Rural Montana Roots Keep a World Champion Grounded

BY DOUG HARE

 

Jess Lockwood is the crown prince of professional bull riding, and his coronation came in Las Vegas at the 2017 PBR World Finals.

In front of a raucous crowd, jolting pyrotechnic displays, and lasers beaming from the rafters onto the shimmering dirt of T-Mobile Arena, Lockwood won the first three rounds of six in the world finals, the first rider ever to do so. The performance helped him close a 655-point deficit to earn him a championship golden buckle and the accompanying $1 million prize.

At 20 years old, Lockwood became the youngest world champion in PBR’s 24-year history, and just the second bull rider—after Silvano Alves in 2011—to capture the title a season after being named Rookie of the Year.

That feat is all the more impressive considering the spate of injuries that Lockwood endured during the 2017 season. Early on, a torn groin muscle kept him out of competition for five weeks, only to get knocked unconscious by a notorious bull named SweetPro’s Bruiser shortly after his return.

Bull riding is often called the most dangerous sport on dirt, but that might be an understatement. It’s hard to find a competition on any surface resulting in more injuries, and where the prospect of death is ever-present. A common refrain from the sport’s athletes is: “It’s not ‘if’ you get hurt, it’s ‘when.’”

The possible outcomes of a bull ride are many, but the rules of the sport are relatively few. If a rider can keep his mount for eight seconds, keep one arm on the bull rope wrapped around the animal’s chest—without allowing his free hand to make contact with the animal—his ride qualifies for a score.

Qualifying rides are scored by four judges, two awarding points for the rider’s skill and two judging the quality of the bull’s fight. The harder the bull bucks and rolls—the “ranker” the bull— the more points the rider earns.

Five weeks before his Las Vegas performance, after getting bucked off and stomped by Blue Magic, Lockwood suffered four broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a lacerated kidney at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. After leaving a Long Island hospital, he came down with pneumonia on a cross-country road trip to North Dakota. Three weeks later he was competing again.

“[The injury] wasn’t fun, but coming down with pneumonia was probably worse. And when I did come back, I wasn’t in good form,” Lockwood said. “That’s part of bull riding though— dealing with the slumps, pushing on, being tough through it all. Grit, I guess.”

Lockwood grew up in the small southeastern Montana town of Volborg, the son of rancher. When he reminisces about his hometown as being little more than “a post office and a few buildings,” you get a sense of the quiet pride he has for the place where he was raised.

“Not only do you know everyone in the school, you know everyone in the community,” he said. Remaining in touch with his roots seems to temper a hard-won confidence in his athletic prowess, with a humility that keeps him striving to improve even after reaching the top echelon of his sport.

"There is no adrenalin rush like it, I don’t believe. There aren’t too many sports where death is a possibility in an instant."

 

Like most of the cowboys on the PBR circuit, Lockwood started riding stock when he was young, mounting a calf for the first time at just 2 years old. His father, Ed, was a former saddle bronc champion and his mother, Angie, was a competitive barrel racer. His parents know one of the most beloved characters in bull riding, entertainer Flint Rasmussen.

“We forget Jess is just a kid. Think about what we were doing at 19 or 20,” Rasmussen said. “He handles more media in a weekend than most Montanans will in a lifetime. … And he is still just a ranch kid from eastern Montana.”

Jess and his younger brother Jake went to high school in the nearby town of Broadus where Lockwood excelled in wrestling, earning a high school state championship at 98 pounds during his freshman year. “That’s where I got my dedication and mindset that help me out so much with riding bulls,” he said. “You can’t rely on teammates—it’s all on you.”

Lockwood left school after his sophomore year to pursue his passion full time, while taking online courses in his spare time. After winning two Northern Rodeo Association titles and three Montana high school state championships, he joined the PBR on September 27, 2015, the day he turned 18.

Lockwood’s eyes have a quiet intensity. He wears a 100-watt smile most of the time, stands 5-feet 5-inches and weighs only 130 pounds. “Skinny, light, strong,” said the wiry world champ about his ideal physique. “I try to stay as strong as I can without getting too bulky.”

His rancher work ethic is evident in his training regimen. “I run a lot. I do core and back strengthening exercises. And I train to improve my balance. Bull riding—it’s mostly about balance.”

The spectacle of bull riding is a distilled display of man versus beast, one deeply rooted in the culture of heartland America.

 

When describing how it feels to climb on top of a one-ton steer, Lockwood said, “There is no adrenalin rush like it, I don’t believe. There aren’t too many sports where death is a possibility in an instant.” To manage the fear and excitement before bursting out of the chute, Lockwood describes a flow-like state where instinct and muscle memory take over.

“You don’t want to be thinking too much when you’re in the chute, too many things could potentially go wrong,” he said. “I’m just trying to clear my mind and let my body takeover.”

The spectacle of bull riding is a distilled display of man versus beast, one deeply rooted in the culture of heartland America. To the ever-increasing number of PBR fans, bull riders exemplify the stoic cowboy, the fearless gladiator, the rock star, and the elite athlete wrapped up in one package.

While bull riding has a long history throughout the Western Hemisphere, the PBR was founded when 20 bull riders broke away from the traditional rodeo circuit in 1992, each ponying up a $1,000-investment to fund the nascent sport. At the time, there were some rodeo competitors who thought of bull riders as unskilled daredevils, lacking the rope skills or horsemanship to compete in equine events.

CBS Sports has aired nationally televised broadcasts of PBR events for nearly a decade, and with the 2015 buyout of Professional Bull Riders, Inc. by superagency WEI/IMG—now known as Endeavor—bull riding has become one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. and a global phenomenon with tours in Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico.

If you were one of the 20 cowboys who had the guts to gamble on bull riding as a standalone event, your share would be worth well over $4 million today.

The consensus on the tour is that Lockwood has yet to reach his full potential, and he has no shortage of ambition. “In a perfect world, I would win the next five world titles, and hopefully retire by 27 years old—and be smart with my money and buy more cattle,” he said.

The record for the most PBR world championship titles is three, shared by Brazilians Adriano Moraes and Silvano Alves. Even the legendary J.B. Mauney, the all-time career money earner in bull riding, has only two championship buckles to his name.

Listening to a kid who can’t legally buy a beer talk about retiring might sound strange, but bull riding is one sport where it’s best to go out on top. With Lockwood’s determination and preternatural abilities, it will take more than a few broken ribs and a cough to keep the heir apparent to bull-riding royalty from achieving his ambitious goals.

Doug Hare is a staff writer and the distribution director for Mountain Outlaw magazine.