In some ways the gloves are off when it comes to the snowboard halfpipe showdown at the Winter Olympics.
In others, they’re very much still on.
Qualification for the men’s event gets underway at Bokwang Phoenix Park on Tuesday and while it is much more than a battle of three, it’s fair to say Australian Scotty James, American Shaun White and Japan’s Ayumu Hirano are the riders to watch.
James has come out swinging during the past two seasons, beating the sport’s $50 million man, White, at the 2017 X Games and Pyeongchang test event.
This season he’e been consistent without landing a knockout blow, finishing runner-up to White and his controversial “perfect” ride in Snowmass then to Ayumu at the X Games.
James is the only man to throw down a switch backside double cork 1260 – a trick with three-and-a-half rotations as well as a blind entry and landing.
And he feels he hasn’t been rewarded enough for it.
Leading with the chin, James last week calmly but pointedly pulled apart the judging in his sport.
“Not because of getting second place. I am not a sore loser,” James said. “I was just curious (as to why they gave Shaun the perfect 100 score). Personally, and I have spoken to a lot of other snowboarders, it’s pretty tough to get a perfect score. I didn’t agree with that at all.”
Dropping into the ‘pipe with his red boxing gloves, James certainly won’t be missed and will be joined by fellow Australians Kent Callister and Nate Johnstone.
White, meanwhile, has been on more of a charm offensive.
The greatest rider the world has ever seen was quick to praise James and Ayumu for their improvement and the difficulties they face with expectations in their own countries.
“I remember (James) being around but he wasn’t as passionate, as driven as he is today,” White said.
“Scotty has definitely hit a nice peak last season by winning a bunch of big events and now he’s making his way and we’ll see what happens at the Olympics.”
White was forced to take stock after a horrible accident in New Zealand last October where he split his forehead open on the halfpipe coping, receiving 62 stitches and getting blood removed from his lungs.
In Pyeongchang, he has spoken in humble tones about the incident.
Hirano, while not in possession of White’s “perfect” run, did log a 99 in beating James at the X Games.
Some have commented that the Japanese’s run was superior to what White did in Colorado.
A prodigy like his American idol, the Sochi silver medallist is still only 19 and looks to be at the top of his game.
The top 12 riders will move through to Wednesday’s final.