John John was oh-so-close to his second victory of the season, but he couldn’t quite withstand the power of Mick.
It’s pretty astonishing that Mick Fanning can swoop back in and show the rest of the world’s best surfers that he can not only compete, but that the three-time world champ is probably surfing better than he ever has before.
That’s exactly what happened Saturday during finals day at the J-Bay Open. Fanning closed the book on last year’s scary and incomplete event, earning the victory over Florence in the final and surfing a near-perfect wave in the process. Fanning’s 17.70 total withstood a strong 17.13 effort from John John, whose runner-up result now moves him into second place for the season.
Despite sitting out two contests, Fanning jumps all the way up to fifth for the year. But he’s not eyeing another world title. In fact, he said after the final that he’ll likely surf Trestles and then call it a season. With everything that Mick and his family have gone through over the past year or two, he’s certainly entitled to some time away from the world of pro surfing.
But while he may not have his sights set on Matt Wilkinson and the top of the leaderboard, Florence clearly does. This is now the closest John John has come to the yellow jersey, just 2,350 points behind Wilko with some prime opportunities ahead. The 23-year-old from Pipeline’s doorstep has to be considered the odds-on favorite to capture his first world title, despite not yet holding the top position.
Gabriel Medina could have put himself in similar status, but his J-Bay run ended in the quarterfinals. The 2014 world champ drops to third for the season, about 5,000 points behind Wilkinson.
That Wilko-Florence-Medina trio has begun to separate itself from the pack with five contests remaining. Fanning can only play spoiler once more and Italo Ferreira and Julian Wilson should still be in the mix down the stretch, but it’s beginning to feel like we have our circle of contenders pretty well-defined.
Florence is clearly the sentimental choice and would be Hawaii’s first men’s world title holder since Andy Irons in 2004. Whenever his championship breakthrough comes, it’s going to be the first of many. John John is already the most popular surfer in the world and he’s set to become the face of pro surfing for the foreseeable future. Whether he puts together a career like Kelly Slater has is questionable, but the opportunity for him to do so absolutely exists.
However, that future was put on hold as Fanning gave the crowd, the fans and even fellow competitors what they all wanted to see at J-Bay. Everyone was hoping Mick could come through in South Africa once again, but he didn’t pull a rabbit out of his hat. He showed that he might simply be the best in the world. That he’s taken a step back in his career hasn’t changed that fact. It may have actually enhanced it.
The men are now off until late August when they hit Teahupoo. The women’s world tour returns next week with the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach (July 25-31).
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.