The 2015 season is making its final descent toward the island of Oahu and the last event of the season, the Billabong Pipe Masters. It's been quite the year for the Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour (CT), with all the upstarts, amazing waves, lead changes, and shark punching. It was never meant to crown a Champion before the real end, when the world's best land in Hawaii.
Happily, the last event of the season will see a thrillingly complex web of scenarios. There are an unprecedented six contenders coming into the finale, including current World No. 1 Mick Fanning (AUS), who's being chased by the rest. Here's what they each bring to the table.
No. 7: Julian Wilson (AUS)
Wilson's talent (particularly at Pipe) led to immediate success on the CT after he qualified in 2011 and finished in the Top 10 -- where he's finished nearly every year since. But he didn't just have the established guys to battle. He had to take a back seat to kids coming out of nowhere and making heats. Wilson has had some dramatic heat wins this year and, of course, there was that little matter of being the guy who paddled at, rather than away from, a great white shark when his opponent was attacked in the J-Bay Final.
Wilson earned a certain amount of cred with the Drive Fast and Take Chances freesurf edit he released this year. He's also running on the momentum of his Vans Triple Crown title last year, not to mention his 2014 win at the Pipe Masters. Hawaii is a tough place to make heats, so that could be the gas in the tank he needs.
The catch is that he doesn't just need to make heats at the Pipe Masters: He needs to make all of them. And when it comes to pure points earnings, Julian will be looking out for himself and looking for Mick Fanning's (AUS) to be defeated in one of the early elimination rounds.
Editor's note: World No. 6, Italo Ferreira, is not in contention for the Title because once his two lowest results of the year are dropped, he is ranked behind Wilson.
No. 5: Owen Wright (AUS)
It once seemed a foregone conclusion that Wright would win a World Title. As a kid, he'd bag one pro junior event after another. Then came 2011 and his three consecutive Finals with 11-time Champ Kelly Slater (USA) at Teahupo'o, New York, and Trestles -- three completely different waves. (He won the Quik Pro New York.) Early on he proved he had nerves of steel in waves of consequence, he was gaining physical strength each event, and he had an air game as good as anyone on Tour.
But the ultimate prize has continued to elude him. A few injuries, some bad luck, and a hint of shaken confidence dropped Wright from third in the world to 37th at one point. The once fearless young charger watched as a new batch of fearless young chargers came on the scene. But Wright thrived on a win in Fiji -- and the two perfect heats he had at that event -- and he's maintained a steady course to the No. 5 spot on the Jeep Leaderboard and a shot at the World Title.
It's a slim chance, though. He is in the same position as Wilson, needing a win at Pipe while rooting for Fanning, his Rip Curl teammate and countryman, to bow out early.
No. 4: Gabriel Medina (BRA)
Medina does not have a problem with confidence. How could he when he shows up on the CT halfway through the 2011 season at age 17 and wins two elite events off the bat?
Last year, Medina earned his first World Title, bringing the trophy to Brazil for the first time. But it seemed his confidence had gotten the best of him early this season when he came back to defend his Title only to open with a rash of first- and second-round exits. But since his return to form at J-Bay, Medina hasn't had a result short of the Quarters, which included the Final of the Billabong Pro Tahiti and a win at the Quik Pro France.
His surfing has been crisp and deliberate. But if he wants to repeat his World Title, a third or fifth round finish by Fanning will force him to take the event to be successful. That's not too far fetched considering Medina was a Pipe finalist last year. However, if Fanning makes it as far as the Semis, Medina is out of the running.
No. 3: Adriano de Souza (BRA)
De Souza did not kick down the door and pave the way for eight of his Brazilian countrymen (four of whom are in the top six) just to let them steal his thunder. That crushing Round 3 loss to wildcard Vasco Ribeiro (PRT) at the Moche Rip Curl Pro Portugal may haunt him for a long time: De Souza spent some time at No. 1 this season, then fell from second to third place with that stumble. It's not a huge deal, unless it happens again.
De Souza has been extremely consistent and anyone who doubts his talent should rewatch the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro victory from earlier this year, paying special attention to his railwork against Florence.
De Souza needs to finish one round ahead of Fanning to win the 2015 Title. Unfortunately for him, it's not his best event. He struggled at Pipe early in his career and after surfing nearly a decade of Pipe Masters, his results have never been stellar (though he did manage to make a Final at the 2014 Volcom Pipe Pro.) De Souza's wins have come from hard work and pure determination. Those who have won the Pipe Masters have all that, but also a certain relationship with the wave.
No. 2: Filipe Toledo (BRA)
If Toledo doesn't win this year's Title, his 2015 story will be one of the most underrated in surfing history. Just look at the perfect 10 he scored in the Final in Peniche on a crap sandwich of a wave.
Coming into that event, he was a blip on the World Title radar. Now, he's No. 2 in the world.
Toledo announced his presence on pro surfing's main stage with a win at the Vans US Open in 2014. On Tour the last three years, he's been a hot aerialist, but a middle-of-the-road finisher. This year, while everyone was focusing on Medina as Brazil's superstar, Toledo busted out impressive wins at the Quik Pro Gold Coast, the Oi Rio Pro, and that mind-boggling win at the Rip Curl Pro Portugal in October. Not to mention that he got some footage in John John Florence's (HAW) highly anticipated film "View from a Blue Moon". If Fanning takes a 25th or a 13th at Pipe, Toledo can clinch the Title even if he is eliminated in Round 5.
You can't take anything away from Toledo, but all his heroics have been in performance waves: Lowers, Snapper Rocks, Barra de Tijuca, onshore Supertubes, and Huntington beach. He didn't have major results at Fiji's Cloudbreak or ay Tahiti's Teahupo'o. But he did make the Quarters last year at Pipe. Maybe he's working hard on his tube skills this month, or even busts out a huge air-reverse at Backdoor (the right-breaking wave at Pipeline).
No. 1: Mick Fanning (AUS)
And then there's Fanning, who has three World Titles already.
Fanning arrives at the last event of the year ranked No. 1 on the Jeep Leaderboard, no easy task in a season where there are seven surfers with more than 41,000 points. Simply put, Fanning gets the job done -- from Trestles, to Bells, to J-Bay (animal encounters notwithstanding). He has gained the focus of a sniper, understands what the judges want to see at each venue and performs accordingly, rarely stumbling.
If Fanning makes the Quarterfinals at the Billabong Pipe Masters, he can win the Title so long as Medina doesn't win the event, De Souza doesn't make the Semis, and Toledo doesn't make the Quarters. If Fanning makes the Semis, he needs De Souza to fall before the Final and Toledo to fall before the Semis. And if Fanning makes the Final against anyone but De Souza and Toledo, he wins. Or he can just win the Pipe Masters outright. Only problem with that scenario: As steadfast as Fanning is, he's never been able to do that before.