Inside the Disneyland staff room, two scores of human beings are donning well-known and highly animated furry costumes and preparing to dance, sing, and scamper about hugging young children in an attempt to convince them that six-foot tall furry fantasies are not threatening. Tickets prices are nearing the century mark and the fee for a good burger lingers around double digits. Children and parents will scream a lot.
Seven miles distant, beneath the steel girdered rafters of the Honda Center, it is week three – there are twenty-nine on the schedule – of the Built Ford Tough Series Professional Bull Riding competition. At present, Australian tough man Ben Jones, whose fame stems from a post-ride jig in which he flails his hips and arms about as though he has fleas in his britches, and is blessed with the drawling cowboy accent that makes down-under folk sound moderately retarded, is in first place in the national rankings. Jones is not a good bull rider; he is the best bull rider. In this competition, however, he has already been launched sixteen feet skyward on a 70-degree vector and ended his first round with two bleeding nostrils and a noticeable limp. Luck follows him.
The PBR was established in 1992, at first an offshoot of the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), an organization whose start dates back to July 4, 1869, when two groups of cowboys from neighboring ranches met in Deer Trail, CO, to settle an argument over who was the best at performing everyday ranching tasks. Tired of being paid the same meager wage as rope twirlers and barrel racers, the bull riders ventured out, with twenty trailblazers forking over $10,000 a piece, to the chagrin – and probable verbal abuse and ceaseless nagging – of their wives, in hopes of establishing their own brand. Fifteen years later, they were bought out at $10,000,000 per player, although each man stays active in the corporation.
It is day two of this event. Last night, forty riders completed the first round and then went to bed really fucking sore. Today’s event consists of round two of preliminary action, when riders are assigned bulls and given a score. Once completed, the top ten riders in round one and two will come to center ring and choose their bulls.
There are six major stockbrokers across America, tending to their livestock with highly engineered diets, genetic enhancements –they’ve already cloned the badass bull named Bushwacker three times – and a steady stream of Gatorade to ensure the bulls stay hydrated (apparently Bos Taurus are rather particular about their liquids). From a young age, the bulls are supervised, scouted to determine their disposition, athleticism, and the uncanny ability to eject an ambitious cowboy into the lower stratosphere.
Slim Coppers, a middle-aged and baseball-cap-covered chap whose bodily scent reminds one of old cheese, explained the breeding process, “I’m lookin’ for the meanest bastards cuz they’s the ones that pay the rent.” He then explained his living conditions included a one-bedroom apartment that was close enough to the bar so he could walk home drunk, although he neglected to confirm that he couldn’t afford his water bill, which would have explained the body odor. He was unpleasantly unhandsome and displayed the conversational habits of binging crack-addict, minus three teeth.
Because being catapulted from the back end of a one-ton animal has its hazards, bull riders now don Kevlar vests –presumably to help stem the impact of a crash landing but also to avoid being mangled and crushed when an angry bull stumbles upon them – along with chaps (pronounced shaps – strange since French-sounding words slung from the mouths of cowboys just make them sound phenomenally gay) metal spurs, leather boots and the tightest Wrangler denim they can squeeze into, the goal apparently to enhance the prominence of their sexual anatomy in hopes of inspiring some of the astonishingly gorgeous women attending the event – most of whom sport spandex tank tops, even tighter jeans, and perky smiles beneath those straw hats one imagines all Southern cowgirls have dangling from their bedposts. Of the forty riders, twelve wear vests wired for auditory pleasure, so the anticipatory build-up of a Brazilian twenty-something on his way to eight seconds of glory sounds very similar to something you’d expect to hear in a side alley during Rio de Janiero’s Carnival. All garments, protective and standard, display various sponsor logos. At the PBR, brought to you by Ford trucks and Rockstar liquid fuel, one can also find Cooper Tires, Jack Daniels, and Boot Barn, all of which get highlighted throughout the evening as arena screens broadcast smiling fans receiving gift cards, t-shirts, and odd little mushy stress balls launched from super-squirter guns set atop a Ford truck and triggered by Dickies-clad bullfighters. Your rookie attendee might feel there is a “white trash” self-indulgence going on here, but several of the parking lot’s pick-ups are of this century.
Bull rider training is diverse. International athletes tend toward riding repetition – the Brazilians ride and sprint back in line for another turn – while American riders spend hours running, boxing, and stretching. Understandably, very few spend a lot of time sitting on their asses. All riders are blessed with an inbred (no pun intended) politeness and words like “Sir” and “Ma’am” fall from their tongues like tobacco spit. Plus, they are exceptionally willing to stand for a photo-op with an admiring blogger, even if the blogger makes in-poor-taste innuendos about the strange relationship between bulls and riders.
Surrounded by exo-skeletalish and horrifyingly frail metal fences, is six-hundred cubic yards of dirt, uniformly thick to eight inches, imported from local supplier Robin Kitchens, and retaining an exacting level of moisture measured by the curious and oddly evocative “Weiner Test.” “You grab a handful of it, and squeeze it like a weiner, and if it cakes up without flaking apart and without making your hands too wet, it’s perfect,” so says the event’s producer. Controlled by four sets of computers, the cryos, pyros, lighting, and sound all originate from just outside the bullring. A large collection of 1980’s music provides the evening’s entertainment, indicating the general demographic for the event runs from about 35-50 years old. These post-disco, pre-Gen X-ers stomp around with twenty-ounce beers, and four-dollar pretzels, which drip mustard on a level of flannel that stirs up visions of a Cristo art piece. Sometime during the event, an Ahern Bobcat T250 dirt compactor – the PBR’s version of a Zamboni although not nearly as fun to say – makes its way into the arena to reconcile the dirt.
Rides are scored on a points system. Prior to each ride, two giant LED screens provide specifications for both rider and bull. Riders profiles include a photo, hometown, date of birth and world ranking. Unattractive beasts, the bulls do not get a picture. Along with their suggestive names – Voodoo Child, I’m a Gangster, Flirting with Disaster, El Presidente, and the virtually un-rideable Bushwacker – the screens show Average Buckoff time, Buckoff percentage, and Average Ride score. As an example, Bushwacker’s buckoff percentage is 100% and his average ride time is 2.83 seconds. This is one mean motherfucking bull. Four judges stand ringside, each complete with a handheld electronic scoring card – the kind you see on America’s Funniest Home Videos, only these smell a lot worse and are covered in dust and old paint – and they rate bull rider style with attention to spurring activity, balance, and constant control. Riders attempt to stay aboard for what has to be the longest and most violent eight seconds this side of a Vegas brothel. The clock begins when the bull’s head, hip or shoulder crosses the plain of the bucking chutes. It stops when the bull rider’s hand comes out of the rope or he touches the ground. The bull rider must ride with one hand and is disqualified if he touches himself or the bull with his free hand during the eight-second ride. The other half of the score is based on the performance of the bull and how difficult he is to ride. Judges look for bulls with speed, power, drop in the front end, kick in the back end, direction changes and body rolls. A body rolls occurs when a bull is in the air and kicks either his hind feet or all four feet to the side. The more of these characteristics a bull displays during a ride, the higher the mark is for the bull and the more likely it is for a rider to be hurled into a crowd-pleasing face-plant. Both riders and bulls receive a score out of fifty. A combined score of 90 or above causes the crowd to roar and a ridiculously attractive near-bikini-laden cowgirl to hoist a “90-Point Ride” sign northward.
On this night, three riders scored 90 or better, which is to say, 33% of the riders who managed to stay aboard the bull for eight seconds achieved a 90-point ride. If I could stay on for eight seconds, it is likely that I could score a 90. It is more likely that I would end up like thirty-one of the other bull riders whose injuries are probably partly responsible for America’s atmospheric Health Insurance rates. They include new teeth, surgeries, horn scars and gouges, a nose ripped off (the same nose, twice), tendons shredded, a lacerated liver (a phrase which would probably make other squeamish listeners laugh with discomfort too) two punctured lungs, a shattered clavicle, a broken ankle (although that doesn’t stop the riders from riding), and on this night, the limp figure of a twenty one year-old Montana kid flung to the ground in an unconscious state with blood pouring from his neck, spurting from his mouth, and remaining unconscious and unmoving even during the seven minutes during which medical personnel hovered above him with vacant stares and anxious looks while EMT’s strapped on a neck brace and placed him atop a stretcher to transport him to the nearest hospital for a night of morphine-filled pain, for which his girlfriend was taken aside by one of the bull fighters and shuttled off to the hospital to spend a night on her knees in prayer for any sort of good news. Two minutes later, the riders resumed the competition. In response to an inquiring journalist’s questions, the riders explained with the sort of clichés one finds after most athletic contests “Getting hurt’s part of it” “If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger” “get knocked down, get back up” and “sometimes you gotta grab the bull by the horns.” Vince Lombardi would have loved these fellas.
Note: The near-comatose cowboy eventually woke up with a lacerated broken jaw, broken leg, and a severe concussion. He remains on the schedule for next week’s competition.
Bulls spend most of the night in pens behind the ring. Depending on their ability to get along with other bulls, they may be three or four to a stall, a picture which leads one to believe that bulls have social norms and relational abilities, a notion difficult to accept when you see them head butting each other and tossing riders from their backs like tissues in the wind. When called to task, they are led through a series of shafts until they reach the 3’ by 8’ main chute where they are prepared for their rider. At this point, some of the bulls wrench about and might even stand upon two legs in an attempt to excavate themselves from such tight quarters. After a brief warm-up atop a mechanical bull – riders enjoy tossing their fellow competitors about just outside the locker room while admiring spectators look on – and a few stretches, riders wriggle on their gloves, set their licorice-whip decorated chaps, and head out to the riding chutes. Wranglers situate the rider atop the bull and then cinch the flank rope so the bull knows it is show time. Presumably there is no Mensa for bulls. With little warning, the gate opens and a large clock counts out the longest eight seconds in history – on this night, the clock malfunctioned on three different occasions* – as riders attempt to stay aboard. At this point, the arena becomes Colosseum-like. As the bulls lurch into a series of unbelievably violent and tempestuous series of lurches and twists, the audience assumes the faces of folks suddenly stricken with explosive diarrhea. Because most riders are thrown horizontally before the four second mark, the faces change quickly, settling into an expression one might expect on someone about to have a car wreck, as the riders attempt to scurry from beneath kicking hooves and aggressive horns.
Before the PBR, PRCA rodeo clowns donned face paint and spent time rolling around in barrels and taunting the bulls. At the PBR, rodeo clowns are called bull-fighters, sport running shoes and knee pads, triangulate themselves to protect the fallen rider, and function as security. They are big brawny men who would look great standing guard outside Hollywood nightclub doors. Your thinking man would not laugh at them. Not to be outdone, however, PBR does offer non-Toro entertainment. Facially-painted, Flint Rasmussen is a forty-two year old comedian/dancer who appears overly proud of his bald spot. Dressed in American flag silk fatigues, Rasmussen dances to a variety of pop music sound bites with the energy of a hummingbird and the uncoordinated gestures of a stroke victim. Several members of the crowd’s forty-ounce club join him.
When the rider falls, the bull fighters step in, directing the bull away from the rider, weaving and bobbing in some pre-determined method for confusing the dumber-than-dirt beast, all the while making sure the rider doesn’t require immediate medical attention. Should the bull head out towards the greater part of the ring, sitting atop a brown and white Palomino, Julio waits with a well-aimed lasso. He chases the bull down and yanks him towards the chutes and then heads out to his original position awaiting the next competitor. As the last man to confront the bull before it heads off into the stands to mount the face of some drunken and idiotic audience member, rest assured, Julio fits the bill. Blessed with enough high-impact genetics to make his cotton shirts insecure and the thousand-yard stare of a six-tour Vietnam Vet, Julio has an internal will strong enough to make the bulls think twice about venturing out beyond their boundaries. It has been suggested that Julio might be a tougher ride than any bull in the place.
As riders near the 8-second precipice, fan sounds crescendo into a pre-orgasmic scream, ultimately escalating into a full-bore roar replete with a standing ovation. As the bullfighters re-direct the animal, the rider launches into some form of celebratory dance, prayer, or limping stagger. On this evening, Brazilian Silvano Alves conquered Hawaiian Ivory with a score of 91.25 to edge out Skeeter Kingsolver and win the $15,000 prize. Your correspondent spent the remainder of the evening pondering the heroin-like adrenalin rush required to attempt to thwart a creature so historically brazen that it appears on cave paintings.
* In a sport where the main objective is to stay aboard an animal for eight seconds, a working clock seems pretty pivotal. Your correspondent intends to have a few words with the event producers regarding obtaining a watch sponsor. Since only one out of four completes the task and with men’s lives hanging in the balance, your educated programmer might try some forethought as to a backup system, for fucks sake.