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He was a dominating Idaho high school wrestler. Now he’s one of the world’s top bull riders.

Snake River Stampede bull riding highlights, Day 1

Bull riding highlights from the first go-round of the 2018 Snake River Stampede in Nampa, Idaho. Jordan Wacey Spears won the round with a ride of 88.5 points. Elliot Jacoby, Garrett Smith and Jesse Petri also scored rides.
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Bull riding highlights from the first go-round of the 2018 Snake River Stampede in Nampa, Idaho. Jordan Wacey Spears won the round with a ride of 88.5 points. Elliot Jacoby, Garrett Smith and Jesse Petri also scored rides.

As a member of the Piva family, wrestling is in Ruger Piva’s blood.

He capped his career at Challis High with 101 straight victories and back-to-back state titles, then walked on at Boise State before winning a national title for Montana Western.

But the 23-year-old has found a new way onto the national stage — bull riding.

He entered the 103rd annual Snake River Stampede on Tuesday 31st on the money list in the event for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

“Wrestling, that’s what has really helped me,” Piva said. “Obviously there is a totally different style to it. But it’s that wrestler mentality of you don’t quit ever, you’re always fighting to win no matter what.”

He rode on the rodeo’s opening night, getting bucked off by Floating Fury in 1.7 seconds.

Piva began rodeoing at 9 years old. But wrestling remained his, and the Piva family’s, focus until recently.

Piva’s grandfather, Joe Piva, and great uncle, John Piva, schooled him on the wrestling mat since birth. John Piva led Challis’ wrestling program for 32 years, winning four state titles and getting elected to the Idaho chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame before retiring last summer. And Kaden Piva, Ruger’s cousin, won three state titles for Challis before wrestling at the University of Great Falls.

“I had to either get good or be disowned by the family,” Piva joked.

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Challis’ Ruger Piva ranks 31st in the world in bull riding this season. He is a former Boise State wrestler who finished his high school career winning two state titles and 101 straight matches Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

But Piva struggled when he walked on at Boise State for the 2014-15 season. The Broncos’ wrestling room was filled with talent and Piva’s grades slipped as he fought for time on the mat. By January, he was academically ineligible and transferred to Montana Western, an NAIA program in Dillon, Mont.

“It was totally my fault,” Piva said. “They were good coaches. It was my fault.”

He finished the season wrestling for Montana Western, winning the 2015 National Collegiate Wrestling Association national title as a 165-pound freshman. Montana Western put him on a full-ride rodeo scholarship the next year and he planned to compete in both sports. But a practice bull broke his ankle that summer, forcing doctors to insert a metal rod and for Piva to make a decision.

He tried to return to the wrestling mat that winter. But the ankle never regained its full mobility and it throbbed after every practice. Riding a bull doesn’t require Piva to use his ankle much, outside an awkward landing or a bull stepping on it.

“After I won national title, I didn’t really have anything else (to prove),” Piva said. “I wasn’t going to go to the Olympics in it. I had done everything I wanted to do.”

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Trick roper Loop Rawlins performs at the 2018 Snake River Stampede. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

So Piva devoted himself to reigning in bulls full time, and the decision paid off. He finished second at the College Rodeo Nationals Finals in June of 2017, then hit the professional circuit, winning the Pendleton Round-Up last September and finishing fifth in the PRCA’s rookie standings. His $41,137.90 of earnings also placed him 37th overall on the PRCA tour.

He’s off to an ever better sophomore campaign, hauling in $34,787.34 so far this season. He won the Molalla Buckaroo in Oregon over the Fourth of July, but his largest career payday ($19,750) and victory so far came at the Las Vegas stop on the Tuff Hedeman Bull Riding Tour in March despite a broken foot.

It all has Piva eyeing his first trip to the Nationals Finals Rodeo in December. The top 15 riders on the money list qualify.

“Hopefully by end of this year I can make enough to make it there,” Piva said. “I know I’m like 30th right now, but there’s still a lot of the season left to go, a lot of big rodeos I could win and possibly jump up there.”

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