John John Florence notched his third-straight subpar result Wednesday at the Oi Rio Pro, which means the two-time World Champ is officially off to his worst start since joining the Tour in 2012. With three results on the board, he's yet to make the Quarterfinals in 2018, which is the first time that's ever happened. And that probably wouldn't have been a big deal if it weren't also for his rather poor performance at the WSL Founders' Cup, where his average wave score was a 4.9. So what gives? Should Florence fans be alarmed?
The short answer: Maybe.
Given that Florence is already sitting on two World Titles, it'd be easy to conclude he's taking a bit of a mental breather. After all, many expected him to do just that after he finally captured his first World Title. But then we learned Florence was operating on a higher plane last year, motivated not by results, per se, but rather his own version of personal improvement.
That approach got Florence off to his best start ever in 2017, with a win and two third-place finishes in the first three events, which is a far cry from where he is this year, sitting on a 25th, 13th, and now a 9th. Yet as surprising as Florence's run has been, so far it hasn't been all that costly. Heading into the Oi Rio Pro Julian Wilson and Italo Ferreira were co-leaders on the Jeep Leaderboard, despite that both have two 13th-place finishes. And while Julian has already advanced to the Quarterfinals in Brasil, it's too early to say he's breaking away from the pack like Florence did last year.
Florence's coach, Ross Williams, seems to be pretty even-keeled about the situation, while lightly pushing back against those concerned with Florence's issues. "John's had a couple poor results this year but it was never due to lack of effort or will," he wrote on his Instagram account Tuesday. According to Williams, John is surfing with the same "conviction and froth" as the last two years, but "all these amazing surfers go through their dry runs. It happens."
Williams is comfortable knowing he's still banging away, despite some "sloppy heats." During Florence's Round 3 match against Miguel Pupo, he looked to be in familiar form, throwing vicious hacks and sticking inverted rotations that led to the highest score of the round -- and by more than three points. "Funny how much John gets scrutinized against his own potential. He's had some of the most aggressive and progressive rides this year and some decent heat totals. Just a couple sloppy heats in the mix to give him those bad results. It's a testimony more to the level of the Tour. Everyone rips."
Williams is spot on there. The curse of being a World Champion and turning in repeated heat scores in the 19-point range, as John did last year, is that people expect that from then on. And with another fresh injection of high-powered rookies this year, there's no questioning the talent level on Tour is higher than ever.
There's also been a lot of chatter about the competitive tactics being used against Florence, and his willingness to respond, ala Ezekiel Lau at Bells. When we asked Williams for his thoughts on that subject he responded via email: "This is the issue that in my opinion, has gotten over- hyped. Getting the inside, hassling, catching lots of waves, being patient, all these things can work for you or against.
"John has basically had a crazy run for a couple years now with all of these tactics and heat styles work for and against him. None of these losses were due to 'giving up' or 'not fighting.' This kid works stupid hard. When someone beats him it's that simple. whether its Zeke or Mikey or whoever, It doesn't matter. It's just numbers and waves and grit. He's always learning from his mistakes. None of these guys enjoy losing. John hates it. But in my opinion, what makes him a great competitor is his will to learn from losses and move on. That has never changed."
After jumping out to an early lead on the pack last year, perhaps the fresh challenge of having to come from behind is something that will motivate John moving forward. "At the end of the day it's good to eat humble pie," Williams wrote. "I think it's made his fire even stronger. He will continue to draw different lines and push the sport with integrity."
With two events to come now in Bali, we should get a pretty clear picture of how bright Florence's fire is burning. Back in 2013, John John pulled one of the biggest moves ever at Keramas, home of the next event. And he'll have a shot at fixing the early-season ledger now that the Margaret River Pro will finish at Uluwatu. A win at either of those events could put him right back in the mix. A few more early exits, however, will keep the questions coming.
Obviously, Florence's fans are hoping Williams is right.