Billed as one of the most dangerous sports on Earth, Professional Bull Riding has consistently ranked the highest in injury rates amongst it's athletes. In a 2011 study from the University of Calgary, catastrophic injuries amongst professional bull riders were nearly twenty times as common compared to those seen in the NFL.
However, while the NFL has taken (incremental) strides in that ten-year timespan to improve player health and safety, the PBR seems to have doubled down on violence being a major selling point. PBR's own YouTube channel features a two-minute video of riders describing their most horrific injuries, played over a fanfare designed to induce a feeling of badassness.
For some skeptic viewers, this video may leave them confused and even repulsed; what could make someone want to ride a 2,000 pound death trap for a living?
For Ezekiel Mitchell, the answer is simple; the threat of injury, or even death, on a ride gone wrong pales in comparison to the euphoria of a near-perfect ride.
"It's hard to explain what [a good ride] actually feels like, and what makes it click for us bull riders," Ezekiel said over the phone on Wednesday. "It's like hearing your favorite song for the first time, while eating your favorite food and sitting in your favorite chair. It's something that gives you real joy."
That real joy, which lasts for a maximum of eight seconds on a given ride, can only be achieved after years of hard work. For riders like Mitchell, perfecting the craft of bull riding comes down to perfecting the relationship between man and beast. Among other things, one of the most unique aspects of Pro Bull Riding in comparison to other sports is that the bull is a competitor alongside the rider. In order to achieve a perfect ride, both rider and bull must work in tandem to produce an exciting show for both the fans and the judges.
According to Mitchell, perfecting this dance between himself and the bull comes down to muscle memory. If you're actively thinking about your next move once that chute opens, it's highly likely that you'll end up in the air and on the dirt relatively quickly. With this incredibly slim margin for error, Mitchell prioritizes working in tandem with the bull, rather than against it, in order to last the full eight seconds.
"It's [about] being able to control chaos, and to be able to match wits with these animals that are much bigger than me," Mitchell explains, describing the bulls in a very human-like manner. "They're smart, and they're athletic. I just think they're amazing animals."
While Mitchell has had plenty of time to refine his craft in his third full PBR season, the work of breaking into the sport was tenuous, and done mostly on his own. Growing up in Rockdale, Texas, Mitchell first learned how to ride bulls from YouTube tutorials. For practice, he would string up a 55-gallon barrel between two trees as makeshift mechanical bull. Without as many resources as other young riders, Mitchell spent a lot of time putting himself out there in the early years.
"It's a good thing I have a good personality, because this sport is definitely about access and connections," Mitchell explains. "It was always about trying to make opportunities available for myself. It definitely was something I had to work through, and I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at. The only thing that could make me happier is if I was in the number one spot like I’m supposed to be.”
Aside from the opportunities he made for himself, Mitchell also cites riders like John Ash as major mentors, constantly pushing him to be the best rider and person he could possibly be.
Now, in 2021, Mitchell is one of the most exciting young riders in the history of the PBR, consistently billed as one of the top "Young Guns." While the euphoria of earning a spot in the PBR is still fresh for Mitchell, he understands that he can't be an up-and-comer forever. In order to cement his place in the PBR, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially during a season where there have been more lows than highs.
“This year has been a struggle for me mentally and physically, and I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I need to achieve the goals that I’ve put in place for myself," Mitchell explains, "I feel like I have a long way to go and a short time to get there, so it’s time for me to kick things into high gear.”
Along with building his own legacy, Mitchell has made a point throughout his career to help rebuild the legacy of the black cowboy, as well as become the first African-American World Champion since Charles Sampson 1982. According to Mitchell, achieving this goal would continue to pave the way for countless other riders in the sport, helping bring more attention to themselves and Professional Bull Riding as a whole.
"It's very important, and more so for the fact that I can show a whole new part of our culture that not a lot of African-Americans know about, and the rest of America doesn’t know about," Mitchell said. " It shows that there’s so much more to the human race than what meets the eye sometimes, and you can do great things without having to fit a stigma or basic stereotype in a sport or an industry.”
Luckily for Mitchell, Charles Sampson has joined him in his journey, frequently a part of Mitchell's corner as he tours around the country with the PBR. Mitchell says that in his various conversations with Sampson, the ProRodeo Hall of Famer has reiterated a very clear opinion.
"[He said] that I'm a champion, I have to start thinking like a champion, and that I have to feel like a champion."
In order to truly feel like a champion, Mitchell must win his first championship. Heading into this weekend's buckoff in Newark, Mitchell sits at 31st in the standings, one spot below the cutoff for the 2021 World Finals. Despite being in the hot seat this late in the season, Mitchell seemed relatively level-headed in regards to his situation. In terms of the season, leading up to this point, Mitchell admitted that he was below his current target, due in large part to injury.
"This year has not been a year I really like to write home about. I’ve been dealing with some smaller injuries this year, a few hindrances I haven’t dealt with before," Mitchell laments. "I’m learning a lot about myself and learning to push forward. You have to have a short term memory in this sport when bad things come."
Despite the setbacks, Zeke immediately flipped his situation into a positive, as his short term memory set the tone for his rides this weekend, and his self-appointed rides in the 2021 World Finals.
"I just have to get back to doing the things I know I’m capable of. Whenever that happens, we’ll see that number jump from 31st all the way up," Mitchell declared. "We’re not worried about making or not making the finals, because in my head, that’s a guarantee.”
Ezekiel Mitchell, along with 39 other World-Class riders, will ride in this weekend's ZipRecruiter Invitational at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The entire event will be available on PBR Ride Pass, while the Championship Round on Sunday will be aired on CBS Sports Network.