DECATUR, Texas -- Jose Vitor Leme sits on a bench next to his house wearing impeccably creased jeans, a T-shirt, a black cowboy hat and boots. Dressed every bit the part of the man who could be the greatest bull rider in PBR history -- including that big, gold "2021 world champion" belt buckle -- he looks out over his own full-size soccer field, nodding to a past life that still plays an important part in his drive to become a sports legend.
Seven years ago Leme was an aspiring professional soccer player getting impatient with his career progress. He was playing at the semi-pro level in his home country of Brazil, an accomplishment in its own right, but his dreams weren't materializing, and neither was the money. On his 18th birthday, he decided to make a drastic change.
He got on the back of a bull.
He stayed on, and now he is looking to make history heading into the final five rounds at the Professional Bull Riders World Finals in Fort Worth from Thursday to Sunday, where he could become the first rider in history to win three straight world championships.
At 25, he's the face of the PBR, a 5-foot-6, 139-pound dynamo -- an electric performer and a dynamic athlete who grew up on soccer fields and fighting in competitive karate tournaments rather than working on a ranch.
Last year, he had the greatest season in PBR history, winning 40% of the events he entered while setting or tying five of the PBR's major records, drawing comparisons to elite competitors in other sports.
"I think he is our Neymar," said fellow Brazilian bull rider Paolo Crimber, comparing him to the soccer star who ranks second only to the legendary Pele in scoring history for the Brazilian national team.
Justin McBride, the 2005 and 2007 PBR world champion and the lead analyst for the sport's broadcasts on CBS Sports Network, compared Leme to an Olympian.
"He's willing to go through the grind to achieve what nobody ever has," McBride said. "That's a rare, rare thing in any sport. You have great athletes everywhere you look, but it's only so often that somebody comes along that can become bigger than that sport. Jose is one of those guys."
All it took was a leap of faith in coming to the United States, a colony of Brazilians in North Texas who helped him -- and a spiritual connection with a bull named Woopaa who teamed with Leme to claim the sport's most prestigious record.
WHEN LEME WAS growing up in Ribas do Rio Prado, a town of about 25,000 in the southern part of Brazil, his father Antonio rode bulls and raised livestock, a common practice in a country with more than 252 million head of cattle, or about 25% of the world's population, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But after his father and mother Silvia divorced when he was 13, the family had to sell their herd.
He had been on cows as a child before his parents' split, and bull riding was still one of his favorite things to watch. Finally, after becoming disillusioned with the progress of his soccer career, he took some friends up on an offer to get into a bull ring.
"That was good, because I rode the bull," he said, laughing, deciding one ride was all it took for him to make up his mind. "I just decided to be in this sport."
Brazilian bull riders are as accomplished in their field as the country's soccer stars. In the 28 years since the PBR was launched, seven different Brazilians have won 12 world championship belt buckles.
"In our sport, grit is a prerequisite, and these [Brazilian] guys have a lot of it," Ty Murray, one of the greatest all-around rodeo cowboys in history and one of the founders of the PBR tour, said in 2013. "It's like being tall in basketball."
Unlike in soccer, which Leme had played since he was 11, he didn't have to wait long for his star turn. Over a year and a half following that first trip on a bull, Leme won the PBR Brazil championship, Brazil Finals title and was named the country's Rookie of the Year, becoming the first rider to win the country's triple crown.
He was invited on his first trip to the United States for the 2017 PBR World Finals, landing in Las Vegas without knowing anyone in the country and unable to even read the airport signs. But he proceeded to go 6-for-6 on rides without getting bucked off, won the event title and finished seventh in the world in the overall point standings for the season, winning four of the 13 events he entered that year. By contrast, the world champion, Jess Lockwood, had five wins in 45 events, but had earned more points over the course of a full season.
Leme was named the 2017 PBR Rookie of the Year all while sending a message across the sport that a new contender had arrived.
Jose Vitor Leme arrived in Las Vegas and never looked back.— PBR (@PBR) December 25, 2017
Coming in at No. 8 in our top ten moments of 2017 is the Brazilian sensation who went a perfect 6-for-6 at the PBR World Finals to capture the event title and Rookie of the Year honors. pic.twitter.com/mLAv8FeQgG
There was no going back. Leme earned $417,800 in prize money for his 10 days of work. He informed his family he was staying in the United States and wouldn't return until he became the world champion.
"At that point, I didn't know anything about America," Leme said. "I don't know how to speak. I don't know anybody out there. But I have a dream. And my dream is to be a world champion. I'm not going to do that in Brazil. So I have to go. I just did it."
But setting out in an individual sport in a foreign country can be daunting, and it can be overwhelming trying to find a home base. But that's another way the Brazilians stand out. They stick together.
CRIMBER MET LEME when he first arrived in Las Vegas and invited him to his home in Decatur, Texas, a town of about 7,000 people 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
"Everybody who comes in [from Brazil], I pick them up and they come to the house for a month or two," he said.
Crimber, who grew up in Olimpia, Brazil, must be a favorite of area realtors. He and his wife Maria have been in Decatur for 20 years, with two children, John and Helen, who were born in Texas. Their hospitality has turned this small town into the home base for more than 30 Brazilian bull riders, all of whom call the town home. Crimber retired from professional bull riding in 2011, suffering the full brunt of the sport, including breaking his neck twice in a four-month span in 2008. His thick Texas drawl, picked up while learning English from other rodeo cowboys on tour, makes him the perfect guide to the town, where he serves as a father figure, translator, community touchstone and the connector who helps the surrogate family members.
"One thing we have maybe that sets us apart from everybody else, we always stay together from the beginning," Crimber said. "We don't have a second plan. This is all we got."
It's here, from this new home base, that Leme conquered the United States, too. Since arriving in Decatur, Leme finished second in the world in 2018 and 2019 and won the world title in 2020 and 2021, while also rewriting the sport's record books.
The $5.27 million he has earned in his career on the PBR tour -- already fourth-highest all-time -- allowed him to buy his own ranch that has become the center of the bull riders' social scene.
Every Monday, 30 of them play in soccer matches on Leme's field and cook churrasco, Brazilian-style steaks. The games are intense, but Leme also believes they're a secret weapon in his training.
"That's why I have my soccer field," Leme said. "Soccer helps a lot not only physically but mentally too. You have to make quick decisions playing soccer. It's the same thing in bull riding. And when I play, I feel way better and ready to go because it helps my focus and my body too."
They're all back on Wednesdays to practice riding in Leme's bucking bull arena, where they all help coach, critique and motivate each other. It's a competitive advantage that other riders don't often have. But Leme, who has a 1-year-old son named Theodoro with his wife Amanda, also credits the camaraderie for support that allowed him to adapt to the abrupt life change.
"It's our second family," Leme said. "It was hard when we came here and left our family, our friends far from us. We had to start a new family because if you don't do that, you're gonna want to move back."
Now, the extended family is producing its own stars. In 2021, Crimber's son John claimed the Texas state bull-riding title and was named the Texas High School Rodeo Association's Rookie of the Year. Crimber credits much of that to his community.
"My son loves Jose," Crimber said. "If you ask him which one is his favorite, he's gonna say him. He comes here, they play video games together, play soccer, ride bulls together. All those guys take care of him. That's what you want for your kids just to follow somebody good. I'm really blessed to have that."
There's no rivalry between the riders, Leme said, adding that they all encourage and motivate each other.
"The fight is not between you and other people," Leme said. "It's between you and the bull."
And one bull -- a world champion himself -- has played a starring role in Leme's career.
IN THE PBR, each ride is scored on a scale of 0-100, and a rider only earns a score if he hangs on for eight seconds. The bull always earns a score (the PBR said judges "look for speed, power and drop in the front end; kick in the back end, direction changes and body rolls"). There are four judges for each ride, and each gives up to 25 points for the bull and the rider. Then the scores are combined, and the total is divided in half. The highest ride score in the history of the PBR was 96.5 points, which was set and tied four times between 1997 and 2004.
In the 2020 World Finals, Leme drew a promising bull named Woopaa who had only been entered in five previous events, bucking off each rider. In Leme and Woopaa's first ride, Leme went the distance, and the two combined for a 95.75-point ride, clinching Leme's first world championship. Leme fell for this bull who, like Leme, was seen as a different type of "athlete" than his counterparts.
"This is gonna sound silly, but imagine a cat and how springy a cat can be, but at 1,500 pounds," said Woopaa's trainer, Laramie Wilson. "I mean, he's, it's really unbelievable. He bucks like an 800-900-pound young bull, and he's 6 years old and weighs 1,500 pounds. Most of the time, just like an athlete, they get older, they get bigger and slower. It's not slowed him down once."
Together, Leme thought, they could make history. He hoped to get that chance in the finals, where riders can draft bulls based on their spot in the point standings, and since Leme was dominating the rankings, he could zero in on Woopaa. They've shared four rides now.
There have been iconic bulls in the past like Red Rock, who was only ridden by Lane Frost, the legendary bull rider who died in the ring and was the subject of the 1994 movie, "8 Seconds." He said he studies other legendary bulls that were known to be nearly impossible to ride like Bodacious, Bushwacker and Little Yellow Jacket.
But what sets Woopaa apart is his showmanship, including an exceptional leaping ability and bucking power. He has earned the three highest-scored bull scores in history.
"What an athletic animal," McBride said. "Every jump is a snapshot. There have been some bulls that were tougher for guys to ride. But they didn't have that 'wow factor' to them that Woopaa's got."
And Leme, with his compact but muscular frame, seems to fit him just right.
"You couldn't have picked a better rider and a better bull from all of bull-riding history to come together and rise to the top at the same time," Wilson said. "They're making history together. They've attracted so many people. People don't come to watch the PBR, they come to watch Jose and Woopaa battle it out again."
In Fort Worth this week, they're even featured on the room key of the world finals' official hotel, every guest carrying a photo of them around in their pocket.
Together, they have shattered the all-time record for a marked ride. Twice.
In July 2021, Leme and Woopaa combined for a 97.75-point ride, breaking the record that had stood for 17 years. Then in November, the two teamed up again for a 98.75-point ride, including Leme landing the first 50-point rider score in PBR history.
"That's as close as we've ever seen in the PBR to perfection," McBride said.
These two cannot be stopped! In a storybook ending, World Champions Jose Vitor Leme and Woopaa break their own record to capture the highest scored ride in PBR history. Go behind the chutes to watch the explosive 98.75-point ride! pic.twitter.com/fT3KebpRVj— PBR (@PBR) November 10, 2021
"We have something special," Leme said. "For me, it's like a dance. He makes me look better and I make him look better during the ride. Every time I ride him, before I jump on him I can feel him talking to me or something, like, 'We're going to do something special today.'"
Wilson said he sees the same thing.
"It's funny to watch," he said. "When Jose draws him in the chute Woopaa turns and looks and he recognizes Jose. He's like, 'Oh, hey, we're gonna do this again. Let's do it a little bigger and better this time.'"
The partnership may have set an unbreakable record. Given that a bull can only earn a 50-point score if it bucks the rider off, there's not much room for improvement in the ride score of 98.75.
"I wanna say it's dang near impossible," Wilson said. "I think that'll be a record that we may never see broken. There are certain bulls that fit certain riders, but not to this level. It's once in a lifetime. To see a bull and rider match up as good as Jose and Woopaa do is something that we may never see again."
Leme jokes about buying Woopaa a pallet of food for making him so much money, then looks out between the big metal gates in front of his house that read "WORLD CHAMPION" and his front door, then points to a spot in his circle driveway.
"I'm gonna put a statue of me and Woopaa out front," Leme said.
BULL RIDING IS a grueling sport, but if riders can stay healthy, they can compete as long as they're capable. The current No. 2 in the world standings is Brazilian João Ricardo Vieira, who is 37.
With so much already accomplished at such a young age, greatest-ever status is safely within Leme's reach. In his own opinion, the greatest bull riders are fellow Brazilians Silvano Alves and Adriano Moraes, because they are the only two who won three world titles. With a win this week, Leme would equal them. But he'd be the only one in history to win all three consecutively.
Last year, Leme, who missed about one-third of the season with various injuries, set or tied five all-time records, including setting the record for the most 90-point rides in a season (24) while also earning the first perfect 50-point ride score in PBR history.
So what exactly makes him a great bull rider?
"It's a little bit his body type," McBride said. "He's not a big guy. He's a little bitty compact guy. And he's very exciting to watch. The bulls have great trips with him, because he stays in the middle of them, he doesn't pull them off balance. So that allows them to have their best day with him."
And even if he draws a bull that isn't one of the flashiest, McBride said, Leme is creative about selling it as a performer.
"He's got an exciting style," McBride said. "He makes big movements with his free arm. A lot of times it'll make it look like a bull is doing more than what he's actually doing. Somebody else can get on and just sit right in the middle of him and not move a whole lot. And you think well, that's just a good bull. But when Jose gets on, you're like, 'Wow, that bull was really doing a lot!' But when you go back and watch it and you break it down, well, the bull really wasn't doing that much, but Jose was."
This has been Leme's toughest season due to a nagging groin/core muscle injury as well as a concussion he suffered in April after being thrown from a bull. He's completed just 51.35% of his rides, after a 69% mark in 2021, with two event wins and five 90-point rides. Yet in the first round of the world finals last weekend, Leme went 3-for-3 on rides and maintained his hold on fifth place in the season standings, 290.66 points behind leader Daylon Swearingen. That's easily within reach with five rounds remaining. Leme earned 849 points in this same scoring system last year, which had just six total rounds to this year's eight.
He is also in third place in the event standings for the world finals, just 6.25 points out of the lead. If Leme clinched the win this weekend, he would tie Robson Palermo for the most world finals won by one rider with three and would become just the second to win the event in back-to-back seasons.
McBride said there's no chance he's counting out Leme as he aims for history.
"He is a guy -- and I won't say this about very many of them ever -- that can win every time the gate opens," McBride said, adding that despite the records, he still sees room for improvement.
"He can clean up some of the technical things -- because technically he's not there yet -- and he still does some things wrong. That's what gets him in a jam from time to time. That's the fun part about it. That's the scary part for other competitors. He's still not the best he could be."
Crimber, who has seen Leme's steady determination since he first arrived, said the rest of the season doesn't matter when the world championship is on the line. And even if he can improve, Crimber said, he's already ahead of everyone else.
"He rides better under pressure. A lot of guys don't," Crimber said. "He's got the whole package. It comes so natural and easy. To me, he's probably the greatest we've ever seen."
Back on his ranch, Leme marvels at where his hard work has taken him, from soccer to bull riding, from Brazil to Texas, to this spread in Decatur.
"I have my soccer field," he said. "I have my bucking bull arena. I have everything."
And with a third straight world title, he'll have the résumé to be the greatest bull rider of all time.