Ridin’ Dirty

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B ull fighting is one thing. Highly dangerous, of course. But bullfighters are armed. They weaken their target as the fight goes on. The bullfighter’s job: kill the bull.
    Then there’s bull riding. Man and bull, period. Armed? These cowboys hold on with one hand. In the eight seconds they have to stay astride, the bull only bucks harder. The bull rider’s job: not to be killed by the bull.
    That is why bull riding is the absolute number-one most white-knuckle, heart-stopping event I have ever witnessed or experienced. That’s coming from a Red Sox fan. And today, bull riding is a bigger-than-rodeo business, marketed as “America’s original extreme sport” and, for better or worse, “the next NASCAR.” Bucking-bull breeding alone is a multi-million dollar industry, wherein one tablespoon of semen from a champion alpha can reportedly fetch up to $3,000. Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (PBR) now sponsors a twenty-nine-city, $10 million tour, televised on NBC and the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), that culminates in the World Finals in Las Vegas on October 27.


    Now PBR has even made it to the IFC: Rank, a documentary about the 2004 finals, directed by John Hyams, premieres October 5. Rank — rodeo lingo for a hard-to-ride bull — focuses on the three top riders vying for the coveted $1 million title and super-snazzy belt buckle, and it’s certainly a worthwhile primer for those more likely to TiVo IFC than OLN. But do watch it before the PBR finals, not instead of them, as it falls oddly, maddeningly short of conveying bull riding’s true, raw thrill.
    Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe Rank felt a bit tame to me because I’d just seen bull riding — and rodeo — live, with all the snorting, pounding noise in your ears and the palpable threat of death that gets in your mouth and coats your skin like the swirling dust. I saw my second rodeo this July in Laramie, WY, where I was visiting a friend, an equally huge fan who saves her rodeo programs to prove that the competitors really do have given names like Colt and Blaze.
    But rodeo, sports fans, is not quaint. Even the signature refreshments are hard-core: cartoonishly massive — and messy — smoked turkey legs that appear in my personal photo collection captioned “More mead, wench!” or “Yabba dabba doo!” If there’s anything “cute” about rodeo at all, it’s the first event, Mutton Bustin’, in which — pay attention, spinach-panicked city-slicker parents — CHILDREN, only some of whom are wearing HELMETS, attempt to RIDE huge angry SHEEP and are inevitably hurled violently off into the dirt. Into the SHEEP SHIT and dirt. Where they CRY and their parents LAUGH. (Lily Burana, author of the smart new rodeo-romance novel Try, characterized it as “Park Slope [Brooklyn]: ‘Eloise Elodie-Trudybelle Maude-Gonne Hermione just got into Junior Julliard! We want her to go but we’re worried she’ll feel intimidated by the social pressure!’ Laramie: ‘We just strapped ol’ Connor Jack to his first woolie and he got stepped on and kicked, but he wanted to do it again so we let ‘im, the little shit.'”)
    Bull riding is any rodeo’s final marquee event, but what precedes it in the program is hardly for the faint of heart, or ass. Saddle bronc and bareback riding? The horse doesn’t want to kill you, but he sure could. Barrel racing? Might be the “ladies'” event, but at

When they’re not leaping off galloping horses, they’re saying, “Yes ma’am, no Ma’am,” and spinning you off in a whirling two-step.

those speeds, those are no ladies. Steer wrestling? All you have to do is leap from a galloping horse onto a pissed-off steer. And then wrestle it, bare-handed, to the ground.
    And then there are the bulls. A cowboy looks like he fits on a horse, even one that wants him off. But on a bull, a hulking 1,600-pound bull, he looks like a tiny toy from a totally different playset. The bull bucks and spins; the rider, rubber-spined, rolls with it back and forth; maybe he lasts the required eight seconds, maybe he doesn’t. (No eight seconds, no score at all. Otherwise, the score for each ride is 50% the rider, 50% the bull. That way you don’t get an unfair edge if you stay on an easier bull.) Even when the rider’s off, you still can’t take a breath, because the bull is not done. He may gore, he may kick, he may stomp. That guy, right in front of you, might die.
    So might the “bull fighters,” who step in to distract and help corral the beast when the rider’s off. Unarmed but for padding, these two guys are the elite Secret Service of bull riding; like Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire, they’re there to take the bullet, round after round. The cowboys face one bull per ride; these guys face every bull, all night. “My job is to provide a better target than the rider,” says PBR bull fighter Rob Smets, a twenty-seven-year, two-broken-neck veteran who is rightly lionized in Rank.
    So really, there’s no way that watching these riders can be boring, even on TV. But apart from those eight-second (or less) segments, there’s something about the pacing in Rank that makes you want to say, “More bulls!” Merely showing huge crowds streaming up gleaming escalators doesn’t build the that-guy-could-die anticipation. The documentary’s soundtrack for the Finals’ over-the-top opening fireworks (literally): a lonesome harmonica. Huh?
    And then there are the cowboys. It makes narrative sense, of course, for Rank to focus on the battle among the top three: twenty-one-year-old born-again Christian Mike Lee (“I am ready to die for Him in the arena or out of the arena, if He wants me to”); limping Oklahoman Justin McBride, twenty-five, who will be played by Christian Bale in PBR: The Movie; and reigning heartthrob Adriano Morales, thirty-four, of Sao Paolo, who, though in the cowboy-sunset of his career, starts the competition with the second-largest point lead in PBR history.

There’s something about the pacing in Rank that makes you want to say, “More bulls!”

    Problem is, while they’re interesting for the competition, these three riders are not that interesting as characters. Maybe that, again, is unfair — admittedly, I’m measuring them in part against my own mile-high standards of rodeo-cowboy worship. Which, by the way, have nothing to do with the standard-issue Marlboro man. There’s way more to it than that. These guys, the cowboys I have, ahem, known and come to idealize, they’re all man, even in sparkly chaps. They’re hard as horseshoes and soft as flannel. They listen to music that tells stories. When they’re not leaping off galloping horses, they’re saying, “Yes Ma’am, no Ma’am,” and spinning you off in a whirling two-step.
    But these three? Eh. Mike Lee is sweet and skilled, but a little dim. Adriano is a swaggering braggart who says outright that, because of his own chilly childhood, he doesn’t give his wife enough affection. Justin swears a lot and composes country songs with titles like “Pussy Whipped;” so much for cowboy poetry. (Meanwhile, his grandmother — who lost her husband to a bull — steals the show. While Justin stares from the couch, she sinks into a worn recliner, hair balled into rollers and eyes tearing under ornate eyeglasses at the thought of that “little feller getting hurt.” Cut to a vintage black-and-white photo of her, curls intact, cigarette in mouth, sitting serenely atop a bucking bull.)
    So maybe you can’t fall in love with these guys, no matter how much their injuries might feed a Florence Nightingale complex. The rodeo doctor who patches them up with titanium, then against his own medical judgment sends them back out to ride, also offers some of Rank‘s best moments. But it’s hard not to take inspiration from a sport so analagous to dating, and to life: its competitors going back ride after ride, knowing full well that it’s not whether they’ll get hurt, it’s when.  

Lynn Harris is author of the satirical novel Death By Chick Lit and its prequel, Miss Media, as well as co-creator of the award-winning website BreakupGirl.net. A regular contributor to Glamour, Salon, The New York Times, Babble and many others, she also writes the "Rabbi’s Wife" column for Nextbook.org. Visit her at LynnHarris.net.