With fanfare usually reserved for rock stars, bull riders, distinctively lithe and lean, strutted onto a dirt floor, which had been an ice rink days before, at Madison Square Garden last Friday night. For the past nine years this event has been about as country as New York City gets—it’s the annual Professional Bull Riders Monster Energy Buck Off, where cowboys in decorative chaps and boots with spurs try to stay on a bucking bull while it rumbles through the arena, a feat often called the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.
The three-day competition began with fireworks, confetti and a prayer. The crowd stood for the Star Spangled Banner, 10-gallon hats held over their hearts, as the smell of animal dung and fried food wafted through MSG.
For 27 weekends, the bull riders travel across the country for these events, accumulating points each week while also trying to keep their bodies intact. Each round is a whiplash-quick life-or-death mastery of the bull, wherein the scores are based on rider skill and bull control, for a total of 100 (a score of 90 is considered impressive). The top 35 compete at the finals in Las Vegas in October for the title of world champion and a $1 million.
Guilherme Marchi took first at MSG, a title that netted him $30,000. The 32-year-old Brazilian—bull riding, we’re told, is huge in Brazil—has been in the sport for 15 years.
“This win here in New York means a lot for me,” he told us. “The best bulls are here, and the best riders.”
Mr. Marchi hoped for a good bull on Saturday night, as his sister from Boston was there watching, but he had better rides Friday and Sunday. The rider lives in Texas and his family is quite exposed to his rollicking profession—his wife pushes him to train, his daughter, age 10, is a barrel racer, and his son, age 6, rides mini-bulls.
Back in the Garden, country music blared, audience members competed to win a pick-up truck by throwing frisbees in the truck bed, and the biggest bull riding obsessives vied for “Fan of the Night” and “Best Dressed.” One enthusiastic Wall Street bro got heckled by the emcee for his outfit, which he likened to something Woody from Toy Story would wear, and the Wall Street bro received a PBR belt buckle.
Second place went to J.B. Mauney, a 28-year-old who captured the championship back in 2013. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, has 10 years on the professional circuit, and started riding sheep at age 3.
We approached the spur-wearing Mr. Mauney to tell him that he rides with flamboyant flair, and he gave us a nice smile. He had a hell of a topsy-turvy weekend: He got bucked on Saturday for 0 points, he looked injured on Sunday, dragging his leg behind him, but then he fought back big, posting a 89.75 score in the championship round.
“Don’t think on the bull,” he told us, imparting his riding wisdom. “Everything has to be a reaction, all reaction. If you think, ‘I need to do this,’ it’s too late, you’re on the ground.”
His brother-in-law, Shane Proctor, 33, who was currently in third, explained to us how he spent the last year on the sidelines after surgery on both his shoulders, and recalled how a rodeo scholarship put him through college.
“I had offers from Harvard for wrestling, but chose rodeo instead,” he said. “There’s not much of a future for wrestling.”
But a career in rodeo isn’t a piece of cake, either. Top riders can earn millions in their career, but more typical winnings are well under $100,000. For the MSG event, 15 riders made $400, and most pay for their own travel.
PBR bulls usually weigh between 1,500 and 1,600 pounds, with the occasional mondo-sized bull coming in at over a ton—the famous PBR bull Mississippi Hippie tops 2,000 pounds. In other words, these guys can do some damage, and they aren’t always on their best behavior: Several times bulls ran from the three bullfighters herding them, one escaped a cowboy’s lasso from a horse, and another rushed a podium.
And yes, there were some close calls that could have been gruesome injuries. On Saturday, a rider held onto a bull and was dragged underneath but escaped relatively unscathed, and another rider hunched over for several minutes to catch his breath after he got bucked. And one bull charged straight for the press pit, roaring close enough that we could see two-foot spews of snot fly out of bull’s noses, and be pelted with dirt.
The crowd pleaser of the weekend was Chase Outlaw—what a name!—a native of Hamburg, Ark., a city with a population that wouldn’t fill five sections in the Garden. He was fifth last year for PBR, and is currently fifth again, but he did wow the world’s most famous arena with a dazzling ride that earned him a 90.75, the event’s highest score.
In a year when the Knicks have six wins, it might be the most exciting thing Garden-goers see in a while.
“It’s pretty badass to get a standing ovation in Madison Square Garden,” said Mr. Outlaw. “That doesn’t happen every day.”