Professional Sports need their messiahs – those rare few who both exemplify and transcend their highest ideals. They are the Ali’s and Jordan’s, the Bolt’s and Federer’s. Neither competitive prowess nor performance alone can ordain these people. Instead, it’s a complex mix of ability, personality, drive, ubiquity, longevity, and verve. They must be just as savvy with their media presences as they are with their sporting performances, must have an innate sense of how to tease and reveal to the flocks of hungry journalists who regularly come pecking for a morsel of their souls.
Pro Surfing has had perhaps 4 bonafide messiahs since entering the modern era: Mark Richards, Tom Curren, Andy Irons, and Kelly Slater. This ignores the important folk heroes – the Eddie Aikau’s, Jeff Hakman’s, Wayne Batholomew’s, and yes, Laird Hamilton’s, whose reputations, while grounded in nearly unimaginable skill, are much more based upon their bonafides at certain spots or in certain types of surf than they are all in all-around greatness or, to use an ugly but apt term: star power. Sports messiahs as we think of them are a uniquely modern phenomenon, born in conjunction with the regime of pro sports – so, just or not, this also invalidates the Duke Kahanamoku’s and George Freeth’s, among others.
Each of the four messiahs with the exception of Slater, our very own uber-mensch, is roughly concurrent with one decade (leaving a down-year or two on either side of his reign) so you could say that the ’70s were the years of Richards, Curren was our savior in 80’s, Slater our much-loved tyrant king of the ‘90s, and Irons was the upstart antichrist of the ’00s. Slater’s pre-eminence, of course, spans a full 20 years, and while it’s clear that his surfing as a whole is probably better than it has ever been, his unrivaled competitive dominance – an important messianic quality – will never reach the same heights that it saw in the mid-to-late nineties when his approach to competitive surfing was at least ten years ahead of the rest of the field.
The question we face now – especially the “we” who try to turn a profit from pro surfing – is who is the heir apparent to Slater’s seat upon the right hand of God? As he slowly eases back from the limelight, (Don’t say fades. Messiahs only exit stage when they feel like it.) who will save us from the doldrums of a culture without a bonafide star?
We can discard the Australians out of the gates. Their homogenizing culture of mateship mixed with jock worship means that they have yet to produce a professional competitive surfer of any personal interest or spiritual verve in the 21st century. This is despite consistently producing the best by-the-numbers surfers in the world and having turned out two of the greatest surfers of the last 20 years: Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning.
Brazil is a more likely candidate, but the prejudice directed agains the rising surf power has unfortunately had the effect of sterilizing its stars to some degree. Gabriel Medina has all the polish of a light skinned black man who has had to work his way off the bottom while being told every step of the way that he wasn’t good enough…which is to say polished to a hard kernel of utter inanity, so as not to offend the establishment that has elevated him among his disliked and distrusted peers. (“Fuck” on camera to Glen Hall?) He loves surfing, his father, and God in that order and he will have a long, and hopefully very successful career that sits somewhere between that of Slater and Mick Fanning – electrifying performances mixed with brain-numbing dullness in most other aspects of his public life. Outside of his surfing, which really is divine, the most that can be said about the guy is that he occasionally gets interferences in heats just because he can’t stand lesser surfers out-positioning him. That’s the mark of an artist, but something he will probably (and unfortunately) have to subsume to be a champion. We are still waiting on the surfing Pele, but when he comes you can bet it’s going to be glorious.
California lost its great white hope in Dane Reynolds and continues to feel his absence with that very California brand of passive aggressive hedging in which one moment they are all tuned into the WSL webcast, and the next, they are decrying the lameness of competition and the greatness of Da Cat, or Da Dane, or whoever else is making money from surfing while acting like they aren’t making money from surfing. It’s impossible to count them out of the running to produce the next great one, such is the depth and width of their talent pool, but greatness is at least not on the imminent horizon for them.
Finally (skipping my beloved East Coast for lack of word space and current lack of any big prospects) we come to Hawaii, and the heir apparent to Slater’s legacy, John John Florence. He has been tipped to take the Great One’s place roughly since he was out of diapers, and with the release of his latest film, he clearly has the ambition and the self-regard to be the surfer that defines his generation. But I don’t think he will be that guy. He is probably the greatest surfer of his generation, with a (slight) stylistic advantage on Medina, even if he has yet to gain the Brazilian’s competitive prowess. But what’s most striking about his surfing is how classic, even conservative it is stylistically. How all the rough edges and, dare we say it, defining characteristics have been scraped off. It is the “received pronunciation” of surf styles. That’s not necessarily a criticism, but if you look at the 4 greats, one thing they all have in common is their styles are instantly recognizable, often more for their eccentricities than their perfection. Slater in particular, is easily the least orthodox and “ugliest” surfer of the Momentum Generation. Of all the ink spilled describing his surfing, perhaps the best was a comment by one of the Hobgood’s, I think on social media, pointing out that he surfs with “Gandalf Hands.” But that’s part of his alchemy. To be great, instead of merely just good, you can’t simply do a better version of whatever everyone else does, you have to do your very own version. JJF has not done that yet, though he still might.
The second and perhaps larger factor working against him is a public persona which is about as compelling as wet tissue paper. Most surfers struggle with this because a) it’s very difficult to be or pretend to be someone who millions of people care about and b) happy people don’t make very compelling people. Aside from the crushing insecurity that almost all pro athletes must harbor in order to maintain their diabolic drive, JJF seems like a pretty centered, grounded, and basically content kid. Good for him, bad for us.
Although some argue that Slater has tried to subsume his pretty substantial demons for most of his career, I would argue that he has channeled them more effectively than most of the pro athletes of his era in any sport. Especially through his 30s Slater has played an Ali-esque cat and mouse game with the media: part performance, part evasion, with the occasional dazzling moment of personal clarity.
A press conference with surfers is generally one of the most insipid and self-congratulatory things you can attend outside of a TED Talk. But a press conference with Slater is a different thing entirely. He jokes, he goads, he dances and jabs with anyone who strikes his fancy.
A few years ago he showed up at a conference on the Gold Coast where much of the then-ASP press core, such as it was, were assembled lobbing stock questions at bored pros. It was just after he had re-signed with Quiksilver, so I asked him if the rumor of a $10 million contract was true.
Without missing a beat he grinned and said “Yes…” all pens in the room hit notepads “It’s true that there is a rumor that I’m getting paid $10 million.”
It was clear to me then that he relished the challenge posed by a somewhat awkward question and relished even more deflecting it with the type of agility and cleverness that we had come to expect from him. The conference was as much a part of the competition for him as his heat was, perhaps as his entire life was, and as usual he was dancing circles around all comers.
Can you imagine an exchange like the one above with JJF, who looks on land like he’s moving in slow motion? It’s probably good for his mental health that he doesn’t feel the need to perform every time he steps into public, but it doesn’t make a messiah. JJF has many years to grow into those boots, but outside of a beautifully groomed surfing style that we can only hope will mature like fine rum, it’s hard to see him having the cultural impact of Slater, or Curren, or Irons, or Richards. Paradoxically, he is probably better off for it. Slater seems lonely, Curren struggled with the bottle for years, and Irons partied himself to an early grave. But perhaps these are the wage of modern sporting greatness – to dance for the ravening crowd until your legs give out and your fire scorches you to a crisp from the inside out.