By: Justin Felisko
PUEBLO, Colo. – Joao Ricardo Vieira sees a different bull rider than the one that he was looking at in the mirror inside his hotel room at the M&M Grand Hotel & Casino six years ago.
The No. 1 bull rider in the world at the start of the 2014 PBR World Finals was putting this internal pressure on himself to “prove he belonged” alongside the greatest bull riders in the world and had the chops to win a World Championship.
Vieira could control his destiny and win the 2014 World Championship with a good showing at the PBR World Finals that week inside the Thomas & Mack Center, but two-time World Champion Silvano Alves was gaining ground on him, and defending World Champion J.B. Mauney was also a favorite.
There was some doubt staring back at him in the mirror.
“In ’13 and ’14, my mindset was, ‘I need to ride. I need to focus,’” Vieira, the No. 2-ranked bull rider in the world, reflected this week from his ranch in Decatur, Texas. “This was not good. Now I don’t look at the World Championship like this.”
Vieira went 2-for-6 at the 2014 Finals, and Alves would go 6-for-6 to cap off his record-tying third world title and win the World Finals. In hindsight, Vieira says he let the notion of proving himself get the best of him.
In 2015, Vieira was unable to finish the march toward a gold buckle after winning the first two PBR Majors of the season. He would ultimately finish third in the world title race, ceding way Mauney and a rookie by the name of Kaique Pacheco.
The past is the past, and Vieira says he is now a different bull rider. The differences are more than just the gray hairs that are sprinkled throughout his black beard these days, too, and stem beyond the improvements he has made at riding bulls away from his hand.
“I don’t see that I have to prove anything to people anymore,” Vieira said. “Now I see a man in the mirror with a bonus. If I can go and win the world title, this is good. If I go and don’t win, it is the same. If this World Championship happens, I would be so, so happy. I like this and I have worked for this. I only look forward. I don’t look back in time. I see a No. 1 or a No. 2 in my future.”
Vieira has called 2020 a “bonus year” for a variety of reasons this season, but primarily because he knows many, including ol’ Father Time, would not have expected him to be in the running for a world title heading into the 2020 PBR World Finals on Nov. 12-15 in Arlington, Texas.
Even after Vieira won the season-opening PBR Major in New York City, not many were counting on a 36-year-old veteran to be in the mix for the 2020 world title. Bull riding is supposed to be a young man’s game, unless, of course, you are a 36-year-old Adriano Moraes (2006 World Champion).
The generation of Jose Vitor Leme, Jess Lockwood, Chase Outlaw and Pacheco were the preseason favorites this year.
2020 was supposed to be a season of Leme vs. Lockwood, and for the most part that has remained the case even with COVID-19 and Lockwood’s torn left hamstring adding wrinkles to the narrative.
Yet there was Vieira, ending the regular season of the Unleash The Beast last weekend in Nampa, Idaho, on top of the shark cage with his first event win since he left New York City atop the world standings. The No. 2-ranked bull rider in the world is aware that some will still say he is a longshot to usurp Leme and his historic season. Vieira understands this too, and he has the utmost respect for Leme and how talented the 24-year-old has become in only three years since he stunningly won the 2017 PBR World Finals in his American premier series debut.
Vieira has even studied video of Leme’s improvement riding bulls away from his hand this season so that maybe he too could continue to make his own improvements.
Regardless, Vieira has the best opportunity of any rider to try to erase Leme’s historic season with a stunning comeback of his own at AT&T Stadium – a venue, of course, where Vieira has six event wins since 2014.
He is embracing the challenge with his fan-friendly smile, an open mind and no weight on his shoulders.
“Yeah, I feel this is more realistic now,” Vieira said of his World Championship chances. “Not just to me, but for more of the riders. The Finals has many points. You have one good weekend and you can be a World Champion. Get good bulls and ride good. Me, Jose, Kaique – if you don’t ride good, the other guys can ride good and be a World Champion, too.”
Vieira understands he is still 459.09 points behind Leme, but he also knows the World Finals event winner earns 560 world points, and that does not include all of the world points he can win via round finishes.
“I hear a lot of guys say, ‘Jose is the World Champion because he has a lot of points ahead of No. 2 and No. 3.’ But the World Finals has a lot of points,” Vieira said.
“The game is not over.”
The 2013 Rookie of the Year needed a victory to close the gap on Leme, and he got that crucial win inside the Ford Idaho Center by riding Sky Harbor for 91 points – Vieira’s second-best ride of the season.
“This weekend is good points. It is so important,” Vieira said. “This gives me confidence and more focus for Finals. Three weeks I don’t get any good luck in the draw, this week was the same. I get two bulls (in the long round) that go to the right. The first bull gave me a re-ride, and the second bull on the first day was more strong to the right, but I needed this to ride good.”
Vieira gained 104 points on Leme in Nampa to shorten the gap between the top two riders in the world.
Vieira understands how great of a bull rider and challenger Leme will be.
“Jose is focused on the World Championship,” Vieira said. “The last two events he has not rode good, but it will not be a surprise if he rides good at the Finals. He is a talent. He is very consistent.”
Vieira, though, knows far too well that nothing is final until that gold buckle is handed over to the World Champion at the World Finals. He saw his own lead disappear in 2014. He remembers Derek Kolbaba winning five regular season events in 2017 before Lockwood won three consecutive rounds at the World Finals to snatch the world title. Then there was Lockwood just last year, storming back ahead of Leme at the World Finals after Leme seemingly put a stranglehold on the world title with a victory at the 2019 Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour Finals.
Anything can happen under the bright lights of AT&T Stadium.
Vieira says this not just about his own chances, but for Leme and the other riders within 1,000 points of the No. 1 ranking.
Vieira truly believes anything can happen at the World Finals.
“I told this to the guys,” Vieira continued. “There are a lot of points at the Finals. You have to ride. If (Jose) goes to the Finals and does not ride good, he will not be the World Champion. We all must ride to win.”
The next edition of the Vieira vs. Leme battle will take place in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at the 2020 Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour Finals on Nov. 6-7.
One rider can earn a maximum of 105 points toward the world standings, 60 of which would come from winning the event average. Those points could be crucial before the PBR heads south for its season-culminating event in Arlington, Texas.
Fans will not want to miss the event in person or on RidePass – the exclusive home of the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour.
Vieira, though, is mainly focusing on making sure he is not rusty for the World Finals, where the stakes are truly the greatest.
He is not going to worry so much about where he is in the standings or any points deficit because he knows that, no matter what happens in Sioux Falls, his chances of becoming the second oldest World Champion in PBR history will all come down to what happens in Texas.
“Sioux Falls will be good for practice before World Finals,” Vieira concluded. “I am going to Velocity Finals for practice bulls and for me to wake up for Arlington. I don’t see it as important for the points. This was not my plans this year to go to the Velocity Finals. If the Velocity Finals were closer to the Finals (as originally was the case in Las Vegas) then I was not going to the Velocity. Now there is a longer break between the two. I have four days off. Because of this, I go to the Velocity Finals.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
Photo courtesy of Andy Watson/Bull Stock Media
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