LAS VEGAS – The next five days and six rounds of bull riding action at the Built Ford Tough World Finals will test the physical and mental strength of the toughest bull riders in the world.
It will be an especially grueling process for the Top 5 riders in the world standings – Joao Ricardo Vieira, Fabiano Vieira, Silvano Alves, Guilherme Marchi and Mike Lee – as they will compete for the PBR’s most prestigious belt buckle, along with a $1 million World Championship bonus, starting with Round 1 on Wednesday night inside UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.
Yet, World Champions Marchi (2008) and Lee (2004) begin the week on the outside looking in at a potential second career world title. Both riders trail world leader Joao Ricardo Vieira by more than 1,000 points and will likely need to win the World Finals event title to leapfrog the rest of this year’s contenders.
“The average is 2,500 points and that can change everything too,” Marchi said during a pre-World Finals TV meeting with CBS Sports Network broadcasters Ty Murray, Craig Hummer and Leah Garcia. “I am going to work hard to win the average and a couple of rounds.”
Marchi, 32, and Lee, 31, have spent their careers evolving from championship-thirsty young riders into grizzled and experienced veteran bull riders. They have nearly 1,000 combined rides on the Built Ford Tough Series, have nodded their heads more than 1,800 times and have both won the World Finals event average. The two have felt the pain in their legs and knees all season long as Father Time has tried to convince them that they could not pull off another championship run.
This week, they will begin World Finals with their backs against the wall and the odds not in their favor. Marchi is ranked fourth in the world standings and trails the world lead by 1,019.19 points and Lee is in fifth place and 1,433.44 points off the pace.
Marchi has lost the championship mojo he demonstrated when he sat atop the world standings. He has struggled with a right knee injury since Last Cowboy Standing and he has admitted that his confidence has wavered some during a second half in which Joao Ricardo Vieira snatched the No. 1 spot from him in Springfield, Missouri.
However, Marchi has appeared rejuvenated with the return of his good friend Robson Palermo to the BFTS two weeks ago and he has lost 10 pounds during the second half in hopes of being leaner for the World Finals. He also added that his knee is no longer an issue.
Marchi was playful on Tuesday in his demeanor, while also being very honest when it came to where he is at in his career.
“I feel like today, this week, this year everybody is not riding good,” Marchi said in a response to a question from Murray. “Everybody is not 100 percent. Remember the year I won, I rode 75 percent of my bulls and today I ride 48 percent. That is not a good percentage for this kind of sport. Nobody has ridden good this year, but I feel good. I feel am happy to be here, but it is different than five years ago.”
The prime example of Marchi’s honesty came when asked if he felt he was struggling to ride bulls away from his hand compared to earlier in his career.
“That is true,” Marchi said. “I remember when I come to the United States I ride better away from my hand. In my career, I have rode 500-plus bulls and I don’t think I just rode only 500 bulls into my hand. I can do it away from my hand, too. The problem is that when the bulls come away from my hand – I put my rope way down and that is my style – but those bulls right now have more kick, more power. Maybe I try to hard and sit too much.”
Marchi admits that he does not have many years remaining, and he may have to dive into his past form if he hopes to win a second career gold buckle this week. In 2005, he won the World Finals event average and he has posted a Top-10 finish in eight of the last 10 World Finals.
Ten years ago, Lee put forth one of the most dramatic comebacks in PBR history with a 4,500-point swing to win his first world title with a stunning 7-for-8 performance in Las Vegas, which was highlighted by a 93.75-point ride aboard Mossy Oak Mudslinger in the championship round.
Lee, who has only finished in the Top 10 of the Finals event average three times since winning it all, admitted Tuesday that he was quite naive in 2004 at 21 years old. He didn’t expect that he was going to be able to catch Adriano Moraes from the sixth position in the world standings and he tried to keep to himself and got ready inside the bullfighters locker room.
“I probably wasn’t thinking about (winning a world title),” Lee said. “Everything is quite different when you are 21 years old. I was in the bullfighters’ locker room and they couldn’t find me. I remember seeing a lot of cameras and stuff, but it just seemed like it was on everybody else. It may have been on me, but I was just focused.”
A lot still has to be decided between now and Sunday afternoon, but Lee already has his plan set for 2015 even if he comes up a little short in 2014.
“If I don’t win it this year, I will probably be back fighting for it next year,” Lee said. “I really believe I can ride until I am 40.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.
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