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Bull!

A nerve-racking, dust-kicking whirlwind tour of the toughest eight seconds in sports

Author ADAM K. RAYMOND

ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX NABAUM

BULL RIDING HAS BEEN CALLED the toughest eight seconds in sports, the most dangerous eight seconds in sports and the most painfully stressful eight seconds in sports (that last one is mine). An excellent bull rider like Brazil’s Robson Palermo can make those eight seconds look relatively serene, but as Palermo showed at a recent Professional Bull Riders competition in Thackerville, Okla., even when you control a bull for eight seconds, he’ll get you in the ninth.

“I knew that bull was mean,” Palermo told me after a tussle with a 1,500-pound devil in bull’s clothing named Mad Max. After thwarting Max’s attempts to throw him for eight seconds, the length of time necessary to qualify for a score, Palermo lost control. Max threw the rider forward and shot his own massive head back, bashing Palermo’s telenovela-ready jaw with one of his megaphone-size horns. Then he threw Palermo to the ground and, in an attempt to ensure that everyone knew he deserved his name, Mad Max hooked the man by the legs and flung him six feet into the air like a farmer flings hay. Palermo landed with a thud, popped back up and limped his way to safety. It had been 11 seconds.

“That boy got me pretty good in the jaw, but I’ve already moved on to the next one,” Palermo said, explaining to me that if a bull rider ever gets scared, “he better quit.”

If that applies to spectators, too, then I guess I’m done. I was standing a full 30 feet from Palermo, and the only thing consuming me more than the late summer heat was the fear. I feared for Palermo, a five-foot-six tank of a man who grew up in the Brazilian jungle; I feared for the bull, whose unresolved anger issues made me wonder if he’d ever have a stable home life; and I feared for myself, because along with being a chicken, I’m incredibly self-absorbed.

And it wasn’t just the bulls that had me on edge. Nearly everything about the place made me uncomfortable, from the long-sleeved button-down shirts everyone wore on a 103-degree day to the name of one of the contest’s sponsors, Exclusive Genetics. But as a sports fan, a Southerner and a man who thinks he looks good in cowboy boots, I’ve challenged myself to see what the buzz is all about. And make no mistake: There’s buzz. Professional Bull Riders attracts upward of 1.5 million people to 300 sanctioned events annually, selling out in cities as far apart geographically and culturally as New York and Des Moines, and, in the surest sign of mainstream validation, there are now trading cards featuring the faces of PBR riders.

So I made my way to this Built Ford Tough Series event, the major leagues of bull riding, just across the border from Texas. It was the first time the series had held a competition outdoors since 2005, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at the place. A makeshift PBR arena seemed to have sprung from the middle of a parched Oklahoma field, just a few steps from the WinStar World Casino, a massive gambling fortress.

Punky and Jim Nyberg, who wear the sun-scorched faces of longtime North Texas ranchers, snagged seats in the desert sun a full two hours before the bull riding began. “I’m an animal person. I grew up with horses,” Punky said by way of explaining her love of the sport. It’s not just the animals, though. The riders, she said, are some of the toughest sons of guns to ever strap on a pair of chaps. “These guys have to be in perfect shape. I have seen them just get the daylights banged out of them and get right back up.”

Soon I would too. As I quickly learned, bull riding tends to go like this: A scrawny kid who looks just like the guys in the grandstands climbs on top of a bull waiting in a chute. After positioning himself and firmly gripping a rope that encircles the bull’s haunches, he gives a nod and the chute door swings open. Immediately, the bull is hopping and popping and spinning, his muscles bulging. The rider either lasts eight seconds, in which case he’s awarded a score (up to 50 points for him and 50 points for the bull), or he doesn’t.

But every rider, no matter how well he handles that bull, ends up on the ground. And each time, I was absolutely certain he was going to be trampled. Inevitably, though, just as the bull seemed prepared to gore the fallen rider, one of the three “agile bullfighters,” which is what we’re calling rodeo clowns these days, showed up to distract the bull and avert catastrophe.

“There’s a right way to get off these animals and avoid getting hurt,” said Luke Snyder, a 28-year-old bull rider who was once able to avoid serious injury long enough to ride in a record 275 consecutive PBR events. “It happens so fast though. It’s like a car crash. You just don’t have time to think about it.”

On the second night of competition — many PBR events last for either two or three nights — I wandered down to the makeshift stables before the hooting and hollering started. There, soaking up the sun like a bunch of land-based elephant seals, were the bulls. In the daylight they looked like every hefty farm animal I’d ever driven by: docile, sleepy and not at all concerned with me. As people close to PBR kept telling me, these bulls are performers. They know that the bright lights signal that it’s time to get mean, and the rest of the time they’re treated like a million bucks — or at least $100,000, which is what they can be worth.

Every rider has his own way of handling these beasts in the arena. Palermo says the key is balance and flexibility. “Everywhere the bull moves, you need to move with him.” Snyder says it’s about finding that sweet spot on the bull’s back. “You try to get into a rocking-horse position and take the bull’s power away. When you get it and you’re on a roll, it’s easy. Sometimes it’s harder than heck to find, though.”

It’s never harder for a rider than when he’s on a rank bull, which isn’t a bull that stinks — though it is a bull, so it probably does — but a bull known to throw his body around with an extra level of intensity. Since half the rider’s score is determined by how difficult the bull is to ride, rank bulls tend to be the most popular with the riders.

They soon became the most popular with me, too. Watching the best riders mount the rankest bulls is what finally helped me get it. Even while the bulls forcefully bounded up and down, the best riders remained unfathomably upright, compensating for each jolt and anticipating the next one. Snyder told me that a bull and a cowboy are like dance partners. Over the course of the competition, I began to see it. The bull led and the rider would follow. There was a strange grace and beauty to it all.

I left Thackerville infinitely more knowledgeable about bull riding than when I arrived. I’d learned about flank straps and rank bulls, the sport’s byzantine scoring system, and that in the bull riding world it’s completely normal to be named Stormy Wing or Ryan Dirteater. I was also ready to admit that, yes, bull riding actually is the toughest, most dangerous, most fascinating eight seconds in sports. That being said, the only way I’d ever get on a bull is if it was surrounded by padding, plugged into a wall and in the middle of an establishment that serves cheap beer, and maybe some mozzarella sticks.

ADAM K. RAYMOND, a writer in Indianapolis, once managed to stay on his couch for a full eight hours.

Mega Bucks

The best bulls on the tour are the ones that are hardest to ride. As these three top specimens prove, they’re also the ones with the most intimidating names.

BUSHWACKER
Times ridden for 8 seconds: 0 (out of 20 total rides)
Average buckoff time: 3.01 seconds
“He’s a smart bull. Every time he leaves the chute, he’s got something for you.” — BULL RIDER ROBSON PALERMO

I’M A GANGSTER
Times ridden for 8 seconds: 2 (out of 29 total rides)
Average buckoff time: 3.56 seconds
“He’s dirty and he can dang-sure buck.” — BULL RIDER J.B. MAUNEY

VOODOO CHILD
Times ridden for 8 seconds: 4 (out of 27 total rides)
Average buckoff time: 4.02 seconds
“To ride that bull, you have to have everything just right.” — BULL RIDER L.J. JENKIN

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