At the Arena: a rip-roarin', rip-snortin' ride


Bull riding has been called "the toughest sport on dirt." In the eight seconds that a cowboy attempts to ride a bull, he is at extreme risk of not only falling off the animal, but also of being stomped on, gored, mangled, broken, twisted, maimed and even killed.

It is a sport that requires not only a great deal of skill and knowledge, but also a whole lot of courage, and probably a small lack of common sense. After all, the sport is based on the simple premise that a bull does not like to be ridden like a horse and will do everything he can to get rid of the cowboy who's hanging on to him for dear life.

All that said, the Professional Bull Riders Bud Light Cup Series bucks into Baltimore tomorrow for the first time. A two-day event at the Baltimore Arena, the series features bull-riding competitions at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday.

Performing will be the top 45 professional bull riders in the world and 50 or so of the fiercest bulls around. The average rider is 5 feet 7 and weighs 150 pounds; the average bull is 5 feet tall and weighs about 2,000 pounds.

Competitors will vie for $7.5 million in prize money, including $1.75 million at the final event, the world championship in Las Vegas next month.

For urbanites tempted to dismiss bull riding as "country," consider this: The self-described "sport on the rise," with 28 regular-season events, has sold out arenas in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Anaheim, St. Louis and Tampa.

Want to see what all the fuss is about, but feeling clueless? Here's a quick guide to how the competition works: A cowboy's goal is to stay on the bull for eight seconds. He tries to do this by hanging on with one hand to a rope tied around the bull. The other hand must be in the air at all times, otherwise the ride is not counted.

The highest score that can be achieved is 100. Half of the score is determined by the rider's performance, half by the bull's performance. Judges watch riders for good body position as well as control. If the rider falls off the bull before the eight seconds are up, the ride is worth nothing.

Because the PBR features the best of the best, many riders competing belong to the "90-point club." Less-skilled riders may average in the 70s or below.

The bull's score is based on how well the animal performs - how fierce he is and how much he bucks or spins.

The PBR grew out of the professional rodeo circuit, which not only features bull riding, but also other competitions such as roping, horseback riding and even marksmanship.

In 1992, with just $20,000 in hand, 20 of the top bull riders in the rodeo circuit decided to break away and make bull riding a stand-alone sport.

"We felt like rodeo was not doing enough," says Richard "Tuff" Hedeman, PBR president and one of the founding members of the organization. "We always felt like if we featured the top riders and the top bulls, we'd attract a lot of interest. ... We always believed we had a great sport, but it was never treated that way."

Michael Gaffney, another PBR founder and a current competitor in the Bud Light Cup Series, says, "There's a reason why bull riding is always the last event in rodeo. It's the best and everyone wants to see it. If it wasn't the last event, people would leave early."

Folks love bull riding because of the danger, Gaffney adds. "You know someone is going to be hit, and there's the possibility of real damage being done. It's just human nature to want to see that. ... Sometimes the big, bad bull wins. That's real, edge-of-your-seat type action."

Both Gaffney and Hedeman know a great deal about the danger and risks associated with the sport. Gaffney has had his share of injuries, including broken bones and lacerations. He's also had several shoulder operations. Hedeman has broken bones in his neck several times and suffered a broken face once when he was stomped on by a bull. The latter injury took him out of competition for almost a year. Still, he wasn't deterred.

"After that accident, my thoughts were how much longer until I can I ride again ... " he says. "It's not about the money; it's about doing what you love to do. If you have a passion for something, you live for it and love to do it. Certainly, there is a lot of risk. When you sit down and think about it, bull riding is crazy."

Today, at 37, Hedeman is retired from professional bull riding - too many neck injuries. "It's a young man's sport," he says. Hedeman's riding partner, Lane Frost, died at the age of 26 in 1989. He was attacked and killed by a bull seconds after he'd dismounted the animal. Hedeman was there when it happened. The story of both men's lives was made into a 1994 movie called 8 Seconds, starring Luke Perry and Stephen Baldwin.

"I think that [anytime] anybody loses anyone, it affects them," Hedeman says. "The shock of that happening to him right in front of you, there's that helpless feeling as it happens. It questions what you're doing and why you're doing it."

Some things have changed in recent years regarding safety. Riders now wear a protective Kevlar vest, similar to a bulletproof vest, which protects internal organs. The PBR also has sports physicians on hand to take care of injured cowboys and assess their ability to compete.

Competitor Justin McBride broke his riding hand at the Oklahoma City competition in August. Whereas before, his injury might have cost him a chance at the championship (he was No. 2 in the standings when he was hurt), he's already back and competing. His quick return is due in part to intensive physical therapy. "It's healing better than they thought," McBride says. "I have been pretty fortunate. Hopefully, this won't affect my standing."

Another welcome change for the riders is the amount of money up for grabs. There was a time, 10 or 12 years ago, when the most a cowboy could win at a rodeo would be maybe $2,000 or $3,000. Today, large competitions may have a grand prize of $300,000. Last year, in addition to winning the Bud Light Cup World Championship, Chris Shivers became the first PBR competitor to break the million-dollar mark in career earnings.

"The money that the PBR now has goes right into the riders' pockets," Hedeman says.

"I'm glad the money has gotten really good," McBride says. "Before, I would have to go to 130 rodeos a year to just get by. Now I do 29 events a year, all on the weekends. A guy can make a really good living at it."(There are even college scholarships given to talented rodeo riders these days.)

Not only is there big money, a PBR event includes big production. Along with 3 million pounds of dirt brought in to every stop on the circuit, the traveling production includes $70,000 in backdrop scenery and $200,000 in sound and pyrotechnical equipment.

"We want to put on the kind of show that fans really want to see," Hedeman says.

"It's not just for country people," McBride says. "Every kind of person will like this. You've got bombs going off, rock and roll music, and bright lights. It really is a good show."

The facts

What: The Professional Bull Riders Bud Light Cup Series

When: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.

Tickets: $10-$100

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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