Does size matter in the game of pro surfing?
The Ultimate Fighting Championships began without weight classes. Martial Artists, brawlers, wrestlers and boxers fought without gloves, matching different specialists against one another to see what fighting style reigned supreme. A new sport was born out of the bare knuckled bloodshed. Championed by Brazilian Royce Gracie, who showed the effectiveness of choking people.
The World Surf League is like the early days of the UFC in the sense that athletes of all statures surf against one another. But for the most part, size don’t mean a thing.
Or does it?
Intrigued by the far-fetched idea of weight divisions in surfing, I used the WSL profile stats of each athlete and divided the tour by height and weight, then ranked them into light, middle, and heavyweight divisions.
John John is your Heavyweight World Champion! Adriano and Wilko hold the light and middleweight belts heading into Pipeline.
Let’s examine who’s where.
Lightweight 60- 70 kg
Adriano 167 cm 62 kg
Filipe 173 cm 64 kg
Italo 167 cm 68 kg
Caio 170 cm 69 kg
Kerr 173 cm 70 kg
Miguel 175 cm 68 kg
Keanu 163 cm 66 kg
Kanoa 175 cm 67 kg
Jadson 170 cm 66 kg
Davey 172 cm 67 k
Flores 173 cm 68 kg
Middleweight 70-75 kg
Wilko 180 cm 75 kg
Kolohe 180 cm 74 kg
Slater 175 cm 73 kg
Mick 177 cm 73 kg
Stu 175 cm 72 kg
Conner 173 cm 74 kg
Nat 180 cm 73 kg
Matt B. 180 cm 69 kg
Alejo 173 cm 70 kg
Taj 175 cm 72 kg
Heavyweight: 75 kg+
JJF 183 cm 76 kg
Gabby 180 cm 80 kg
Jordy 190 cm 80 kg
Julian 183 cm 79 kg
Parko 183 cm 84 kg
Sebastian 185 cm 79 kg
Ace 174 cm 77 kg
Michel 176 cm 76 kg
Wiggolly 175 cm 75 kg
Dusty 178 cm 75 kg
Jack 183 cm 75 kg
Alex R. 178 cm 77 kg
Ryan 178 cm 78 kg
As kinky an idea as it is, weight divisions in surf would suck. You’d lose match-ups like JJF x Slater, Parko and Mick, or Gabriel vs Filipe.
No longer convinced that weight divisions are the answer, I went through every man-on-man heat this year and tallied if the larger or smaller surfer won that heat to see if there was a clear advantage.
What I learned: Over the course of the season, weight don’t mean shit although larger surfers had a higher winning percentage at Gold Coast, Bells, Margaret’s, Rio, Fiji, Trestles and Portugal.
Smaller opponents won more often at J-Bay, Tahiti, and France.
As vastly different as these venues are, one could argue that speed is more important than power at these locations. Possibly explaining why the lighter opponent had a higher winning percentage.
Interestingly, apart from Adriano, Filipe and Italo who are sitting comfortably on the rankings, the lightweight class is struggling. Kanoa, Pupo, Davey, Jeremy, and Keanu are all on the bubble of re-qualification.
The events on tour that are thought to cater to light-footed surfers, didn’t.
Gold Coast: 1st Matt Wilkinson, 2nd Kolohe Andino
Brazil: 1st John John, 2nd Jack Freestone
Lowers: 1st Jordy Smith, 2nd Joel Parkinson
Waves that favour heavier and taller competitors… did.
- Margaret River: 1. Sebastian Zietz, 2. Julian Wilson
- Bells Beach: 1. Matt Wilkinson 2. Jordy Smith
- CloudBreak: 1. Gabriel Medina 2. Matt Wilkinson
The place where larger surfers had the most advantage was Margaret River; winning 25 of 35 in the man-on-man heats.
Size doesn’t mean a smaller surfer can’t thrive in waves of consequence (Flores at Pipe or Teahupoo for instance) or a larger fella can’t grovel (Jordy Smith and Parko’s final appearance at two-foot Trestles).
Size could only be a factor in turns. Right?
See, there are a few questions that go through a judge’s head when they see a turn.
How critical was it? Was the turn on the open face or did the surfer attack the lip?
Speed: Did the surfer come out of the turn with more or less forward momentum?
Flow: Did the surfer link the maneuver? Or did the turn put the surfer behind the pace of the wave?
Power: Was there a large displacement of water coming off the rail of the surfers board?
This last question, The spray factor, outweighs the rest. Judges love when a surfer sends a fan of water to the horizon. Spray shows how clean the carve was through the face of the wave. It is indicator of how much weight was being driven through the heels or toe edge. A forehand turn done timidly, produces less spray. A gouge done with gritted teeth sends buckets out the back.
But from what I’ve gathered, it isn’t size that dictates spray, it’s strength and timing.
Kanoa Igarashi is often told he needs to fill out to be competitive on tour. However, he didn’t think he was at a disadvantage this year for being younger and lighter than some of his more physically developed competitors..
When I asked him if he thought size was an advantage on tour, he told me: “Honestly, I don’t think so. I think being strong has a bigger advantage than height and weight. Adriano is a prime example. Size only matters when you choose the wrong board for the conditions.”
After staring at this topic for too long, I concluded that it ain’t size that matters but conviction.
Surfers come in all shapes and sizes. Those that make it onto the Dream Tour do are there not because they’re physically superior to you and me. It is their conviction, a burning desire to improve on past expectations.
It is proper equipment, physical fitness and determination that makes a surfer WCT level. Hours of practice and perseverance through barriers that make one uncomfortable, has always, and will always, lead to success.
So what if you are six three, two-fifty and can’t grovel worth a damn! Add more volume under your chest and subtract a few cheeseburgers a week and you’ll be gliding where you once sank!
Five-five in socks and a hundred pounds dripping wet? Throw yourself over the ledge. Drown a little. You’ll only get better at handling the abuse.
Lack of performance due to size is an excuse only suitable in the bedroom.