J.B. Mauney stands backstage in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. The soon-to-be 32-year-old has a beer in one hand as he answers questions from a journalist. He’d probably have a cigarette in the other if they were outside—Mauney likes smoking Marlboros.
He’s wearing a black cowboy hat, black jeans and a black button-down shirt littered with logos ranging from Monster Energy to Wrangler, Ford and Tyson.
Mauney has been riding bulls as part of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) since 2006. In his 14 years as a professional on tour, the two-time World Champion has won $7,314,805.23 and is PBR’s all-time money earner.
“When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy when I go to my job,” Mauney said prior to the 2019 Buck Off at the Garden. “A lot of people in the world can’t say that. A lot of people hate their job, but I don’t look at mine as a job. I love what I do, so it’s not really work for me.”
Just because Mauney doesn’t consider struggling to sit atop a nearly one-ton bucking beast as “work” doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, or painful. A cowboy through and through, riding is the only thing the North Carolina native knows.
Mauney rode sheep when he was 3 years old, and was on his first bull at 13. When he turned 18, he lacerated his liver and broke his ribs on his right side, resulting in a 10-day hospital stay. He was told he couldn’t ride for eight months—but he waited all of about four.
He turned professional later that year, joining the PBR Velocity Tour, what he refers to as the minor leagues. After earning enough points to move up to Unleash the Beast (the main televised tour) in about a month, Mauney hasn’t stopped—save for when he’s recovering from his slew of injuries, which he says come with the territory.
“It all just happened real fast,” he said. “I never really thought of it as a job or that I could make a living doing it; I was just having a blast riding bulls.”
Mauney made $66,616.50 in his rookie season with PBR in 2006. He made in the six-figure range (from a low of $210,621.42 in 2011 to a high of $772,207.59 in 2009) in each of the following six seasons before his most successful stretch riding from 2013-15.
He took home a cool $1.385 million for winning the 2013 PBR World Finals in Las Vegas and was crowned World Champion; he earned a career-high $1,807,710.75 that year. Mauney finished 2014 with a runner-up performance at the World Finals and fourth overall ranking, good for $497,597.98. He returned to bull riding’s apex in 2015 with another World Championship and $1,541,942.49 to his name.
“It’s a sport where you can make a good living in it, but you’ve got to be damn tough to do it,” he said. “Nothing’s guaranteed in this sport. You don’t have a contract that if you get injured you’re still getting paid. If you don’t ride, you don’t get paid.”
PBR’s global growth has certainly helped riders make more money each year. A large portion of PBR’s 200-plus annual events are held abroad in countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico.
The PBR Global Cup—the only nation vs. nation bull riding competition—was introduced in 2017 and has already had events in Alberta, Canada in 2017, and Sydney, Australia in 2018. The competition heads to Arlington, Texas in February.
CBS Sports Network will again televise PBR this year. The network recently announced it will feature more than 100 hours of action from 18 events in the first half of the 2019 season.
“It’s growing by leaps and bounds,” Mauney said. “It’s man vs. bull. You don’t get that anywhere else.”
Injuries have plagued Mauney in recent years, so his earnings (since he isn’t riding as much) have lessened. In 2017 he tore his arm “completely off” needing a screw and 13 anchors in his right shoulder to put him back together. He made $146,477.49 that year. He tore his groin riding in the New York City event last year, returned, but then broke his back in April. Mauney took home $71,420.69—his lowest earnings since his debut season.
Now with questions and rumors swirling around the grizzled veteran’s health, motivation and future, there’s one thing for sure, Mauney isn’t done yet.
“For some reason I’ve always fought through it; I’m hard-headed I guess,” he said. “A lot of times I shouldn’t have rode, but I still did. I’ll pay for it later on in life, but you only live once.”
NOTE: First appeared on Forbes