• subtitle: Tenth Annual Grudge Match Cements Sam Hammer’s Legacy And Marks The End Of An Era

Written by  Jon Coen
Tuesday, 10/15/13

TURF: 10th Annual Smith Optics Garden State Grudge Match Presented by DaKine; Adrenaline Bowl, Seaside Heights, NJ; October 14, 2013

ENERGY: Lacking. There was plenty of motion in the ocean, but the general mood of this event has tanked… more about that later. In the event’s 10-year history, this was the worst surf: four- to very occasional six-foot and northeast in the morning, with dead low tide closeouts. Conditions improved, but there was never a pocket. And you know how good a contest is when the wind picks up out of the east right during the quarterfinals… To be fair, though, there has only been one good day of surf in the area throughout October (shoulder-high). New Jersey got shafted on this nor’easter, and there is nothing significant on the map.

The contest was also held at the Adrenaline Bowl, a few blocks north of Casino Pier. Pieces of the sunken Jet Star roller coaster, which became the symbol of Sandy and the gutting of Casino Pier, forced the contest to be held with no protection or sculpted sand. “I think this year, the momentum kind of slowed,” offered Ocean City’s Rob Kelly, “Every year, people look forward to the Grudge Match, but losing a year to Sandy, it kind of lost momentum. And the pier being in the condition it’s in has a lot to do with that. If we had been on the south side of the pier, we would have been protected, but we were just kind of out there for 20 minutes in wide-open beachbreak.”

SLIDE: Early round highlights included 2010 champ Zach Humphreys finding a deep cave amongst the onshore shit for a 9.0. Surf City’s Royce Weber laid down a carve that left the judges surprised that his board didn’t break under his feet. Connor Willem nailed a sweet air reverse. Rob Kelly’s multiple bashes scored the highest heat total, at 15.0 points. But the last quarterfinal will be talked about for years to come. In advance of the inaugural Grudge Match, a brash 19-year-old Andrew Gesler gave this reporter golden quotes. 11 years later, he remained one of the most colorful characters of the Grudge legacy as he faced off against Sam Hammer.

Conditions mostly favored the goofyfoots, but Hammer found respectable rights, which he slayed. His highest score was awarded for a vertical first hit, followed by stylish carves and a run to the beach, where he finished his final smash in the heavy shorebreak. Gesler, on the other hand, had possibly the best forehand turns of the contest, coming off his bottom turn and laying his body out in full commitment. But it was just the one turn, which the judges saw falling short of Hammer’s combo punches. Then Gesler boosted way above the lip, spinning down to the flats, where he landed on his board, but didn’t ride out. If not for the last bobble, he would have beaten Hammer, which is basically winning the event.

Next, in semi number one, Surf City’s Randy Townsend was trailing a very in-form Tommy Ihnken in the final seconds, when he found a rare open section. He blazed down the line and cracked a full fins-free reverse to take the heat. Meanwhile, “Raw” Rob Kelly looks like he’s ready to wrestle Mick Fanning and was able to find power where no one else could. But in semi number two, he was up against Sam Hammer, not only the face of New Jersey pro surfing, but also the man who rallied surfers to the forefront of Sandy recovery. Kelly sat wide, trying to backdoor the lefts, which he did to some extent. But Sam smashed the life out of an overhead wall on his backhand.

That led to a Hammer/Townsend showdown: a rematch of the 2005 final. Both of these guys were original Grudge invitees and are mentors to the state’s young hopefuls. Both have great work ethics and have taken pro surfing and made it fit into their vocations and lives. Hammer returned from his semi and was simply waiting at the shoreline when Townsend came loping down the beach. Like Gesler, he had never won a Grudge Match, despite an outstanding record.

Hammer drew first blood, crushing a big backside hit for a 7.0. But Townsend was not going to let Hammer walk with this one. He answered with a 7.5, slicing numerous precision carves into a wave face that was anything but precise. Hammer willed himself in and out of an ugly barrel that would prove to be a throwaway. With minutes remaining, Townsend dropped a perilous frontside hack on a closeout section, only to watch Hammer zip off on a right, getting off that all-important first gouge to stylish cutback, skating sections that gave him every reason to bog, and again finishing at the shoreline to win his fifth Grudge Match belt 14.8 to 14.4.

THE PAIN: Smith Optics Northeast Rep and Casino Pier local Rob Cloupe started this event with his buddy Rob Z. back in 2002. That’s 10 years of events, taking 2012 off when Seaside was almost erased from the map. The initial goal was to bring everyone together in a very personal, performance-oriented contest that would settle all the rivalries that popped up in the state. It would be held on-call at the pier, guaranteeing, if not perfect waves, at least exciting conditions. And everyone dropped whatever they were doing – new lives in California, family commitments, plumbing jobs, college, trips to Fiji, etc. Every year, the heats became passionate battles where the loser would start drinking and sometimes blow off his rage in an outburst, only to hug the Jersey brother who’d bested him by the end of the after party.

But in recent years, the excitement waned. The throw-downs became bro-downs, and the kids born in the ‘90s didn’t have the same craving for the belt. No one is in Seaside to settle a score anymore. And considering most people were off for Columbus Day and the surf sucked everywhere else, the crowd was sparse. People are rebuilding from Sandy, and the Seaside fire in September didn’t help. There was talk that this might be the last Grudge Match, but the no-shows on Monday put the nail in the coffin.

2006 champ Mike Gleason and 2011 semi-finalist Pat Schmidt were on a Volcom trip in Portugal. 2002/07 champ Dean Randazzo didn’t make the trip up from Atlantic City. Brendan Buckley is busy writing clever captions at Surfing Magazine. 2011 finalist and once future belt-heir Mikey Ciaramella wasn’t able to get back from UC San Diego. PJ Raia was getting fit in California. And Clay and Al Pollioni simply decided to boycott the event because of the conditions. “I have surfers all over asking me if they can surf in this event,” said Cloupe. “Ben Bourgeois was born in New Jersey. He asks me all the time if I’ll open it up. And Jersey guys can’t show up at their own event – or they yell at me when the waves aren’t good enough.”

FIRST TIME AT FIGHT CLUB: A bunch of surfers, all solid, who hadn’t qualified for the event but happened to be on the beach, stepped up to fill spots left by the aforementioned no-shows. Jonathan Smythe (senior account manager at a tech company by day) was the true dark horse, surfing brilliantly to the quarterfinals.

THE MAN: Cloupe. This event grew into a fan favorite, with a healthy buzz after each event (pun intended). Over the years, Cloupe implemented a Grudge Qualifier, fantasy heats, a Grom Grudge, and even brought the format to New Jersey’s snowboard community. It was a fantastic tradition that every surfer aspired to be part of, and it coincided with a golden age of surfing in this state. Cloupe has hinted that he may shoot for another type of event, but this was the end of an era. You have to imagine that Townsend, Kelly, and Gesler, who came so close so many times, are gutted, and rightfully so. It’s also a bummer for guys like Willem, Ihnken, and Smythe, who grew up aspiring to surf in this event, will likely never get paid to surf, and now don’t get a chance at the belt either. 12-year-old Mikey Vanaman has to be crushed.

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB: “I love Sam Hammer. I am all for lifting him up as a human being. He’s a good dude, and he takes care of his people. But I surfed to a curriculum that commits to the initiation of the ride. I chose waves that gave me the important section, and I didn’t care about the reform. I put everything into my first turn, and that didn’t get me the win in the end. I had the opportunity to land that air after I thought I had secured my two good scores, and I fell at 95 percent completion. I was hungry this year, and I really thought that I did it, but it’s up to the judges.” –The ever-candid Andrew Gesler

“Rob Cloupe always runs a great event. I couldn’t be more excited on a 2nd-place result. Sam always surfs with precision and is an amazing competitor. It was great to see everyone ripping, even in chunky conditions, especially Mikey Vanaman. Spectacular performances all day long. The boys were ripping.” –The even-keeled Randy Townsend

“I’m bummed that this was the last one, but I get it. It’s supposed to be a Grudge Match, and there’s no more angst. I love surfing against Randy in the final. He’s so deserving, and he pushes me every time. This event was Cloupe’s baby, and it was an amazing idea. It’s sad to see it change, but that’s not always a bad thing. Hopefully it evolves into something else and benefits the kids coming up.” –2013 Grudge Match Champ Sam Hammer

“This is the last one. There isn’t going to be another Grudge Match…. asshole.” –Rob Cloupe showing Jersey affection to a good friend

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