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Drive for five: Wright on verge of joining historic NFR company

The clank of metal as the chute gate opens is the starting point. The sharp squeal of a horn signifies the end. In the eight seconds in between, Stetson Wright continues to redefine pro rodeo success.

Heading into the 2023 National Finals Rodeo, Wright is once again atop the all-around world standings, along with bull riding and saddle bronc riding.

With more than $400,000 in all-around earnings alone, Wright is almost $300,000 ahead of the next closest competitor in the category, securing a fifth straight all-around world championship. With a little luck, he’ll finish the season with more than $1.2 million in earnings, shattering his record from the previous season.

Since the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s founding in 1929, only four other competitors have been able to win five or more consecutive all-around titles, putting Wright in truly elite company.

“When I look back, I’m like, ‘You have done great things,’ but then I’m like, ‘But you haven’t done enough,’” Wright said on The Chute Bosses podcast in September. “I want to become the best, and I’ve been doing everything in my power to do it. When I leave rodeo, I want to be known as the king of the cowboys.”

One thing is certain — no one is catching Stetson Wright in his quest for all-around rodeo glory in 2023. Which begs the question — can he catch those who came before him?

The standard-setters

Ty Murray rattles off the ingredients to make a successful rodeo competitor, specifically in roughstock events.

Having a certain body type helps. Being able to mentally compartmentalize danger is crucial. A tireless work ethic doesn’t hurt.

One element stands above them all.

“When you see guys who are doing it because their dad wishes he would have done it or their girlfriend thinks it’s cool or all their friends are doing it, they’re not going to ever kick ass. They’re just not,” Murray said. “That’s why I always say love is the first ingredient. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to get to this level.

“That’s something I absolutely think Stetson has. I think Stetson has all the ingredients, but the love one is the most important.”

If anyone can recognize that passion, it’s the man who reset the standard for all-around success in roughstock.

Murray understands the pursuit Wright is on better than anyone else. For Murray, his target was Larry Mahan.

In the late 1960s, Mahan vaulted himself to a level no rodeo competitor had ever reached, winning five straight all-around world championships from 1966-70 while competing as a roughstock competitor.

Mahan, who passed away in May, later added a sixth title in 1973, giving him the mark for most all-round titles in a career. A year after his last buckle, timed-event competitor Tom Ferguson began his run of six straight all-around world titles to reset the consecutive mark and pull even with Mahan for total all-around championships.

For Murray, Mahan was still the man to beat.

“It got deep-seated in me somehow where I felt like I really wanted to break that record,” Murray said. “It was like a personal challenge to see if you can reach a certain benchmark that you set for yourself. For me, it was Larry Mahan that created that benchmark.”

From 1989-94, Murray was the face of pro rodeo, winning six consecutive world titles to pull even with Mahan and Ferguson. In 1998, he secured his seventh to stand alone.

Trevor Brazile took notice.

As a kid, Brazile watched as Murray dominated the sport. He looked on in awe and developed similar dreams of being the sport’s all-around best.

From 2006-15, Brazile redefined all-around success, winning 10 straight titles. Coupled with four other all-around titles over a 17-year span, Brazile finished with 14 all-around world titles, a mark that stands as far and away the most in rodeo history.

His last title came in 2018. The next season, Wright began his streak.

“I got to watch Ty Murray in his reign, and it was like nothing I had ever gotten to see before, because I didn’t get to watch Larry or Tom go,” Brazile said. “To see it happening again, it’s just cool. There’s times when people wonder if it’ll ever happen again, and he’s proven that it can and it has.”

The road to the top

When Ferguson looks at Wright, he sees a foundation built on solid ground. The son of Hall of Fame saddle bronc rider Cody Wright, Stetson might as well have been born in boots with spurs. While the entire family is well-known for its saddle bronc prowess, Stetson has ventured into bull riding.

It’s a balancing act few try and even fewer are successful at.

“Stetson, he has the focus from one event to the other. The same thing Ty would have, Trevor would have,” Ferguson said. “But the other guys that are trying to work two events, it’s too much mentally for them to stay focused. When the gate opens and the gate shuts, you’ve got to walk down the arena and get in the next chute. Stetson can do that.”

Ferguson and Brazile made a name for themselves in timed events. Murray and Mahan did it with the physicality of roughstock.

Both sides of the sport present their difficulties, and while the end goal is the same, they are hard to compare. Wright’s sustained all-around success could certainly vault him into the same category as Murray and Mahan. Catching the numbers Brazile did would take things to an entirely different level.

The paths are different. The quest to be the rodeo’s best cowboy is the same.

“The event titles are great, and that was the icing on the cake. But they only give one all-around buckle every year — and it is the only one that says cowboy on it,” Brazile said. “If you interview anybody in our industry and down deep, in the deepest part of our soul, that’s what we want is just to be a great cowboy. I never wanted to be known for being a great tie down roper or team roper — I just wanted to be a great cowboy. And that buckle meant that for me.”

All-around world championship No. 5 is secure for Wright. The quest for a sixth straight will begin once NFR is over.

At the end of the 2022 season, Wright told the Cowboy Channel that he doesn’t compare himself to the elite cowboys who came before him, instead focusing on being the best version of himself.

But others will compare him to the legends who set the standard. No matter whom he catches up with, or doesn’t, Wright has already proven himself as one of rodeo’s all-time greats. If he stays healthy and remains focused, anything is possible.

“It’ll be very hard to ever beat Trevor’s record, but he did it, (he won 14 titles). Somebody will come around,” Ferguson said. “It’ll probably never be beat — but records are made to break.” ◆

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