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PBR returns to MGM Grand Garden after COVID-induced respite

After being bucked out of Las Vegas by a pandemic, the Professional Bull Riders’ aptly named Unleash The Beast Tour returns to the MGM Grand Garden on Friday and Saturday before 100 percent capacity crowds.

It will serve as a prelude of sorts to the PBR World Finals from Nov. 3 to 7 at T-Mobile Arena. Last year’s championship was moved from Las Vegas to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to circumvent local COVID restrictions that would have prohibited spectators from attending.

Here are three things to look for at Unleash the Beast-Las Vegas Invitational and Sunday’s Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo for Black cowboys that for the first time is being co-produced by the PBR:

1. Jose’s hosanna

Jose Vitor Leme of Brazil returns to Las Vegas as the reigning PBR champion after being overtaken for the 2019 title in dramatic fashion by Montana’s Jess Lockwood at T-Mobile.

Leme, 24, is a former soccer player who, like many top riders from Brazil, has overcome a humble background to ascend to the top of the sport. He covered 44 of his 65 bulls during a dominating run to the 2020 championship, but will be matched against a rank bull called Cha Ching, who is 16-0 in UTB events, in Friday’s first round.

“I have watched all of the greats that have come through the PBR, and I have not seen anybody do it in any bigger fashion than what Jose Vitor Leme has,” said Justin McBride, the retired two-time PBR champion who attended UNLV.

2. Boys from Brazil

Leme is considered a prohibitive favorite to repeat as PBR champion despite trailing 2018 titlist and countryman Kaique Pacheco by 16 points atop the world standings.

Seven of the top 10 riders hail from Brazil. Cooper Davis, the 2016 series champ from Texas, sits third in points, 180.5 off the lead.

3. TV for Pickett

Bill Pickett was a Black cowboy around the turn of the 20th century who invented the maneuver called bulldogging that evolved into the traditional rodeo event of steer wrestling. His legacy and that of the Black cowboy is celebrated with a rodeo in which all the contestants are Black.

Sunday’s Bill Pickett Invitational will be shown on the CBS Sports Network on June 19 — Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating emancipation from slavery.

Pickett’s contributions to rodeo and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association championships won by bull rider Charlie Sampson and roper Fred Whitfield have called attention to the skill of Black cowboys.

“But seeing a Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on network television — there is no greater moment in the past 100 years,” said Keith Ryan Cartwright, author of the book “Black Cowboys of Rodeo.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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