JOHN FLORENCE IS THE BEST SURFER IN THE WORLD
Written by Whitman Bedwell
Photography by Justin Jay
Twenty-three-year-old John Florence is the best surfer in the world. It’s all there in the tape, and as it’s said in sports, the tape doesn’t lie. The tape is an unbiased witness, the presenter of evidence, and the sentencing judge of quality in any athletic performance. To watch a tape is the most complete way to decide the greatness of any performance by an individual sportsman. And what a remarkable “tape” the Hawaii-born Florence has. Released at the end of 2015, View from a Blue Moon is Florence’s first signature full-length film, and was met with universal acclaim. It’s also rumored to be the most expensive surf movie made to date, and if that is so, it was money well spent. That tape showed the world that there is no one quite like John Florence.
And yet, if any sport breaks the law of the tape, it’s surfing. There are no rules that dictate how to ride a wave, only the surfer’s physical limitations and natural limitations of the ocean. Though surf contests employ certain criteria for different wave types and conditions, they are of vague and loose language. It’s up to the surfer to find his way within those criteria. And while specific maneuvers have come to define what it means to “surf good,” surfing is founded upon an element that overrides all maneuvers: style. It isn’t what you do on a wave, but how you do it. While it doesn’t matter how you look scoring a touchdown as long as it’s reflected on the scoreboard, a great surfer looks better going straight than an average surfer does doing anything, regardless of difficulty. It’s tough, then, to make certain claims about surfing, as style changes over time and in the different eyes of its many beholders. Style is subjective, and therefore so is surfing.
Surfing has long been a sport divided into categories, with each dominated by one or a few specialists until now—because now there is John Florence. Florence transcends surfing categories and breaks down the walls of their distinctions. Whether he’s in big, deep-water waves or ones that are small and playful, Florence doesn’t conform to how they are supposed to be ridden. He surfs them one way, his way, and by doing things that shouldn’t be possible. But where he is the absolute best is on big waves that break in shallow water. They move fast and forcefully, causing them to barrel over themselves. He doesn’t change how these waves are ridden—there is only one way: inside of the barrel—but he gets deeper inside, riding longer and more dramatically.
John Florence does all of this with a style that is all his own. Surfing is guided by the arms, and much has been made over how he keeps his arms low to his sides, and not up and out as is traditional to good style. John’s ability rests on this style. He looks calm and relaxed until, and often in the midst of, doing something amazing. While most surfers project what they’ll do next, Florence appears to surf in each moment. This is all in the tape. From two-foot Brazil to twenty-foot Tahiti, there is nobody as good, and as good at everything, as John Florence.
The only knock against his claiming the title of best surfer in the world is his lack of a specific title, a World Title. But to win a World Title on the World Surf League Men’s Championship Tour is to fit into the WSL’s criteria and format. These criteria and format favor survival and perseverance over the course of each contest and year-long season. While everyone on the tour is a great surfer, it is not always the best surfer that wins. Florence has yet to put together a complete season, whether because of injury or interest or something else, and many in the surfing public hold this against him.
2016 will be John Florence’s fifth year on the tour. Maybe he’ll win the World Title, maybe he won’t. In terms of being the best surfer in the world, it doesn’t matter. Because today, right now, he is the best, and a World Title won’t change what already is apparent to many. It’s all there to see. Just watch the tape.