For anybody grumbling that the Oi Rio Pro was failing to deliver drama, Barra da Tijuca supplied that and more on Friday. It was a tough day for top-ranked Championship Tour talent, as Brazil said tchau to two of its biggest stars, reigning World Champion Gabriel Medina (BRA) and Jeep rankings leader Adriano de Souza (BRA). Meanwhile, the event also said goodbye to Kelly Slater and, later, to fellow former Champ Mick Fanning (AUS).
But there was also a steady stream of innovative performances, and with electricity in the air every wave was a chance for something special. Just 10 minutes into the first heat of Round 3, John John Florence (HAW) was the first to bring it. The phenom threw a textbook rodeo that woke everyone up, including WSL Analyst Ross Williams.
"John, I didn't know you were going to start the freak-fest this early!" Williams said.
Williams wasn't the only one: After that 9-point performance, Florence continued to surf circles around opponent Adam Melling (AUS) with a "backup" 9.77 for threading a tube. Melling surfed a respectable heat with two six-pointers, but there was just no stopping Florence -- at least, not until Round 5. More on that later.
Fans could barely refill their cafezinhos before Filipe Toledo (BRA) lit things up in the next heat. Grabbing the progressive torch, Toledo opened with a solid tube ride for 8.00 and quickly backed it up with a casual, no-hands air-reverse for 7.60. Like Melling before him, Tour rookie Wiggolly Dantas (BRA) made a valiant effort but never really got close. Toledo advanced, making way for the next star of the morning, Kelly Slater (USA).
The momentum, however, didn't favor the 11-time World Champ. After a slog of a 30-minute matchup against rookie Matt Banting (AUS), Slater's run in Rio was over.
"I could just feel this morning I was out of sorts," he told Rosy Hodge. "Nothing felt right. ... My gut was telling me to go home and spend some time before this event, and I probably should have listened."
Like Banting, Toledo and Florence, the heat winners throughout the morning racked up wins with similarly lopsided scores. Tour rookie Italo Ferreira (BRA) charged through with a barrel and a massive air-reverse and rode away with victory, while Jadson Andre (BRA) had serious mojo going in his heat against Sebastian Zietz.
The crowd, Andre said after his win, "is amazing, how they cheer for us. I was thinking, I cannot be out of this party."
And while hometown advantage probably played a part in some of the day's success stories, it was soon clear that the crowd could only do so much. Before the round was over, Tour rookie Keanu Asing (HAW) had ousted Brazil's newest sports star, Medina, while fellow rookie Ricardo Christie (NZL) defeated De Souza, the current Tour leader.
"It's a bit of a test," Christie said of the fan-factor. "I was walking out the beach and everyone was booing me, and I guess I took that on like, 'C'mon guys, I'm just here to have fun.'"
By the time Round 4 finished, there were just three Brazilians left in the event: Andre, Toledo, and Ferreira the rookie. The veterans of the trio had advanced directly to the Quarters, while Ferreira continued to blow minds in Round 5 against Florence, practically playing back every one of Hawaiian's tricks. Florence was ousted as a result, joining a veritable who's-who club of eliminated titans that also included the complete list of former World Champions.
With so many of the top-ranked surfers out of the event, the Quarterfinals will be an interesting show. A lot of pressure is on Toledo, who will face Christie -- that certified giant-slayer from New Zealand. Real pain for Brazilian fans will come in Heat 2, when Ferreira faces fellow countryman Andre. Quarterfinals 3 and 4 will be all-Aussie battles, with Josh Kerr (AUS) vs. Bede Durbidge (AUS) and goofyfooters Matt Wilkinson (AUS) vs. Owen Wright (AUS). The final rounds of the Oi Rio Pro are far from what most fans might have expected, but promise just as much aÃ§Ã£o (that's action for the rest of you).
Tune in for the next call Saturday, May 16 here and on the WSL App.