HONOLULU (Dec. 8, 2011) -- In 1992, at the age of 20, Kelly Slater raised his first Pipe Masters trophy overhead in Hawaii and ended the year with his first ASP world surfing title. It came less than a month after the birth of John John Florence. Today, after being trounced in non-elimination round four by the 19-year-old, Slater tagged Florence as his biggest threat. The pair will go head-to-head in the quarter finals of the Billabong Pipe Masters on the next day of competition. Florence doesn't only have the Pipe Masters on his mind, but the also the overall Vans Triple Crown series title that is regarded as the highest honor next to a world title.
It's a battle that was bound to happen on Oahu's North Shore this winter. Slater elected to sit out the first two stops of the Vans Triple Crown presented by Rockstar Energy Drink, while Florence took on the whole series. Florence reached the semi's at Haleiwa, and won stop number two at Sunset Beach - the Vans World Cup - to take the series lead and emerge as the man to beat this season. While Slater has already claimed his 11th world title this year, their upcoming heat is being hailed as a harbinger of surfing's future.
Florence brought the crowd to its feet today in a three-man fourth round heat with Slater and former world champion CJ Hobgood (Florida). In serious triple-overhead surf, he eclipsed both with a succession of high scoring tube rides that included his second perfect 10 of the competition. Florence left each needing two scores far better than those they were counting. Florence scored 17.67; Slater ended with 8.5; and Hobgood just 5.43. Earlier in the day he posted the highest heat total of the competition against Josh Kerr (Australia): 19.1 out of 20.
"I hope I'm not peaking too soon," said Florence, sporting a swollen and bloodied face from an earlier wipeout and reef face-plant today. "I'm just going out there to get the best waves I can. It's so perfect...it's the best Pipe in a long time. You just want to go on every wave.
"This is definitely a dream, just surfing these waves at my home break, beating Kelly... This has definitely been the best year I've ever had."
Florence is the only surfer to have tasted victory at the venerated Pipeline break this year. At the start of the year he won a specialty event and a 5-star rated ASP event here, both in extra large surf, so Slater knows that the kid is batting 100.
"I see John John as the guy to beat," said Slater. "He's had (two) tens in his heats and he's probably the best guy all around out here now. I lost to him earlier (today) - it was kind of a non-elimination thing - but if I were to lose to him tomorrow, it's definitely no shame. I think he's better than everyone else in this contest. Jamie (O'Brien) might give him a run on his day, but right and left, big and small, John John's pretty much the man out here now. If you're going to win a contest, you want to win against the best guys and unfortunately I got him in the quarters instead of the final, but I'm going to have to surf this one like a final."
But Slater and Florence only represent one half of one side of the draw heading into the quarters. The first heat sees O'Brien drawn against defending Vans Triple Crown champion and current world #2 Joel Parkinson (Australia). On the other side of the draw, Florence's only Triple Crown series challenger Michel Bourez (Tahiti) will clash with local underdog Evan Valiere (Hawaii); and seasoned Pipe charger Kieren Perrow (Australia) is drawn against 17-year-old Brazilian sensation Gabriel Medina (Brazil).
Upset eliminations today included Vans Triple Crown contender and former Pipe champion Taj Burrow (Australia), who lost to Valiere in round five. Burrow was impressive and definitely put it all on the line, but struggled to find his way through the deeper barrels and into the larger scores.
"Danger was 100% playing on my mind," said Burrow. "Watching Laurie Towner dislocate his shoulder yesterday, seeing all these crazy wipeouts... I got really nervous. In my earlier heat Kieren Perrow took big chunks out of himself and (Josh Kerr) got concussed, so it's definitely on my mind. It's awful what can happen to you out there. You've got to be calculated.
When it came to horrible wipeouts today, only Florence and O'Brien dodged the bullets; the rest of the field garnered more than their share of cringe-inducing smears. Shane Dorian (Hawaii), Kieren Perrow, Julian Wilson (Australia), and even Slater felt the brunt of the Pacific Ocean. Perrow surfed like a man willing to die in his fourth round heat, taking chunks out of his hand and heel but accomplishing his major goal of requalifying for the 2012 ASP World Tour.
"It was a really crucial heat for me," said Perrow. "I went on a pretty solid right and was a little late, I didn't commit early enough and I free-fell out of the sky and got absolutely anihilated and hit the bottom. (The cut's) pretty deep, and a little ugly, so they just glued it back down. I haven't had a bad bounce off this reef like this for a couple of years. It just reminds you how risky it is."
While the swell is expected to slowly subside from tomorrow, organizers are optimistic that the final seven heats of the Billabong Pipe Masters will get underway at 8am tomorrow, with the Pipe Masters champion, the Vans Triple Crown champion, and the Hawaiian Airlines Air Show champion being crowned at midday. The event champion will take home $75,000; the Vans Triple Crown champion will earn a $10,000 bonus and a custom, one-of-a-kind, jewel-encrusted Nixon watch valued at more than $10,000.