Athletes often fight nagging narratives that follow them for years. Sometimes the knock is fair. Sometimes it isn’t. There was a day when Kobe Bryant, for example, “couldn’t win without Shaquille O’Neal.” The Los Angeles Lakers had won three NBA Championships in a row between 1999 and 2002. But Bryant had his fair share of critics spinning a narrative that Bryant could only win standing on the shoulders of another Hall of Famer. The Black Mamba wasn’t worthy of basketball’s Mount Rushmore. That theory died when Kobe and the Lakers won back-to-back titles later that decade, long after Shaq had left L.A.
Andy Murray was the eternal bridesmaid of tennis who couldn’t top Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal in Grand Slam Tournaments. At one point he reached the semis in eight Grand Slam tournaments in three years and a final at Wimbledon. He broke the spell at the 2012 U.S. Open by beating Djokovic and cementing his place among the elite tennis players of his time.
I could list dozens of similar examples across any sport but you get the picture. Surf fans are waging a similar war on Filipe Toledo. To paraphrase: his world titles are illegitimate because of the WSL Finals being held at Trestles, and because he can’t win in waves of consequence.
Hate all you want but Filipe Toledo would likely still be a two-time world champion today, even under the pre-WSL Final format, poor results at Pipe be damned. Math and history support this.
Toledo’s first title in 2022 was contested the closest. Jack Robinson, who finished the year third on the leaderboard, sat 3,345 points behind Filipe after ten contests. The 2023 title race was nowhere near as close, with Toledo holding 7,440 point lead over second place Griffin Colapinto at the same point. If we play the shoulda-coulda-woulda game and make Trestles a regular old stop on the tour where the winner gets 10,000 points added to their season total instead of the winner-take-all format we have now, that means Robinson would have needed a third-place finish or higher with Toledo losing in the Round of 32 in order to steal a title.
Toledo making any heat after that means Robinson would have had to win the event. In 2023, simply making it out of the Round of 32 would have locked up Toledo’s title no matter what the rest of the field did. Now consider that the only times Filipe Toledo finished lower than third at Trestles came in his first two years on tour. So yeah, pick your format and Filipe Toledo is most likely our back-to-back world champion right now anyway. Especially if you’re hoping for a poor result at Trestles to steal the yellow jersey from him.
And this brings us to the other nagging narrative about Filipe Toledo — that he can’t surf bigger waves and win. This argument also supports the idea that world titles should be decided at Pipe, even though they have rarely been decided on the North Shore. Most were locked up mathematically in October and November before the WSL introduced the Finals Day format in 2021. A December Pipe Masters was typically nothing more than a victory lap, save for Gabe and Italo as the most recent example. That’s exactly why the whole season schedule was upended in the first place. So champions would be crowned on the beach. After surfing.
In Toledo’s case, winning five contests over the span of two years is a display of dominance no matter how you try to shoot it down. And while the two-time champ has undoubtedly struggled at both of those waves throughout his career, he’s shown he’s capable of respectable results there too. Toledo’s made two quarterfinals appearances at Pipe and a semifinal at Teahupo’o in his decade on tour, so winning at either wave isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
Still, the volume was cranked up on the old “Filipe is scared” narratives last week when he bowed out of the Pipe Pro early. It’s convenient for his haters but it’s not entirely fair. I’m not saying Filipe Toledo will somehow prove his haters wrong and start dominating Pipe someday. I’m saying he doesn’t have to. He’s figured out how to win world titles in spite of his performances there. And it’s not just because he’s the best surfer at Trestles. He’s been the best surfer nearly wire-to-wire in both title campaigns. That leaves him with a shot at something in 2024 that only three men have ever accomplished in professional surfing: back-to-back-to-back world titles. A three-peat would put Filipe Toledo on a short list with only Mark Richards (4x 1979-1982), Kelly Slater (5x 1995-1998), and Andy Irons (3x 2002-2004). That opportunity doesn’t exist purely out of one format change, especially when that format change still provides an even playing field for every other athlete in the game. Plain and simple, Filipe Toledo is winning the same game that everybody else on tour is playing.
Don’t tell the haters though.