Taj Burrow ended his career exactly the way legends should; pushing the sport's most popular hero to the edge with a gutsy performance for the ages. The Australian legend took John John Florence down to the wire in their amazing Round Three clash, but he came up just shy of taking the heat. Nevertheless, after 18 years of life on the tour Burrow was all smiles as he hung up his jersey for the final time.
"That was one of the best heats of my life," Taj said. "I could not have picked a better way to finish my last event ever. The waves were exactly how I'd want them and John John is exactly who I'd want to surf against in those types of waves; someone who will push me to be my best."
John John was also moved by the moment. "It's so special to surf against Taj with everything he's contributed to surfing," he said. "Since I was a little kid, I've been watching him do airs and win events."
Both surfers were holding two 9-point rides in the final tally. But Florence's 18.76 points was just enough to get past Burrow's 18.60. Those were the two highest scorers of an incredible day of action at Cloudbreak, as a new swell arrived in force, and conditions remained pristine throughout the day.
Gabriel Medina got things started in the morning with a commanding performance over rookie Matt Banting. The former world champion caught 15 waves in the 35 minute heat, and he seemed to have it on lock down within the first five minutes. But as the sets kept coming Medina kept loosening things up. The culmination was a beautiful barrel into an alley-oop. Incredibly, that wave didn't even count in his top two.
As the tide bottomed out in the morning a few heats were won ugly, with surfers getting lost in the changing lineup. Michel Bourez, Dusty Payne, and Wiggolly Dantas all advanced out of their heats with less than 8-point totals, much to the dismay of their victims Konoa Igarashi, Filipe Toledo and Conner Coffin.
Coffin's was the most painful. He had the heat won, but in the final minute he made a crucial paddling interference blunder on Dantas. It's the kind of mistake Coffin will only make once.
As for the other tight matches, Jadson Andre's impressive win over his friend Italo Ferreira was one of better battles. Jadson came out blazing with some powerful grab-rail carving, and backed it up with a few tubes. Italo answered back strong, and made it a tight match, but ultimately Andre, the veteran, got the nod. He needed the win too. He's had no results to speak of this year, and missed Margaret River due to injury. He's now surfing with lingering pain because he feels like he's not a candidate for the injury wildcard at this stage.
Of course, when we're talking Cloudbreak, Kelly Slater is always a factor, and Slater put in his strongest performance of the season in his heat with Jordy Smith. Riding a 5'11" quad, Slater looked very much like the Slater who's won here four times; throwing inverted hooks in tight pockets, and weaving his way through several spinning caverns.
During interviews this week Slater's been insinuating that his season is really starting now. Yes, he's been distracted, and he knows it. And it's not all wave pools and clothing lines. Simple everyday life issues have been sucking up his brain bandwidth, but here in Fiji Slater seems clear headed and relaxed. And as we noted earlier in the competition, he threw down the gauntlet at the opening Kava ceremony, letting every surfer know this year's title would hold extra special meaning since it's being held in memory of his late friend, Chief Druku Lalabalavu, longtime leader of Tavarua.
Round Four is set to get underway Thursday morning in Fiji with some wonderful three-man Superheats on offer. The swell should hold through the day, before building again Friday when officials hope to wrap things up in epic conditions that are predicted.
ROUND FOUR MATCHES
Heat 1. Gabriel Medina, Michel Bourez, Dusty Payne
Heat 2. Kelly Slater, Wiggolly Dantas, Adriano de Souza
Heat 3. Jadson Andre, Josh Kerr, Mick Fanning
Heat 4. John John Florence, Adrian Buchan, Matt Wilkinson