The sandstone cliffs of Pico do Fabril, sculpted by the relentless action of the North Atlantic, are recognizable for layers of striking red pigment in the sand. Anyone freesurfing, competing or spectating at the swell-pulling back-up venue inevitably goes home with a conspicuous coating of red sediment on footwear, wetsuits and vehicles.
So it was perhaps appropriate, given today's venue, that up until the late afternoon, the red jerseys of the top seeds dominated Round Three matchups. That is, barring two particularly notable encounters.
World No. 2 Gabriel Medina found himself up against a pumped-up Jeremy Flores in full, uncompromising flow. In the most exciting heat of the day, Medina did little wrong tactically. In his execution, he held nothing back in terms of repertoire or endeavor. Tube-riding, carving, blowing tail, reversing off the lip, the 2014 World Champion rallied and rail-turned but was never able to get on the front foot. Ever since Flores ended Matt Wilkinson's 2016 World Title run two days ago, almost as if he was anticipating the time and place to make a powerful statement, there has been a foreboding sense of more in store. After an unmemorable year, Flores finds himself surfing for -- rather than quantifiable points and prize money -- something on which it's impossible to put a value: pride.
The other significant victor not wearing red was John John Florence, who was sporting the yellow attire of the rankings leader. Taking on wildcard Frederico Morais, who is most recognized for previous giant-killing sprees perpetrated at this event, Florence was the very picture of effort throughout the encounter. Waiting almost a full 10 minutes before paddling in for a wave, Florence opened strong and never looked back.
With the clock running down, he high-lined along a cooperative ramp-bearing face, telegraphing a victory-lap punt. But whether protecting a favorite board, keeping plenty in the tank for later rounds or merely understanding that the job was done, Florence modestly straightened out instead. It could be that the Hawaiian finds himself very much in the driver's seat during this event, where he's just four heats away from winning the World Title at the MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal.
"It's so great, everyone's running down the beach getting all amped," said Florence. "Every time you finish a wave you hear the whole beach erupt, it gets you psyched to get back out and get another one. I had a bit of nervous energy for sure, Frederico is such an amazing surfer, he was surfing out here with us yesterday, ripping. But I was just concentrating on my own surfing. I'm just gonna keep focusing on taking it heat by heat, rest up and get ready for tomorrow."
With Florence advancing from Round Three, it effectively took Julian Wilson, Filipe Toledo, Kelly Slater and Adriano de Souza out of the World Title race. Kolohe Andino and Jordy Smith are still alive, with Round Three wins in Peniche today.
Slater meanwhile, who lost to Miguel Pupo, offered a philosophical take on today's drama. "I'd love to be a part of [the World Title race], but I'm not, and it's nice to be out of it and watching it go down. Short of being injured, these two [Florence and Medina] will run surfing, will be the top dogs, for the foreseeable future."
As for World Title race scenarios here in Portugal, if John John wins, he wins the World Title. If he finishes second, but not to Jordy Smith, he wins the World Title. If John loses in Round Five, for 9th place, Jordy will need to finish at least 3rd to still be in Title race at Pipe. Kolohe Andino needs to win the event to stay in the Title race.
At the other end of the Jeep Leaderboard, losses today for the likes of Matt Banting, Jadson Andre, Kanoa Igarashi and Kai Otton resulting in equal 13th finishes in Portugal will do little to help their cause in terms of re-qualification in 2017. While Miguel Pupo and Conner Coffin were the only members of the vulnerable sub-20 pack that nailed Round Three wins today, they potentially offered lifelines in their quest for preserving Championship Tour status. The only Championship Tour surfers that currently lie inside the Top 10 on the Men's Qualifying Series are Kanoa Igarashi, Jeremy Flores and Ryan Callinan.