Imagine for a moment you’re traveling back in time to Madison Square Garden. It’s July 27, 1973, the legendary Led Zeppelin is on stage shrouded in dry ice, hanging mirror balls and crude pyrotechnics. It’s the greatest rock show on earth, right? No. I’m sick to death of music journos and fans with their unwavering belief that “all the best music was made in the ’70s.” I recently saw Tame Impala in their hometown of Perth play a show that would have blown Zeppelin out of the water. The lighting and stage effects were hypnotizing and futuristic, the sounds echoing through the synths were otherworldly and the guitar pedal-board was full of effects that weren’t even invented in 1973. This technology, along with four extra decades of musical influences, blended into their psych-rock created an experience that made those old Zeppelin shows seem kind of pedestrian. It was while listening to this psyched-out bliss pouring into the Belvoir Amphitheatre that I suddenly realized how far we’ve come as creative humans in the past 42 years. Similarly, I realized how far surfing has progressed in that time.
In the winter of 1960, no surfer on the North Shore had the guts or equipment to paddle out and catch a wave at Pipe. Now, half a century later, every man and his dog (well, not exactly every surfer) is out there getting shacked and running each other over. Remember the first time you saw Laird Hamilton’s Millennium Wave and thought it was the heaviest thing ever? Remember thinking that moment could never be topped? Fast forward a decade and we watched 15-year-old Tahitian grommet Matahi Drollet tow into a wave twice as big and twice as thick. It’s crazy, and it kind of seems like someone should have made a call to Child Protective Services, but in the great words of Eddie Vedder: “It’s evolution, baby!”
This brings me to my potentially controversial point. John Florence (yes, according to John C Reilly, who would never lie to us, John John is now just “John”) is the greatest surfer ever. Naysayers are going to hit me with a barrage of stats about some guy Kelly and his 11 world titles, or the fact that John doesn’t actually have a single world title (yet), or that the Brazilian storm led by Gabriel Medina is just as cutting edge. Well, I call bullshit on all of that. Yes, Kelly is a freak and there was that time I high-fived him and didn’t wash my hand for two weeks. There is no disputing he was the best of his time, just like MR and Curren were the best of their time. “Kelly’s time” seemed to go forever and defy all logic like a night on magic-shrooms in Kuta, but time only moves in one direction and that direction is forward. Over the last couple of years, John has been drawing lines on and above waves that nobody can touch, not even Kelly.
Florence may look a little unruly and maybe even out of control at times, pushing his board and body to the edge and beyond like Dane Reynolds (but with a better make-rate). But rest assured John’s airs are 10% bigger, higher and more critical than every surfer who has come before him. His rail game is sharp and explosive. In some ways heavier guys like Jordy Smith and Michel Bourez match his nuanced technique, but ultimately Florence is still unrivaled in solid waves. In 2015 I watched John tear the wall out of solid 8 foot Marg’s Mainbreak like nobody has ever done. Some of his turns seemed seminal, like the great Tom Carroll snap at Pipe. It was game changing. And even more impressive was the fact that Kelly paddled out for a heat after watching John and started throwing down that little extra whip at the end of his carves just like John. The master had finally become the apprentice.
Are you still not convinced? Take this little quiz:
-Can any other surfer on the planet ride backhand barrels hands-free as deep and as smooth as John?
-Can any other surfer on the planet cover more distance and airtime with a backhand air-reverse, into the flats and land bolt upright more consistently than John?
-Can any other surfer in on the planet land backflips on a heaving Backdoor end section with more style and ease than John?
-Can any other surfer on the planet whip a huge power-hack right in the pocket of a 10-foot (Hawaiian) Sunset bowl better than John?
-Is any other surfer on the planet more unpredictable and enjoyable to watch than John?
You’ve probably said yes to a couple of these questions, which is fine. But you probably didn’t say yes to all of them, and you definitely didn’t pick one surfer for your answer to every question. Guess what? You’ve reached the same conclusion as myself, you drank the Kool Aid and you’ll probably agree with the frequented proverb “it’s not a matter of when; it’s a matter of how many world titles John will win.” Personally, I don’t care if he doesn’t win a single title. At this moment in time John John Florence is the greatest surfer ever. That’s not disrespecting Kelly, it’s just evolution baby.