Kelly Slater’s reign as the world’s most popular surfer began in 1993. Photo: Surfer Magazine/Glaser

Kelly Slater officially passed the torch to Hawaiian John John Florence Friday night during a classy speech at the 45th Annual Surfer Poll Awards. For the first time since 2004 somebody other than Slater took the top spot on the hallowed award, which is surfing’s version of MVP voting. Slater has topped the poll 19 times in the last 21 years.

“Well, there it is!” an emotional Slater said about his runner-up trophy. “To say I’m grateful for the awards I’ve had at this event would be an understatement for sure. But I’m really super stoked that John got this. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been getting second place. Congrats, John John. I predict this is the first in the line of quite a few of these things.”

John John Florence and Stephanie Gilmore took top honors at the 45th anniversary of the annual readers’ poll awards. 
Last week Gilmore claimed her sixth ASP world title.

Like All Star voting in baseball, earning Surfer Poll votes is about capturing hearts and minds, which John John Florence has been doing since the age of 8, when he started surfing his backyard break of Pipeline, the world’s most photographed wave. Since qualifying for the ASP world tour in 2012, he’s been steadily climbing the rankings and the annual reader poll.

Slater, meanwhile, won his first ASP world title in 1992, the year Florence was born. His grip on the Surfer Poll began in 1993, and he held it for the next nine, through 2001, despite semi-retiring from ASP competition in 1999. Eventually, the late Andy Irons filled the vacuum Slater left at the ASP level, and that earned him Surfer Poll awards in 2002 and 2003. But Slater returned to competition in 2003 eager to do battle with Irons, and ecstatic fans boosted him back to the top of the poll in 2004. Since then Slater’s topped the Surfer Poll nine times and clinched five additional world titles. (He owns an unprecedented 11 ASP world championships.)

There have been 11 ASP world champions since 1985, but Florence is just the fourth Surfer Poll winner. He has yet to clinch a world title, but readers and pundits feel it’s only a matter of time. Californian Tom Curren topped the poll from 1985 to 1992 before passing the torch to Slater.
Florence was overwhelmed by the honor. He’s known Kelly since he was in diapers, and jokingly refers to him as his father. “I can’t believe this,” he said, staring at the trophy. “How many times has Kelly won this? Like 22? This thing is older than me.”
Of course Slater is showing no signs of slowing. The 42-year-old still claimed the award for “best maneuver” at the annual gathering. He pulled the incredible move during a warm-up session in Portugal. While accepting that prize, Slater recounted the exchange he had when he was informing Florence of what he’d done. “I talked to John John about it after, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t really count unless you make it two times.’”

The video of Slater’s move (below) proves the rivalry is real. It’s also really funny.