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Bobby Martinez's Rebel Cry 

Surfing's elite Latino star questions the soul of the World Tour

Thursday, Jan 5 2012
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Bobby Martinez warned them.

The day he was banned from surfing's World Tour for causing "damage" to the sport's image, he was back east on Long Island's Long Beach. Although he'd put his sponsor-logo hat on, his personal emblems — the glorious tats that unfurl across his back — were hidden by the long-sleeve, colored jersey surfers wear so judges can identify them on the water.

Martinez had won his first heat in the Quiksilver Pro New York 2011, when Todd Kline, one of the sponsor's marketers, pulled him over for an interview for the company's webcast.

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Pro surfer Bobby Martinez at his Santa Barbara home
 

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"The ASP and you guys aren't going to want this interview," Martinez told Kline, referring to the Association of Surfing Professionals, the sanctioning body of the World Tour.

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

Seen live on the Internet and on huge screens at Long Beach, Martinez hammered the Association of Surfing Professionals, the World Tour and his competitors, starting slowly 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," he concluded.

Martinez had a case to argue: the tour's recent adoption of a rolling world ranking system, similar to tennis, which, he said, 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, Martinez's ferocity was unintelligible.

Quiksilver's Kline froze. His mouth gaped.

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 blowup with thousands of downloads, the ASP 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, who had risen to the top tier of professional surfers on Earth, was too rebel for what had once been a rebel sport.

Even two months later, there's an edge to ASP spokesman 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," he says.

Since he turned 20, Martinez, now 29, 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, winner of more World Tours than Lance Armstrong has Tour de France victories. But Martinez also defied sponsors, took his complaints with competitive surfing's hierarchy public and called B.S. on competitors he didn't respect because they wouldn't speak up.

Although he beat even Slater, long before New York there were plenty in the surf industry who saw him as petulant, stubborn — unhirable.

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 always so polite," says Allen Sarlo, the only Malibu surfer ever to surf the World Tour.

"People got this misconception of him that he's ungrateful ... but he is so grateful," says pro surfer Pascal Stansfield, a friend of Martinez's.

"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 edgy New York clothing firm FTW.

But surfing is money.

Begun as surfer-to-surfer small businesses, the industry now is part of the active-lifestyle market, which includes skateboarding, motocross and snowboarding. The surf/skate industry had $7.22 billion in U.S. sales in 2008. It is dominated by the "big five" companies, which sponsor surfers and pay for a key industry marketing vehicle, the World Tour. But that tour has always struggled to grow its audience.

The 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.

And in Long Beach, Huntington Beach–based 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 mistakenly crowning a champion before he actually won. And some would see Martinez as a truth sayer. Then, on Dec. 27, the ASP abandoned the most controversial aspect of its new rules — the one Martinez had vehemently railed against.

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