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?

Martinez is giving a tour of the neighborhood where he grew up. It's the one writers always want for their color commentary that glibly treats the streets of his youth like an anthropological safari: the block in gang territory where someone was shot, the relative's house where Martinez got his first tattoo with a jerry-rigged tattoo gun. Martinez left the tour in part to spend more time in the Santa Barbara barrio where family lives, but it bothers him when surfing publications push this angle, as if where he grew up defines him more than his surfing.

Straight-up, Bobby Martinez is a surfer. At 6 years old, when he rode a wave standing on a boogie board at a public beach in Santa Barbara, his course was set. At 12, he won his first national championship as an amateur, the first of seven as he broke National Scholastic Surfing Association records. At 13, he traveled to war-torn El Salvador for a photo shoot—just him, another kid and the photographer. He earned a $30,000 sponsorship deal by the time he was in seventh grade. In ninth, he left school because he traveled that much. His style looked effortless. There was a buzz; he was the next great thing.

People thought he would rapidly transcend pro surfing's farm tour—the Qualifying Series—and make the elite group of contests, the World Championship Tour, which crowns the top surfer annually. Instead, a career-threatening injury stopped him from competing the first year. From 2003 to 2005, he was almost always on the road, living out of a "board bag" while trying to crack surfing's top tier.

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

After three years, Martinez—who was by then footing the bill for much of his global travel due to sponsor problems—started to lose his confidence. "Al told him, 'You can do this; you're close,'" says Travis Lee, who works for Channel Island Surfboards, the home of legendary surfboard shaper Al Merrick. "He stuck with it and qualified" for the tour.

His first year on the tour in 2006 was a dream. First event: third place. Second event, a win. He took down Slater himself, to win another. That year, he won at Teahupoo, Tahiti, the tour's defining wave—a barreling tube over a razor-sharp reef, an entirely different beast from Rincon, Santa Barbara's generous, rolling wave where he made his name. Martinez ended the year fifth in the rankings—to many, an astounding ascent. He was 2006's Rookie of the Year.

"When he won at Teahupoo . . . he calls me from an airport," says Bryan Taylor, his manager. "We spoke about business. Finally, I said, 'Is the contest over?' And he said, 'Yes, it ended this morning.' And we went back to talking about business, and I assumed he must not have done well. Finally, I said, 'By the way, did you do okay?' And there's hesitation, and he said, 'I guess; I won.' I said, 'You won! Why didn't you tell me 20 minutes ago?'"

On the tour, Martinez often kept to himself and was not part of surfing's infamous party scene. Off the tour, he cherished time with friends and family. He lived quietly with his wife and worked out at a struggling, neighborhood boxing gym.

Though unassuming by nature, Martinez had tried at 16 to buy a Mercedes. When the dealer refused to take seriously a Mexican kid acting as if he could afford a luxury car, he bought a BMW instead. But those days ended when he gave up the BMW for a white Prius.

In Martinez's first four years on the tour, he always ranked in the world's top 10. Yet by 2009, even though beverage company Monster Energy provided him with a lucrative contract, he was surfing without the logistical help of a major clothing sponsor—something unheard-of on tour.

Martinez had gotten in a beef with his sponsor Reef. It was not his first dispute with a sponsor. They had begun during his first full year trying to qualify with the sunglasses-and-apparel manufacturer Oakley, headquartered in Foothill Ranch. Twice, when he was injured and unable to compete in Australia and Brazil, the brand asked him to attend contests to support the other surfers it sponsored—"your team riders" is how he says Oakley put it. He would honor Oakley's other requests, Martinez says, but explained that although he was on Oakley's team, the other surfers were his competition, and thus refused to go.

"He was never a very good puppet . . . which some of these [pro surfers] quite frankly have to be," says Taylor, who has represented Martinez since 1987. "He doesn't go for peer pressure."

Taylor says a meeting about Martinez's contract in 2008 ended the surfer's relationship with Reef. As he remembers it, Reef's then-vice-president of marketing, Kevin Flanagan, questioned Martinez's desire to travel the tour while in contract negotiations over his salary. "Are you really a surfer? Or do you just want to sit at home and play with your dogs?" Taylor remembers Flanagan asking Martinez.

"Bobby would never look at that company in the same way again," says Taylor. "It questioned his heart and his ethic: 'Do you really want to be a surfer, or do you just want to make more money?' Bobby really hungered for the world title."

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