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​Tahiti's Michel Bourez Wins The Pipe Masters In A Weird One

"I still don't believe it because we had the worst final I've ever had…" said Michel Bourez, the just crowned Billabong Pipe Masters In Memory of Andy Irons Champion.
Runner-up Kanoa Igarashi - Image: Youtube

"I still don't believe it because we had the worst final I've ever had…" said Michel Bourez, the just crowned Billabong Pipe Masters In Memory of Andy Irons Champion. In a win over Californian rookie Kanoa Igarashi in an anticlimactic final of surfing's most revered event, Bourez has earned one of the most respected titles in the sport: Pipe Master.

The final was unlikely on several fronts. The fact that neither event favourites Kelly Slater or John John Florence were in it. The fact that WSL rookie Igarashi and out of form Bourez were. And the fact that the final 90 seconds had the two of them looking for scores of less than a 3 to guarantee them the prestigious win. Michel's combination heat score of a measly 7.53, not without a claim on his final wave, a 2.53, enough to clinch the final event of the year.


The victory was not without its spectacular moments, however. Bourez's final day littered with challenges he rose to with aplomb, on a smaller but perfectly shaped Backdoor Pipeline day. His Round 5 heat had Filipe Toledo score the only perfect 10 wave of the event, Michel answering back within seconds with a near perfect 9.40 of his own adding to his 7.23 and pushing him into the quarterfinals against John John Florence—the event, fan, local, and everything else favourite. Michel took down the unbeatable looking Florence—who'd just secured his first World Championship at the Rip Curl Pro Portugal in October—with two mid range eights, before overcoming Kolohe Andino in the semis and Igarashi in the final. The win for Bourez jumps his end of the year ranking to 6th in the world and marks an overdue return to the form that won him two events and a top five finish in 2014, before a 2015 riddled with injury and poor events that gave him his equal worst career result of 21st. It also clinches him a victory at all three major Hawaiian events, a feat that only World Champions Derek Ho, Joel Parkinson, and the late Andy Irons have achieved before him, and a feat that will surely be his legacy when the the 30-year-old Polynesian powerhouse hangs up the rashie and reflects on his career. The Pipe Masters, of course, being the number one jewel in that crown.

"That's the biggest event as a surfer to win, and I did it… stoked!" said a visibly fatigued Michel Bourez, who has been battling a neck injury for two seasons now after breaking a vertebrae at Teahupo'o, Tahiti.


Kanoa Igarashi too, surfed over his own dramatic set of hurdles to make the final. Sitting at 24th at the event's beginning, he was in the peculiar position of surfing for his friend and teammate Hawaiian Zeke Lau's place on the 2017 tour.

The final 32 of the 2017 WSL Championship Tour is made up of the top 22 placed surfers of 2016, and the top ten placed surfers of the 2016 Qualifying Series. Igarashi, along with Jack Freestone, Jeremy Flores, and Jadson Andre, was among the CT surfers who finished in the QS top ten, and had the opportunity of double qualifying. If Kanoa was to perform well, and leapfrog into the top 22, he would allow the 11th placed QS surfer in Lau to qualify also. However, for the petit rookie who had never surfed in the daunting arena of the Pipe Masters, and who had had a chequered run of results through his maiden CT season, a semi-final finish or better seemed unlikely.

What came next was the curious and fascinating event of watching someone pull out clutch win after clutch win for the benefit of a close friend. Igarashi unfathomably beat Kelly Slater and a rampaging Jordy Smith in his Round 4 heat to head straight to the quarter-finals, where a win would guarantee his pal Lau's place in the 2017 big league. He again faced Jordy Smith as an underdog, after Smith's Round 5 heat notched the clear highest score of the whole event, 18.10. Opening the quarter with a 9.93 near perfect barrel, and some audacious body lingo to boot, before backing it up with another 8.10, Igarashi made it near impossible for the momentum riding South African to stop him.


With all of the focus on Igarashi's unlikely run through the Pipe Masters centred on the qualification of Lau, it was easy to miss the momentum he was carrying himself into the semi-finals against Kelly Slater, and that in his first time in the hallowed event, the youngest surfer on the tour could win the whole damn thing. The luck of the ocean stayed in his favour when Kelly Slater looked to have the heat and a place in the final sewn up. Igarashi needed an excellent score of 8.33 with less than a minute to find it. Like magic, a wave came to the patient rookie, the best wave of the heat, and Igarashi got the score, knocking out Slater in a buzzer-beating fashion that Slater has done so many times to others in his 25 years of competitive dominance.

"Right at the end, this crazy wave out of nowhere came in. I laughed because I did not believe it. I stalled as hard as I could and once I came out I fell into shock," said Igarashi.

Until they'd fallen out of the event, all the focus had been on John John Florence and Kelly Slater, and the possibility of the two stars, whose skill at the wave is inseparable despite the two decades between them, would meet in the final. Even the lay-days appeared a John John vs Kelly Slater shoot-out, with one session seeing Slater pulling out of the barrel of the day followed by a huge alley-oop aerial, nailing the best combination manouevre of the year, only for John John to land arguably the biggest and best alley-oop aerial of all time in the same session.


For John John, a Pipe Masters win would have cemented 2016 as the greatest single year in competitive surfing history—beginning with The Eddie Aikau Invitational big wave specialty event he won in January, just the ninth person to do it, his maiden World Title, a Hawaiian Triple Crown win, and finishing the best year of his life a Pipe Master. A win at the Banzai Pipeline is almost a birthright for the crown prince of the North Shore. Having been brought up on the shoreline, he was half-raised by the challenging wave and the legends who had mastered it. He first surfed the event as a 12-year-old, and at 24, he's already being argued the greatest to surf it. John John beat out Kelly for the Triple Crown this year, the third time he's done so, but his pet event continues to elude him. John John, some way, some how, can still not be called a Pipe Master.

On the other side of the draw, Slater, who has won the event more than anyone else (seven times), because he's won everything more than anyone else—11 World Titles, 55 event wins—declared in October that he would have one last attempt at winning a 12th World Championship in 2017. "Hugely inspired by the young guys on tour these past few months and what @john_john_florence has accomplished this year. So next year I'm gonna get my shit (and my body) together for real and see if I can make a last run at a title," Slater wrote on Instagram. With that renewed focus, he looked unbeatable. That is until he was.

The Kelly Slater John John Florence Pipeline final was the finish all surf fans wanted for 2016. It's a showdown everyone has salivated for since John John qualified for the tour and grew into the surfer that gets compared to Kelly as the greatest ever. Unfortunately, we did not get to see that this year, and with the way mother ocean disrespected the last 30 minutes of the season, that's probably for the best. The anti-climax of the final that sadly showed the weaknesses surfing can have as the legitimate sport the WSL wants to showcase it as, was no place for that to go down. No, perhaps we'll be best to wait 12 months. For the final heat, on the final day, in the final event, in the final year of the greatest surfboard rider in history, against the only surfer who could possibly challenge him for that title.

Can you imagine that? Kelly Slater and John John Florence, finally facing off at the greatest wave in the world? That's worth waiting a year for. Please, oh please, surf gods, make it happen.

The 2017 WSL Men's and Women's Championship Tour begins in March with the Quiksilver and Roxy Pros Gold Coast, Australia.