, as sure-footed as a mountain goat and absolutely devastating when he unleashes a combination. Hell, he’d probably make a good boxer. As it is, he makes a phenomenal surfer.

The kind who could win the most unlikely world title in years.

And he might be just the kind of champ we need right now. The kind who could put to bed this bullshit internet-based racism that’s been doing the rounds for way too long. Because who doesn’t like Italo? To watch him dance his way through his post-final interview with Kaipo, to hear his humble words in the throes of celebration—it only endeared him more to those watching on. Whereas Medina invites criticism for his win-at-any-cost attitude, and Toledo can be poked fun at because he’s yet to prove his worth in the juice, Italo is the kind of surfer we all can love, Brazilian or otherwise. He’s warm, he’s energetic, and man, does he do it with feeling or what? Go watch the Keramas final again, tell me he doesn’t make our sport look like the funnest pastime under the sun.

There’s a long year ahead and this title race is only just heating up, but if the Italian Ferrari keeps it coming and gets over the line ahead of the rest, we’re in for an entertaining ride.

Vai baby!