When Ezekiel Mitchell climbs onto a bull in the bucking chute, just before he enters the rodeo arena, he repeats a mantra in his head as he situates himself atop the two-thousand-pound beast: Finish, finish, finish. Ride, ride, ride. Stay down till you come up. Through the whistle.
“But once that gate opens, you don’t have time to think,” says Mitchell, a twenty-three-year-old professional bull rider known as Zeke or Blue to his friends, family, and ever-growing legion of fans (at last count, more than 56,000 followers on Instagram and 172,000 on TikTok). Now in his sophomore season in Unleash the Beast, the premier series of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), Mitchell has his eye on the world title in November—a rise to stardom rife with unconventional turns.
Mitchell grew up splitting time between his father’s home in Rockdale, Texas, and his mother’s in Baytown, just outside of Houston. Cowboys could be scarce—especially African American cowboys—but Mitchell had a strong desire to ride even as a child. Westerns like Tombstone, library books, and his father’s job as an equine dentist fanned his early aspirations. “The first few times I got on a steer when I was fifteen, I didn’t know there were any fundamentals,” he says. “I just knew I could get on there and ride. Then I got on YouTube and started figuring things out.”
Yes, Mitchell relied on watching videos to learn technique, but his dad, Danny, initially kept him from competing on bulls, thinking another event like roping or bronc riding might satisfy the longing. But Zeke persisted with the sport, and when he grew too old to contend on steers—considered a gentler gateway to bull riding—Danny finally consented. His mother, Jamie, heeding the age-old advice from Waylon and Willie about babies and cowboys, was harder to convince. “But who can blame a mom?” Mitchell says with a shrug. “Now that I know what I’m doing, and I’ve become more and more successful, she’s one of my biggest fans.”
Mitchell began living part-time in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, last year to escape distractions and focus on riding. And according to Jerome Davis, a founder of the PBR and the 1995 world champion, it’s working. “Even in the last six to eight months, Zeke’s riding has stepped up another notch,” says Davis, who often hosts Mitchell to practice on the bulls at his ranch in nearby Archdale. “His future is bright, and he believes it. He can get to the top ten if he can keep that mindset.”
In late spring, Mitchell sat at number twenty-three in the world rankings—one of the few black men competing at the highest level of the sport. “It doesn’t matter your race or personality,” he says. “I’m proof that you don’t have to do what your social group wants you to do. I don’t fit the mold, but you don’t have to fit the mold.” His demeanor also stands out in the sport: “Everybody likes him,” Davis says. “In bull riding, you’re facing an opponent you can’t read or intimidate,” Mitchell explains. “Your name doesn’t scare them, so you have to find something deeper within yourself to overcome an animal that outweighs you ten times and can move on a dime.” For him, it’s his faith: “It’s why I’m so happy all the time.”
He also doesn’t give in to fear. “It’s my job,” he says, “and you can die or get injured in any job: pushing paper, being a mailman, anything.” Even so, it’s no great leap to assume riding has more of an up-front risk. On two occasions, Mitchell nearly lost an ear: once, when a dewclaw to the side of the head turned his lobe inside out, and another time, when he went headfirst over a bull’s horn. “He barely caught the corner of my ear, but it was enough to knock me unconscious and split my ear pretty much in half.” He came to in the sports medicine room beneath the arena, his friends passing by to tease him for “taking a nap” in the middle of the ride. “I was just trying not to laugh.”
Even with that easygoing attitude, Mitchell’s goal, of course, has always been to win. “Being second best—or fifteenth best, which I was last year—doesn’t settle well with me,” he says. Still, it’s the thrill of being on the bull that propels him. “It’s like driving a truck off a cliff and then trying to steer it down. I love taking that complete and utter chaos and being able to control it for once. For those eight seconds at a time.”