Filipe Toledo’s last two world titles broke a 12-year streak in professional surfing. On the men’s Championship Tour, since 2010, every title campaign had included at least a third place finish at Pipeline or Teahupo’o. In fact, in all but two of those title years, the world champ had made the final at one of those two infamous, reef-detonating waves.
In 2023 Toledo finished fifth at Pipe (not bad!) and ninth in Tahiti. In 2022 he got ninth at Pipe and 17th at Tahiti. His last two world titles show that the importance of these two keystone stops has diminished. There is a way to hack the system and win without dominant performances at two of surfing’s most notorious waves – contrary to what we’ve been historically programmed to believe. Toledo bucked the trend, not once, but twice… in a row.
You can blame the Final 5 format for this new trend, but Toledo had the top spot before Lowers regardless. As Juan Hernandez, another writer for The Inertia, pointed out in his recent take, Toledo very likely would have won both times in the previous tour format anyway. You can blame Pipe’s new position at the start of the tour instead of the end. Perhaps that would put more emphasis on surfing Pipe well. However, that also opens the door for the opposite to happen where a world champion is crowned before the season even gets to Pipe (see John John Florence in 2016, for example). Or maybe it’s not so complicated: Toledo has found an alternative path to success.
Toledo has come under intense scrutiny for last week’s lackluster, 1.77 heat total performance at Pipe that was followed by a withdrawal that he blamed on food poisoning. For a long time I had defended Toledo from the bombardment of angry keystrokes – those who said he can’t surf in waves of consequence. I have no skin in the game, but I generally thought his critics were exaggerating. Then, last year, Toledo’s father admitted that Filipe is afraid of falling on big waves and hitting the reef. (But aren’t we all?) After that comment and his extremely poor performance at Pipe this year, I’m finding it increasingly hard to defend the two-time, reigning champ.
It made me wonder what ground I was standing on to defend him in the first place. Was I just imagining things, creating a false history in my brain that assumed the world champ can surf heavy waves simply because he’s the world champ?
I did some research. I reached out to several people who work within the surf industry in Brazil to get their two cents. I reviewed all his top-two wave scores and heat totals from every event he’s ever surfed at Pipe and Teahupo’o. I rewatched all his waves that scored in the excellent range at those spots. The evidence continued to pile up against Toledo.
In Toledo’s 33 career heats at the Pipe Masters, his average top-two wave score was 4.59 and his average heat score was 9.08. He notched four rides in the excellent range in those heats (eight points or higher). At Teahupo’o, Toledo has surfed 22 heats with an average top-two wave score of five and an average heat score of 9.99. He also had four excellent waves at Teahupo’o and one excellent heat above 16 points.
The stats were underwhelming, and I definitely noticed a correlation between his performances and the size of the surf. His best surfing came in years when the swells were relatively small (to be fair, even “small” can be heavy at those spots). That said, he did show flashes of brilliance. Rewatching his excellent rides, which included one particularly nice Teahupo’o pit, he showed that he has the talent and technique to pack a tube at either of those spots. Apparently, as his father alluded to, his troubles are more mental than physical.
But why don’t we see any content of Toledo freesurfing Pipe or Teahupo’o? I went doom scrolling down his Instagram feed and couldn’t find any clips in at least the last year of him free surfing either of these waves, or really any waves of consequence for that matter. A contact I spoke to on the North Shore corroborated my suspicions saying he hasn’t seen Toledo out at Pipeline. You’d think that the best surfer in the world would want to iron out his weaknesses and hire the best experts to coach him at Pipe and Teahupo’o. He’d be unstoppable. Or maybe he is satisfied with the alternative route that he has carved out to win titles and is focused on being a family man at home in San Clemente – nothing wrong with that.
A few of the surf industry contacts in Brazil I spoke to paralleled my thoughts, providing some interesting insight of their own.
“The criticism is not just in the American surf media, people are criticizing him here (in Brazil) too, even going overboard a bit too much,” said one well-informed person within the Brazilian surf industry that asked to remain anonymous.
Another Brazilian source I spoke to drove the point home.
“He might think he doesn’t need to risk it because the WSL doesn’t really require it to be a world champ,” they said. “He doesn’t show any desire to evolve in these kinds of waves. He doesn’t train there. He doesn’t hire an expert coach to help him. I wonder how things will to go when it comes to the Olympics at Teahupo’o?”
Right there is the biggest elephant in the room. Toledo can mask his shortcomings at Teahupo’o throughout an entire year on the Championship Tour, but when the entire world is watching him at the Olympics, it won’t be so easy. For all we know, the Olympic surf event could get relatively small swell, which he’s shown he is capable of surfing well in. Or things could get big and heavy, and he’ll have some serious decisions to make. It’s also important to note that Cloudbreak has thankfully returned to the tour again this year. It’s in August, after the Olympics, but as the final event of the regular season, could have drastic influence on the rankings, especially if things get big.
Despite my findings, I’m still of the opinion that the surfing world has been too harsh on Filipe. But one can’t help but wonder if the WSL is thinking about altering the tour based on the routes Toledo took to the world title the past two seasons (and if adding Cloudbreak was a tweak in that direction). Is the WSL worried about finding a creative solution that restores the importance of surfing’s most renowned waves to the world championship race? Or are they happy with the status quo, deciding things at Lower Trestles? If Filipe wins a third consecutive title at Lowers, we’ll see how unwavering their confidence is in the format.