Imagine Kansas City’s Sprint Center totally blacked out while thousands of people prepare for a flash of fire that will light up the entire arena.
The announcer shouts, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the PBR” and pyrotechnics shoot massive flames in the air while the event’s initials are outlined in fire on the arena floor. Bull heads on both side of the arena shoot out flames while fountains of fire are shot in the air on two stages, resembling giant sparklers.
Next 36-riders enter the arena and walk past firelit initials to be greeted by the crowd. A prayer and the National Anthem are presented while hats are removed and heads respectfully bowed. The lights go on and the show begins.
The PBR has fans from around the world. Many memorize the riders and bulls that, too, are amazing trained athletes. Events sell out fast to see young athletes ride bruiser bulls.
Bull riders mainly from America and Brazil are generally not over 6-feet tall and seldom weigh more than 160 pounds. Their athletic bodies are all muscle with very little fat. This is a sport where the strong survive and the weak never make it to compete with the best, the Professional Bull Riding Association (PBR), in an ancient sport where eventual injury is a certainty and death is always possible.
Mason Lowe, a Missouri cowboy sadly died last season at the Denver Coliseum at the National Western Complex, a sad reminder of how dangerous bulls can be.
PBR bulls are bred to be aggressive in the arena. Most are Brahmas crossed with another breed, weighing 1,500-pounds or more. The best is selected for their tendency to leap, plunge and spin while throwing their rider. Breeders mate aggressive animals because the offspring tend to be even more aggressive. Bulls can run up to 35 mph, much quicker than a thrown rider and this is when the bullfighters save lives or at least serious injury.
Some bulls turn on thrown riders to butt with their massive heads and horns or to trample. Bullfighters step in to gain the bull’s attention while the rider escapes. The worst cases are when a rider in on the arena floor unconscious and the bull is determined to do more damage. A rider sometimes becomes hung up by their bull rope and that can test the best bullfighters.
Bullfighters are exceptionally great athletes that are occasionally launched by the bull’s horns as Frank Newsome was at the Kansas City event. The bullfighter didn’t turn fast enough and was sent flying about 10 feet into an arena wall. He was apparently unhurt but angry, knowing he had run in a straight line too long. Other injuries might come from being stomped or kicked.
The opening ceremony ends and arena lights come on to illuminate a cowboy climbing on his bull in a tight chute. Television, brightly colored chaps with flack jackets, a big crowd and all of the fame disappear. Now it’s man against savage beast in an effort to make several million dollars by doing what most would avoid.
Many of the riders are in pain from earlier riding injuries when they climb on their next bull, knowing that staying on eight seconds means a bigger paycheck and possibly an event win. Beating the bull is their addiction, sweetened by thousands of people cheering. The fear of a career-ending injury is always a possibility that can happen any time.
“I rode on a lot of practice bulls and amateur events before making it here,” said Cody Jesus, of the Navajo Nation. “I always dreamed of competing at a PBR event anytime I rode. The more challenging bull riding became, the more I loved it. I have learned to work through my injuries to compete.”
Jesus, currently seventh place in PBR bull riding world statistics, comes from a bull riding family. They have bulls where he comes from, so practice bulls are always available, but nothing compared to the specially bred PBR bulls.
“Coming to the PBR was really challenging, especially mentally,” Jesus said. “I didn’t really know how to ride these bulls that were a lot faster, bigger and stronger. So, when I returned home, we brought in more challenging practice bulls. At first, I didn’t do very good in the PBR and then I started getting used to this faster competition. You never know what any bull is going to do, practice or PBR bulls.”
PBR bull riders use different ways to prepare for a bull. Some read stats and Jesus sometimes watches the bull he is riding on You Tube. This allows him the mindset of being prepared for what a bull might do. For example, some bulls constantly turn to the right on spins or belly rolls. This can work against a rider too when he knows the bull turns right, but it suddenly turns left. The best riders pick up the change and react. Most fly through the air and land in arena dirt that the PBR moves cross country on trucks to each event.
The finals of each event are determined by the 15 best scores. The rankest bulls are saved for this. Ironically, riders generally pick the hardest to ride to make a big score if they can make the eight seconds. Many of these bulls have never been successfully ridden, some in over 20 outings.
“I like to pick bulls that are kind of out of line for me,” Jesus said. “For example, I picked Rocket Man in Chicago because he is challenging to ride. I am learning his little tricks and that can only make me better.”
Jesus managed a 90-point ride on the bull Rising Sun, the highest score of the day. He did not fare as well on Smooth Wreak in the finals to finish his Kansas City event. So, it’s back home to Arizona and then next week he will compete in Tacoma, Washington.
“I am not riding these bulls for wealth or fame, only to challenge myself,” Jesus said. “I someday hope to raise PBR types of bulls when my riding days are over.”
I predict Jesus will win a world championship before his riding days end and stock contractor days begin.
You can watch the PBR on television. Please check your local listings.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.