Pope wins heavyweight fight

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LAS VEGAS – Like those championship bouts that have made this city famous for decades, Jess Pope doesn’t mind scrapping.

This isn’t a middleweight match of Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler from two decades ago. This is the reigning world champion bareback rider vs. 1,200 pounds of bucking muscle, and it took place Thursday night during the eighth round of the National Finals Rodeo.

“These are our hardest bucking and our rankest horses that we have going,” Pope said of his match-up with Championship Pro Rodeo’s The Crow. “It’s just a good, old-fashioned fist fight. I really like the eliminator pen of horses. That’s where the men stand out from the boys, and I was very thankful to be able to find success again in the eliminator round.”

The two titans slugged it out for eight seconds on the Thomas & Mack Center dirt for 88.5 points, good enough for the round win and $30,706 in Pope’s pockets. He has ridden eight horses for a cumulative score of 681.5 points and leads the aggregate race by five points over the No. 2 man, Coloradoan Keenan Hayes.

“I knew I had pretty good odds of having a good shot at winning,” said Pope of Waverly, Kansas. “I got on that horse in the short round at Dodge City (Kansas) and got along really well. I was pretty tickled about it.”

In fact, the two danced across the western Kansas dirt in August for 87.5 points, so they were able to muster another point when it counted most.

Hayes leads the world standings with $324,597, but Pope is making up ground. He has earned $108,558 in Las Vegas, $50,000 better than the Colorado cowboy. Pope is third in the standings, $90,000 behind and has two more nights on the 2023 season to make his move.

“There have been years and years of preparation that comes into this round, really all 10 rounds here at the NFR,” Pope said. “I’m fully confident that I can ride any bucking horse they run underneath me, and you have to have that confidence coming in. There are 14 other guys in that locker room that have the same amount of confidence that I have, but all I can control is what I do on the animal I have drawn.

“I can’t pay attention to what the other guys are doing. If they make a good ride, I want to be there cheering for them, let them find success and me be happy for them.”

There is a comradery that comes with competing against one another at rodeos across North America. They travel together, and they know its them vs. the animal. They’ll help one another out when the situations arise.

“The brotherhood we have as bareback riders is like no other event out there,” he said. “I want to see those guys win as bad as I want to win. I’m not competing against anybody; I’m competing against myself and the animal I have. That’s the one unique thing about bareback riding.”

He doesn’t look at the numbers. Those, he said, will take care of themselves. He has a job to do, and he knows what it takes to do it. There’s a reason he’s defending his title.

“Whenever they announce the average results after 10 days, whoever wins I’m going to be plumb tickled for it, but when I enter a rodeo, I plan on winning,” said Pope, who has won the NFR average in each of his previous three years competing at ProRodeo’s grand finale. “I’ve had a great week.

“When I first started rodeo when I was a little kid, it wasn’t rodeo for money. It was rodeo because it’s fun. Throughout the summer, there were times where it wasn’t real fun, but it’s been fun this week. I’ve really enjoyed it. I haven’t won as much money as I wanted to win, but it dawned on me that when I started, it wasn’t for the money. It was to be a bucking-horse rider who wanted to make the memories I get to.”


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