Eleven-time World Champion Kelly Slater is no stranger to big moments at Pipeline. He surfed in his first Pipe Masters back in 1991, then he won it the following year along with his first World Title. It was the beginning of Slater's reign and his first step towards becoming surfing's greatest.
In terms of how critical a performance at Pipe is to winning a World Title, over the course of his career Slater has competed in 25 Pipe Masters, made 10 Finals, captured 7 Pipe Masters titles and won the World Title in 5 of those years. Nobody else on Tour at the moment comes close. Defending Billabong Pipe Masters champ Jeremy Flores is the closest with two Masters titles.
"One of the things that always gives me a bit of chicken skin is the fact that I had a showdown with Kelly at Pipe," recalled Joel Parkinson in a recent interview with the WSL. Parkinson was able to edge Slater out at the 2012 Pipe Masters to take the win in Hawaii and claim the World Title.
"I think, undisputed, he is the greatest ever to stand on a surfboard. He's the G.O.A.T. You can't dispute that," continued Parkinson. "Across every generation, I don't think we've ever seen somebody that's done so much."
Proof of Slater's greatness, especially at Pipe, is evident in the fact that when it comes to competing in the Pipe Masters he holds the highest average heat score of any surfer during their World Championship year, earning an average of 17.17. The second highest is John John Florence at 15.85. The lowest ever is Adriano de Souza's 13.53 in his 2015 Title-winning season.
But 2018 has been a difficult year for Slater as he continues to struggle with his surgically repaired left foot. After the Surf Ranch Pro in September, he stepped back from competition to continue with his rehabilitation process.
Excited to return to competition for the Pipe Masters, this year he is looking to play the role of World Title spoiler rather than World Title contender. And so far it's working.
Unfortunately for Filipe Toledo, he came up against Slater in Round 3. Suffering a pretty brutal wipeout when attempting to sneak out of the barrel, the Brazilian failed to recover and couldn't get himself into the heat. Slater took the win with a 15.60 heat total versus Toledo's 6.77. With Toledo out, the World Title is down to a two man race with Medina and Wilson.
"To be honest, I've been kind of helping Filipe a little bit," said Slater. "Just a few tips here and there and I'm a little bummed I was up against him. I kind of wanted to stay out of it for another round, but that's life."
At the end of the day, it is Slater's passion for Pipeline that has drawn him back in the water. He certainly wasn't shy about the fact that he relishes the opportunity to factor into the World Title race.
"I think Julian probably has the most pressure on him right now," continued Slater. "Julian has had success at Pipeline before. Gabriel has to get to a certain point, but I think he'll relax."
But at the end of the day, he is like every other Pipe surfer -- he just wants to go out there and get barreled.
"Whether I get a heat with one of those guys (Medina and Wilson) it doesn't really matter, it's more the chance to surf Pipeline without anybody out. It's so dog eat dog out there on a normal day."
Years Slater has won both the Pipe Masters and the World Title: 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2008.
World Title Scenarios:
- If Gabriel Medina makes the Final at Pipeline, he wins the World Title.
- If Gabriel Medina places 3rd at Pipeline, Julian Wilson will need a 1st to win the World Title.
- If Gabriel Medina finishes 5th or worse at Pipeline, Julian Wilson will need to make the Final to win the World Title.