A decade ago a young relatively unknown bull rider came to Las Vegas for the Professional Bull Riders’ (PBR) Built Ford Tough World Finals; by the end of the week, he had stunned the world, upsetting the PBR’s two-time World Champion Adriano Moraes to walk away as the 2004 PBR World Champ.
In 2014 Mike Lee is no longer unknown. A veteran of thirteen years in the PBR, Lee has proven himself year in and year out on tour. He has not been in the thick of a title chase in several years . . . until now.
The 2014 race for the PBR’s World title, and the $1 million bonus that goes along with it, is shaping up as one for the ages. With three regular season events left, only 562 points (less than what can be earned in a single event) separate the tour’s top five riders.
Lee is right in the middle of that pack, ranked third after claiming his second event win of the second half of this wild 2014 season. After winning the PBR’s first outdoor event of the year in Thackerville in August, Lee made it a perfect two-for-two in outdoor stops on the PBR’s Built Ford Tough Series (BFTS) by winning Laughlin, Nevada’s Desert Showdown presented by Cooper Tires Sept. 19-20.
Lee earned 253.75 points in three rides in the southern Nevada town, besting Tanner Byrne for the win by 13 points. Byrne is making his first appearance since an injury temporarily derailed his bid for the Rookie of the Year title and was the only rider besides Lee to cover all three bulls in the Nevada heat.
Lee was the first rider on opening night and his 86.5 point ride on Flint (Dakota Rodeo/Chad Berger/Dallas Schott/Clay Struve) held up through 34 more rides for the round win. Though he came down early off I’m A Gangster Too in the 15/15 Bucking Battle later that night, Lee returned with a solid out in round two aboard Doctor Wishes (JARS Bucking Bulls/Gene Owen) worth 80 points.
Entering the Championship Round, Matt Triplett led the event followed by Neil Holmes, a Texas rider making his BFTS debut. Brazilian Marco Eguchi was third with Lee ranked fourth.
At each BFTS event, riders draft, or choose, their bulls for the Championship Round based upon their ranking entering the final round. With the fourth choice, Lee chose Meat Hook, a bull with whom he has a long history.
Lee has ridden the bull twice before, scoring 90.25 points to win the event in Biloxi (MS) in 2013.
“I don’t want to be a hero, I just want to win,” Lee later told the crowd in Laughlin of his draft choices. “I pick the bull I want. I study them and certain bulls fit me and certain bulls don’t.”
The strategy proved perfect in the desert. After Stetson Lawrence posted 85.75 points on Hard Times (Dakota Rodeo/Chad Berger/Clay Struve), Byrne made eight aboard White Lie (Summit Pro Rodeo/Greg Talbert), earning 83.75 points. Lawrence came into the round with only one bull ridden so Byrne was the leader as the only rider to be perfect as Lee pulled his rope.
Once again matching up well with Meat Hook, Lee easily made the whistle, earning 87.25 points, enough for the lead with three riders remaining.
Eguchi came down early on Western Hauler (Jeff Robinson/Bar 3D Bucking Bulls) and Holmes lost the battle with Cowtown Slinger (Dakota Rodeo/Chad Berger/Clay Struve). When Triplett appeared the make the eight second mark on Compact (Summit Pro Rodeo/Greg Talbert), it looked like Triplett would win the event and break his streak of 13 straight buck-offs in the Championship Rounds in 2014.
However, officials called for a review and the replay showed that Triplett had disqualified at 7.99 seconds, a heart breaking one one-hundredth from the event victory.
Ranked fifth when the weekend began, Lee vaulted over two-time World Champion Silvano Alves and 2008 World Champ Guilherme Marchi and into third place.
The title race is painfully close: leader Joao Ricardo Vieira leads Fabiano Vieira by just less than 90 points. Lee is third by 357.19 points with Marchi and Alves following. Even Triplett must be in the conversation, ranked sixth and just about 1,900 points behind.
Points are earned equivalent to riders’ scores plus bonus points earned for being among the top ten in go rounds or the average at each event. There are three regular season events left on the schedule: Oakland (CA), Biloxi (MS) and Allentown (PA) along with a special 15/15 Bucking Battle at Huntington Beach (CA) the weekend prior to the World Finals.
The Built Ford Tough World Finals is Oct. 22-26, 2014 and is worth a staggering 5,500 points. On that number alone, the top 32 riders are still mathematically alive and just 35 will qualify to compete in Las Vegas.
Lee has the momentum behind him for the moment, though that seems to swing from one week to the next. With two wins in a month, Lee is the only rider in the top seven to win an event since the summer hiatus ended in mid-August though Alves and Ricardo Vieira both have a second.
“There is a title race and blah blah blah, but when it comes down to it you have to get on this bull tonight and that is what it comes down to,” Lee told PBR.com. “I don’t think I really think about it. I guess I do every once in a while. I just think it would be really cool if I did win it. I think I have a good chance. We all have a good chance.”
The race remains tight because no single rider seems to be able to maintain a high level of riding. Lee and Triplett had the hottest hands in Laughlin but each of the others have had moments as the season winds down.
Ricardo Vieira rode just one of three bulls in Laughlin, eking out a seventh place finish; he won two events in three weeks back in February and March but his best finish since summer was a second in Thackerville.
Vieira is battling an unstable right shoulder, his free arm when he competes. He is forced to ride with the arm taped down during his competition for fear the shoulder will fall out. He made one qualified ride in the opening round but earned just 51.25 points after his bull failed to perform. Understandably, he turned down the re-ride option.
He made the whistle in the 15/15 Bucking Battle against Fire & Smoke (Dakota Rodeo/Chad Berger/Clay Struve/Julie Rosen), winning second and briefly taking the World standings lead. However, the effort seemed to take its toll on the second day, as he lasted only a few seconds aboard Lil Lanch in the second round, failing to qualify for the Championshp Round.
Despite the injury, Vieira finished 13th in Thackerville, fourth in Nashville and ninth in Springfield last week. However, fans have to wonder how the Brazilian will fare at the World Finals with six rounds in five days against the toughest pool of bulls in the PBR.
Like Vieira, Marchi is battling injuries which have derailed what had been an incredible season thus far. He sprained his right knee in the first event following the break in Tulsa and has had two top ten finishes (Thackerville and Nashville) since the re-aggravation of the injury.
Alves appears as healthy as possible at this point in the long season and seemed back on track two weeks ago in Nashville when he earned 92.25 points on Rango (Jeff Robinson) to win the Championship Round and finish second in the event. However, he failed to get a qualified ride in Springfield last week and rode two of three, but both for low scores after receiving re-rides which he turned down, in Laughlin. He finished eighth in the event average for a small amount of bonus points.
The Salem National Lease High Marked Bull of the Event was Roy, a half brother to two-time World Champion Bucking Bull Bushwacker, also owned by Julio Moreno Bucking Bulls. Roy earned 45.75 points in bucking off Cody Nance in the Championship Round in impressive fashion.
The title race continues next week as the BFTS visits Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, on Sept. 26-27, for the Kawasaki Strong Battle at the Bay. The event begins at 8 p.m. PT on Friday and 7 p.m. on Saturday. For the second straight week, Bushwacker will appear as the Bad Boy Mowers Bonus Bull, taking on the winner of the event on Saturday, this time for $50,000. Bushwacker will appear just four more times before retiring following the end of the PBR World Finals on Oct. 26, 2014.
The Kawasaki Strong Battle at the Bay will be streamed via PBR LIVE at pbr.com/live at 11 p.m. ET on Friday, and 10 p.m. ET on Saturday. The final rounds, including Bushwacker’s performance will air on CBS Television Network on Sunday, Sept. 28, at 3 p.m. ET.