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.”