Bobby Martinez's Rebel Cry

Can the enfant terrible's harsh words and crisp moves reform the corporatized surf scene dominated by Orange County's action-sports industry?

Bobby Martinez's Rebel Cry

Bobby Martinez warned them.

He had won his first heat in the Quiksilver Pro New York 2011 on Long Island’s Long Beach when Todd Kline, Quiksilver’s global-sports-marketing manager, pulled him over for an interview for the company’s webcast.

“The ASP and you guys aren’t going to want this interview,” he told Kline, referring to the Association of Surfing Professionals, the sanctioning body of surfing’s World Tour. Though he’d put on his sponsor-logo hat, his personal emblems—the glorious tats that unfurl across his back—were hidden by the long-sleeved, colored jersey surfers wear so judges can identify them on the water.

Surfing into the future
Associated Press
Surfing into the future
Martinez: Straight outta Santa Barbara
Ted Soqui
Martinez: Straight outta Santa Barbara

But Kline waved the words off. When the mic went live, the surfer let loose for one minute and seven seconds. By the time Martinez was done, F-bombs littered the sand as though they were trash on the beach after Memorial Day.

Seen live on the net and on huge screens at New York’s Long Beach, the 29-year-old Martinez hammered the ASP, the World Tour and his competitors, starting slow but gaining momentum as he leaned toward the camera, his board next to him. “I don’t want to be a part of this dumb, fucking, wannabe-tennis tour,” he let them know. “Fucking surfing’s going down the drain thanks to these people.”

Martinez had a case to argue: The tour's recent adoption of a rolling world-ranking system, similar to the one used in competitive tennis, meant the tour's top 34 surfers could be outranked by competitors who had never surfed against them. "Come on now. That's bullshit," he scowled. To many, his ferocity was unintelligible.

Quiksilver's Kline froze. His mouth gaped open.

The ASP didn't hesitate to react. Martinez had been jabbing it with fucks on Twitter for months. Even before the interview turned into a global blow-up with thousands of downloads, its Rules and Disciplinary Committee disqualified him and suspended him from the World Tour.

Bobby Martinez, a rare Latino surfing superstar from a working-class background, had risen to the top tier of professional surfers and was now too rebellious for what had once been a rebel sport.

Even two months later, there's an edge to ASP spokesman's Dave Prodan's voice when he discusses Martinez's suspension. "Bobby made it abundantly clear that he was . . . not happy with being on tour. And I don't think there's much of a reason to give him a second chance or a third chance or a fourth chance."

Since he was 20, Martinez has skirmished with surf-industry powers in Orange County and Australia. With his stylish, effortless surfing, he nailed huge wins as a rookie and was once seen as a possible successor to Florida's Kelly Slater, who has won more World Tours than Lance Armstrong has Tours de France. But he also defied sponsors, took public his complaints with competitive surfing's hierarchy and called BS on competitors he didn't respect because they wouldn't speak up.

Though he beat Slater long before the New York contest, there were plenty in the industry who saw him as petulant, stubborn—unhire-able. But to discover the story behind the controversial interview is to find another Martinez: hardwired to speak the truth, but also, "honestly, one of the most humble guys I've ever met," says Tarik Khashoggi, a lifelong friend.

"He's not about the money with it; he's about the surfing," says his current sponsor, Bobby Vaughn, who co-founded the Von Dutch brand and now runs the edgy New York clothing firm FTW.

But surfing is money. Begun as surfer-to-surfer small businesses, it's now part of the $50 billion-per-year active lifestyle market that includes skateboarding, motocross and snowboarding, with its nexus point here in Orange County. The surf/skate industry had $7.22 billion in U.S. sales in 2008 and is dominated by companies that sponsor surfers and pay for a key industry-marketing vehicle, the World Tour. That tour has always struggled to grow its audience, though, and this new ratings system—the radical reworking of the World Tour that Martinez pilloried—was conceived as a solution and a way to showcase new faces.

Quiksilver had hoped to increase surfing's profile by hosting a major contest in an unlikely locale just miles from Manhattan, the media capital of the world. Instead, viewers were treated to Martinez spitting on his sport.

But within two months, the ASP would have its own self-inflicted, epic fail on its hands by crowning a champion before the real scores were in.  And some would see Martinez as a truth sayer. On Dec. 27, 2011, the ASP abandoned the most controversial aspect of its new rules—the one Martinez had vehemently railed against.

"Unfortunately for pro surfing, there are very few people like Bobby who are willing to speak out," says Sunny Garcia, surfing's 2000 World Champion, who splits his time between Hawaii and San Clemente. "Bobby said it so the rest of the world could finally hear what a lot of surfers actually think."

* * *

“From surfing, I bought this place," Martinez says quietly. It's two months after the blow-up in New York, and he has pulled up his truck behind a modest duplex in Santa Barbara—the house where his parents live.

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