It's hard to say if anyone saw what happened today coming. I admit I sure didn't. As far as this year's Billabong Pipe Masters were concerned, I figured John John Florence would take the win (and Triple Crown trophy)…and maaaaybe he'd be stopped by Kelly Slater. Case closed.
And then, of course, in perfect 4-6-foot Pipeline (mostly Backdoor) none of that happened. Indeed, something far more delicious and dramatic and just plain awesome went down.
Just to refresh, there were a few things on the line. For one, all eyes were on Kanoa Igarashi and Nat Young. Nat Young needed to win his Round Five heat to qualify for next year's tour (or he'd be a goner) and in the meantime, if Kanoa made the Semis -- a pretty tall order for a rookie whose forte isn't necessarily big reefbreaks -- he could bump his friend Ezekiel Lau from No. 11 into the Top 10 to qualify for the men's Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour (CT) next year.
Beyond that, John John Florence, Jordy Smith and Kelly Slater were vying for a coveted Vans Triple Crown of Surfing championship. All would be decided today.
Now, if you've ever been to the beach at a Pipe Masters -- especially on finals day -- to say that the vibe on the shoreline is "electric" is an understatement. Try wild, nuclear or atomic. The crowd is into it, ooo-ing and ahh-ing at every competitor's performance, foaming at the mouth for their hero, just gettin' rowdy as the thundering Pipeline peaks collapse and boom between their cheers.
Of the Round Four matchups, the highlight heat went to Kanoa Igarashi, taking down Kelly Slater and Jordy Smith, and definitely creating that early buzz. With each wave he surfed, he made any doubters take him that much more seriously.
After Round Four came the outright emotional Round Five heat of Jordy Smith vs. Nat Young.
Because for me, on paper Nat Young is a better bet than Jordy Smith at Pipeline. Nat catches bombs every single year and has an amazing forehand tube-sense in hollow lefthanders. Plus, Smith's backhand isn't the most reputable in big, hollow lefts. Of course, today the shallow Backdoor runners (righthanders) were the better waves and thus began a blood match between Smith and Young, whose job was on the line.
Nat got started early with a sturdy 8-point Pipe wave, but Jordy answered back with a smoker of a double-barrel 9.43 Backdoor ride. He backed that up with an 8.67, coupled with a few unique claims aimed toward the judges, asking them from the water, "Are you not impressed?!" Smith advanced with fire in his eyes.
"It's a bittersweet heat win for me," Smith said afterward. "I'm not so sure what Nat needs to do now, because I really hope he qualifies. He's a close friend of mine and he deserves to be on Tour."
Young was clearly heartbroken. "Obviously, that last wave I let Jordy go on was a mistake," Young said. "At the time it looked like a small wave and I didn't think it would be the score…but that's kind of how my year's been -- a lot of those little mistakes."
By the Quarters, Kolohe Andino continued his tear, trading blows with Jeremy Flores like rabid, chained bears in an illegal Soviet-era cage-match. Andino came out on top, and went on to the Semis.
In the next Quarterfinal heat, Michel Bourez crushed John John Florence's dreams for an elusive, first Pipe Masters win, and potentially a so-called perfect year, as some have imagined it could be.
Indeed, Bourez racked up three amazing Backdoor tubes (7.7, 8.77 and 8.43) much to Florence's dismay, certainly showing his hunger for his own first Pipe Masters win.
"I was just trying to stay calm," said Bourez after the heat. "I knew that with John John, if a wave came, he could get a 10. Even if it the wave looked like an 8, John could turn a good wave into a perfect wave."
Heat 4 of the Quarters was quite possibly the heat of the event, though, in an epic performance between underdog Kanoa Igarashi and Jordy Smith.
Out the gates, Smith seemed out for blood, ready to paddle over Igarashi for any wave and possibly bully him into submission. Plus, Smith was indeed fired up, runnin' real hot and looking in top-form, while Kanoa looked measured and patient.
But Igarashi would not be bullied and answered Jordy's fire with a near-perfect 9.93 Backdoor screamer. The crowd literally lost it, with Igarashi backing that up with an 8-pointer as the minutes ticked down.
To the frenzied whistles and cheers of his teammates in the Quiksilver house, Kanoa clinched the win, both double-qualifying and launching No. 11 Ezekiel Lau on to the 2017 Samsung Galaxy World Tour. It was a feat that even Lau most likely wasn't banking on.
"A couple months ago we joked about being in a situation where, 'What if Zeke was one guy out and it was up to me to get a result for him?,'" said Igarashi. "And then that was the case! So to be able to succeed and be doing it -- that was a big step for me. I can't wait to see Zeke and give him a hug."
"I have a really special relationship with Backdoor," Igarashi continued. "It's a place where I've felt so scared in my life, but also so confident."
And Igarashi didn't stop there. Shortly after Michel Bourez defeated Kolohe Andino in Semifinal 1, the young rookie sprouted a few more hairs on his chest and beat 11x world champion Kelly Slater (for the second time that day).
With 45 seconds left in the heat and needing an 8.33 to overtake Slater, Kanoa turned on a healthy Backdoor teepee while Kelly was caught inside. The rookie earned an 8.83 and a spot in his first Pipe Masters Final, not to mention his very best result on the CT to date. A Cinderella story, if there ever was one for the Huntington Beach grom.
Of course, you probably know from the title how the Final between Kanoa and Michel landed. In a relatively slow heat, Bourez found his rhythm fairly early and bagged his best Backdoor wave of the heat (a 5.0). After that, he fended off the unpredictable Igarashi until the bitter end.
The win puts Michel Bourez in the ranks of the very few men that have ever won at all three events on the Triple Crown. An honor and true testament to his ability, indeed.
As Jordy Smith fell in the Quarters, John John Florence ended up locking the 2016 Vans Triple Crown of Surfing win by 200 points. A big congrats to Bourez, Florence and Igarashi for outstanding finishes.