The second half of 2017 has reignited the John John Florence and Gabriel Medina rivalry. This has been simmering for several years as both Gabriel and John John made their ascension up the ranks to become unequivocally the two best surfers in the world, regardless of what the ratings say. With a world title apiece, and positioned as the top 2 in the world, both of these superstars will be vying for honours at the grand finale in Pipeline. What a way to end the surfing year.
So, who has the edge?
As Kelly Slater commented, he believes that they are equals, both competitively and in terms of raw talent. John John, however, might have an edge in big waves, and he proved this with a win in the Eddie last year.
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On a practical level, how do these two surfers match up?
Gabriel Medina is a better competitor. He is a chess strategist who can not only see several moves ahead, but is able to pull out his best performances when they are needed most. When he gets on a roll, Gabriel has seemingly limitless confidence and backs himself to perform the most outrageous manoeuvres in the highest-pressure situations. We have all watched Gabby do some of the biggest airs ever executed in competition in the dying moments of a heat, thus sealing a win for himself and progressing to the next round.
Most competitors go the safe route in high-pressure situations (Jordy, looking at you), opting to perform a series of manoeuvres that are conventional but, at least, complete. Gabriel does not operate on the level of most competitors. The amount of time he spends in the water practising his craft may exceed any other competitor on the WSL.
Talent and Physique
John John, on the other hand, is pure, raw talent. Now, bear in mind that talent is not some innate quality, but rather the sum of experiences an individual has acquired, enabling them to perform with mastery at their chosen craft. He started surfing early. Like, he surfed Pipe when most other kids were still getting pushed around in strollers. Starting this early in life is the root of what we call talent. They just get it.
Talent may be more evident in some individuals due to physical and genetic traits, but when you look at the difference in shapes and sizes of the top 44 surfers in the world, there is incredible diversity, from short and skinny ectomorphs to comparative giants in the form of Jordy and Owen.
Both John John and Gabriel are slim, tall and flexible. They have the build of swimmers or, perhaps, very lean gymnasts. The gymnastic ability of the both of them is undoubted; to be able to swivel and pivot themselves in the air the way they do requires immense acrobatic ability and strength.
John John’s competitive surfing has improved through consistency, however, he relies on his radical edge to see him through. When John John overthinks a competitive situation, things seem to fall apart. We have seen him surf unnaturally at times and when he is calculating his approach and surfing for points, he tends to lose a little of the explosive flare that makes him such a formidable competitor. Don’t get me wrong, John John Florence is exceptional in the contest jersey and is a pedigree of competitive surfing. In critical waves, he takes off later and more casually than anyone. Having an almost lazy, casual approach to surfing is something that requires a lifetime of refinement. It is not that John John does not care when he drops down a 20-foot wave. Rather, he is completely in flow and unconcerned about what happens next. Sometimes this lackadaisical approach may work against him.
Gabriel, on the other hand, is hard-wired for action. His stance, his inherent tension and his body language, all exude energy. One can’t imagine Gabriel Medina getting old. He has a sort of timeless quality, projecting fiery purpose, which he puts to good use on pretty much every wave that he rides.
Having won the Eddie, John John is without a doubt considered the better big wave surfer. He grew up, after all, surfing Pipe and got bigger barrels before the age of 10 than most of us will ever mind surf.
However, Gabriel is formidable in heaving left-hand barrels. As Kelly Slater commented, when Gabriel lifts his big wave game, he is without a doubt at par with John John in every other department.
John John, having won the 2016 world title, is in demand. He is going to be one of surfing’s rare personalities who break into the mainstream, as Kelly Slater did. John John is marketable. He is interesting and he makes a great story. His videos are the best ever produced and there’s no shortage of cash to back any venture he wishes to explore. Jumping on the John John train is what most savvy surf businesses dream of, and Hurley will be hoping for an ever-increasing return on their sizeable investment in JJF.
Gabriel Medina, on the other hand, while a legend in Brazil, has a lower profile around the world. We see less of Medina free surfing, almost as if he likes to keep it for himself, to use competitively against his rivals. Or perhaps I do not watch the right surf movies.
If you put John John and Gabriel on the exact same wave, the ride you watch unfold will be more different than you will see between any two other competitors in the top 24. Firstly, they are obviously goofy and natural. But even if the film is flipped, their styles are significantly different. Gabriel does more manoeuvres and manages to fit an incredible number of turns in a short space. This is the result of growing up at a beach break, because you learn to make the most of every wall.
John John, on the other hand, does his trademark lazy bottom turn followed by huge gouging top turns that involve full body torque to twist the board back at the section in the craziest arc you’ll ever see.
Gabriel, on the other hand, is more vertical in his approach. Both surfers generate huge wafts of spray from each turn, although John John can sometimes seem more dramatic at the top of a wave. In the air, both surfers are equal, although Medina may have a marginally higher completion rate in competition. Both get extreme lift from their airs and are able to execute huge rotations off of any section they choose. John John might be considered more skatey and innovative in the air, but Gabby executes his flight with precision and deadly confidence.
On their respective backhands, Gabriel Medina wins. His backhand attack is exceptional and he rides with the perfect combination of power, flow, speed and precision. People rave about the backhand attack of guys like Matt Wilkinson, but Medina is better. Much better. Gabby is able to do the same manoeuvres as guys like Adrian Buchan, Wilko and Owen Wright, yet he has the ability to finish the ride with a massive air reverse every time; whereas the others finish with a close-out tap (and sometimes a claim).
Wave against wave
Of course, every upset fan thinks the judges are biased towards their favourite surfer’s competitor, but is there any real bias within the WSL? Are there underlying conspiracies designed to make one surfer win and another lose? Does the WSL attract more attention in 2017 when John John is the world champion, as opposed to if Medina was world champ?
Doubtful. Human bias can be both unintentional and strategic. As surfing fans, we have to hope for the best until proven wrong, so let us assume there is no intentional bias designed to sway results, one way or another.
Wave against wave, if we could pitch these two surfers against each other, who would score higher? Because of the talent and skill inherent in both surfers, I believe they would score the same, with the only thing possibly separating them being a little extra flair that John John possesses on his forehand, and the vertical nature of Gabriel Medina’s backhand attack. They can both boost huge airs on demand, the difference coming down to who does the cooler grab or gets the cleaner landing. In this department only Filipe Toledo can match and exceed our two masters.
So, who will win the 2017 world title between John John Florence and Gabriel Medina? I think Gabriel Medina is going to come out firing at Pipe. He is hungry to cement his legacy and part of this legacy will be leading the Brazilian storm to more world titles. Gabby has his fair share of haters. Many non-Brazilians are uncomfortable with his seemingly aloof nature and serious demeanour, not to mention stepdad Charlie. But Medina is a good sport. He has matured physically and mentally, and that only makes him more dangerous. If he wins in 2017, then John John is going to come back even hungrier in 2018.
If John John wins then Medina will be even more fiery than before.
And so, begins the greatest rivalry since Kelly Slater and Andy Irons.