Man vs. beast, man vs. man the PBR has had it all and hyped it all this year, and it couldn't be going any better if they'd rigged it. Marchi, Mauney and Lostroh are on top and making a run for the Finals. Let's see how they got here and take a look at what could happen next.
The first well-hyped creation of the PBR marketing machine in 2009 was an event pitting reigning PBR world champion Guilherme Marchi against Bones, Tom Teague's reigning PBR world champion bull. The format: winner-take-all; the purse: $20,000.
"The bull is very hard," Marchi was reported as saying at the time. "He's smart, too. And he's very strong. He bucked me off. Beat me two times in two rides."
There were rumors that Marchi had slacked off from his normally intense workout regimen and put on some weight over the holidays after winning his first PBR World Championship. The looming question was, as one PBR story asked, "Can a struggling Marchi ride a legend in the making?"
He couldn't. Early in the season, at the low-point of his riding percentage in 2009, Marchi had ridden just over half of the bulls he'd attempted. While most riders would be happy to trade wins with their bovine competitors, it was nearly an embarrassment for Marchi, who finished the 2008 season riding at 75%.
"I was under a lot of pressure to get back," he said. "Everybody was saying, 'Oh, Guilherme's not riding good anymore after he win the world title.'"
Marchi's slow start had another effect: it left room for J.B. Mauney to step into the spotlight.
Mauney made his case as a top contender on tour by getting hot during the 2008 World Finals and finishing the season in second place behind Marchi. He continued the hot streak early in 2009, winning two of the first six Built Ford Tough Series stops and placing second in another.
"I've been more focused than I've been in past years, and I kind of want it a lot more than I have in the past," he said.
Sitting in first place in the standings, Mauney had to watch from the chutes as Bones tossed Marchi to the dirt in 4.3 seconds. Unhappy that Teague pulled Bones from the competition Mauney ultimately won in front of his home crowd in Winston-Salem, N.C., Mauney challenged Teague in a post-event interview, pushing Teague into another $20,000 bet.
"I don't think there's a bull that can throw me off," Mauney said. "To get on a bull that's never been ridden and then ride him you know, that's what we do this for."
In a prime-time, televised event, Bones threw Mauney at 8.1 seconds and Mauney collected the $20,000 check from Teague, but Mauney wasn't holding the world championship trophy just yet.
As Mauney counted his money, Kody Lostroh quietly posted his second win of the season and either won or placed fifth or better in six of nine events to re-take the lead in the PBR world standings.
Lostroh and Mauney had a much-hyped, head-to-head matchup between the "top two riders in the world," but Mauney had dropped to third place behind Marchi just before the event, after an eight-week slump sent his riding percentage from a high in the seventies to just 53%. While Mauney fell, Lostroh marched on… until injury found him in Omaha.
"The arm doesn't really bother me that much as long as I don't lift anything heavy," Lostroh told PBR reporter Keith Ryan Cartwright, after a nasty spill had hyper-extended his elbow. "It's just a dull ache most of the time."
In late April, following the BFTS event in Nebraska, x-rays showed more extensive damage to Lostroh's elbow than had been expected. Ligaments, cartilage and a fracture from a previous injury forced Lostroh to back out of a planned four-man, four-bull matchup between team Lostroh and team Marchi and wait for a diagnosis that could end his season.
Ultimately, Lostroh postponed surgery and attempted to keep his first-place spot by riding with his off (right) had during the final events of the first-half of the season. This allowed his left arm to rest for nearly two-and-a-half months including the month-long summer break and the plan seems to have worked.
The second half
Going into the summer break, Marchi had clawed to within about 500 points of Lostroh's lead, and J.B. Mauney was lurking just 600 points behind Marchi.
"It sucks when you have to watch it and can't get on and try to ride them bulls," Lostroh said of his enforced hiatus from competition.
"But it's good at the same time because it's kind of motivating to have to sit out and watch all these bulls get bucking and know that you can't get on any. When it's my turn again, then I'm pretty fired up to go."
While Mauney chased a dream on the PRCA, riding bulls so that he wouldn't get rusty, gunning for the WNFR and winning the $100,000 round in Calgary in the process, Lostroh rested and waited… and got fired up for the PBR's 2009 season restart in Tulsa, Okla.
"I seen Kody's brother-in-law, Cimarron Gerke, there in Calgary," Mauney said. "And he said [Lostroh] had been home for a while, and was getting healed up and was getting ready to start going again. And it probably won't hurt him a bit."
Talking about the difference between practicing and resting over the summer break, Lostroh expressed complete confidence just days ahead of Tulsa.
"Obviously, it's nice to keep your momentum going," Lostroh said, "but if I have to take some time off, I know that I ride plenty good enough to pick right back up where I left off by getting on a couple bulls."
Which is just what Lostroh did. One of only two riders to ride three of four bulls, Lostroh went 91 on the back of Pearl Snap in the short go to nab the win and extend his lead over Marchi and Mauney to 1,300 and 2,100 points, respectively.
PBR statisticians have calculated that, at this point in the season, there are still 12 riders with a statistical chance at winning the world championship. Of these riders who are within roughly 5,000 points of the lead, perhaps none have a better understanding of what it takes to win than two-time champ, Chris Shivers.
"I think some of the guys that's up at the top right now have never got a taste of the pressure they're going to feel once they get down to the end of the year and have to worry about somebody beating them," Shivers predicted.
"I've been there and I've seen all that and I understand how difficult it is to ride to the top of your ability when you've got somebody staring down your neck and trying to beat you, and it's a rough situation."
Shivers, who is getting on in years at age 30, likes his chances sitting in 10th place. He said the format of the finals, which awards 6,500 points during seven rounds, leaves room for the top four or five guys to make a move at the end and steal the trophy.
He commends the triumvirate of Lostroh, Marchi, and Mauney, but says experience is the key to winning a world championship.
"They wouldn't be at the top unless they were really strong," Shivers said. "Guilherme he's probably the one that scares me the most. He's been at the top each and every year."
While it's likely that the top three will continue to consistently perform well, Shivers cautions that bull riding is a dangerous sport where anyone can get injured at any time. Ultimately, whether fans are following the ups and downs of Lostroh, Mauney, Marchi or any other rider, with the standings this close, it should make for an exciting finish.