Gabriel Medina's runner-up finish in Tahiti, where he mixed the dark arts with emphatic surfing, has him right back in World Title contention. Medina is an old-school combatant. Tactically, he can be as abrasive as he is talented, the most willing to push physical boundaries of engagement, and it's a method that's served him well during his recent run up the ladder.
Granted, it isn't always pretty, and doesn't work all the time. Take his Round Four heat against Matt Wilkinson and Kolohe Andino at the Billabong Pro Tahiti, for example. In that match, Gabe ended up with an interference on his teammate and good friend Matt Wilkinson. Two heats later, Medina's Quarterfinal featured a series of clashes with Andino. Both refused to give the other the first wave of the heat and the pair paddled each other up and down the point in a 10-minute stalemate that caused the heat to be restarted. There wasn't a wave ridden, but in terms of competitive drama, it was a high point.
Gabe didn't change his tactics at all in the Final. He and Julian Wilson had met in two Final heats previously and all had ended with various forms of acrimony. From the hooter, it was clear that neither surfer would yield priority and it soon came close to a physical confrontation. The two created their own shield-and-spear paradox, where an unstoppable force comes up against an immovable object. "Look, with Gabriel he's tenacious and he's got a big heart," said Wilson, after taking his come-from-behind win. "As for the start, we'll just leave that it in the water."
Medina's lust for hand-to-hand combat has many veterans comparing his tenacity to that of some of the most gnarled competitors in the sport's history. There is no doubt that, if you plunged Medina back into the dog fight days when priority didn't exist and each wave caught involved a battle of mental and physical strength, he would have thrived.
We'll never know how he would have fared against the likes of Rabbit Bartholomew, Michael Peterson and Damien Hardman, all legendary knights of the combative realm, but right now few can match him in sheer willingness to engage with his opponent. Those surfers had a deep competitive desire and an inner drive that fueled their success. It was a mentality that ensured they were the most feared opponents in their respective eras. Right now Medina has a fair claim to be regarded the same way.
Like that trio, Medina's intensity also comes with a blinding, pure surfing talent. His most memorable moment of the day didn't involve a paddling scrap or priority battle, but his 10-point ride against Owen Wright. "Gabriel Medina has been getting pits of a lifetime out here," said Jordy Smith after that performance. "And it's crumbling onshore."
The combination of a combative personality and surfing freak-dom has pushed Medina to the peak of the sport once before. After his performances in Tahiti it is obvious his sole ambition is to get back there. He is never afraid to use either side of his competitive coin. His competitors may not like it, but then, that's probably the point. It was intense and his behavior was at times close to the bone, but it's not called man-on-man for nothing. Medina is back, breathing fire. Expect more scorchings as the race winds down to a climax.