BILLINGS — Montana’s Jess Lockwood doesn’t experience butterflies before a big bull riding competition.
Instead, he’s ready to go, counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds until it’s time to buck.
And on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Mountain time, it’s finally game day for the defending Professional Bull Riders world champion. Lockwood, who has overcome multiple injuries this season, is ready for the four-day PBR World Finals to begin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“I don’t get nervous, but I get really anxious for it to start,” the 23-year-old from Volborg told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com in a phone interview Wednesday. “Once the day comes and we get to the arena, everything feels at home and normal again.”
Lockwood, ranked fifth in the world standings, will be chasing a third world championship to pair with the titles he won last year and in 2017. According to the PBR, he is the youngest two-time world champion in the circuit’s history.
The 2016 PBR Rookie of the Year will be returning to the arena for the first time since a right shoulder injury suffered at a PBR event in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Oct. 3. After sustaining the injury, Lockwood missed the final two Unleash The Best events of the season and didn’t enter the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour Finals to focus on strengthening the shoulder in preparation for the World Finals.
“It feels dang good. I took some time and was smart about it and sat at home (in Volborg) and did the therapy,” he said. “I’d rather come to the Finals 100% healthy, then go to the Finals at 50%.”
Working with Kristy Elgin, “a great physical therapist” in Broadus who has helped the bull riding star with rehabilitation from all of his various injuries suffered at PBR competitions, Lockwood worked at “strengthening the muscles around the shoulder” three times a week for one hour per session.
The rehabilitation continued back at the ranch.
“And from that every single day at home I did the workouts,” Lockwood said. “It was every day for the last month or month and a half getting the shoulder better.”
Entering the finals, Lockwood is 745.5 points behind world No. 1 Jose Vitor Leme, whose win at the Ariat Invitational when the PBR stopped in Billings Sept. 11-13 was one of a league-high seven premier series victories for the Brazilian rider.
Leme, 24, is chasing his first world championship after finishing second the last two years.
Joao Ricardo Vieira, also of Brazil, trails Leme by 424.59 points after finishing third at the PWVT Finals. Kaique Pacheco of Brazil is ranked third, 688 points behind Leme. Daylon Swearingen of Piffard, New York, is fourth, only 7.16 points ahead of Lockwood.
En route to becoming the fifth PBR athlete to win the World Finals event title and world championship in the same season, Lockwood entered last year’s World Finals in Las Vegas ranked second in the world. He trailed Leme by 749.16 points but overcame that deficit with “my best Finals I’ve ever had.”
Last November at T-Mobile Arena in the finals, Lockwood rode to scores of 86.5, 91.5, 92, 91.75 and 91.25 on his first first five bulls before being bucked off on his final attempt. With the successful rides, he netted an aggregate score of 453 to win the finals.
Lockwood told 406mtsports.com that winning the world championship was “mathematically still possible” and that he would need to “win the Finals and a go-round or two.”
“It will take a performance like last year, maybe a little better,” he said, while also acknowledging the World Finals “is the toughest bull riding in the world.”
One of six multi-time PBR world champions, Lockwood said he has a simple plan of attack entering this year’s five-round championship event, where the bull rider earning the most points will claim the event title and $300,000. Overall, 39 riders are entered and each will be chasing the prize money.
“That’s how I do it every single time, is I focus on the bulls I have that night and I do all I can do,” Lockwood said. “You can’t do any more than to ride your bull and do your best on him.”
In addition, a gold buckle and $1 million bonus will be awarded to the world champion.
The World Finals were originally scheduled for Las Vegas' T-Mobile Arena Nov. 4-8. The move to AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, was announced in late September and was made because of Nevada COVID-19 restrictions, according to a press release the PBR issued at the time.
Seating for the World Finals will be limited to 25% of arena capacity, according to the PBR, and safety protocols will be followed.
“This is our biggest event of the year,” Lockwood said. “Whether it’s zero people or 100,000 people, it’s Christmas. The title and the money that goes with it, that’s what I’m there for.”
Entering this year’s Finals in fifth place in the standings is serving as motivation for Lockwood and could wind up being beneficial, he said.
“Just the fact that I’m chasing him (Leme) and I’m having to make up ground, I don’t like being in first necessarily; you can get a little comfortable,” he said. “If you are in second or third, you know you have to ride your ass off and be aggressive and do whatever it takes instead of being safety man.”
While the late-season shoulder injury was an obstacle, it wasn’t the most serious ailment Lockwood suffered.
While competing at the PBR’s Caterpillar Classic in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 1 he claimed his then league-high fifth 90-point ride and eighth round win with a 91.5-point effort on I’m Legit Too in the championship round.
On the dismount, Lockwood suffered a left hamstring injury when his spur became hung up in his bull rope. An MRI the following day revealed a complete left hamstring tear and Lockwood, who was second in the standings after Leme at the time of the injury, underwent surgery on March 10 in New York.
Lockwood was cleared to return to action in late August when it was announced his first event back would be at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.
In his return ride, Lockwood announced to the world in front of the adoring 1,376 fans in attendance as social distancing for the novel coronavirus was in place that he was indeed back. The defending world champ scored an 84-point ride on One For The Money.
The following day Lockwood put an 85.75-point mark on the scoreboard riding Full Battle Rattle. He didn’t record another score, but would qualify for the championship round and ended up 11th in Billings.
“There was no better place than to return than in Billings, Montana,” Lockwood said. “It was right next to my house and it’s my home state.
“That was huge. I had two good rides to start out. My third ride I rode a 7.9 and that me darn mad. It wasn’t a bad weekend to come back. If I would have rode the one bull 1/10 of a second more I would have had a top pick in the bull draft. I was darn close to another win.”
Another reason the Billings stop was special was he was able to compete alongside younger brother Jake, who received an entry as an alternate. Jake Lockwood, currently ranked 48th, sat in seventh place after the first round with an 85.25-point ride.
Jake Lockwood, 20, is out with an injury. If he would have been healthy, the younger Lockwood would have had a chance to be an alternate at the World Finals. Jake will be in attendance cheering on Jess in Arlington.
“Every weekend I get to ride with him is super special,” Jess Lockwood said of his brother. “Getting to see him on the biggest stage of a bull riding is cool. We both grew up wanting to do this.”
During the six months Lockwood was out of action, he stayed at his 200-acre ranch that is “three or four miles” from his parents’ ranch. And while he loves the Treasure State and his family and friends, Lockwood said it was hard to be away from the competition. He missed nine premier series events while recovering from the injury.
“It was a stepping stone and a building block that made me appreciate bull riding more,” Lockwood said. “It was rough. It was nice being home all that time. I love home to death, but being gone on a weekend makes you appreciate home more.
“It was a strain on my brain, just the mental strain on my brain to get through. It was rough.”
Lockwood realizes injuries will come with his sport, saying, “you take it with what it is.”
Lockwood did say the support of the Montana fans, and all of the PBR faithful, helped get him through the grueling rehabilitation process.
“When I get injured, everyone in the home state was saying, ‘Good luck’ and ‘I’m thinking of you,’ ” he said.
“I appreciate everything the state of Montana has done for me and the support.”
Now, it’s time for business for Lockwood as he seeks his second event victory of the season, to pair with his title at the Manchester (New Hampshire) Invitational at the third competition of the year Jan. 18-19. He has also placed third four times this year.
A victory at AT&T Stadium could also lead to world title No. 3 and would be his second World Finals triumph.
When the World Finals chutes open, Lockwood will be ready.
“That is my biggest goal is winning the World Finals,” he said. “If you can do that, you can win the world title. If I focus on each bull, the world title will come with it.”
Email Gazette Deputy Sports Editor John Letasky at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJohnL
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