On Thursday night, Jan. 3, the Western-themed midtown restaurant Johnny Utah’s was half-full, a mostly business-casual crowd. The lifelike and dangerous-seeming mechanical bull in the center of the room was bucked (or shimmied side to side, if you were a woman whose assets this might highlight) under a few brave volunteers between long bouts of inactivity.
Suddenly, an announcer said, “I think we got J.B. Mauney in the house!” From the doorway of an elevated private room behind the bar, a young kid in a cowboy hat raised his beer bottle. Mr. Mauney, barely 21, of Mooresville, N.C., was there to judge a mechanical bullriding competition with several other PBR cowboys (not Pabst Blue Ribbon, as New Yorkers are wont to guess: Professional Bull Riders!). They were in town for the weekend’s second annual VERSUS Invitational at Madison Square Garden, which featured the 45 competitors on the PBR’s elite televised tour, and which Mr. Mauney, the tour’s most prominent rising star, had won last year. He surveyed the scene with his cowboy cohorts, most shockingly young and surprisingly compact, some doing tequila shots and reciting cowboy chants to each other (“Honor, stay on her … if you can’t come in her, come on her!”).
This now-yearly event is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a New York rodeo. Earlier that day, to promote the weekend, Mr. Mauney and nine other cowboys had staged a demonstration on the frigid corner of 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue for a curious crowd of commuters, homeless people and press, which had been announced as “the first time in the history of the world that bulls are being bucked on the sidewalks of downtown New York City!” The bulls had shivered in their pens beside a small makeshift dirt arena directly in the path of commuters exiting the trains. “[That bull] kind of made short work of me,” Mr. Mauney said later at Johnny Utah’s, laughing (he’d been bucked off before the eight seconds that constitute a scoring ride). “But how many people can say they got on a bull in downtown New York City on the side of the road?”
Mr. Mauney has a thick, matter-of-fact Southern drawl and a cowboy swagger that often makes him appear to be leaning backwards as he walks. “My dad, he rodeo’d, and I started riding sheep when I was 3 years old,” he recalled. His mom was initially worried about her son’s teenage bull-riding aspirations, but “me and my dad kinda talked her into it.” Nowadays, he said, “she gets scared. … She gets kinda nervous, ’cause when I ride I don’t get off the best in the world; I land on my head and underneath and stuff like that.” (Mr. Mauney said his parents had flown in earlier in the day to watch him compete in New York.) Though he was sidelined for several months in 2005 after an encounter with a bull left him with several broken ribs and a lacerated liver, he seems to have emerged psychologically unscathed: “Shoot, you can get hurt doing anything,” he said. “I could get hurt walking down the steps in the morning.”
(True, though with bull riding, the odds are rough: According to PBR CEO Randy Bernard, 1 in 15 rides results in a rider injury.)
Chris Lusk, 23, a model with longish hair and a backward baseball hat, stood nearby. “I’m going [to the PBR events] tomorrow and Sunday,” he said. “I give these guys a lot of credit. They are wrestling half-ton bulls. It’s no joke. Your face hits their head, that’s like falling out of a seven-story building onto cement!”
Mr. Lusk said he watches the PBR on TV all the time. “It seems like, style-wise, a lot of people are going country,” he said, accounting for the PBR’s growing popularity. “Nobody likes that glamour crap anymore. Everyone’s starting to get real and down to earth.”
Still, the cowboys, with their diminutive proportions and belted jeans, stood out. “It’s kinda different,” said Mr. Mauney of his surroundings. “You wouldn’t think New York, rodeo cowboys, anything like that. But last year the fans were awesome. It was one of the best events we had all year long.”
Friday Night, Madison Square Garden
Before Friday night’s opening ride, the handsome Brazilian cowboy Adriano Moraes, 37, a three-time PBR world champion who has been the sport’s most significant ambassador to the mainstream, announced to his fellow cowboys that 2008 would be his last season. “It’s not that I don’t love to ride bulls anymore,” he said in his thick Portuguese accent. “It’s just getting harder for me to stay on those bulls.”
“When I won the first championship, I think I won $160,000,” he told The Observer later. “Justin McBride last year won $1.9 million. The sport has evolved, and has evolved for good. And I cannot picture 10 years from now. I think guys like Justin are gonna be riding for $10 million dollars instead of $2 million, hopefully.”
For now, though, Mr. Moraes, who lives in Keller, Texas, was concentrating on the task at hand, and he was excited to be back in the city. “I love New York. I always come here to do the PR, and also to go see some plays on Broadway and go to nice restaurants. We ate yesterday at La Esquina. Man, awesome food.”
It wasn’t so, so long ago, though, that Manhattan was actually a cowboy town, as Mr. Bernard, the PBR’s CEO, explained to the riders on Friday evening. “This place has an ambience for cowboys, believe it or not,” he assured them. “In the 20’s and 30’s, rodeo was one of the biggest events at Madison Square Garden.”
Inside the Garden, the event got under way with rodeo clown Flint Rasmussen, who warmed up the respectable, if not-quite-capacity, crowd. “I know it’s not part of most of your everyday routines to come to Madison Square Garden and hang out with a bunch of cowboys,” he declared. “But today, your luck has changed.”
The lights went down. “This is not a rodeo … this is the one and only PBR!” roared the announcer, drawing a distinction between the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association, which features bull riding alongside other rodeo events like barrel racing and the controversial calf roping), and the PBR, which has loftier, more mainstream aspirations, and has since its 1992 founding tried to position itself as an extreme sport, “the toughest sport on dirt.” (And, like other mainstream sports, bull riding has juicing rumors to contend with. The PBR tested the weekend’s top performing bull, Big Bucks, for steroids as part of a new program it plans to grow in response to concerns of independent stock contractors who raise and care for the bulls on tour and stand to profit from their success.) A raucous, Vegas-esque opening featured smoke, laser lights, fireworks and a strangely compelling video of the cowboys hailing cabs, exiting the 2-3 train, napping on park benches, talking on cells in Grand Central Station and riding the bull statue on Wall Street, all set to KISS’s “Back in the New York Groove.”
Then, one by one, the men burst out of the chutes aboard the bulls, which weigh anywhere from 1,200 to 2,200 pounds. Most bucked furiously, spastically and in a tight circle. Once they’d dispensed with their flapping human cargo, they bucked a few more times for good measure and occasionally lunged at the “bullfighters,” whose job it was to distract them while the cowboys scurried out of the ring. Few bulls looked interested enough to actually pursue their tormenters. They glanced around the arena, agitated and shellshocked, before hastening back into the chutes. If one had to guess, they were perhaps thinking: “This again? Screw them.”
Mr. Mauney, aboard a bull called Patsey’s Pride, was one of the las
t cowboys to ride. He wore silver-fringed chaps, his free hand tracing sharp, quick, choreographed patterns in the air, and his body seeming to move less than others’ had. His red helmet gave him the appearance of a high-tech rodeo cowboy for the YouTube generation (the helmets, worn mostly by the younger guys, say “extreme sport” better than any of the press materials trying to position bull riding as a sexier Nascar or a more dangerous skateboarding). “That was the best one we’ve seen all night,” said a man sitting in front of The Observer, somewhat reverentially, to his two friends.
A cowboys’ score consisted of 50 points for the bull’s performance and 50 for the cowboy himself. No one had ever scored 100. If a bull didn’t buck enthusiastically enough, the judges would offer a re-ride on a different animal.
“This is my imitation of somebody going to work in New York City and meeting a cowboy on the sidewalk!” cried Flint, the rodeo clown, keeping the crowd’s attention between riders. He strode purposefully across the arena, head down, and then stopped dead in his tracks and mock-gaped at an imaginary cowboy. The crowd laughed heartily.
Saturday Morning, Hawaiian Tropic Zone, Times Square
“In order to have any credibility, you have to be able to be successful in New York,” said Mr. Bernard on Saturday morning at the PBR’s first-ever bull draft, held at Hawaiian Tropic Zone. (“We liked the TV screens,” he said, by way of explanation.) “Our sponsors want us here, our PR/marketing folks want us here, so that’s why we come [to the city],” he continued.
Jeff Kent, the PBR’s vice president of marketing, said Friday that ticket sales were up 20 percent over last year’s event. (The Saturday night event sold out, and ticket sales for the weekend were about 30,000, a PBR rep later said.) “We sign year by year,” Mr. Kent said of the partnership with Madison Square Garden, adding that they’re contracted through 2009. The PBR is lately ubiquitous on television, with what Mr. Bernard estimates to be 500 hours of programming on VERSUS, Fox and NBC. “Our No. 1 national marketing vehicle is our television broadcasts,” Mr. Hunt had said. “We try to build our viewing audience in these kinds of markets.”
Mr. Bernard wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a vague Southern accent, but he could be an accountant as easily as a bull-riding CEO. He has kind eyes and a friendly manner. He was never a bull rider himself, but he seems genuinely hurt by his sport’s critics, who are naturally more prevalent in a market like New York than Tulsa. “I’d like to educate ’em,” he said. “I welcome and invite anyone who wants to come down and see how we take care of our bulls. I think that it’s unfair to make accusations … when you haven’t even spent a minute behind the chutes.”
The night before, a group called Friends of Animals had staged a protest outside the Garden. Edita Birnkrant, the group’s New York City campaign coordinator, called bull riding “animal abuse portrayed as sport.” Reached by phone Saturday, she estimated that two dozen people had showed up to join the previous night’s “vigil.” “The entire concept and reality of bull riding is just a farce,” she said. “It’s all about these wild beasts being dominated by these tough guys, and nothing could be further from the truth. They’re domestic animals who are tormented in order to buck so the riders can make a competition out of it.” Ms. Birnkrant pointed specifically to the flank straps tied around bulls’ bellies, the riders’ spurs and electric prods that she said are used in the bucking chutes to shock the bulls into more hysterical bucking.
She said her group has not tried to engage the PBR on any of their complaints. “What we’re saying is not that we’re trying to impose some sort of regulation, or that there’s a more humane way to do this. We’re saying that this kind of event shouldn’t exist at all.”
Mr. Bernard, for his part, denied that the flank straps are painful to the bulls: “The biggest fallacy out there is that we tie up the testicles. We put a rope on the flank, and we do that because when [the bulls are] young, it agitates them to try to take it off. It’s not hurting him. He just wants it off.” (“A bull will buck without one, but it just won’t kick up and out,” Mr. Mauney had said.) Mr. Bernard vehemently denied the use of electric prods. “Everything the stock contractors do is positive reinforcement,” he said. “We will always have prods that our guys will carry for their defense, but if anyone’s caught using it for any purpose besides to defend themselves, we’ll fine ’em or kick them off the tour.”
All around Mr. Bernard, cowboys mingled with the stock contractors over a spread of cold cuts and pasta salad, selecting the evening’s rides one at a time as tape of the bucking animals played on large screens behind them. PBR president and co-founder Ty Murray, a legendary cowboy in his own right, sat down to eat with the singer Jewel, his longtime girlfriend, at the next table, and Mr. Bernard called out his greetings.
“The great thing about our sport, in my opinion… it’s a brotherhood,” said Mr. Bernard. “These guys, they see danger in their faces every day. I think that’s why a lot of them are so religious.” (The announcer even offered a prayer each evening at the Garden.) “To be a bullrider, you’ve got to be so optimisitc. And when someone gets hurt, everyone else is there to help them,” he continued.
Mr. Mauney, meanwhile, chose a bull called Just a Dream with the eighth pick. “He bucks,” he said later. “I been on him once before and he bucked me off!”
Saturday Night, PBR After-Party, Madison Square Garden
On Saturday night, the PBR held its official after-party in a space at the Garden and, as is customary, invited all the fans. Colby Yates, a shy, baby-faced blond bull rider from East Texas, sang and played the acoustic guitar before a largely young, female crowd decked out in colorful cowboy hats. He was recovering from a groin injury suffered at last year’s PBR Finals in Las Vegas, and had so far failed to ride a bull for eight seconds that weekend, but he seemed in high spirits. At one point, he was joined by 2007 PBR World Champion Justin McBride, who is currently recovering from shoulder surgery and wasn’t riding.
“Ain’t goin’ down on Brokeback Mountain …” they sang together. “That shit ain’t right, that shit ain’t right, that shit ain’t right ….” They alternated singing the chorus, wide grins on their faces. Mr. McBride is also blond and handsome, and wore a black cowboy hat pulled low over his face and a black leather jacket.
Abby Pierotti, 24, a consultant who lives in Manhattan, looked on enthusiastically. “Of all the things to be protesting, this is the wrong one,” she said. Ms. Pierotti’s friends didn’t want to come to the after-party, so she came alone, in pink shirt and matching cowboy hat, and set about getting her picture taken with her favorite cowboys.
She was from Smethport, Pa., she said, but had only gotten more into bull riding since she’d moved to Manhattan, mostly because this was her second year attending the PBR event at MSG. “There’s not a lot of country, rodeo stuff that comes here,” she said ruefully.
Sunday Afternoon, Madison Square Garden
On Sunday, at the VERSUS Invitational’s championship event, after the smoke-and-laser-light opener, Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” blared, spotlights lit up the dark arena and the cowboys swung their bodies over the rails and into the bucking chutes, where they hunkered down to help one another prep for their rides. (A cowboy needs at least two friends beside him in the chute
s, said Mr. Yates later. One to steady him on the bull, and one to tighten the flank strap before the doors open.)
“Some of our cowboys didn’t know there were two one o’clocks in a day!” announced Flint the clown gleefully, referring to the event’s early start hour and explaining that in the PBR, they like to have fun.
The bucking began. A cowboy named Cord McCoy hit his forehead on a bull named Dirty Harry, and exited the arena with blood dripping down his face. “He sprung a leak!” declared Flint.
The crowd was loving it.
“I just wanted to see bull riding,” said Brent Denoon, a hefty photographer from Queens in a newsboy cap who’d been singled out by Flint early in the show to warm up the crowd with his dance moves (he’d done so to wild applause). “It’s something that you don’t see in New York City at all. I’d rather see it live [than on TV]. I’m here with my father. He’s into it big-time. He loves cowboy stuff.”
Lisa Smith and Alan Donin of Secaucus, N.J., sat in the front row. Ms. Smith’s aunt had bought them PBR tickets for the second year. “It’s a lot of fun; we’re learning a lot about the sport and getting more into it,” said Mr. Donin, who wore a black cowboy hat and black Western shirt. “Her aunt is really into it,” he added.
“Who’s her favorite one?” inquired Ms. Smith.
“Adriano,” he said.
“She’s in love with him,” said Ms. Smith. “This morning she broke out into a cold sweat, she was so excited. She’s in her 60’s!”
After 15 finalists had been chosen for a fourth and final ride, Mr. Mauney rode Cat Man Do to a crowd-pleasing 90.25 points, which put him in the lead. He was momentarily caught by the spur in his bucking strap trying to dismount, leading one of the bullfighters to hurl himself on the bull to try to disentangle the rope. The crowd held its collective breath as the rider’s 5-foot-10 frame thrashed about. (No wonder his mother gets worried.) Mr. Mauney stood and pounded his chest after it was all over, but he was eventually bumped to second place by the low-profile Brazilian Valdiron de Oliveira, who accepted a check for $24,500 in the ring, with Mr. Moraes as his translator, after the event.
“It was really cool, and I liked how the guy got caught in the bull, and that’s it!” said David Petretta, 10, of Wayne, N.J., who was with his father, Scott. “He likes it because he likes the bulls,” said the elder Mr. Petretta as they both waited for autographs by the ring.
“These people were outrageous, they loved it,” said Mr. Yates in the locker room afterward, before heading off to get a beer. “It’s nowhere near a cowboy atmosphere, and you just don’t expect it, so that makes it even that much more exciting when they get into it.” On the streets, he said, “there are just so many people. People took pictures, everybody’s hollerin’ at us. … It’s pretty cool.”
“It’s like Nascar or something like that,” he added. “It just keeps getting’ bigger and bigger.”