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Story by Rob Cloupe, photos by Bruce Chrisner and Graig Nordberg

It’s easy to hold a Grudge when the waves are this damn good. Early Morning with Logan Kamen taking in the view during the 2023 Garden State Grudge Match, waves courtesy of Hurricane Phillipe. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

The 2022 Grudge Match was supposed to be a one and done anniversary contest but with so much local support and pressure from the participating pros I decided to bring it back indefinitely.

Is back-to-back Grudge winner Rob Kelly the new NJ Godfather of surfing ? With deep, gouging slashes like this he is definitely in the conversational mix but, with Sammy, Gleason and The Ges still surfing at their highest levels since gromhood – and the still very long shadow cast by Dean Randazzo – it might be a tad premature to make that claim at this time. However, with a little more time, especially the way this guy is ripping and dominating east coast media coverage the past 5 + plus years, we may be genuflecting and kissing this stone cold wave killer’s diamond pinky ring soon enough. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

What differed from the 2022 event is I had to run a trials event to replace the 8 surfers who were eliminated in last years first round. The trials were slated for May but lack of surf, summer surfing black ball kicking in and work conflicts I wasn’t able to run the event until the same week as the Grudge Match would eventually run. 

Trials winner John Porter made the main event but could not get past uber tough compeitor Tom Ihken in the second round. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

Doing back to back events in the same week would normally be challenging but we had such a good run of surf the trials was blessed with 3-4 foot surf all day. Local boy John Porter took down the field of 42, pocketed $300 and advanced on to the main event along with Brad Moran, Ethan Dunn, and Declan Fitzgerald.

Young ESA All-Star, Declan Fitzgerald impressed with backside airs like this. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

All four had never surfed in a Grudge Match before and 2 of them weren’t even born when the first Grudge ran. Also getting wild card/injury replacement bids were Jeremy Nordberg, Mike Gleason, Andrew Gesler, Nick Evandich and Connor Willem.

Jeremy Nordberg was given a Wild Card injury slot and snagged a couple of deep ones like this emerald green dream captured by his dad, Craig. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

All the elements really aligned for The 2023 Grudge Match as Hurricane Phillipe meandered out in the Atlantic and blessed Seaside Heights, NJ with a solid 4-6 foot swell and perfect offshore winds all day long.  The Grudge is such a gnarly event because the competitors all throw their licenses in a ice bucket and whoever they pick out of the bucket is who they surf against in that round.

How the rounds went down. Photo: Courtesy Grudge Match

This makes for some crazy tough heats and some not so tough deepening on how it all plays out. The 1st round is a 3 man heat with the loser relegated to re-qualifying for next years Grudge and 1 and 2 being thrown back in the bucket.

It didn’t take long for the drama to unfold as defending champ Rob Kelly picked Sam Hammer last years runner up and 5 X Champion in round 1 along with giant killer Perry Siganos. As all three took the water the surf was absolutely pumping with the north bar looking like Colorodos in Nica with full A frame barrels and the south bar doing its best Lowers impression with ripple walls both left and right.

Next to Dean Randazzo it’s hard to argue against Sam Hammer being Jersey’s most well know, accomplished surfer just by din of the decades he’s been ripping HAM while setting the bar and blazing a career path for everyone else to follow. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

Rob struck first and never looked back taking a quick win and putting the rest of the field on notice. Hammer never found is rhythm and had a hard time finding waves thru out the 25 minute heat coming in 3rd. This was a tough loss as Sam has been the dominant surfer of this event only not making 2 finals (yr 1 and 2).

Rob Kelly opens up his stance looking for that precise sweet spot on the lip line to totally annihilate. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

Perry ”The Spartan” Siganos surfed a really smart heat and came in 2nd with some solid turns on his forehand. Perry got his revenge on Hammer as Sam took Perry out in the quarters last year on his last wave. Other stand outs of round 1 were Ethan Dunn, Cruz Dinofa, Tommy Ihnken, and Cole Deveney.

Darkhorse Perry Siganos says put some respect next to my name, yo. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

Round 2 and the Quarters saw no major upsets but a story line was being established as half the field in the quarters were young guns and the other half was seasoned Grudge Match veterans. The quarters saw Matt Keenan take down Ian Bloch in a battle of goofy foots. Rob Kelly edged Paul Francisco by a very slim margin.

Paul Francisco perfectly slotted and driving hard for daylight. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

Unfortunately Pauls last wave was just after the horn or the result would have been a different story. Tommy “The Pride of Asbury” Ihnken rekindling is contest gnar of his younger years and took down two time finalist Randy Townsend. In the last heat of the quarters Siganos squashed rookie Ethan Dunn’s title dreams to punch his ticket to the semis and a rematch with Kelly.

The Pride Of Asbury Park, Tommy Ihnken took down two time Grudge finalist Randy Townsend, no small feat at all. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

2023 Garden State Grudge Match set-up. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

The semis were set with Matt Keenan taking on Tommy Ihnken and a rematch of their round 1 encounter as Rob Kelly battled Siganos for finals berth. Both Keenan and Kelly were on a collision course all day and both dispatched their foes with relative ease and set up the battle 20 years in the making.

Matt Keenan, pushing 50 and still pushing the envelope in his surfing and how to rock a proper beard. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

Mentor vs Protege, 22 champ vs 03 champ, Darth Vader vs Skywalker, you get the drift. Matt and Rob are best friends, Rob is Matts daughters god father and Matt was super influential in mentoring Rob thru his early amateur surfing years which lead to multiple east coast championships.

The Grudge Match’s aqueous canvas as provided by Hurricane Phillipe. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

For Matt, making the finals 20 years from his only win at the Grudge Match and at the age of 48 was pretty special. He told me before the event that this would be his last one and he didn’t disappoint as he gave Rob a solid run for his money but the defending champ was not to be denied.

Rob started strong with a 6.93 but Matt countered with a 7.3. They were virtually tied after 2 waves a piece with Rob slightly leading with a score of 10.93 to Matts 10.73. The high tide definitely slowed the scoring potential down a bit from earlier in the day.

The wave artist known as Rob Kelly gets technical with this backside, rock n’ roll floater. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

Then a perfect head high wave popped up and Rob put the hammer down with a 8.37 and Matt could not answer with any of his remaining waves. The God Father prevailed with a score of 15.30 to 12.3 and his 2nd Grudge Match title. We have now entered the Rob Kelly era of  The Grudge. He has the momentum and I think he will have a few more belts around his waist in the upcoming years. – Rob Cloupe –

Yeah, yeah, yeah…. he may literally be a “Greybeard” but second place finisher – 20 years removed from his only Grudge Match belt himself – Matt Keenan is still getting it done at a super high level and there is no shame losing to the young ripper you’ve helped mentor since gromhood. In fact we’d take that as a supreme compliment. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

One of the most talented groms from the East Coast, Cruz Di Nofa’s is captured with this one-two sequential punch during his pre-heat warm-up. Photo: Craig Nordberg

Ian Block knocking the top off of this windswept gem. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

Something you don’t see too often is Mike Gleason. above the lip instead of tunneling deep under it. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

Cole Deveney lacerating the lip line. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

Recent New Jersey Surfing Hall Of Fame inductee Randy Townsend shows why he’s the legend he is with this backside tube finess. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

Jamie Moran. Photo: Craig Nordberg @njsurfpix

Seaside Pier shining for the 2023 Garden State Grudge Match. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1

Ethan Dunn deftly ducks into one. Photo: Bruce Chrisner @brucechrisner1