Sean Doherty: Italo Crowned 2019 Champion of the World After Epic Pipe Masters Medina Showdown

20 Dec 2019 11 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Photo: WSL/Sloane

Photo: WSL/Sloane


Finals Day at the 2019 Billabong Pipe Masters

This is what you want: this is what you get. This Pipe decider has really dragged on. Surfline had called Tuesday, but hadn’t spoken to the guys from Sandline. The Beach Park side of Pipe had become a Walmart-sized sandbar. Pipe was a closeout. And so here we found ourselves on Thursday, second-last day of the waiting period, here to decide The Champ.

Pipe early looked four foot, wobbly, slow. I don’t know who that gave the advantage to, Italo or Gabe. The fact it wasn’t 10 foot worked in Italo’s favour, but the fact there were 10-minute lulls negated that. Italo can’t pick them like Gabe. Italo needed to catch a dozen waves a heat.

It didn’t matter in the first heat of the day. Drawing Peterson Crisanto was a gift from the Big Sky Guy above, who was about to have a busy day. Crisanto hadn’t surfed Pipe once in a decade of coming here, and how he ended up in the last 16 only the Big Sky Guy knows. Italo looked strange just sitting there. He doesn’t sit still in freesurfs. He doesn’t sit still at the dinner table. In the end he found two waves to win. Italo progressed, which meant that Kolohe Andino was still in his jimmy jams eating his Captain Crunch and hearing the news that his slim title hope had already been snuffed out.

Italo would get the winner of Yago or Julian in the quarters. That looked a lot tougher. Yago has slept on the Volcom House floor since he was a kid. Julian is a Pipe Master. Julian however isn’t the highest profile Australian on the North Shore right now. That honour belonged to another guy famous for wearing a Hurley cap.

The Australian Prime Minister has been carrying on a time-honoured Australian tradition of bunkering down at Turtle Bay while a storm blows over. Scott Morrison is on the North Shore on a family holiday, which would be fair enough… if the country he leads wasn’t presently on fire from coast to coast. Burning Down The Door. A medieval climate denier, he’s spent months denying the unprecedented fires are climate change related. Now he’s on the run. Before he left he pledged an extra $11 million to the fire fighters, which might have meant something if he hadn’t also pledged $60 million for a statue of Captain Cook. He’s now not only in hiding from Australians, he’s in hiding from the Hawaiians as well.

Kelly posted yesterday: “Fortune cookie says, ‘The best wave of your life is still in your future.’” His Backdoor 10-point wave from the last round has parted the clouds on a disappointing year. There was no sign of the quack spiritual adviser he’d employed at Lemoore. He’d well and truly found his compass. Just Kelly and Pipe. He got past Seth Moniz and looked poised to have some kind of say in the day.

While Italo had been given a gift in the draw, Gabby had it tougher. He drew Caio Ibelli this morning. Under normal circumstances at Pipe Gabby eats him alive, but this was slow, shifty Pipe. And then there was the bad blood. Gabby could have had the title sown up by now if Caio hadn’t drawn an interference out of him back in Portugal. Medina ran past Ibelli before the heat and you were waiting for him to drop the shoulder. Sorry bud. Ibelli competes like a honey badger and you sensed the heat was gonna be a scrap. Nobody expected it would end like it did.


After half an hour out there Gabby had a two and a one. His third world title looked in real trouble. It would have been an abject disaster… except Ibelli couldn’t manage a single point. The clock ticked down. The pair shadowed each other. With three minutes to go Gabby finally came through a small Backdoor tube which gave him breathing space. Ibelli needed a five to win but hadn’t even managed a one. The only way Ibelli could win was if some freak occurrence went down, like, say… Medina dropping in on him again.

It played out in slow motion. Was Gabby… about to fade Ibelli? What were we watching?

Gabby took off and stuffed him like a Christmas turkey. Processing it in the moment the commentary team saw it for what it appeared on the surface to be – the most colossal priority fuck up in surfing history. Had Medina just thrown away the title, a la Tom Carroll in ’88? The man who was the recipient of Carroll’s interference that day in ’88 – Barton Lynch – soon worked it out. Gabby’s interference wasn’t a fuck up at all… but maybe the single most brilliant tactical move ever played in pro surfing. Gabby’s interference cost him his lowest score – a one – while blocking Caio from any chance of getting his five. With the interference, Gabby still wins. Gabby only had to hope that Charlie Medina had the maths right which they were. “Just… playing the game,” said Gabby afterward.

He may have overplayed the game however.

Gabby had learned from the best. Back in 2013 at Pipe you might remember Mick Fanning “accidentally” fading John John in the old three-man heat. Mick needed to get past the quarters that year to win the world title, and by fading John John in the final minute he’d avoided drawing John John again in the quarters, instead getting an easier draw in Yadin Nicol. Mick acted coy afterward. “John John? Didn’t see him, ay.” There was a very good reason Mick claimed to not have seen him.

Let me acquaint you with rule 171.11 of the WSL Rulebook. “Serious Unsportsmanlike Interference: If the Discipline Director and Head of Tours and Competition determine that an interference during an event was intentional, unsportsmanlike and of a serious nature… a surfer will lose the benefit of counting their best Event result when calculating their ranking on the relevant Tour. Notwithstanding… the heat in question can be re-surfed if determined by the Head Judge that the result was affected by the Surfer’s conduct.”

Suddenly Gabby’s interference was, in sequence: very dumb, brilliant… and now potentially very dumb again.

Upstairs there must have been some low key shitting of pants. I could imagine Pat O’Connell and Renato Hickel sitting in a room, a door swinging open and there’s Caio. If they make the call Gabby loses the title on the spot. Calling it would be ballsy, but it appeared cut and dried. The call never came. The broadcast moved on. Caio soon after conceded via Instagram. He led with “It’s a love story.” Caio had no choice. If he’d called it out, costing Medina a title shot, Brazil wouldn’t be big enough for him to hide. He’s been there before. It’s not fun.

The burn call had been an audible, but the hand signals between Gabe and Charlie Medina, and Charlie screaming “Burn him!” proved they’d at least ran the scenario beforehand. Who even contemplates that? The deep psychology of Medina trying this, on the biggest day and the biggest stage, was fascinating. What it says about him. Whether he even knew about the deliberate fade rule or not, what kind of person would even take that risk with a title on the line? A guy who knows the WSL brass wouldn’t call him on it. A guy in many ways – at least in one part of the world – is bigger than the tour itself.

As we waited for a call, heats rolled on.

John John, maybe the greatest surfer ever to cakewalk Pipeline, scratched through with a pair of twos, setting up a quarter with Medina. Griff then took down Jesse Mendes, a result which indirectly qualified young Australian surfer Morgan Cibilic for next year’s tour. It was remarkable. Straight outta Yamba, surfing out of Merewether, and riding boards shaped by former tour punk rocker Will Webber, Morgan’s qualification has come out of nowhere. In a year where Australian fortunes on tour have bottomed out, here’s a young guy who’s come from outside the established star system, surfed the joint down in Hawaii, and now finds himself on tour.


Italo looked edgy in his quarter against Yago. He nailed the shovit in the shorebreak as he paddled out, but somehow failed to come out of the best wave we’d seen all day. The waves had switched on. Italo still looked unsure. Italo’s positioning at Pipe has been his weakness, but he was in the sweet spot for an even better wave. It was a legit Pipe wave and man, did he need it… psychologically more than on the scoreboard.

Kelly looked toasted in the next quarter. Jack Freestone took one from the Kelly playbook, making a Pipe left look harder than it was, pulling a high seven out of the judges. The wind then went sideshore north and Kelly sat on a pair of one-pointers. The broadcast ran promos for the Ultimate Surfer. Kelly it seemed would be doing reality TV next year instead of going to the Olympics. But hang on. A clean Pipe left got him back in range. Kelly still needed a 2.6 with two minutes remaining. There was a time when Kelly pulled the strings of the universe and nothing could be surer than a wave materialising in this type of situation. That time seems long, long ago.

But suddenly there it was. The long Backdoor wave, right on cue.

In a year where nothing had gone right, suddenly there it all was in front of him. Pipe, the Olympics, the Triple Crown… and while he wasn’t winning the title he’d have a say in who was. Just like that Kelly was still very relevant. Interviewed afterward he was a kid again. He excitedly babbled about the waves he’d caught, where he’d caught them, how he’d caught them, why he’d caught them. He was gromming out. It wasn’t till the end that the stakes mentioned above dawned on him. Destiny manifested.

Gabby imposed himself on John John. He took the first wave. He took the best wave. When John John tried to swing into a Backdoor wave with priority, Gabe was there in front of him, ghosting on his inside and preventing him getting a line into the wave. Gabe was playing right on the edge, and he snuffed John out of the contest.

Italo is just the kind of guy Kelly would dream of  drawing here in a big heat. A guy without much Pipe pedigree and a guy who could be easily Jedi-mind tricked out of position. Shane Dorian’s final advice to Italo before paddling out: “DO NOT talk to him.” Instead Kelly mind-tricked himself, going right instead of left… the Backdoor wave closing out, the unridden Pipe wave a nine gone begging. Kelly kept sniffing around the rights without any luck. Italo meanwhile sat at Pipe, foamballed an eight then backed it straight up. Against Kelly at Pipe most dudes overthink, get paralysed with priority, but Italo just caught waves. That’s what he does. His confidence grew and he started taking off late and deep. It was now Kelly paralysed with priority, parked on a pair of ones.

The semi was a fade out for Kelly, but it gave him time to ponder. The Olympic spot was gone, but the disappointment seemed to have already washed off. All done, dude got to the beach happier then he’d seemed in a long time. You can’t discount the therapeutic psychological effect his 10-pointer from the other day has had on him. Asked if he was surfing on in 2020 he didn’t dance around. “Why not? I might do another lap.” The 10-pointer wasn’t closure. Closure, as James Ellroy puts it, is bullshit. The 10 might simply be another beginning for Kelly. We could be doing this dance for a long time.

That just left Griff Colapinto in the way of a Gabby versus Italo winner-take-all Pipe decider. Gabby worked Griff hard, paddled him aggressively up and down the reef before a wave was caught. It felt unfair. Picking on Griff felt like picking on Baby Yoda. Medina hassled him hard for the first wave, and for a second Griff was almost in a position to take off on Gabby’s inside and ping him on an opening wave interference. Medina was flying close to the sun, but by now this day had a life force about it. Gabby and Italo would surf for the title.


There was no “I love you” moment before the final and no love lost as the two Brazilians jockeyed for the first wave. The opening gambit went to Italo. It was critical. Gabby had eyes for Pipe but had put himself too deep. Italo swung underneath him and went right for a high seven. He then got to work at Pipe, peppering the sandbar with air rev finishes.

Holding the lead, Italo then chased nines. He got clipped on two of them, but all the momentum sat with him. Gabby meanwhile lost his radar. He cashed priority in on two closeouts. He caught another closeout without priority. Charlie Medina looked grim. Gabby might be a beast, but when fortune swings against him he becomes a creature of feeling and the act collapses. Hard. He was chasing a high seven, but it never felt like he was going to get it. In the final minute he had one last shot, a futile flip, and that was it. Italo Ferreira was the new World Champ.

Italo was a mess by the time he hit the beach. It was a popular win. When he finally pulled it together he dedicated the win to his grandmother and uncle, and thanked the Big Sky Guy, who’d had a busy day. There’s a physical expressiveness to the way the platinum-haired party boy gets around, both on land and in the water, that says more than a post-heat interview ever could. The fact his English isn’t great just fuels the pantomime. His primary form of locomotion walking around contest sites is a swivel-hipped shuffle, dancing to a soundtrack only he can hear. He’s there to win but he also knows he’s there to entertain. Today there was a bit of both.


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