Bobby Martinez on the Future of Surfing: "It Isn't Done in a Pool"

Surfer Bobby Martinez won a record seven National Scholastic Surfing Association titles, won the O’Neil Coldwater Classic, and was once ranked fifth in the world — all during a time when names like Slater, Burrow, and Parkinson owned the leader boards. Then, after his heat at the New York ASP tour stop in 2011, the notoriously fiery Martinez stunned the surfing world with an F-bomb laden indictment of the entire industry, its pandering competition rules, and even sponsorship. That was the last most people heard from him.

Now 35, he prefers a quiet life in his hometown of Santa Barbara, splitting his time between the boxing ring and the ocean — as far away from the judges as possible. But with the recent announcement that surfing will debut at the 2020 Olympics in Japan and the rise of artificial barrels, we thought it might be about time to go poke the bear.

You seem pretty darn content these days. We hardly recognize you.

I realized there’s more to life than surfing, you know what I mean? It only lasts for so long, and then it’s done. And then your life really starts. If you’re done at 35 or whatever, what do you do for the next 50 years? That’s when your life really begins.

What exactly got you so fired up when you left the ASP tour in 2011?

They wanted a ranking system like they use in tennis. They wanted surfing to be this broad-scale sport — like soccer or something. I knew it was wrong, and so did a lot of other people. But, obviously, they just did it anyway, without caring about the people involved.

Are you still just as fired up?

I haven’t really thought about it much, to be honest. I do kind of laugh about it, because three or four months later, the ASP switched the tour rules back to the way it was. So, I was like, 'I told you so.' What pissed me off is that I left the tour on a bad note and they never even reached out after that. Never sent a letter saying, like, ‘OK, you can do events, if you want to, now.' I had a year suspension, I had all these fines, I had no points. I never heard from them ever again. I haven’t heard shit from these people.

You must have known how much it would hurt you financially.

It was easier for me to do what I did than it would have been to stay there and be a part of it. If I had to just go through the tour the way they wanted to change it, that would've really killed me. I’m not a role model, so to speak. I get nothing from the surf industry. I didn’t want to stay in their little box and be a yes man. But yeah, I could have been a little better off financially if I kept my mouth shut.

So what is it about your current sponsors Monster and Channel Islands that makes them different than the sponsors who dropped you?

Luckily, I was with a couple companies who had a different take on it than the rest of the surf industry. Monster’s not even a surfing company. They’ve both had my back from day one. They respect how I ended up going about it because I wasn’t just saying something stupid. But I’m so thankful that they have been with me like that because other companies like Billabong and Quicksilver — that are 100 percent about the tour and all this fucking surfing blah, blah, blah — would have cut me regardless. You can’t be yourself with those companies. The industry is horrible. It’s hard to find a company that just respects you and is going to let you be yourself. Surfers can’t say shit because where are they going to go?

Ok, so Olympic surfing and the prospect of a wave pool being a stop on the ASP tour — is the surfing world about to get another dressing down from Bobby Martinez?

Well, the Olympic thing didn’t surprise me because I know surfing wants to be known as a giant sport. So, when I heard that, I was like, 'They got what they wanted.' At the same time, I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s in Japan, the waves are probably going to be small, Brazilians are the only ones who surf good in small waves, so it’s going to favor a few specific people. One thing about the Olympics is that every event offers the same opportunity to every athlete. But when I’m surfing, I’m never surfing on the same wave as my competitor. It’s going to be pretty boring watching guys surf two-foot waves. And I love surfing; I want what’s best for surfing. But I already know what’s going to happen.

So, there's no right way to do surfing as an Olympic event?

It’s not an Olympic sport. You can’t do it everywhere the Olympics will be held. What are they going to do when they have it in, say, Athens again? There are no waves in Greece. Maybe they need to only have surfing when it's in a place that works, like L.A., and they could make the gold medal more prestigious, like have it in the Olympics every 16 years when it’s held somewhere that makes sense.

What’re your feeling towards the surfers who might participate?

I think they’re just going wherever their sponsors tell them to go. I don’t think they have a voice, or else they would have been speaking out when I spoke out. So, if their sponsors want them to chase that gold medal, they either gotta shut up and do it, or that’s it. At the same time, there are a lot of surfers who would love that gold medal. It’s the Olympics. For some of these guys this is going to be bigger than the World Title. Unfortunately, the best surfer probably won’t be the one who wins. And if the best guy does win, it’s probably going to be pushed, because they want him to win. That’s just the way surfing works.

I hate to say it, but don’t wave pools solve this problem?

[Building] wave pools is just being desperate, hoping to make surfing something it’s not. Surfing isn’t done in a pool. Surfing’s done in the ocean. I mean, are you fucking really going to travel to Kansas to surf the world’s best wave pool? You could be going to Namibia to surf some of the world’s best waves. That’s what makes surfing, surfing. A lot of wave pools aren’t even salt water. I’m telling you, if you surf a wave pool your whole life, you’re going to eventually go to the ocean and surf some real waves. Wave pools will never be the answer. The ocean is the answer, and that’s it.

Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch is practically in your backyard — only about 200 miles away. Would you surf his ‘perfect barrel’ if you got an invite?

Maybe if it was literally in my backyard. But, no, I wouldn’t drive to it.

You have a young daughter and another on the way. What if one of them wanted to become an Olympic surfer?

My wife and I actually joke about that a lot. My wife always says, ‘How much do you want to bet that our daughter is going to be doing all the contests, and then she’s going to make the tour and she’s going to want you to travel with her?’ I said I’d take her surfboard away before she even gets there. That would be my worst nightmare. But, seriously, I’ll support whatever she wants to do. My philosophy is — not just in surfing, but in life in general — do what’s going to make you happy, regardless.