Riders Embrace Beginning Unleash The Beast: American Roots Edition in Sunny Ocala

By: Justin Felisko

OCALA, Fla. – In between the Courtyard by Marriott Ocala and the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion there are various gas stations, restaurants and fast-food chains. Plenty of them a PBR fan could come across in New York City when the PBR would normally be opening its season inside Madison Square Garden.

However, one thing that riders and fans would not see in New York on their walk down 8th Avenue to Madison Square Garden in past seasons would be a Sunoco gas station with five life-size, model race cars on the top of its roof.

But, let’s be honest, there were plenty of easier juxtapositions to the naked eye about the uniqueness of the PBR returning to its roots for the beginning of the 2021 season and the PBR Unleash The Beast: American Roots Edition.

New York’s concrete jungle is being replaced by palm trees dancing in the wind for the PBR Monster Energy Invitational in Ocala, Florida.

Instead of getting changed in the NHL visitor’s locker room at Madison Square Garden, PBR riders were getting ready to ride in pure throwback form inside the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion showroom. And finding a hot, slice of tasty pizza is still possible, but just not on every street corner.

Those sometimes January snowflakes and freezing temperatures are staying in the northeast this season. Many of the Top 30 bull riders in the world flew into Orlando International Airport and were greeted outside by temperatures in the 60s instead of the New York City skyline and the Empire State Building.

“As soon as we walked out of the airport, you got the palm trees waving, and everything, and I was like, ‘Yup we are definitely in Florida!’” two-time World Champion Jess Lockwood said when he walked into the rodeo grounds.

The temperature Saturday afternoon at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion was in the upper 50s, which led to 2016 World Champion joking he didn’t even pack properly.

“We are in Florida, and it is cold, so it is all the same to me,” Davis said with a laugh before finishing the first competition of the two-day event in second place. “I don’t know. I was thinking about wearing flip flops here and I had to wear a ski jacket.

“It is cool to have a change in pace and I am just happy to be somewhere.”

Davis and the other 29 riders competing at the PBR Monster Energy Invitational, the PBR’s first premier series season-opener to be held outdoors in league history, all expressed their gratitude to the city of Ocala for welcoming them to town for the beginning of the PBR’s 28th season.

It was not just the warm weather, fresh air and clear blue skies that made the first competition of the 2021 season feel that much cozier, but rather it was the raucousness of the Ocala faithful.

It did not take long for Ocala to show the PBR riders they would be giving them a warm welcome even before Marco Eguchi notched the first qualified ride of the 2021 season (85 points on Freakin Wicked).

The fans that showed up on Saturday were passionate, diehard PBR fans with vocal cords made for a season-opening event.

They whipped out their cameras and cell phones to make sure to record when future Ring of Honor inductee J.B. Mauney climbed into the bucking chutes.

This weekend is their moment to see a legendary bull rider begin his 16th season.

“I kind of like the outdoor deal,” Mauney said. “It takes you back to where it all started. We came to a lot of open bull ridings when I was 16, 17 years old down here. I have been down here a bunch. We would always go down to Florida, Georgia, all down through here. Whenever and wherever we could enter.

“This takes me back to when I was young. I like starting off in New York City because I always do pretty good there, but it don’t matter, this works too.”

2018 Rookie of the Year Keyshawn Whitehorse agreed that he was having memories of his childhood when he turned off old US Highway 301 and into the parking lot of the rodeo venue.

“I feel definitely back to my roots” he said. “Whenever I pulled up to park, I was like, ‘Well we are back to high school rodeoing, except it is not 8 a.m. I enjoy it. It is a cool event. It is definitely different than New York for sure.

“I am just glad to have the season to start back up and to see all my friends and buddies again.”

The PBR and its CEO/Commissioner Sean Gleason has continued to find ways to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and create opportunities for its riders, stock contractors, independent contractors, and staff to earn a living. Taking the premier series outdoors was the latest adjustment the league had to make since the pandemic first began to affect the league in March 2020.

2020 PBR World Champion Jose Vitor Leme never would have expected a PBR world title defense would begin outdoors in a covered, rodeo venue.

Regardless, that did not hide the smile that was behind his mask when he walked onto the dirt arena and was introduced as the reigning World Champion to the thrill of the crowd.

“It was still good to hear my name today,” Leme said with the help of Paulo Crimber translating. “It is not the tradition of being in New York, but we are thankful to be here. “Like the Finals is normally in Vegas, but it was in Texas last year. Not that this changes the importance or anything, but New York City is the biggest city in the world. I figured I would be starting my season there, getting a gold buckle there and that is the big moment.”

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