Since skyrocketing up to third in the rankings with a win at the Rio Pro, John John Florence has become one of the heavy favorites to capture this season’s world title. He always does well in Fiji, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue cutting into Matt Wilkinson’s lead this week.
But he could also be notable for something not having to do with rankings or points. John John could be the final competitor to surf a heat with Taj Burrow.
Announcing earlier this season that the Fiji Pro would be his final event as a Championship Tour performer, Burrow staved off elimination in round two with a vintage performance to outduel Caio Ibelli.
It’s been a few years since Burrow has been a major factor in the world title race, but he must be considered one of the most consistent top-tier surfers the Championship Tour has ever seen. If you throw out the shortened 2001 season, Burrow finished no lower than seventh between 1999 and 2013. He’s finished in the top five on 10 occasions and was runner-up in 1999 and 2007.
That is simply phenomenal. Burrow was progressive for his day and continued to evolve with the sport, still understanding the mechanics of a heat and how to best earn a result. The fact that he never won a world title will certainly stick with his career story, as it does with other greats like Charles Barkley or Dan Marino. But even world champions won’t be able to claim the career consistency Burrow has enjoyed.
It may not feel like a true “changing of the guard” moment if Florence does take down Burrow, but it would be yet another instance in 2016 when it seems like the new era is upon us. Some of the older vets are trying to push that story to the background a bit in Fiji, most notably with Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning still alive into round three. But Burrow has been the rock for so many years that it would feel appropriate for someone of John John’s stature to be his final opponent.
No disrespect to Ibelli, but I think many fans and competitors were cheering for Taj in that second-round win.
Soft spoken and a bit camera shy, Burrow may wind up being a superstar we have to remind ourselves about. One of those “Oh yeah, Taj was great!” types of athletes. He doesn’t have the records like Slater, the timeless moments or magnetism like Andy, the domestic rivalry like Mick and Parko, even the brashness like Jordy; but Burrow has been right there with them all in terms of growing the world tour to an international brand.
He has simply taken care of business every step of the way, a trait that would make someone as talented as John John almost unbeatable. It will be a great feat if Burrow scores the upset, a terrific sendoff even if he doesn’t. He’s helped pave the way for this new era we’re just getting to know, but it will be strange not seeing Taj claiming his customary spot in the top 10.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.