At first glance, the Grudge Match contest scene seems like another gathering of all the boys at one of their usual haunts--Casino Pier in Seaside Heights. SUV’s are lined-up like some classic car show; hoots fly from the gallery after a particularly sweet move; smiles, tacos and handshakes float around like sunshine. But pull any of these guys aside and you find that things are not always what they seem.
The Grudge Match means the world to the state’s best pros that show up. Sam Hammer, Mike Gleason, Andrew Gesler and Randy Townsend commented that it was THE contest they gun for every year. And it ain’t got a darn thing to do with the $3,500 first place check or giant boxing-style belt that goes to the victor. It’s all about bragging rights (north vs. south primarily) and respect. Power surfer Gleason noted that the contest is about the opportunity “to prove to all your peers that you can hang with them…and get respect.” Every competitor looked ripped and ready and when the jersey went on, friendships got shaky.
The boys did the state proud and solid performances were the norm in heat after heat. If it’s any indication, notables like Matt Keenan, Dean Randazzo, Gesler, and Townsend were knocked out in the quarters or earlier. Below is a look at the final four:
Gleason lit up his 2nd round heat against Andrew Gesler and made it more than apparent that he was out to win. While everyone surfed well, Gleason glowed in the water with gouges that made the gutless chest high surf actually look like it had that typical fall punch. Gleason made it to the semi’s where he met 3x winner, Casino Pier regular and long-time friend, Sam Hammer. Despite besting Hammer for the belt in ’06, Gleason’s run was ended. The semi was in its own way a final, as both of these guys told me they had the other in their sights very early in the comp.
High schooler Ciramella upset some big names on the way to a solid semi-final finish putting the older guys on alert. He came in to the event with momentum stemming from his 1st Place in the Jr. Men Amateur Division result during the Belmar Pro and kept his cool head despite the heavyweights he faced. He’ll be one of the young guys—along with Humphreys—who will continue to push NJ’s stature in the surfing world.
Perhaps the best surfer to come out of the state, besides Randazzo, Hammer is the man to beat at the Grudge Match. With three titles and four 2nd place finishes, he’s got a mark on his back like no one else. His name came up repeatedly with all of those I interviewed, but as Sam told me, he “wouldn’t have it any other way.” He loves the whole competitive scene, arena and vibe of the day. As he said in his typical understated way, “there’s no lack of motivation when it comes to this event.” No matter that he lost out to Humphreys in the final this year, he’ll always be the man to beat.
Zach Humphreys-2010 Grudge Match Champion:
As part of the next generation of power surfer to hail from NJ, Humphreys surfs way beyond his 21 years. In person, he looks more football player than surfer and he uses every ounce of strength to blast the turns and bashes that defined his approach at this year’s comp. But he’s not all brawn. During a day when the only consistent thing in the surf was the lack of consistency, Humphreys found the waves he needed and got the scores to win. Nobody knows the Casino Pier line-up better than Hammer, but Humphreys kept his head down and his feet planted to find the few gems that’d make the difference. This won’t be the last Grudge for Humphreys, that’s for sure.
If the Grudge does anything it highlights the fact that NJ’s got an insane well of talent. The current batch of pros is a tight-knit, competitive bunch of guys who surf because of the deep love they all share for the simple act of riding waves. Sure they talk a lot of smack with each other and their rivalries will burn long after the Grudge Match continues, but that fire gives them the careers and lifestyles they each hold dear. Watch every one of these guys. Great things are coming Garden Staters...great things.