Why is Kelly Slater back at number one in the Power Rankings? Because he holds the fate of the ASP in his hands. If that isn’t power, I don’t know what is. The question now is will Kelly use his vast influence for good or evil? Lately, ASP insiders are looking at their talented figurehead and seeing more than the physical doppelganger of Lex Luthor. Trouble is, the only Superman who can save the ASP is also Kelly Slater. In each of his contest appearances over the course of the last couple months, Slater has played both roles: dominating Brazil, ruling the barrel at J-Bay and Superman-handling Huntington like, well, Superman. But there’s been allusions to dissolution there, too: Kelly slapping the water at J-Bay as the ocean let him down, Kelly slapping the water at Huntington as the ocean let him down again. He moved his frustrated hands across the surface of the waters with a vengeful callousness that hinted at the genesis of a super villain - Lex Luthor en utero.
More seriously, as Mr. Slater faces the grave responsibility of deciding the ASP’s future, I’m reminded of fact instead of fiction. Although a new tour sounds good in theory, Kelly may find himself walking into a quagmire beyond his control, just as US military forces did in Iraq. Destruction is easy -- overthrowing the existing regime will take only another flick of Slater’s Lex Luthor wrist against the surface of professional surfing’s waters. But the process of rebuilding a stable governing tour may prove more difficult than Slater has envisioned.
I foresee two major problems: First, the concept of contest results having validity at all is a bit of an illusion, kept in place by faith in the system. The fact that we even begin to accept the fairness of completely subjective judging decisions is largely due to our familiarity with the current paradigm. A bit like the way religious fanatics believe their belief system makes sense, simply because they’ve been raised in it. If the format changes completely, once-devout fans may inevitably spot the holes in its logic.
The other issue is this: How will they cull numbers with any semblance of fairness? If they take the current Top 16 and ditch the rest, Tom Whitaker will be in and Dane Reynolds will be out. But if they draw up a dream team of the subjectively most-talented surfers on earth, the new tour will be nothing more than an imperialistic popularity contest. Look no further than Surfing Magazine’s recent article, in which they declared that Mitch Coleborn should be on the new elite tour… while current world #3 Adriano De Souza should not.
Reality isn’t easy, and change doesn’t come cheap. Kelly may not like where he’s at, with title 10 out of reach. But if he doesn’t buttress his idealism with informed advisors instead of yes-men, the king may find that Fiji looks more like Fallujah than he ever could have imagined.
The decision has been made. The role has been cast. Now it’s time for the extras to follow the script, and play out the rest of the scenes. Joel Parkinson will be world champion. As with Slater in 2008, the universe seems to be ushering Joel towards this fate, and other contenders away from it, like a sheepdog nipping at heels. How else to account for the inexplicable early-round losses of every other contender? Does Billabong’s influence run that deep? It’s now easy to mistake 2009 for 1989; like Martin Potter, Parko seems to have suddenly snapped awake with a whiff of smelling salts, and convinced the field in a single event that he’s The Man. In addition, it was intriguing to see how little Parko gambled on his way to victory at J-Bay – nearly every turn was low-risk, on rail, beautiful and timeless. His approach was anything but futuristic - closer to Tom Curren circa 1992 than even Slater circa 1996. The fins barely got loose over the course of his entire calculated run. It was a performance even children of the 60s could relate to – call it neoclassicism.
There’s a bit of Mr. Miyagi in CJ Hobgood these days – he’s transitioning into his role as resident Sensei of the World Tour. CJ’s proving to be the rare veteran who keeps progressing, pushing himself farther as his body ages and the competition creeps up. Watching him attack the lip in Brazil this year, one got the distinct suspicion that Mr. Hobgood sleepwalked through the formative years of his career. (Yes, I am excluding his anomalous 2001 title from the argument.) Simply put, there is an awareness to CJ’s approach that was lacking through many of his early seasons. He’s taking risks that others are not, and finding that, like Slater, he has a gift for improbable recovery. Although Kelly took the victory in Brazil, CJ placed the most consistently risky, radical bets of the event, going "all in" with each defining turn on each mediocre wave. At J-Bay, CJ was felled with a strain of swine flu, leaving him weakened and lucky to make it through even his first heat vs. Miky Picon. Watching CJ’s heat and then Damien’s was like watching Tom Hanks degenerate in Philadelphia, in reverse.
Adriano de Souza
Overconfidence is an interesting thing. It causes humans to lose the ability to discern between things we can control and things we can’t. Adriano De Souza’s career nestles snugly within the rewards of this overconfidence maxim. To quote a recent
"The psychologist Ellen Langer once had subjects engage in a betting game against either a self-assured, well-dressed opponent or a shy and badly dressed opponent (in Langer’s delightful phrasing, the 'dapper' or the 'schnook' condition), and she found that her subjects bet far more aggressively when they played against the schnook. They looked at their awkward opponent and thought, I’m better than he is. Yet the game was pure chance: all the players did was draw cards at random from a deck, and see who had the high hand. This is called the 'illusion of control': confidence spills over from areas where it may be warranted ('I’m savvier than that schnook') to areas where it isn’t warranted at all ('and that means I’m going to draw higher cards')."
It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell you that Adriano is still viewed as the tour schnook, despite being firmly entrenched in the Top 3. In Brazil, Adriano was underestimated by Jeremy Flores, Bede Durbidge, and Joel Parkinson on his way to the finals. Only Slater remained wary of him. At J-Bay, the tables were turned on De Souza: he viewed Nathaniel Curran as the schnook, and lost accordingly when the ocean went flat. Some things even world title contenders cannot control.
I remember reading a brilliant essay by Mickey Munoz years back, in which he envisioned the perfect surfer, and the perfect session. I’m paraphrasing here, relying on a deficient memory ravaged by alcohol, but what Mickey pictured was this: a formless, out-of-shape surfer patiently studies the ocean. He then surfs an entire session without expending any energy at all – floats out in a rip, catches a wave without paddling, gets barreled without engaging a rail, kicks out, lets the rip suck him back out, and does it again. To Mickey, surfing wasn’t about athleticism and aggression. Surfing boiled down to knowledge and flow.
That’s one way to see it. Mick Fanning vs. Michel Bourez at J-Bay is another way to see it. The Spartan vs. The Machine – two muscled gym-rats pushing each turn farther than it should go while Tom Curren watches, his right eyebrow raised a thousandth of a millimeter in an act of protest. Mick put up 17.17 and lost the heat. His year is dust. Bourez has now beat Parko, Bede, Kelly, and Mick man-on-man in his short career. He beat Fanning off a 10 that included three barrels and two claims. If Mick had won Brazil and J-Bay, we’d still have a title race to look forward to. Instead, Fanning was laid down to rest by surfer who probably does a fist pump claim when he grunts out his morning shit.