That John John Florence is already succeeding wildly on the world stage surprises nobody. Fact is no surfer in history has grown up under the eyes of media scrutiny like Florence, whose backyard just happened to be the most photographed wave in the world.
Back when he was an 8-year-old muppet with an unruly mop of white locks, Florence was spotted paddling out at Pipeline, the surfing world’s most testosterone-laced lineup, on his brightly colored board. He quickly became a regular on the small days, but even then his bravado was stunning.
By the age of 10 he’d graduated to much heavier stuff, and was moving around the world’s fiercest lineup with the swagger of a local celebrity. His tiny frame and blond beacon were impossible for the cameras to miss, and there was no shortage of photos showing him being mentored by every local and international standout, including Kelly Slater, as he absorbed generations of Pipeline secrets.
By last December, the prodigy had arrived. Florence and the 11-time world champion were locking horns in the quarterfinals of the Pipeline Masters in what was instantly billed as one of the best clashes ever seen there.
Florence jumped out to a commanding lead early on, eager to grab the Pipeline reigns from Slater, a six time winner of the event.
But Slater’s ability to keep the sun from setting on his career is one of the most incredible stories in sports. His first Pipeline Masters title, along with his first ASP world title, came just weeks after John John Florence was born in 1992. Two decades later, while the reputations of Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong are being weakened, the 40-year-old’s career stats have become the benchmark for dominating a profession. The media have flung dozens of would-be Slater-killers at the wall during his two decade reign. None have stuck. While guys like Andy Irons and Mick Fanning scored blows, nobody has been able to finish Slater off. And in that quarterfinal match against Florence last December, Slater made a heroic comeback, making it perfectly clear that when he hangs it up it will be on his terms.
This December Kelly Slater will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of his first ASP world title by going for his 12th at Pipeline. Meanwhile a battle-tested John John Florence will be going for his first, trying to edge Slater in the record books as the youngest men’s champion in history. Don’t think for a second Slater doesn’t care.
Now, I don’t want to discount all the other very viable title contenders like Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson, but if the surf gods are kind to us, the world title showdown will come down to a rematch of last year’s epic heat between John John and Kelly. And what better moment is there for the student to finally take the reigns from the master?
Naturally, Slater’s shoes will never be filled, but even Kelly acknowledged the inevitability of John John’s future after sneaking past him in the waning seconds of their clash last year. “I’m just trying to keep John John at bay a little longer,” said Kelly. “He’s going to be dominating this place for the next 20 years.”
Marking that moment when the past ends and future begins can be hard to pinpoint, but the beauty of sport