NEW YORK -- If at first you’re thrown from the bull, try, try again — at least that’s part of what the new docuseries “The Ride” highlights.
“Bull riding: you have to eat, sleep and breathe it. Whenever you go to bed at night, you got to be thinking about it,” said 25-year-old Ezekiel “Blue” Mitchell. “And when you wake up in the morning, you’ve got to be thinking about it.”
Cameras followed an engaging cast of competitors, along with coaches and executives, during the Professional Bull Riders' 30th anniversary last year and the debut of its new Team Series. The eight-episode Prime Video docuseries, now airing, documents the peaks and valleys experienced by the fearless competitors of the PBR league and those closest to them.
Previously an individual-focused competition, the new format features eight squads competing in five-on-five matches across a 28-game regular season to secure a spot in in the championship tournament in Las Vegas. “The Ride” isn’t only about the sport — but also about getting back in the saddle after being thrown down in the arena of life.
Some competitors were a little uneasy about having their lives — and most vulnerable moments —documented by cameras, but Mitchell, the Austin Gamblers rising star, was unbothered.
“I’ve been in a particularly odd situation since I became a professional athlete with the PBR. Being an African American, I’ve been used to cameras and people wanting to talk to me, so it was nothing different,” said Mitchell, a native Texan whose father notes in the series that they didn’t always feel welcome at competitions and faced discrimination.
“Growing up in the rodeo scene around Houston and the surrounding areas… there were African American bull riders that were riding professionally whenever I was coming up as a younger guy. So, I had some people there to look to,” said Mitchell.
PBR was founded in 1992 by 20 bull riders seeking mainstream attention for the sport, each contributing $1000 — money many didn’t have — to form the organization. Today, around 800 riders globally compete in more than 200 events annually, hoping to qualify for the finals and take home a $1 million bonus.
“It’s not a hobby sport. This is a sport that you’ve got to have a passion and literally love enough to die for,” said Tiffany Davis, who serves in an assistant GM-like capacity for the Carolina Cowboys, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “I hate to say that, but it’s very dangerous.”
Davis knows the risks all too well. In 1998, engaged and in wedding planning mode, her life was flipped-upside down after her 25-year-old superstar fiancé, Jerome Davis, suffered a catastrophic injury after falling from a bull during a Fort Worth, Texas, competition. The 1995 world champion suffered a broken neck and remains unable to walk.
Instead of leaving a sport that doled out such cruel fate, the couple doubled down. Jerome Davis serves as the Cowboys’ coach, and the family is as intertwined with the sport as they’ve ever been.
“We love to do this and it’s a passion. And the bull riders, for example, it’s something that’s instilled in them by God… just like some people have a passion to jump out of airplanes and stuff, this is their passion,” said Tiffany Davis. “My husband, for example, you’ll see he’s paralyzed still from the sport of bull riding…when the doctor come in and told him that, ‘Hey, you’re never going to walk again,’ the first thing my husband said to the doctor was, ‘You mean I can’t ride bulls anymore?’”
The riders aren’t the only ones whose jobs involve safety risks. Recently, during routine maintenance, a bull kicked a gate, knocking Tiffany Davis unconscious and in need of stiches on her forehead and staples in her back.
“When (bull riders are) finding girls, I’m like, ‘If this is what you want to do the rest of your life, you better find a girl that ain’t scared to wear mud boots during the week and her stilettos on the weekends,’” she said with a smile.
The Davises other livelihood is stock contracting which provides animals for competitions. They hope the series dispels negative misconceptions of how bulls are treated, stating the money-making animals are also lucrative athletes that receive top-notch care including chiropractors, progressive therapy techniques and high-end nutrition. She says the healthiest and strongest bulls result in the best product for competitions, and especially the fans.
With sports documentaries becoming more popular and fans craving content beyond the competition, there’s optimism that “The Ride” can expose an even wider audience to the PBR. Executives also hope to take advantage of the re-emerging pop culture interest in Old West nostalgia, in part due to shows like the “Yellowstone” franchise.
Mitchell, who’s aiming for individual “gold buckle dreams” to go along with his team title aspirations, hopes “The Ride” will attract a new audience to the sport he holds so dear.
“I just want everybody to see how normal we are in a way, and how human we are. A lot of times we get that we’re crazy guys and we have this really tough guy persona. I believe that a lot of people will see this softer side to some guys and just the willingness to be able to compete,” said Mitchell, who has thought about taking his saddle to Hollywood later in his career. “We’re all just blessed to be a part of this organization and be able to do what we love for a living.”
Follow Associated Press entertainment journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at: @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.