The toughest cowboys and the rankest bulls met at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds May 17 to battle it out in the Desert Challenge, an annual event sponsored by Professional Bull Riders. And while Oklahoma's Cody Whitney took home the top money, Mike Seng gets credit for bringing the event to Tucson.
Seng, a Tucson native and graduate of Mountain View High School, and his promotion company, Underdog Productions, have been working on the Challenge for almost a year. While he may sound like a businessman - he spends a lot of time behind a desk working as the entrepreneurship coordinator at the Eller College of Business and Public Administration at the University of Arizona - he's a cowboy, and specifically, a bull rider, at heart.
Seng, 25, started Underdog Productions in January 2000 during his senior year at the UA as a way of combining his two loves: business and bull riding.
"I get on about every weekend and I probably go to about 60 events a year," he says.
He's got a few scars to prove it: "I've been knocked out a couple of times, bruised some ribs, couple of fractured bones, broke some bones in my hand …"
And while the feast-or-famine life of a rodeo cowboy might not always pay his bills, he's got his company to fall back on. He now works full time as a professional promoter, putting on events like the Desert Challenge.
The Challenge is his main event for the year, but he does others. He recently put on an event at the Apache Gold Casino in San Carlos, and he's working on putting together a few more annual events.
"I would like to build it up to about five [yearly] events in Arizona, New Mexico and California over the next couple of years," Seng says.
For this year's Challenge, he rounded up 40 of the best cowboys in the business and more than $4,000 in prizes. Cody Whitney, a Minco, Okla. cowboy who made his first rodeo appearance since January after smashing his face on a bull, won the top prize with his 87-point ride on the bull Monkey Face. He took home $1,500 for the ride.
Josh Lozinsky, Tucson's only competitor in the event, scored 79.5 points on the bull Backhoe, but it did not earn him a high enough score to make it to the final go- round and compete for the cash. None of the cowboys competing in the final round rode their bulls, so Whitney, who earned the first go-round's highest score, became the winner. John Jacobs, of Timber Lake, S.D., earned a second-place spot with his 86-point ride on Blues Clues.
While the rodeo wasn't one of Professional Bull Riding Association's main events - it's part of the third-tier touring class Humps 'N Horns - it did draw two of the sport's biggest names: former world champions Owen Washburn and Cody Custer.
For Washburn and Custer, the event wasn't a major stop on their year-round touring schedules. It also wasn't a long way from home for either of the cowboys. Washburn lives two hours away in Lordsburg, N.M. Custer lives a few more hours away in Wickenburg. They competed against each other in an exhibition round during a break in the regular action. Custer was thrown off his bull but Washburn stayed on for an 89-point ride.
"I thought it was pretty good bull riding," Washburn said. "Cody and I both drew good bulls."
Washburn is currently inching toward the top of the PBR standings - sixth in the world - and he'll compete against Custer and a few dozen others for the $1 million prize in Las Vegas this October. He earned a place among the other world champions in 1996, and he's working towards doing it again in 2003.
Washburn is leading the Built Ford Tough series with $229,556 in total prize money this year. Custer has earned $27,301 this year and currently stands in 25th place.
Seng, who just bought some land in Marana and is planning to build a house, will be working towards that goal himself. He continues to compete every weekend, but he also remains focused on his business.
"I always knew I was going to ride bulls and that was the line of business I wanted to be in," he says.
Many cowboys work towards making a living at their sport, Washburn says, but few can make enough to pay the bills by just riding bulls. That's why some cowboys venture into the rodeo business.
Washburn is a stock contractor, raising bulls at his ranch in New Mexico (one of his bulls is Blues Clues). Other bull riders own cattle ranches. Then there are cowboys like Ty Murray who, through riding and sponsorships, earns well over $1 million dollars a year.
But for Seng, business has been in his blood since birth. Bull riding, on the other hand, has been in his blood for the last nine years.
"It went pretty well," Seng said of this year's event. Last year's attendance figures were right around 2,000. This year's figures may have taken a dip, but he's satisfied with the outcome. He's already planning for next year's events, working with stock contractors and seeking sponsorships.
Seng says he hosts the event in Tucson to give back to the community, and he plans to continue it from now on.
Ed. Note: Wasburn is the cousin of Staff Photographer Jason Watkins.