By Round Three's elimination heats in the season's penultimate event, the MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal and henceforth, every time the Jeep Leader John John Florence paddles out, the most important heat of the year unfolds before an expectant Portuguese crowd.
Today, as that crowd, perhaps one of the biggest this always well-supported event has ever witnessed, filed right across the thin strip of sand that now connects the former island of Peniche to the Portuguese mainland, the custodian of that Jeep Leaders' yellow jersey edged a step closer to another pre-Halloween World Title crowning on the European mainland. Although a brutal display of form by Gabriel Medina in the day's final heat served notice of where Florence's most significant threat lies.
Aside from intermittent yet consistent pepperings by rogue bombs, the surf had dropped considerably overnight, taking some of the X-factor out of the proceedings. Today it was much more feasible to build a score, roll the dice and surf under priority, rather than live or die by the rogue vagaries of refraction… well, kinda. Winning heat totals with like 9.7 & 2.4 (Sebastian Zietz) or 7.17 & 1.5 (Josh Kerr) would beg to differ. But let's not get bogged down in the numbers for now.
Despite the relative reduction in swell drama, the full house Sunday afternoon crowd had plenty to whip themselves into raptures over today, chief among them being the clash between Florence and local wildcard Vasco Ribeiro. Even during such clutch moments in a season and career, Florence is a tough read pre-heat, somewhere far from both the clowning of a Mason Ho and the ferocious focus of a Medina, so well-placed in the middle in fact, he's almost emotion-neutral. Once water-borne though, his flow was ridiculously apparent. Nudging his scoreline back up toward this year's excellent-range modal average, his loose- shouldered ease couldn't have contrasted more starkly with the limb leverage approach of Ribeiro. A potent mix of wave selection, technique -- but probably mainly juju -- saw him advance via smart tubes in both directions.
"It was definitely a scary heat, there were a lot of good waves coming through and he's a really good surfer," Florence said of his opponent afterward. "I just wanted to be on the same peak as him when I was in priority and kind of play it safe. I was so excited, the wind was blowing into the lefts and I was going so fast on that first wave I just had to hit it. I thought for a second I had it but I landed way too much into the flats. Florence was describing a huge backside rotation, the landing of which on the concrete-like waters before the Supertubos lip had anyone who's ever had ankle trouble reaching for a couple of Ibuprofens just to be able to watch the big-screen replay.
Following the most important heat of year came one of the most painful to watch. World No. 2 Jordy Smith, the main pretender to John's throne, went out with a barely-audible whimper against Josh Kerr, who did almost everything in his power to not seem overly keen to win the heat. Whilst a largely uncooperative ocean did little to help the South African's cause, his apparent reluctance to roll up his sleeves, particularly on one under-surfed left that only required a low four, was as baffling as a tactic as it was excruciating as a spectacle.
If John John Florence falls short of making the Final in Portugal, or Gabriel Medina wins the MEO Rip Curl Pro, the World Title race will head to Pipeline.
Meanwhile Kerr, holding priority through most of the business end of heat and yet seemingly very much at odds with the idea of using it to his advantage, was demonstrating some of the slowest Tour paddling since Pat O'Connell, in effort to leave the door open for Smith. It will doubtless be a tough loss to process for Smith, whose recent results in Peniche have been solid, although indications are that he's struggled to wash off his recent relinquishing of the Jeep Leaders' yellow jersey. It wouldn't take a sports psychology expert to deduce that yesterday's admission, "That result in France killed me," while refreshingly candid, probably isn't one out of the mid-event headspace textbook.
"I'm Jordy's number-one fan and I really want him to win the World Title so hopefully he still gets a shot at Pipe and can pull it off there," said Kerr after the encounter. The Australian who, like Bede Durbidge and Antonio Jose Correia -- Peniche's charismatic long-time mayor -- is soon to be retiring, will be surfing with no pressure and could be an awkward draw in whatever conditions are on offer for the conclusion of this event.
Elsewhere, Wilkinson and De Souza's wafter-thin 2017 World Title shots disappeared today as they were eliminated by Leo Fioravanti and Miguel Pupo respectively, while the only surfer who could potentially haul back Florence significantly here in Portugal is Medina. The 2014 World Champion, in rude health following his win at the Quiksilver Pro France, posted the event's highest heat total (17.34) in the final heat of the day here at Supertubos, and looms ominously on the other side of the draw from Florence.
Florence, meanwhile, can claim a back-to-back World Title here in Portugal by making the Final here, and either winning or losing to anyone other than Medina in it. Failing that, a dramatic final event showdown at the Billabong Pipe Masters is very much in the cards.
MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal Round Two Results:
Heat 1: Gabriel Medina (BRA) 11.66 def. Mason Ho (HAW) 6.33
Heat 2: Vasco Ribeiro (PRT) 11.20 def. Owen Wright (AUS) 10.17
Heat 3: Adriano de Souza (BRA) 12.27 def. Stuart Kennedy (AUS) 4.93
Heat 4: Leonardo Fioravanti (ITA) 15.34 def. Filipe Toledo (BRA) 8.40
Heat 5: Kolohe Andino (USA) 14.24 def. Jadson Andre (BRA) 8.00
Heat 6: Frederico Morais (PRT) 5.03 def. Nat Young (USA) 2.87
Heat 7: Adrian Buchan (AUS) 9.07 def. Ezekiel Lau (HAW) 6.90
Heat 8: Connor O'Leary (AUS) 10.70 def. Ian Gouveia (BRA) 5.97
Heat 9: Kanoa Igarashi (USA) 15.93 def. Joan Duru (FRA) 9.23
Heat 10: Italo Ferreira (BRA) 11.53 def. Jeremy Flores (FRA) 7.77
Heat 11: Caio Ibelli (BRA) 12.33 def. Wiggolly Dantas (BRA) 3.87
Heat 12: Conner Coffin (USA) 11.10 def. Bede Durbidge (AUS) 8.60
MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal Round Three Results:
Heat 1: Leonardo Fioravanti (ITA) 9.76 def. Matt Wilkinson (AUS) 5.63
Heat 2: Sebastian Zietz (HAW) 12.10 def. Conner Coffin (USA) 4.77
Heat 3: Julian Wilson (AUS) 13.43 def. Jack Freestone (AUS) 7.00
Heat 4: Kolohe Andino (USA) 13.96 def. Italo Ferreira (BRA) 12.56
Heat 5: Connor O'Leary (AUS) 15.73 def. Adrian Buchan (AUS) 15.50
Heat 6: John John Florence (HAW) 14.74 def. Vasco Ribeiro (PRT) 13.73
Heat 7: Josh Kerr (AUS) 8.67 def. Jordy Smith (ZAF) 8.27
Heat 8: Frederico Morais (PRT) 11.00 def. Michel Bourez (PYF) 8.74
Heat 9: Kanoa Igarashi (USA) 11.67 def. Joel Parkinson (AUS) 5.27
Heat 10: Miguel Pupo (BRA) 13.54 def. Adriano de Souza (BRA) 13.24
Heat 11: Mick Fanning (AUS) 11.40 def. Caio Ibelli (BRA) 10.40
Heat 12: Gabriel Medina (BRA) 17.34 def. Ethan Ewing (AUS) 10.40
MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal Round Four Matchups:
Heat 1: Leonardo Fioravanti (ITL), Sebastian Zietz (HAW), Julian Wilson (AUS)
Heat 2: John John Florence (HAW), Kolohe Andino (USA), Connor O'Leary (AUS)
Heat 3: Josh Kerr (AUS), Frederico Morais (PRT), Kanoa Igarashi (USA)
Heat 4: Miguel Pupo (BRA), Mick Fanning (AUS), Gabriel Medina (BRA)