Ride ’Em, Cowboy

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Any time bulls come to Madison Square Garden, you usually know what to expect: A walking advertisement for big-and-tall clothing purveyors, some intense above-the-rim athleticism, a healthy dose of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and, if the past decade is any indication, a loss for the Knicks.

The bulls came to the Garden the weekend of January 8, but they had nothing to do with basketball. And instead of seven-footers, the half-filled arenas got to see 1,600-pounders. The athletes weren’t the Chicago Bulls but rather the bucking bulls of Professional Bull Riding’s fifth annual New York Invitational.

A rider’s hand gets entangled in rope as he is thrown from a bull. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

The only knowledge of bull riding I brought to the event came from the old Steve McQueen/Sam Peckinpah movie Junior Bonner, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. But what proved evident from the get-go was that this was no old-time rodeo. For one thing, there was no calf roping, bulldogging or any other typical rodeo sport that could distract from the main event. Also, between the explosions, fireworks and loud music, there were enough bells and whistles for a pro wrestling event.

The comparison holds true in the presentation, but certainly not in the actual competition. Unlike pro wrestling, there is nothing fake about the violence and danger of bull riding. The simple goal of every competitor is to hold on for eight seconds with only one hand to an ornery, horned animal that weighs anywhere between 1,200 pounds and a solid ton. In other words, the instinct of self-preservation is a required sacrifice for bull riders, some of whom prove the point more than is necessary by eschewing a helmet in favor of a cowboy hat.

I asked Shane Proctor, who won the Invitational’s first round Jan. 8, why he does it.

“Because somebody once told me I couldn’t,” was his only reply.

Proctor’s score of 91.25 topped the field of 40 riders, only 14 of whom managed to stay on for the full eight seconds. Points are awarded by judges, who assign scores out of 50 to both the rider and the bull. Anyone who is bucked off before the eight-second horn sounds receives no score at all. So it pays to have an active bull, but not one so energetic that staying seated is impossible.

The bulls are not actually wild; in fact, they’re all very well trained. They know that once the gate opens, they are supposed to buck as hard as possible until the rider dismounts (or is tossed off) and then quietly leave the arena. A few got lost amid all the noise and commotion and took a few turns around the floor, sending rodeo clowns scurrying away, before a helpful horseback rider armed with a lasso escorted the bull to the exit chute. Injuries usually only occur by accident, either when a rider is caught by a kicking hoof or during an ungraceful dismount. Moreover, the riders tend to be tougher than most of us could dream of, when faced with very large and angry land mammals. One competitor was tossed 12 feet in the air while another landed on his neck. Both jumped up and walked away as if nothing had happened.

For those who know the Garden only in its basketball or hockey alignments, the show proved a bit unfamiliar. The arenas floor was split in two, with half containing seats and the other half fenced off by seven-foot metal barricades. Seven hundred pounds of dirt was trucked in to cover the riding floor.

I asked Proctor what he thought of the Garden as a bull riding site.

“The history at Madison Square Garden is phenomenal. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, there were month-long rodeos here. It’s great riding here. This is my third time riding in this arena. Last year I finished third in the event, so it’s always been good to me and the crowd is exceptional.”

The Garden was even better for Proctor by the end of the weekend, as he won the Jan. 10 championship round and, with it, the entire invitational.

For Friday’s introduction, a fog machine covered the ground in a mist while a giant screen featured a montage of riders walking around Manhattan to the sound of Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove.” After that, fireworks suddenly blazed, igniting flames on the dirt that flickered in the shape of the letters PBR. A light show accompanied the riders’ introductions, while the screen zipped up to reveal giant posters of the biggest stars, both human and bovine. The bull nomenclature was half the fun; the crowd was treated to performances by such luminaries as Major Payne, Neon Ghost, Aerial Assault, White Lightning, Necessary Evil, Snot Rocket and Smack Down.

The showmanship didn’t stop there. A rodeo clown served as master of ceremonies, peppering the audience with jokes and performing silly dances. A mascot dressed as a giant sheep did flips across the floor at one point. And for intermission, in what must qualify as one of the most questionable practices in youth athletics, a bunch of small children got the chance to copy the pros by trying to stay atop galloping sheep, holding onto their wool for as long as possible. One tot followed a great run by tackling the mascot. Another fell off early and was escorted away quickly, crying and clutching a hurt arm.

Either way, the applause was wild.

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