LAS VEGAS ― And just like that the top contenders in the world standings have reached the midway point of what is considered the most grueling, presser-filled week in professional bull riding.
Friday night marks the third of six rounds of the beginning of the final weekend of a 10-month long journey to crown a World Champion.
Will it be J.B. Mauney, who just last night claimed the No. 1 spot in the world standings by just 30.75 points?
Will it be two-time defending World Champion Silvano Alves, who's held the top spot in the standings following 16 of 26 Built Ford Tough Series events throughout the regular season and is attempting to accomplish the unthinkable by winning a third consecutive world title in only his fourth season in the U.S.?
Or will either bobble slightly, opening the door for Joao Ricardo Vieira and Guilherme Marchi?
However this weekend plays out, this year's gold buckle and the $1 million bonus that comes with it won't be decided until Sunday afternoon.
"Don't try to put it all together," said Adriano Moraes, who was one of four former World Champions to discuss pressure and strategy when it comes to the final rounds of a season in which only one of the contenders will actually accomplish his goal. "We're still ― as you said, halfway through it ― (there are) too many bulls left, so just focus on one bull at a time and that's the gameplan for the Finals."
"For me, knowing it was the final weekend and I was getting down the final stretch, it was actually more of a relief than anything," said Kody Lostroh. For me, it was relaxing coming into the final weekend.
"I can totally understand the flip side of that, where guys would pressure up."
The relief was in knowing that regardless of the outcome, like the fans sitting on the edge of their seats, it was about to be over and everyone would finally know the outcome.
Lostroh beat out Mauney in 2009, despite Mauney becoming the first and only rider in PBR history to go 8-for-8 at the World Finals, and said the key was putting everything out of his mind except the matchup between himself and his next bull. Lostroh defeated Mauney by only 594 points, which to this day is the closest margin of victory in the 20-year history of the PBR.
Staying focused and winning was about staying relaxed.
He added that other successful riders will agree you can't think about money or points.
"What separates them are the guys who can mentally handle winning and mentally handle doing bad one night," said two-time World Champion Justin McBride, who retired following the 2008 season only to announce this past Wednesday that five years later he's returning to the sport for one day and a chance to win a $1 million bonus at RFD-TV's THE AMERICAN. "You can't do great one night and then go, 'Ha, I got it now.' You have to show up the next day just as prepared.
"The same way if you do bad. You can't let that spiral out of control. Fix the problem right there and move on to the next night."
Michael Gaffney, a PBR co-founder and 1997 champion, agreed.
Gaffney explained it's important for not only Mauney and Alves, but all 35 of the top riders to "remind yourself why you're here and that's because you love to ride bulls. Just ride your bulls and the rest will come. It's true and it's no more difficult than that. It just depends on what we put in our minds."
"For me, the simpler I kept it the better I rode," said Lostroh.
Moraes, who won the first-ever PBR title in 1994 and claimed an all-time record of three gold buckles (2001, 2006) by the time he retired along with McBride five years ago this weekend, said riders cannot pay attention to the average or worry about points. They need only focus on one bull at a time.
Obviously that's easier said than done.
Nevertheless, it's what many believe they're supposed to say when asked, but with the pressure mounting and the glare of international television cameras standing by it inevitably becomes increasingly more difficult with each passing round.
"But if it's in the middle of the event, it's not that bad," Moraes said. "Sunday is the hardest day to control."
That said Gaffney admitted it's impossible not to know these are the final bulls of the season, that ultimate success depends on making the whistle and that, at this point, you do not want to relinquish control.
Nevertheless, he further added if a rider knows it's his turn and he's healthy, there's not a better feeling in the world. However, if things are not going his way it can just as quickly go from bad to worse.
Gaffney explained that prior to winning his world title it felt like he was interviewed thousands of times leading up to the win. Each time, he thought, "whatever," and as soon as the conversation was over with it was forgotten about.
He simply knew it was his time to shine. He felt like he was in the much-talked "zone" and didn't get worked up or stressed out over any one particular question being asked of him.
There was a maturity he had then that he now sees in both Mauney, 26, and Alves, 25.
The next three days are what separates contenders from pretenders.
No on qualifies for the World Finals by accident. All 35 riders are physically capable of riding the rankest bulls in the world. Not all 35 are mentally equipped to deal with what it takes to win a world title.
"One thing about our business," Gaffney said, "it's the school of hard knocks and there are going to be knocks and even more knocks, so if you want to do it and do it for a living, that's just something you've got to learn to overcome."
McBride added, "I've been here and had everything go right and I've been here and had everything go wrong when you're in the middle of a World Championship race. That's where you see Champions rise to the occasion."
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