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Expectations of a Champion

PUEBLO, Colo. – When it comes to consistency in the PBR, it has been hard to look past the efforts of three-time World Champion Silvano Alves, since the Pilar Do Sul, Brazil, bull rider won the PBR Rookie of the Year title in 2010.

The 27-year-old led the Built Ford Tough Series with 50 rides and a riding average of 54.35 percent last year, and he has ridden 50 or more bulls in each of the past four seasons. He also has led the BFTS in qualified rides in each of the past four years.

For most of his career, Alves, who is entering his sixth season on the BFTS this January, has been able to ward off the internal and external pressures that come with being a defending World Champion, and compete at a championship-caliber year after year. He is the PBR’s only back-to-back World Champion and he nearly won three championships in a row, an effort that was thwarted by J.B. Mauney’s historic 2013 world-title run.

“Once you win the title, it is expected of you to win a title and I think a lot of guys get stuck on that mentally,” Alves said during the 2014 World Finals with the help of translator Miriaham Contreras. “You have to learn how to deal with winning or losing. You are either going to ride the bull, or you are going to buckoff. That is a given to everybody and you have to see it that way.”

Still, Alves was no stranger to higher expectations for being a World Champion and earlier in 2014, some began to question his struggles when he suffered a right shoulder injury and failed to post a Top-5 finish until four months into the season (Nampa, Idaho).

“Earlier this year, I fell and had a hard time for a while,” Alves said. “I didn’t worry about it because I knew that it was bound to happen. I just thank God I don’t get (severely) hurt.”

Many of the PBR’s World Champions understand that to be successful, they have to take it one bull at a time, but despite this belief, there can be struggles, at times, to remain on top of the world standings once a bull rider wins a Championship.

Prior to his 5-for-6 performance at the 2014 Built Ford Tough World Finals, Mauney was on pace for his worst season since his rookie campaign in 2006. The defending World Champion arrived in Las Vegas mired in a career-worst 0-for-12 slump and looked far from the man that lit the PBR on fire a year earlier.

After finally getting the monkey off his back when he rode More Big Bucks for 88 points in Round 1, Mauney admitted that a good portion of his struggles in 2014 stemmed from an internal amount of pressure he put on himself.

He wanted to prove that the 2013 gold buckle he won was no fluke.

“I put it on myself to do better, because here the goal I set out my entire life, I achieved it,” Mauney explained. “Well, once I achieved it, I was like, ‘Well, now I have to prove that I am a World Champion.’

“That was part of it. I was trying so hard to show that I deserved to be a World Champion and I was thinking too much and [stuff] wasn’t going right.”

Jerome Davis sees a lot of himself in Mauney. Davis remembers the pressure, the popularity and the internal demands he put on himself following his own 1995 PRCA bull riding championship.

“I can remember back then, and J.B. is kind of like I was,” Davis said. “You didn’t want that pressure. You just love riding bulls. We like the fans, but you don’t like walking out into a hallway with 200 people getting around you. You don’t think that shakes you, but you have to step up and be the Champion and sign every one of those autographs and be nice to everybody, while the other guy is back in his room relaxing and getting his mind set, while you are working twice as hard.”

2004 World Champion Mike Lee also felt the weight of expectations falling on his shoulders following his world title run as a young 21-year-old a decade ago.

“What it does is it changes your perspective of who you are and what you are,” Lee acknowledged. “A lot of times you start thinking you are more than what you are. Even though you are a great bull rider, you are still human. I put a lot of expectations on myself. I had a different image of myself and that image wasn’t the image that rode all of those bulls. You have to be the same person. You can’t change when you win the world. In your brain, it changes your vision of yourself. You think, ‘I am a Champion now. I need to do this, or I am expected to do that.’”

Lee competed in only nine events in 2005 due to shoulder surgery, before coming up short of his second world title in 2006 when he finished third in the world.

The Decatur, Texas, bull rider has yet to since finish any higher in the world standings and get any closer to winning his second world title. He did enter the 2014 World Finals with a fighter’s chance, before a shoulder injury limited his riding ability.

Before he won that first world title, Lee noted, he was viewed as just a good up-and-coming bull rider.

“I think people have higher expectations for you,” Lee added. “Before I won the world title, I was just that young kid that could ride pretty good. When you become a Champion, everybody is like, ‘OK, he is probably going to ride this bull. Oh, why did he fall off him, (and) why did he fall off him?’

Davis calls it “double pressure” for World Champions.

“No matter what it is, if you get thrown off one time, then everyone is looking at you and you are in a slump,” Davis said before chuckling. “Don’t let a World Champion hit the ground twice, then he is in a big slump, and he is not coming out. The stuff like that comes with that world title that you have to (ride with) that these other guys don’t have to ride with.”

2010 World Champion Renato Nunes has yet to conclude a season ranked inside the Top 5 of the world standings following his world title victory. In 2011, Nunes got hit by the injury bug and was only able to compete in 10 regular season events and the World Finals due to a fracture and ligament damage to his riding arm. He finished sixth in the world in 2012, 21st in 2013 and 19th in 2014.

Nunes said that expectations come from all sorts of directions once a rider claims the prestigious gold buckle.

“Everybody expects you (to do well),” he said. “Not just all the fans, but sponsorship expects you to do good, and if you don’t do it (you become frustrated). I try to put in my mind to just have fun and try to ride bulls and forget about money, fans and sponsorship. I just try to have fun. I try to put that in my mind, but there is a lot of pressure.”

Nunes said the pressure is especially hard when you are trying to ride as the defending World Champion, something 1997 World Champion Michael Gaffney agrees with.

“It is one thing to climb up to that top, but it is another to stay there,” Gaffney said. “The expectations may not be anything more than it was before, but the weight you put on yourself is just incredible.”

Gaffney continued to explain that part of those heightened expectations internally are what it means to be a professional athlete.

“Can you be comfortable with having a certain run of bad luck or a rut or a slump?” Gaffney asked. “That is the heart of a true Champion, to have those ups and downs and be able to put a lot of pressure on yourself and still achieve greatness. That is what separates the real champions and the real greats from the rest.”

2008 World Champion Guilherme Marchi was close to becoming the PBR’s first back-to-back World Champion in 2009 before concluding the season ranked third in the world. Marchi has been one of the most consistent riders in the PBR during his career and he has finished in the Top 10 of the world standings in each of the past five seasons, including three Top-5 finishes.

However, he has yet to lock down that second world title and finished 2014 eighth in the world standings after dominating the first half of the Built Ford Tough Series season.

Marchi says a lot of pressure comes from the television broadcasts. As one of the Brazilians with strong English, Marchi is often requested for interviews and comments throughout the season.

“The pressure exists because of all of the TVs, and you have won this event and you won the title,” Marchi said. “That is the hard thing.”

At World Finals this past year, Mauney was finally able to relax. He knew his title defense was coming to an end and the brunt of the external pressure from fans and media would be directed toward the other riders in contention.

Therefore, Mauney went back to what has helped him become one of the strongest riders in the PBR since winning the Rookie of the Year title in 2006.

He cleared his mind, didn’t worry about expectations and simply had fun again.

“It boils down to it don’t make a damn what happened last year,” Mauney said. “Whether you are the past World Champion, you have to ride for this year and go at it like you hadn’t won it ever before. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until right before the Finals, but next year we will go at it like I have never won it before.”

Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.

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