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The Toughest Sport on Dirt: Pro Bull Riding at the Garden

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

Photo: Alex Cardozo rides War Dress in the final round. Photo by Sam Basel

Hours after RJ Barrett hit his game winner over the Celtics, Madison Square Garden began it's transformation. While this has been commonplace at the Garden for decades, it wasn't a sheet of ice that replaced the hardwood this weekend, but instead a bed of dirt. For two days in January, the center of Manhattan became a rodeo ground for the second event of the 2022 Unleash the Beast tour, the premier circuit of the Professional Bull Riders.

Spending two days at the tournament, I was able to get an inside look at what goes into being a professional bull rider, and what makes bull riding the most dangerous sport on dirt.

Friday-Qualifying Round 1

A lot of the beauty in bull riding comes from it's simplicity. With one hand on the rope, and one hand in the air for stability, all a rider needs to get a score is stay on the bull for eight seconds. Riders are scored out of 50 for their performance, and the bull they ride is scored out of 50 for how hard it bucks the rider. By combining these scores, the judges are able to determine a rider's ability in relation to the difficulty a bull presents.

Outside of the numbers, the rest of the sport's appeal comes from what each rider brings to the competition through both their personality and style on the bull. You've got guys like Ezekiel Mitchell, who capped his 84 point performance with his signature dougie. There are the veterans, such as Brazil's Joao Ricardo Vieira, whose steel composure (sans helmet by the way) on Just Denim makes you forget that he's still one of the best at 38 years old. In New York, far from the heart of rodeo country, there are even the home state heroes, such as Daylon Swearingen. Despite lasting less than four seconds on Harvester of Sorrow, Swearingen received large bursts of applause whenever he entered the chute.

Of course, no matter what your style is, the only thing that can get you into the final round is a great ride. In Round One of qualifying, there were plenty of rides that earned both a high score and, more importantly, major props from the crowd. Mason Taylor, riding with a jaw wired shut, achieved the first big ride of the night when he earned the first ever eight seconds on Catfish, permanently reducing the bull's perfect career knockoff percentage. Taylor's ride earned him a stunning 89.5, putting him on top of the leaderboard until Cooper Davis conquered American Gangster for the only 90-point performance of the night.

Two years after fracturing his neck at the Garden, Davis' Friday ride was enough to crown him the winner of Round One. Davis was very happy to have such a strong performance in New York, and gave plenty of credit to American Gangster for contributing to that high score.

" He’s a lot bigger than most of the bulls here," Davis explained. "The dirt's a little deeper than most of the places we go to, so we were able to handle it really well. I’m really satisfied with how my performance went today, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow."

With just a half point lead over Mason Taylor, Davis was well aware of how laser-focused one has to be to achieve a top ride. Even with his 90-point performance, there was no time in the weekend for Davis to get complacent.

"The thing with bull riding is that no matter how you come out the first day, the second day is all that matters," Davis said. "You don’t have any control over the draw, so you really just have to ride whatever is underneath you."

Day 2-Qualifying Round 2 and the Final 12

In order to advance to the championship round, riders needed to have one of the 12 best combined scores from their Friday and Saturday rides. With such slim margins separating the top 15 or so riders, the second round of qualifying was bound to be the most intense round of the entire weekend.

To no surprise, most of the big dogs came out of the chute strong. Austin Richardson scored an 88 on Facetious, Vieira once again wowed with his second straight 85.5, and young up-and-comer Kyler Oliver shot from the middle of the pack all the way towards the top with 89.75 on Outlaw. Despite getting knocked off in Round 2, Cooper Davis and Mason Taylor were able to sneak into the final 12 with their strong round one scores. However, after his buckoff, Davis sustained a sprain to his pelvis, forcing him out of the competition and allowing Eduardo Aparecido to slide into the finale.

In the final round, the top 12 riders drafted from a selection of the toughest bulls to ride. Adding an extra layer of strategy, riders looked for not only the most aggressive bulls, but also the bull that would best suit their skillset. Even with the advantage of picking your ride, these final 12 bulls were no doubt the toughest of the whole competition, as only three riders were able to last a full eight seconds.

Those razor thin margins came into play one final time, as Kyler Oliver completed his late weekend climb all the way to the top, beating out Joao Ricardo Vieira's 90.5 final ride with a 91, the highest scoring performance of the event. Following his first event win on the senior tour, Oliver described both the physical and mental battles he fights when riding.

"When they get you out of position, you gotta get back in the physical fight," Oliver explained. "But it’s also a mental fight. You gotta know that you’re gonna win and know that you’re gonna ride before you even step on that bull. You gotta convince yourself and you gotta fully believe that."

Despite a cash prize of 83,000 dollars, and a trophy modeled after the Charging Bull statue on Wall Street, Oliver explained that winning a PBR event carried a much bigger prize; conquering your fears, and earning the title of cowboy.

"All my heroes growing up were cowboys and bull riders, so I wanted to leave my name on that and carry on the tradition," Oliver said. "The danger, the money doesn’t really matter. It’s about conquering your fears, turning butterflies into dragons, and beating yourself."

What's Next?

For the riders on the Unleash the Beast tour, their season will continue on a weekly basis until the World Finals in May. After that, however, the PBR will launch their newest promotion known as PBR Teams. This new format will consist of 8 teams representing cities around the country competing in a head-to-head format. The eight teams, largely based in the Southeast, revealed their names and logos, with the Austin Gamblers earning the first pick in the inaugural Draft Lottery. The league will draft their teams on May 23rd.

According to PBR Commissioner and CEO Sean Gleason, this new venture will bring in a wave of new fans who can follow their city's team, as well as help increase the annual prize winnings of riders in the promotion.

"This teams opportunity, for 50 to 60 bull riders around the world is going to, at a minimum, double their income in opportunity in a calendar year," Gleason said. "For a bull rider that is a huge change. They still don’t make enough money, but this is the foundation that I think is going to help those bull riders truly have the professional career and recognition they deserve."

The first eight teams will consist of the following:

-Arizona Ridge Riders

-Austin Gamblers

-Carolina Chaos

-Kansas City Outlaws

-Missouri Thunder

-Nashville Stampede

-Oklahoma Freedom

-Texas Rattlers

The series will consist of 8 regular season events in each of the team's home cities, concluding in a championship in Las Vegas in November.


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