"Matt Warshaw summed it up best. Ewing’s surfing is beautiful, you could admire it all day, but Toledo leaves you on the edge of your seat."
Well, you can’t deny the format works.
Let’s spare the location complaints. There’s no use kicking a dead horse. Plus, Trestles has served us fine entertainment. That’s undeniable.
Today seemed to churn at a relentless pace. Opportunities abounded, and the final match-up was upon us before we knew it. Ethan Ewing hacked and slashed and slid his way to a best-of-three bout with Filipe Toledo, but here he met his end. Title number two for Toledo was a predictable outcome, prophesied widely by those who know the game.
The excitement among pundits was tangible to begin the day. Pete Mel was caffeinated almost to the point of intervention. Miley-Dyer looked like a Vogue cover in a cerise pink jumpsuit and the type of serious black sunglasses worn by women who relish hard decisions and harder liquor. Joe Turpel was so excited he’d woken at three am and called Joel Parkinson. For what purpose, it wasn’t clear. But presumably Parko’s lullabies are as smooth as his bottom turns.
The winner of the first match-up was clear from the moment Joao Chianca and Jack Robinson stepped onstage after being announced by Chris Cote (fight-style, but without the panache or wit to match the volume).
Robinson hoofed the ground, like a skitzy bull. Too hyped, I thought immediately. No chance.
Chianca was demure by comparison. Head full of curls slightly bowed, he padded over the sand, just going for a surf.
He opened with a couple of fives. “Cool start,” said Turpel. “He just ran out of wave height.”
But even if he retracts his claws on land, in the water he was full of the tigerish energy we’ve become accustomed to. Credit to Chianca for matching the finals hype. He was rewarded with the first excellent score of the day, an undeniable 8.33 where he threw every ounce of his soul into the second turn.
Robinson just couldn’t get going, his surfing looked slow and flimsy by comparison. They split a peak with five minutes remaining. Chianca took the left and went all the way to ten o’clock on his opening backhand smash, before rotating back to six.
The resulting score left Robinson needing a 9.33. Not here, not today.
Afterwards, both men were calm. Jack spoke of gratitude, obviously. The daily bread of the professional surfer. He was mellow. Too mellow. He’d lost before he started.
Joao reclined over the barrier as he was interviewed. When he spoke about having fun it seemed cliched but genuine. As evidenced this season, one of his greatest strengths might well be between his ears. In contrast to Robinson, who often gives the impression he’s trying to ignore the voices, Chianca seems in control of them. The devil is on his shoulder, but he is instructed when to speak.
I blinked as the next heat was announced and the first surfer appeared. Was that…Mick? The silhouette, the haircut, the glutes…
Fanning was in Ethan Ewing’s corner, of course, a curious cross-brand arrangement, but one that makes perfect sense.
This is a discussion for another day perhaps, but I remain unconvinced that Ewing is any better than Mick was in his pomp. That might seem obvious, given Fanning’s decorated career, but the breathless praise handed out to Ethan Ewing every time he surfs barely stops short of anointing him as an all-time great.
Regardless, he was too much for Chianca. The tiger halted in its tracks by the full bore of Ewing’s rails. Two huge wraps on his opener, which he snuck literally under Joao’s nose, screamed power and poise. It set the tempo for how he would be judged.
7.83. He can get these all day, I noted.
When Ewing surfs, judges’ hearts and balls flutter. Sevens become eights become nines. The scores are tiny love letters to a brand of surfing we all perform in our heads. Other approaches to waves polarise opinions; Ewing unites them.
Somewhere, Filipe Toledo was wondering if god was blond and Australian.
It was interesting to hear Ewing pitch himself as an underdog in the post-heat interview. That’s what he’d been all his life, he said. It was great motivation. But he must be the most lauded underdog in history.
There was no mention or sign of his injury, a broken back sustained mere weeks ago. Curious.
Perhaps that was the segue to Hoag Hospitals, “the OFFICIAL hospital of the WSL” according to Kaipo. I must confess to not realising the WSL had an official hospital sponsor.
“Always great to be standing by with Hoag Hospital,” said Joe.
But is it, Joe? Is it “always great”? When has it been great before? And what are we, or they, standing by for, exactly?
Are there an increased number of minor domestic accidents among the legions of WSL fans playing Candy Crush up ladders whilst eating cup noodles?
Yes, that must be it.
And then it was time for the hometown hero, Griffin Colapinto, who was given a special announcement by the mayor in front of a partisan crowd.
But Ewing was already in rhythm, and the judges were still giddy. The spread between the openers, an 8.17 for Ethan vs 5.67 for Griffin looked some way off. The splitscreen comparison on their next proved only that they’d cooked the spread from the beginning.
The beach was decked in the red of Colapinto’s fanbase. The motor cruiser moored behind the line-up flew crimson flags and banners emblazoned with his name. But the judges only had eyes for Ewing.
I began to see it too. Colapinto’s turns started to look flicky in comparison to Ethan’s. It was clear he couldn’t match him in this regard. He needed something else. If he couldn’t match Ewing in turns, he needed to go to the air, to give the judges a point of difference to stew over.
But he didn’t. Instead, he claimed wildly for mediocre waves. It was an emotional reaction to the outpouring of support, and you can’t blame him in such a charged situation. But the Beachgrit commentariat certainly did.
In the booth, Mitch Salazar strung together some major manoeuvres in cliche and nonsense.
“Smart stuff though,”he said as Ewing took a dud then kicked out. “You’re just getting everyone else involved in the game here.”
It remained unclear what was smart or who “everyone else” was.
“There is no tomorrow. It’s now or never. Third time’s a charm,” said Mitch, undeterred.
But Griffin was done.
The boat outside quietly lowered its banners. Somewhere, Kanoa Igarashi stroked a white cat and cackled.
And so it was to be Ewing vs Toledo for the world title, and match one was maybe the heat of the year. A battle of nations, one an historic surfing superpower in the midst of a deep winter; the other a modern powerhouse. Brazilian surfers have now won every world title since 2017.
Ewing edged the opening exchange, but the judges had clearly scaled back a bit to allow for the Toledo factor.
Ethan’s 7.33 was at least a point higher in previous heats, but Toledo’s 7.00 contained one of the turns of the day. Such was the speed he carried that it can only be appreciated in slow-motion. Looking again you might well argue it was underscored.
But it was enough to make the judges sit up and pay attention. Toledo is a different beast. He had not one extra gear to go, but two or three.
Ewing would back up with a pair of mid-eights, enough to win almost any heat he’d ever surfed. All the power was there, all the style, all the flow. He was on form and deep in his bag. But although we continue to be wowed by what he pulls out, we are not entirely surprised.
By contrast, Filipe might shock us. There is no predicting what he might do to approaching sections, aside from the fact it will be searingly fast or jaw-droppingly explosive.
Toledo iced the heat with a 9.00 and an 8.97, and the only thing you might say about both scores is that they could’ve been higher.
I’d challenge even the most ardent Ewing fans to watch these waves again and convince themselves that Toledo didn’t deserve this victory. The sheer variety in his repertoire is astounding. You may not aspire to his surfing, but you can’t deny it.
Filipe’s approach to waves like these defies the language I might use to describe it. It’s an approach best understood by how it makes you feel.
Perhaps Matt Warshaw summed it up best in the comments. Ewing’s surfing is beautiful, you could admire it all day, but Toledo leaves you on the edge of your seat.
Ultimately, if there’s an argument for Ewing, it’s purely a matter of taste. And that’s both the brilliance and the problem with pro surfing.
The climax of the day, match-up number two that Filipe would go on to win, was a comedown in the way that surfing so often is. Moments of transcendence are followed by dull lows.
The wind had gone onshore, and after the fireworks the two men floated for twenty minutes without catching a wave.
Toledo eventually went through the motions with a mid-seven and high six.
Ewing took his first wave with just nine minutes left on the clock. Two short turns and a kickout were a disappointing capitulation. Two minutes later he creased his board, but Filipe had already won.
And that was that. Victory for Brazil. Back-to-back titles for Filipe Toledo.
Some of you will be quietly seething tonight. All you style puritans who believe, truly believe, that you remember one or two turns which felt like Ethan Ewing’s look. All of you would prefer him as your world champion. Not because he is clearly and objectively better than Filipe Toledo, but because he’s more like you.
It’s easier to identify with Ethan Ewing. His surfing is beautiful, and at least partially understood.
Toledo’s, on the other hand, is so far beyond the pale that we can’t possibly know what it’s like to venture there.
And more of you still will have deep, aching reservations about a double world champion with a mortal fear of heavy waves, especially left-handed tropical reefs.
I love that I can say that to you without the need to explain it. Because you’ve all witnessed it with me. And I could try and explain it to someone outside surfing and they wouldn’t really get it. They wouldn’t really understand what it means to have a world champ who bears the weight of an asterisk from all those who know and admire him.
So I say we should celebrate this little anomaly. It’s just another weird little quirk of this game to enjoy. An in-joke in a fringe sport, but one that you understand.
Because it’s your sport. Your odd little hobby that mainstream audiences will never appreciate.
Laugh at it. Rage at it. Love it.
And thanks for laughing, raging and loving along with me.