THE WOODLANDS, Texas – Just above the fireplace in Richmond Champion’s house are two large cutouts that sit empty right now.

He has plans to fill them, but they’re pretty specific.“The top two squares are big enough to fit a saddle in,” said Champion, a 24-year-old bareback rider from The Woodlands who is about to compete at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the third time in his career. “I want an NFR average saddle and a world championship saddle up there. I will not fill those with anything else.

“I don’t have a doubt in my mind that I’m capable of it.”

There’s no reason he should doubt it, and he proved it well during the 2017 ProRodeo regular season, in which he earned $101,197. He enters the grand finale ninth in the world standings and is about to compete at the richest rodeo in the world; the NFR offers an $8 million purse, with go-round winners earning more than $26,000 a night for 10 rounds from Dec. 7-16.

Champion earned the right to compete at the NFR in Las Vegas by being one of the more dominant cowboys in the game. He earned at least a share of the victory at 10 rodeos. What doesn’t show up in his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association earnings is the $115,000 he pocketed at the Calgary (Alberta) Stampede.

“Calgary was unreal,” said Champion, a Tarleton State University graduate who has a house near his alma mater in Stephenville. “There was something in the air that week for me. I was just confident on everything I rode. I wasn’t thinking so much about the finished product but focused on having fun each day.

Since the Stampede is not sanctioned by the PRCA, the money doesn’t count toward the world standings. Still, it was a catapult that helped Champion along the way. In addition to advancing to Sin City in December, he also competed at the Canadian Finals Rodeo a couple weeks ago in Edmonton, Alberta.

It was a great opportunity for him and other NFR qualifiers to hone their skills on elite bucking horses.

“Those are a lot of the same horses that will be at the NFR,” said Champion, who traveled much of the season with fellow qualifier Caleb Bennett, the No. 6 man in the standings from Tremonton, Utah. “Getting on that caliber of animal three weeks ahead of time is good.

“You can get on practice animals all day long, but we’re going to get on the best horses for 10 days in a row. You need to be ready for that.”

Champion is ready. He’s a veteran in the game, even though he won’t turn 25 until Dec. 16, the final night of the rodeo season.

“For my third NFR, I don’t have questions about what it’s going to be like,” he said. “I can sit here and close my eyes and go from start to finish, what it’s going to be like when I get to the Thomas & Mack every night.

“Last year I was actually more nervous than the first year. The first time I got there, I just wanted to absorb it all, experience it all. This year I’m going to try to treat it just like it’s the regular season. That’s the mindset I’ve got to have when I get there.”

The mental side of the game is important for any athlete. Each needs to know he has the talent to throw that touchdown pass or have the game-winning hit if the opportunity arises.

When it comes to riding bucking beasts, Champion understands what it means to spur in rhythm with the horse and giving himself every chance to score big points; the higher the score, the better the opportunity it is for him to cash the bigger paychecks.

Unlike other sports, there are no guarantees in rodeo. The only way for Champion to earn money is to perform better than most in the field. At the NFR, only the top six scores earn money each night. He’ll need every dollar if he hopes to overtake a talented field; he trails the world standings leader, Tim O’Connell, by a little more than $100,000.

“The money in rodeo this year is insane, and it’s awesome,” said Champion, who, if things go his way, could catch O’Connell by the fourth night of the 10-day championship. “For the top 10 bareback riders to all have accumulated over $1 million this season … that’s what we’ve wanted the sport to get to, and it’s only getting better.

“Can you really make a living at this? Yes. Rodeo, as a whole, is making huge steps. Guys are hungry, and guys are more competitive.”

That makes it fun for men like him. He craves the competition, just like he hungers for bucking horses. He’ll have plenty of both in Las Vegas.

“It’s going to take a lot of things for me to win the world title,” he said. “My goal and my plan that I think will work is to do what I do the best: Take advantage of every opportunity and don’t worry about anybody else and their standing. I want to be in a position that if anyone of those guys ahead of me makes a mistake, I can take advantage.

“It can all change really fast. I’m just going to go with that consistent game that is my bread and butter. When I get the opportunity to show out, do it and don’t hold back.”

He’ll do that through a tremendous talent aided by a powerful work ethic. He has the support of his family: his dad, Greg; his mom, Lori; and his brother, Doug, a former bareback rider. From being there in person when possible or offering an ear over the phone, it all comes with the team effort the Champions have.

Over his short but noteworthy career, Champion has had some of the biggest victories in all of rodeo. He was the original $1.1 million winner of The American in 2014, and a few months later parlayed his title in Cheyenne, Wyo., into his first NFR qualification.

The biggest prize is still out there for him, but he is excited about the opportunity he has this December.

“This is the best I’ve ever felt about my riding,” said Champion, who also is supported by his sponsors, Chevy Trucks, Nocona Boots, Yeti and Hooey. “The comfort that I’ve found and that nervous, fired-up energy that I’ve found a way to thrive on, I think I’ve found my groove that I can create more often. My riding isn’t so hit-and-miss. I have a more consistent mindset and feeling, and it’s shown in my riding this year.”

Now he wants to prove it with that coveted gold buckle.