NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson might be the only person who can truly compare being hit by all 250 “decapitating” pounds of linebacker Ray Lewis to riding an animal six times heavier with massive horns, kicks near vertical and airborne spins like a meat hurricane. After his brutal 1.5-second ride on bull Deja Blu last year, Johnson said: “The guys who do this week in and week out deserve the utmost respect. They should be the highest-paid athletes in sports.”
Of course, he was talking about the cowboys of the Professional Bull Riders. But without the bulls, without the power and spectacle of their performance, there is no PBR. Of 100 possible points for an 8-second ride, half come from the animal.
A lot of people wonder what makes bulls buck. Reference site eHow lists five reasons, including genetics (these bulls are bred for aggressive bucking traits), habit (they’re not accustomed to carrying riders) and excitement (the arena’s loud and charged atmosphere riles them up). The other two—spurs and flank straps—have long been controversial and part of arguments made by animal rights groups against rodeo sports.
On its website, the Humane Society states that it opposes rodeos “as they are commonly organized,” along with “the use of devices such as electric prods, sharpened sticks, spurs, flank straps and other rodeo equipment that cause animals to react violently.”
According to the PBR’s official dictionary, the flank strap’s purpose “is to enhance the natural bucking motion of a bull and to encourage the animal to extend its hind legs when trying to get his rider on the ground. The flank strap never covers or goes around a bull’s genitals, and no sharp or foreign objects are ever placed inside the flank strap to agitate the animal. Pulling the flank strap too tight would restrict a bull’s motion, making it uncomfortable for the bull to perform. The flank strap is designed for quick release and is removed immediately after the bull exits the arena.”
The PBR Animal Welfare Policy espouses health, safety and respect for the bulls on the same level as the riders. “A bull bucks only one time per day and no more than two times at a typical event,” the PBR website states, adding that minor injuries such as scratches and pulled muscles are suffered by one bull across the PBR for every 786 attempted rides, known within the sport as “outs.” According to the site, career-ending injuries happen to one bull every 9,833 outs, and since the first PBR event in the early ’90s, four bulls have been euthanized as a result of competition-related trauma.
However its stances and stats are interpreted, the PBR has its critics, as well as its diehard fans. The rider-founded organization celebrates being “the fastest-growing sport in the country,” with more than 1,200 international riders competing in 300-plus events each year, drawing upwards of 1.5 million live spectators. The annual pinnacle is the Built Ford Tough Series World Finals, held right here in Las Vegas. October 24-28, the best riders will go head-to-head with the rankest bulls for a total purse of more than $2 million.
For bona fide legend Chicken on a Chain, this will be his seventh and final trip to the World Finals at the Thomas & Mack Center. One of the most beloved animal athletes in the PBR’s history, Chicken is also one of the biggest. He weighs over a ton (around 2,100 pounds, whereas most PBR bulls are around 1,500) and is known for a wild athleticism that doesn’t quit.
Ahead of the 12-year-old’s last competition before retirement, PBR correspondent Keith Ryan Cartwright wrote in September: “He’s had 125 career outs—78 of which have been at the Built Ford Tough Series—and holds a career average of 45.02 points [out of a possible 50]. … He’s fourth on the list of all-time 90-point ride producers, and of his 78 outs at the BFTS, he’s been the high-marked bull 41 times. Thirteen times riders have won a round on him.”
Even the many, many others sent sprawling to the dirt by Chicken will be sad to see the giant go, but no one will take it harder than Jeff Robinson. When the North Carolina contractor introduced the bull to the PBR in 2006, both were pretty under the radar. The very next year Chicken was up for the PBR’s highest honor—World Champion Bull.
Justin McBride, the top-qualifier for the 2007 World Finals, took on Chicken in the last round. No one had ridden him for 8 seconds that year. As fellow rider Ben Jones recalled in a recent tribute on pbr.com: “In my eyes it was the greatest bucking bull and the greatest bull rider that’s ever been, and it was a clash of the titans.” McBride came away with an astronomical 93 points and the championship. Chicken became World Champion Bull. No doubt he was treated to some premium alfalfa, and Robinson has since built an empire on his back.
“When I first saw him, I thought he had the potential to be the best bull I had; I didn’t know he had the potential to be one of the best bulls in the world. … Never in my wildest dreams did I think he was gonna be what he was,” says Robinson, who has credited Chicken almost entirely with the enormous growth and success of Jeff Robinson Bucking Bulls. “He’s definitely a big part of my program that will no longer be there, and it’s pretty tough to swallow, I’ll be honest with you.”
Adding to the emotion of Chicken’s farewell at the World Finals is the fact that Robinson, PBR Stock Contractor of the Year in 2010 and 2011, is in the running again. Jeff Robinson Bucking Bulls has amassed far more outs—355—in the Built Ford Tough Series than any other outfit among more than 70 contracting with the PBR. Robinson hauls a lot of stock to a lot of events, but the standout quality of his bulls is underlined by the recent back-to-back Bucking Battles, in which the top 15 riders were matched with the 15 highest ranked bulls. In Tampa, eight were Robinson’s. He brought 10 of the 15 that competed in Greensboro.
Robinson grew up in the cattle business and tried his hand at bull riding as a teenager, but he jokes that he can’t describe what it feels like because he didn’t stay on long enough. “I thought, well, hell, I’ll give it a try,” he says, “but it didn’t take me long to figure out, let’s just go to the other side of the chutes.”
Today, Robinson has about 100 big bulls in his pen. To have even one crack the elite group of rider-voted finalists contending for World Champion is huge. Lightmaker.com’s Rango, Robinson’s favorite bull (other than Chicken), is among them this year. And his name is on 12 of the top 75 in the series. He chuckles about fans occasionally calling him a “genius,” insisting you can’t train greatness.
“I think you can do everything you can to make that bull feel as good as he can feel; I think you can do the exercise program, the nutrition program, which we do,” he says. “But actually making one jump higher or spin quicker, I think that’s just a pipe dream. It’s a lot of trial and error. It’s a lot of hauling.”
Robinson says it’s easier than it used to be, because the industry has bred more and more for champion traits. Sires like Chicken produce babies that like to buck, so the pool is constantly improving. Robinson considers his bulls family and keeps the best ones about 200 yards from his house in a climate-controlled facility. He says PBR fans have noticeably shifted over the past decade, from cheering mostly for the riders to making heroes of the bulls, too. Chicken has lively Facebook and Twitter accounts, which he uses to banter with “two-leggers” about the heifers, the cowboys, pop culture and the game. “I think now, it may not be 50-50, but I guarantee you there’s lots of people that pull for the bulls just like they do the cowboys,” Robinson says.
Across the PBR, bulls develop as distinct characters. Their colorful names come from song lyrics, cartoons, bloodlines, scary things (Unabomber, Meat Hook) and charming nonsense (Fairy Tattoo, Electric Prune, Plummer Butt).
“Each one of those bulls develops their own little personality—the way they eat, the way they travel, who they get along with—it’s hard to say, but they’re a whole lot like people. They’ve got their own patterns; they’ve got their own comfort level. And, the more you’re around them …” Robinson trails off. “People think cattle are dumb, but they’re not dumb.”
The top two bulls heading into the World Finals—Bushwacker and Asteroid—aren’t Robinson’s, but he still sings their praises. A good bull is a good bull. He’s bringing at least 15 to Vegas, from Chicken on a Chain and Rango to Quiet Riot and Mulligan Man. They’ll make quite a few stops around town in a special trailer, so fans can get close to some of their favorites. As usual, Robinson will be everywhere at once, from driving the rig to adjusting the flank straps right before his bulls hit the chutes.
He’s straightforward about the risks that come with the rewards of competition. Two of his outstanding bulls, Super Duty and I’m a Gangster, ended their careers with hip and back injuries.
“Those were two bull-of-the-year-caliber bulls, and they were gone, within less than 8 seconds, from competition. That’s just part of it. Anything can happen,” he says. “They’ll be out to stud forever, so they’ll be happy. We’ll put ’em on cows, out to breed. They’ll try to produce their own bucking babies.”
Chicken is bound for the same pasture, but not before he takes one more shot at crushing a cowboy’s dream. You’d think Robinson would cheer only for that outcome, but in more than 20 years behind the chutes, the 40-year-old is close with a lot of riders. Plus, he appreciates the entwined fates of those brave men and his notoriously rank beasts. They are each other’s life and livelihood. In the interest of scores that pay and stories that inspire, they want the matchup right on the knife’s edge.
“You want either the bull to buck really good or the guy to win money on your bull,” Robinson says. “My attitude’s like Nolan Ryan was when he first got to the Major League—you know, here’s what I got, hit it if you can. That’s kind of our deal. Here’s the best we can do. If you’re better than us, my hat’s off to you.”
Jeff Robinson Bucking Bulls
Career buck-off percentage: 95
Career BFTS 8-second rides: 2 out of 30
Cred: Finalist for 2012 World Champion Bull
Quote: “Rango, he’s my favorite bull we’re haulin’ right now, other than Chicken. He’s the one I think has got all the talent in the world. Lots of kicks. Lots of drop. He just kicks the lights out.” –Jeff Robinson
Circle T Ranch & Rodeo
Career buck-off percentage: 91.43
Career BFTS 8-second rides: 3 out of 25
Cred: 2011 Reserve World Champion Bull
Quote: “He has a Napoleon complex but doesn’t know it. He’s smaller than his peers but faster, tougher and better than them.” –Sports correspondent Josh Weinfuss, writing for the Indianapolis Star
Chicken on a Chain
Jeff Robinson/Mike Tedesco/Larry the Cable Guy
Career buck-off percentage: 73.81
Career BFTS 8-second rides: 27 out of 79
Cred: 2007 World Champion Bull
Quote: “The thing I’ll remember about Chicken on a Chain is that he brought it every time. ... I got on him three times and he got me on the ground every time.” –PBR rider Kody Lostroh, quoted on pbr.com
Jeff Robinson Bucking Bulls
Career buck-off percentage: 96.67
Career BFTS 8-second rides: 0 out of 13
Cred: Only four PBR riders have managed to stay on for more than 4 seconds
Quote: “There’s nothing quiet about this massive bull. Weighing in at over 1,500 pounds, Quiet Riot is unridden in his rookie season ... making this bull one of the most aggressive buckers in the sport.” –about .com
RMEF Gunpowder & Lead
Jeff Robinson Bucking Bulls
Career buck-off percentage: 48
Career BFTS 8-second rides: 20 out of 30
Cred: 2011 High Money Bull
Quote: “[His 2011 buck-off percentage] doesn’t seem impressive ... what makes him truly special is his ability to be really rank yet still be rideable. Out of the 16 times he’s been ridden, nine of those times have scored over 90 points.” –abuckinggoo dtime.com
Julio Moreno/Richard Oliveira
Career buck-off percentage: 96.15
Career BFTS 8-second rides: 1 out of 36
Cred: 2011 World Champion Bull
Quote: “He’s got a real cool arrogance to himself and then when the gate opens he just explodes. But leading up until then you would think he’s just some farm pet that didn’t have an ounce of buck in him.” –Bullfighter (i.e. rodeo clown) Shorty Gorham, quoted in The New York Times