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Beach Grit

Warshaw: “John John a target for tour bullies!”

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

Noted surf historian on the need to "blow up the idea of wavepool competition" after Zeke-John John Bells heat.

At Bells, the surf world had an attack of the vapours when the Hawaiian Zeke Lau muscled the world’s second-most loved surfer, John John Florence.

No one knew where to turn. Was it good, bad, ugly? Was it a microcosm of the struggle ‘tween indigenous Hawaiian and colonial white man? Or the reverse, the forever beat-down of the white man as he attempts to thrive as a minority?

I couldn’t work out whether I loved or loathed. Since I can’t formulate an opinion without some discussion of the various pros and cons, I turned to Matt Warshaw, the one-man surf history archivist. Matt raised the very good point that, whatever you thought of it, it at least gave the show a little personality.

Take it away, as will happen with wavepool events, and what are you left with?

“Fuck a level playing field,” says Matt.

Let’s debate.

BeachGrit: Do tell me, in light of the Zeke v John heat, why you believe we need to blow up “the idea of wavepool competition.”

Warshaw: Zeke bulldozing John was Bells’ best moment. Second-best was Italo going psy-ops on Zeke in the quarters, and getting the exact same result. Who knew Italo even had that gear? The little shimmy dance in the lineup when he had Zeke on the ropes, that made my day, made the whole contest. Decent waves, great surfing — Zeke ripped his heat with John; Italo did the same against Zeke — I mean, that is the blueprint. Right there. WSL should database heats like that, and figure out how to give us more. The craziest thing about the WSL right now is that they trip over the answers to their own problems, all the time, and don’t even know it. There is no crackling John-Zeke moment in the wavepool. There is no dancing-Italo moment. There is no three-minute countdown, like in the final, where everyone’s holding their breath to see if Mick can get the wave and score. You need that weirdness and tension and uncertainty. Fuck a level playing field. Closeouts and the occasional freak wave, like the one Griffin got at Kirra — that is surfing!

I wonder, by not having a Randy Rarick or a Rabbit Bartholomew or even a Brodie Carr at the tiller, instead a former tennis exec who’s never surfed, didn’t grow up amid surf culture, if there’s a terrible danger the game will lose its, I dunno, heritage?

Ian Cairns was as hardcore as Randy or Bugs, and he thought the Op Pro was gonna put pro surfing over the top, so I don’t know. Endless Summer has all the answers. Two surfers, great locations, great waves. We loved it. Surfers, I mean. And the pubic loved it too. Endless Summer was hokey and filled with a fair amount of bullshit. But it was real, too. It felt real, anyway. Endless Summer was a huge commercial success. Midwesterners got a look at who we are, got a look at what sport is really like, and they flipped! Went back the following weekend and saw it again. Endless Summer was a huge commercial success because surfers are not athletes, like other athletes, and because the playing field is so magnificently NOT level.

There is no crackling John-Zeke moment in the wavepool. There is no three-minute countdown, like in the final, where everyone’s holding their breath to see if Mick can get the wave and score. You need that weirdness and tension and uncertainty. Fuck a level playing field. Closeouts and the occasional freak wave, like the one Griffin got at Kirra — that is surfing!

And, if we can dance a little on top of that incident at Bells, did it seem to you, as it did to me, as a bold strategy yet hardly…outrageous… in the grand scheme of things? When I wrote a long-form story on Martin Potter five years ago, I asked MR how he approached surfing against the teenage prodigy. He told me his plan was to “hassle the fuck out of him and not let him get a wave and then I’m going to win.” Pottz famously stabbed Gerr’s board in a heat and, one time, spat at Rob Bain. 

Rob Bain is a big lovable man. Let’s hope Martin Potter’s back hairs are silver and coarse and matted like a cheap sisal rug.

And then there’s Kelly’s play against Andy, “I love you etc.”  Tell me of some great moments in hassling, historically? I imagine Sunny Garcia had feisty. 

Sunny’s deal I think was more that he had the judges psyched out. He was pretty scary if the heat was close and the call went the wrong way. Judges were terrified of him. Great moments in hassling… Michael Peterson would get right up into Rabbit’s face before a heat and scream at poor Bugs. Peter Townend one year at Haliewa paddled Cheyne Horan out of a world title.

I have the feeling that if physical hassling becomes a thing again, I mean, more than the Gabby-or-Parko-paddles-you-up-the-point deal, John John might think, fuck this, and go surf. Do you have a similar feel? 

John isn’t going to win 11 titles, like Kelly, which would make it easier for him to check out and be the acknowledged world’s best surfer instead of a target for world tour bullies. He doesn’t seem vengeful. But who knows. I hope we’re wrong, Derek. It’d be so great to see Zeke and John in a heat at the Box next week. I’d pay money to see John and Zeke at maxed-out Box. Whereas I wouldn’t even bother opening a new window on my screen to watch them surf the Wave Ranch.

Were you a hassler when you were sorta on the tour? 

No. I was nervous and jumpy, and the only contest I won I paddled way up the beach and surfed alone.