Hailing from Santa Barbara, California, Martinez barged onto the surf scene as a child prodigy. At age 13, he began claiming titles and storming podiums. Named WCT Rookie of the Year in 2006, he made history as the first Mexican American rider to qualify for the pro tour. Martinez won key competitions as one of the top professionals of the early 2000s. But in 2011, his career took an abrupt turn over a disagreement with a major surfing association. Staying true to his beliefs, Martinez retired from competition and pursued his career the way he sees fit – and that makes him an icon of the sport!
Learn what Martinez has to say about his career and the realities behind professional surfing in conversation with the two UNLEASHED podcast hosts, Australian action sports personality Luke “The Dingo” Trembath and professional snowboarder Danny Kass.
Growing up in coastal Santa Barbara, Martinez began surfing at the young age of six and was already competing at ten. Martinez entered amateur contests in the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) and won a record seven national titles. At the time, a pro career was just a distant dream, while the enjoyment of the sport was a paradigm to Martinez. “Kids these days, they grow up trying to be a pro surfer. When I was a kid, we were just surfing… and it steamrolled to where we got,” said Martinez on UNLEASHED.
When Martinez turned pro, he was the very first Mexican American athlete to qualify for the pro tour. But he puts the feat in perspective: “When you grow up in America, the Mexicans in Mexico act like you’re not Mexican. You’re an American in their eyes. I’m American, I grew up in America, I was born in America.”
But Martinez did carry the hopes of California’s surf scene on his back as the new surfer who would bring the World Championship back to the Golden State. After earning the title of WCT Rookie of the Year in 2006, Martinez emerged as a regular rider in the top spots, competing against heavy hitters like Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson, and Taj Burrow. “I was in surfing when it was prime time. When companies were big, making money. They were able to pay local surfers to make a paycheck. Because companies were thriving. It ain’t like that no more. The money, it’s crazy. Surfing’s a different world.”
At the height of his fame, Martinez caused a major upset in his sixth year competing on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP). In 2011, Martinez clashed with ASP officials about the league’s updated ranking system – and refused to back down. “They were trying to change the ranking system to a tennis format. And I was not about it. You just had all these surfers, who are the best, top guys and all these people who were big tennis fans that wanted surfing to be something bigger than what it was,” said Martinez on UNLEASHED. “They messed up their whole ratings, because they couldn’t get their points system right.”
Ultimately, the league reversed the changes – but Martinez was already removed from competitions. He also lost his surf company sponsors but pressed on with supporters like Monster Energy in his corner. “I thought I was done. All the surf companies hated me. I was lucky that I was still getting supported.”
Instead of the usual path, he pursued professional surfing by his own rules. Even today, Martinez is still a sponsored surfer who draws major attention in video appearances or public outings, although he refuses to get on social media. “I don’t know if I’m still relevant. But I know guys who decided to do things differently than me. And the minute the contests ended, they had to get a job right away. Because that’s just how their cards played out,” said Martinez on UNLEASHED.
As far as new trends in surfing play out, artificial wave pools are emerging as a new platform to bring surfing to the masses. But having experienced these facilities himself, Martinez speaks his mind on UNLEASHED: “I think it’s a horrible thing for the sport. Because we don’t surf in pools. We surf out in the ocean! The good waves are in the ocean… the real waves are in the ocean.”
Asked for a life truth about surfing, Martinez said: “The ocean always wins if it wants to. And if you aren’t paying attention. The ocean is a scary place.”