Were you devastated to learn the extent of John John’s knee injury and the prognosis? A ruptured ACL, surgery, season over, staring down a long stint on the sidelines. Maybe to never perform another air in a singlet.

Then rumours swirled that he would wear a knee brace at J-Bay, try to push out his lead with a result in the finals and leave his competitors to chase him down like greyhounds do rabbits.

But no. The champ has spoken claiming he is “excited for this new adventure”.

That’s some serious window dressing even for the modern-day athlete.

With John out it’s time to hone in on who’s in the drivers’ seat to clinch the Title.

Kolohe sits in pole position heading into J-Bay. The Californian has been America’s great white hope since he was winning NSSA championships and signing huge cheques as a grom.

However, he still hasn’t won a CT event in his eight years on tour. He finished second to JJF at Margs and has adopted an Adriano de Souza workmanlike approach to the tour in 2019.

It feels like Kolohe’s life could go two ways. Win an event and settle with that as his high watermark or win a string of events unburdened by the expectation of his destiny and become the first Californian since Curren to win a world title.

Kelly won't be kissing competitor's babies now that he is in the hunt for the title. Photo: WSL

Filipe Toledo is an each way bet. He’s arguably the most electric surfer on tour, but shudders in waves of consequence. We know he can win J-Bay but we’ve seen him pull back at The Box with priority and let Jack Robinson thread 9-point rides. If Tahiti and Pipe are big you would put your money on someone else. If it’s barely overhead for the remaining events he could clinch the title in Europe.

The dark horse in this race is Jordy Smith. The big South African has flown under the radar this season. He bought a house on the North Shore last year, stayed a little longer and worked on a weak point in his arsenal; namely left hand reefs.

A runner up finish in Brazil, two thirds, a fifth and a 17th as his throwaway, the big bru has been mighty consistent this season. Naysayers say he’s a serial choker. But this season he looks different – more focused, less annoyed at close judging calls, leaner and surfing more like he did in his fabulous section for Modern Collective. A South African world title? Don’t rule it out.

There is no doubt this is Jordy's best chance to get off the black list – The one which contains the best surfers never to win a world title. Photo: WSL/ Cestari

Now humour me for a moment with two outliers.

Gabriel Medina & 11x World Champion, 47-year-old Kelly Slater.

Mathematically Medina could win the World Title despite two throwaway 17th place finishes. You know he would love to get one back on John and be the first to three titles – they definitely have their own little rivalry going on. He also finishes his season strong.

With John John out Medina has a chance to beat him to a third world title. Photo: WSL/Cestari

He was in the exact same position last year, coming 7th (although he is 8th on the leader board he technically drops into 7th with John John out) after Brazil with Jules leading the pack. However, the pack was tighter, Gabe was only 6,275 points behind Wilson. This year he’s 10,865 points behind Kolohe who is now the default front-runner.

If he can get on a roll and win three events in the second half of the year and not drop below a quarter-final (5th) place finish he can seal it. But that’s a lot of pressure even for someone who rips in everything from 2-20 foot and knows how to win a title. It’s no more slip-ups for Medina if he wants to remain a contender.

Let’s talk about Kelly.

Who would have thought a 47-year-old is now the 7th highest ranked surfer in the world and looking like qualifying for the Olympics in 2019? That’s how you bookend a career.

Will Kelly rekindle his J-bay love affair and leap up the rankings? Photo: WSL/Tostee

Kelly faces the same scenario as Medina – he can’t afford to have another bad result and needs to string together a few wins. We know when it’s huge Kelly rises to the occasion at places like Tahiti and Pipe. His experience should shuffle him up the order of favourites at Surf Ranch. But how he answers back at J-Bay, the scene of his devastating foot injury, will determine what kind of Kelly we see in the back end of the year.

Kanoa and Jake are a force to be reckoned with. Photo: WSL/ Smorigo

By virtue of their position on the Jeep leaderboard, Kanoa Igarashi and Italo Ferreira (five and six respectively) must also be considered contenders for the title. Kanoa now knows how to win. That first victory can do wonders for a surfer’s self belief and there’s no doubt he has taken his comp act into another realm. Kanoa also has Jake Paterson in his corner. The Snake is desperate to guide one of his camp to a title and will be willing to employ more tricks than Mandrake to pull it off. Kanoa finished third at both The Ranch and J-Bay last year and has been a runner-up at the Pipe Masters – all of which gives him back end cred. Now Kanoa may not yet possess the aura of a world champion, but if the other contenders slip up Kanoa is likely to be more consistent than Japan’s bullet train, which is never late.

Wing-heeled Italo is unstoppable in full flight, but struggles with consistency. Photo: WSL/Smorigo


Meanwhile Italo is an entirely different proposition. At his best the dynamic Brazilian is almost untouchable, however he can be more up and down than a busy lift.

His well-documented shark phobia won’t be helpful at J-bay and his best opportunities to make up ground will come in the wave pool and on the European leg, where he won last year.  

The world title race is wide open and only one thing is certain, the winner won’t be a Hawaiian watching from the sidelines.