Sato on riders' minds for X-Fighters opener

Tes Sewell takes us inside the bullring to preview the Red Bull X-Fighters World Tour opener in Mexico City.

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Editor's note: Tes Sewell is the sport director for Red Bull X-Fighters.

This year promises to be another epic one for the Red Bull X-Fighters world tour. Already renowned for spectacular freestyle events in equally spectacular settings, the 2013 tour branches out again this season to more uncharted territory.

Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

Levi Sherwood begins defense of his X-Fighters championship knowing the likes of Dany Torres, Thomas Pagès and Josh Sheehan will be looking to take it away.

The whole thing kicks off a month earlier than last year in a familiar setting from years past. The Plaza de Toros Monumental in Mexico City has not played host to an X-Fighters event for two years, but the Mexican fans have not lost their passion for the sport as evidenced by tickets for the massive bullfighting arena selling out in record time.

The arena is a tight space with a circular floor, barely 150 feet across. To counteract the claustrophobic effects of the diminutive diameter, the team has designed a set of run-out ramps that climb into the seating area, giving the Mexican fans a real up-close experience with the riders. For 2013, a distinctive return ramp is also elevated above the dirt floor that allows for a direction of jump that was previously not possible in the squeezed circle.

Mexico City was the breakout venue for Levi Sherwood, then barely 17 years old and astounding the crowd with his "rubberized" moves and surprising confidence. The year was 2009, and the young Kiwi beat out the seasoned Japanese rider Eigo Sato for the win.

This year the event will start with much sadness because of the untimely passing of the popular Sato in a training accident just a week before this stop. All of the athletes will be riding with Sato on their minds and in their hearts.

Sherwood now comes into Mexico as the defending tour champion, but he has some serious competition.

"This year I don't know," Sherwood said when asked who are the greatest threats to his title. "Obviously we've got Thomas (Pagès) and Dany (Torres) and then I think we have Josh (Sheehan) as well. Those are the obvious ones, but after this round it will be like any other year where you have the surprise guy that's back up in there. Realistically, for the whole series, I would say Dany would actually be the toughest this year, maybe Thomas, but we will see how that goes."

Torres wants to win back the tour title he won in 2011. He is a spectacular performer in the bullring settings and knows how to play up to the crowd. His trick list has also evolved again over the winter season and there is anticipation for the 100 percent healthy Spaniard to attack from the get-go.

Pagès kicked butt and took names in 2012. He came into the tour without a backflip last year and many said that winning at the top of the sport of FMX was unthinkable without a flip. In Munich, Germany, Pagès proved the doubters wrong and ran away with the win. Tied coming into the finals in Sydney, some challenges in his run allowed Sherwood to take the title, but Pagès showed a backflip and a 360 in his run -- foreshadowing something we might see in Mexico. Any one of these top three riders from 2012 could claim the win in Mexico.

Once Mexico is in the books, the tour moves back to the Arabian Gulf and the "Vegas" of the Middle East: Dubai. This year sees a new venue in Dubai, moving off the beach and sitting next to the Burj Khalifa -- the world's tallest building. With the bigger course in the United Arab Emirates, this will again play to the different styles and strengths of some of the big course riders. Expect to see a strong performance from Aussie rider Sheehan in Dubai.

Dubai leads into the most massive course in the sport of freestyle motocross and the California hillsides of Glen Helen. Last year saw local boy Todd Potter hold off the charge of Pagès on the vast Inland Empire terrain. This year more of the riders will be prepared for the scope of the course and can be expected to give Potter and fellow local (and podium finisher) Wes Agee a real challenge. Expect more giant step-ups and huge dirt hits in the first daytime event of the season. Also expect a lot of tattoos and flat-billed hats.

Jörg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool

The Plaza de Toros Monumental arena is a tight layout that gives Mexico City fans an up-close experience.

Early June brings X-Fighters to its first-ever stop in Asia. Osaka Castle is a beautiful building in the heart of modern Osaka and the gardens of the castle play host to the freestyle madness for the first time. This event was a dream of Sato's and the desire to live out Sato's dream for the sport that he loved will no doubt drive some exceptional performances in front of an ecstatic Japanese audience. Sato may be gone from the tour, but his spirit and "Go Big!" attitude will most certainly dominate this event.

July is the traditional stop in what X-Fighters insiders refer to as the "Wimbledon" of the tour, Madrid's Las Ventas bullfighting arena. This is not only one of the most beautiful stops on the tour, but one of the most beautiful venues anywhere in any sport. The passionate and vocal Spanish fans also lend to the special feeling in this place and winning at Las Ventas is unlike winning at any other FMX venue in the world. It may be Torres' house, but history has proven that he is not unbeatable on home soil, so expect everyone to come out with guns-a-blazing as the tour winds down to its final stop.

For the past two years, the X-Fighters tour has wrapped up at the bottom of the world in Sydney, Australia. This year the tour stays toward the southern pole, but on a completely different continent. The setting is in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, the seat of South Africa's government where the X-Fighters course takes over a massive space on the government's front lawn.

Over six months and five continents, this is a hard-fought world title. Last year was a great example of how the consistency of Sherwood and the brash innovative flash of Pagès gave opportunities to win it all. Which is the best method to claim the title in 2013? We'll tell you in September.

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