Garrett Ryals is nervous.
He has no reason to be nervous and, yet, he has every reason in the world to feel that way.
The 26-year-old from Hector, Arkansas, is a veteran bullfighter – both freestyle and cowboy protection – who knows what it takes to win, especially when it comes to competing in Uvalde, Texas.
Ryals won Shorty Gorham’s American Freestyle Bullfighting event in Uvalde last May and hopes to do so again this coming weekend.
That is not why he’s nervous.
This year’s format is a 15-man lineup, while Ryals fought his way to the top of a 25-man event a year ago.
That is not why he’s nervous either.
This is the first time Ryals has been healthy since last year’s event. He was roughed up and hooked the very next time he fought. Initially he hoped he had escaped with a sprained knee, but two weeks later Ryals was diagnosed with a torn MCL.
He sat out close to seven months and although he knew he was not 100 percent, he tried returning to freestyle bullfighting earlier this year.
“My knee wasn’t quite ready to come back,” he recalled, “so I didn’t do very good.”
Ryals added, “I can’t wait to get to Uvalde and get started, but, then again, it’s kind of in the back of my mind, you know, this is three nights straight and these will be some of the best bulls that they’ve got coming.”
Five years ago, his body recovered quicker than it does now.
And his father made sure he understands the recovery time will only get longer with each passing year, so it’s imperative to take care himself in and out of the arena.
“This is life,” Ryals said. “It’s a business for me. It’s hard for me to go to a small pumpkin-picking bull riding or go to small bullfights that don’t have much money because if I’m going to go, I want to win and if I’m going to win, I want to some real money because if I take a hooking then $1,000 ain’t going to be worth it to me.
“I just gotta be smart and listen to my body.”
This week’s event, which starts Thursday night at the Uvalde County Fairplex and concludes Saturday evening, features 15 of the top AFB bullfighters in the world, including Cade Gibson and Evan Allard. The event also features Koby Adams, Coy Danison, Andres Gonzalez, Alex McWilliams, Tori Ozane, Alex Paredes, Chance Pruitt, Ryder Rich, Josh Taylor, Tyler Thiessen, Sage Seay and Garrett Wilkinson.
Allard has won multiple world titles and “definitely got all the tricks of the trade,” while Ryals recognizes Gibson is “young and super athletic.”
“I’m just going to come in and not really worry about everybody else,” said Ryals, who has experienced the most difficult 18 months of his life. He lost his son and his wife divorced him despite hoping that last year’s win at Uvalde would help save his marriage.
That did not happen.
Then came the injury.
“I ain’t really worried about anything,” Ryals said. “It’s all water under the bridge and I can keep going.”
He has one goal in fighting his way to Saturday night — “stay on my feet.”
Much like last year, in Uvalde, he plans to jump his bull to start off the clock and then pound a fundamentally sound ground game by making mistake-free rounds without letting himself get hooked.
It’s about surviving and adding up the points afterward.
“Finishing the whole 45 seconds to where I can get a good sell and get points,” Ryals said. “We got three bulls, so that’s a good approach. … That’s what I’m shooting for.”
In addition to being an established event on the 2019 schedule, Uvalde will also serve as a world finals event for the 2018 season. Saturday night, Gorham will crown an event winner and, more importantly, the first AFB World Champion.