There was a time, not that long ago, when watching a paddle battle between Matt Wilkinson and Julian Wilson would have been a very dull affair indeed. Wilko would put in the hard yards, for about five yards, before realizing that the prize of priority wasn’t worth coughing up a lung. It wasn’t so much that Wilko was unfit, he was, just that couldn’t be arsed with the whole humiliating hassle of it all. His surfing was good enough without all that bullshit. Except, well, it wasn’t. 

In the Quarterfinal of the Outerknown Fiji Pro however it was a such a paddle battle that showed the Wilko of 2017 is a very different beast indeed. After trading set waves Wilko ended up ten metres further down the reef and the two embarked on a race up the point for priority. The whole thing was captured on the webcast by the drone and it felt a little like watching the OJ Simpson car chase from the chopper. Now sure that sure that was a murderer, holding a gun to his head, being chased by police for two-hours, but I stand by the analogy. 

Watching live from the sky it seemed miraculously that Wilko was overhauling Wilson’s lead, and by the time the two reached the take-off zone, I deemed he had edged ahead of Julian. Unfortunately while the judges were deliberating the decision, and so with neutral priority in place, a wave came through and Wilko was denied the chance to hammer home his hard won advantage. He was pissed, and rightfully so. Now if by some miracle you’ve read this far and found that, 260 words in, I’ve described a paddle battle that didn’t end up in a priority or affect the heat and are thinking; just what is the fucking point? I will say this; it matters. It matters because Wilko was not only fit enough to take on Wilson and win, but that he really wanted to. 

Now sure it’s a small thread in a much bigger story. However in recent years you’d find an example like this, and by pulling the thread could easily find a way to unravel a whole Wilko performance. It might have been a crucial fall, an obvious poor wave choice, or a priority mistake that illuminated his failings as a whole. In Fiji though, it was the opposite. It was not difficult to find a hundred different incidents that you could knit a winning narrative around, instead of finding examples where you could pull it apart. From decision making to tuberiding, from frontside hacks to his completion ratios, the whole package made Wilko the form surfer of the event. It was a statement win.

The performance, if you can believe the ratings, also made him the best surfer in the world. This time last year his loss of the Jeep, Yellow Jersey was vaunted as a return to a normal surfing world order where a Wilko world title was an impossibility. Grabbing it now, that doesn’t seem so impossible after all. If he keeps paddling, and keeps battling, anything is possible.