The Most Dangerous 60 Seconds in Sports

 photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

Freestyle bullfighting, and why I love it.

by Weston Rutkowski
 
 

 

Up in Ardmore, Oklahoma, they used to have an April bullfight, a freestyle spring spectacular. They gave away a big trophy and something like twenty-eight-hundred bucks. This was definitely the man’s pen—Mexican fighting bulls bred for meanness and tipping the scales at 1,700 pounds or more.

You didn’t just show up at Ardmore. It was a fight or die type deal.

My very first time at Ardmore, back in 2013, I got placed in the last round. I watched the two bullfighters before me get carted out—stretcher, ambulance, hospital. And I was like HO-LY F***! What did I get myself into? After watching those two guys get car-killed, I went out back and threw up five times before I fought my bull that night. I literally don’t remember anything but calling for him and blacking out.

I won that round with 90 points.

I fought again the next night and scored a 93. Won the short round. My career has never been the same since.

Like most bullfighters, I started working behind the scenes helping bull riders. Cowboy protection was all I knew. I loved the adrenaline-charged challenge. Get in there, distract the bull before he hooks the rider, and then get away.

Protection work isn’t a competition, but I loved testing myself. Every time I stepped into the arena was a challenge. I’d stay close to bull and rider as long as possible. Every pass that was closer was a better feeling. I was doing a job. Man, I can make money—guaranteed money—and I’m saving my buddy. That’s pretty cool. I still feel that way.

But to find work as a protection fighter, you need to get your name out. That’s how I discovered freestyle bullfighting. And, man, I love freestyle even more.

People don’t know much about freestyle bullfighting. Protection bullfighters have always trained and competed for bragging rights during their off days. That’s human nature. Maybe forty years ago, freestyle became an event, and crowds flipped over it. From 1981 through 2000, Wrangler sponsored a freestyle-bullfighting tour through the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, with the top bullfighters competing for big money and a gold buckle at the National Finals Rodeo. But in 2001, Wrangler cut the budget, and the PRCA dropped the event. The big prize money disappeared. After that, there was no sense in guys risking their necks fighting rank Mexican bulls for a few hundred bucks. Freestyle kinda went underground.

It was still underground six years ago, when I first started working as a protection fighter. Most of the freestyle action happened up in Oklahoma, where Rex Dunn, a legendary bullfighter and stock contractor, said, Heck, if you’re not gonna deem a world champion, I will. Dunn basically kept freestyle bullfighting alive, first in Ada and later in Ardmore. A whole generation of bullfighters who never got the chance to compete at the National Finals Rodeo went through those two towns to vie for Dunn’s championship title.

That year I won my first Ardmore spring spectacular, I went on to win eight or nine freestyle bullfights. I never lost. It was like, Hey, I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.

Why do I love it so much? I’m competitive. I want to be the baddest dude in the arena, and freestyle bullfighting is the most dangerous sixty seconds in sports.

 photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

I grew up in the rodeo world. Haskell, Texas, an hour north of Abilene. Looking back, I can’t think of anything I ever wanted to do other than rodeo. Mom was Miss Rodeo Texas back in the 1970s. My uncles rode saddle broncs. As a boy, I learned to rope and ride, but that didn’t do it for me.

I’ve always been an athlete and was a multi-sport competitor in high school. Football, basketball, baseball, track, golf. I wanted to ride bulls, but Mom wouldn’t let me. Said I’d ruin my shot at a college football scholarship. Sure enough, I got recruited by Blinn College, in Brenham, Texas. I went out as a receiver. At tryouts, they said, Beat four-five in the 40-yard dash. Don’t drop the ball. And do something to stand out. The guy I got paired with ran a four-two-something, like a damn Olympian. I ran a four-four—my best time ever—just trying to catch him. In the ten-yard shuttle, I was third fastest on that side. I don’t remember what my vertical was, but it was good for a white boy. And I didn’t drop the ball all day.

I made the team.

They were hyping it up, telling me I was gonna be playing with some new hotshot quarterback. Turns out it was Cam Newton. Sure enough, he played a year at Blinn before transferring to Auburn, winning the Heisman and becoming a star Carolina Panther.

I turned them down. I just didn’t see myself getting much playing time. Besides, I wanted to ride bulls. And Mom couldn’t tell me no.

I got on bulls for three, maybe four years. No matter how hard I tried, I could never make it click. Man, it was frustrating.

One day a cowboy buddy, Clint Hopping, wanted to tune up for a bull ride at a big rodeo. I was living in College Station at the time. We liked to practice on this big brindle muley over in Snook. We called him Tiger Paw. He was two out and to the left every time—an eighty-point spinner. Just a good practice bull. But that sumbitch was rank to us. Mean. If you fell down, he was gonna get your ass.

Well, in addition to riding bulls, Clint fought bulls. He had his PRCA cowboy protection card. Anytime I’d get on Tiger Paw, Clint would keep me just fine. But now Clint wanted to get on him. And he needed my help.

“Dude, you’re kinda on your own,” I said.

“Just give me a chance to get to my feet,” Clint said. “That’s all I need.”

“All right. Whatever.”

I was totally unprepared, still wearing cowboy boots and spurs. I remember it clear as day. Clint falls off. Tiger Paw’s turning back to nail him. I’m standing there thinking, There’s a hole!

I’ve seen it so many times and know just what to do. I step in and grab the bull and he comes at me and I take off running. I stop, turn and throw a fake, out of instinct, like a football move. Tiger Paw lunges, snot flying, angry face.

He misses.

Back at the bucking chute, Clint goes, “Do you know what you just did?”

I go, “Hell, no!” But it felt good.

He’s like, “Dude, you need to fight bulls.”

From that moment on, that’s all I’ve wanted to do.

There are some bulls that if you start whuppin’ on them, really taking it to their ass, they’ll give up.

You have no idea what’s going to happen when you put a man and a bull in the arena and let them go head to head. Every time. I’m the world champ, but I can get my ass hooked off—snap!—just like that. Sure, the same is true when you’re working cowboy protection. But bull riding only lasts eight seconds. In freestyle bullfighting, we have to make it to forty seconds just to get a score. We can go as long as sixty if we choose to. After sixty seconds, when the second horn sounds, you’re done. You might be getting your ass hooked off, but technically the bullfight is over.

At a rodeo, when I’m working protection, I’m relaxed, having fun. It’s not a competition. I’m just doing a job. Yeah, I still feel the rush, but it’s a matter of staying calm and cool and knowing what I gotta do. The show ain’t about me when I’m protecting.

When it comes to freestyle bullfighting, my whole disposition changes. I kind of hit that wall of, This is my f***ing arena! Ain’t nobody coming in here but me. It’s like, Let’s go!

Every freestyle fighter has his own style. Like I say, I’m known for being aggressive. Watch me, and it’s snappy. Everything I do is powerful. Another guy might be more clean and fluid. We’re all different athletes.

I’m aggressive, but bullfighting is more than power and guts. It takes finesse. I’m one of the more athletic guys going, but just being an athlete doesn’t mean I’m gonna win. I gotta read my bull. There are times when I don’t, and it costs me. Like last summer in Vernal, Utah. I started a damn good bullfight, but I misread the bull and tried to throw a fake, and that bull caught me. Smack!

How do you read a bull? Some guys look at their feet, but for me that’s way too much going on. I watch their shoulders. A bull’s head can go wherever, but if his shoulders shift, I know his intention. We’re talking fractions of a second to process. But if I can read his shoulders, I’ve got him.

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 photos by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photos by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

There’s nothing more important in a bullfight than the first pass. The first pass sets up the whole bullfight. Because if you go wide and start getting pushed around left and right, you have to fight to get back to center. You want to maintain your position at all times. If he gets you on the run right off the bat, things can get ugly. Quick.

The bulls are athletes in themselves. They know when they’re doing their job, when they’re running you over left and right, pushing you out and having their way.

There are some bulls that if you start whuppin’ on them, really taking it to their ass, they’ll give up. I mean, hell, I’ve had 90-point bulls that, after I hit ’em the fourth time, they’re like, Damn!, and they just quit you in the middle of the fight. I don’t literally hit them. I’m just throwing fakes and making them miss.

The way I throw fakes, it’s very late, so it’s real close every time. The bull will swoop and miss and come back and swoop and miss three or four times in a row. I get to hammering on him—again, we’re talking psychologically—and that’s when he can quit you. I have to be careful with my style. I’ve lost bullfights because of it. In freestyle, half the bullfighter’s score depends on how the bull performs. If he quits on you—even if he quits because you’re dominating him—you lose points.  

I’ve also won a lot of fights because of my aggressive style. Some bulls won’t quit on you, no matter what. They’re like, Bring it on! This is my wheelhouse.

But the pain they inflict on me is physical.

 photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

I got known for jumping bulls. Every bull that came out I jumped—big, little, fast, mean. I used to flat-foot a bunch. That’s when you call for a bull and stand there ’til the last second. It’s typically an opening move, because that’s when the bull’s coming his fastest, his hottest, his most true. You stand flat-footed until the last second, and then you jump. You spread your legs and try to touch your toes. Man, it’s tight. Things can go very wrong very quickly.

The first time I ever got caught in a flat-foot jump was April of last year. The horn hit my shin. Blew my leg open. I tore my groin.

I jumped a bull at the end of 2017, and he must have been jumped before, because he stopped. I was in mid-air. My foot caught his horn, and I flipped. He turned and stomped me. His dewclaw caught the back of my head and ripped it wide open. Blood everywhere. The medics needed 16 staples to zip it shut. A week later, the wound was still raw, but I fought three more bulls and won a major freestyle title.

During freestyle matches, we work protection for each other. But it’s a tricky thing. You don’t want those guys rushing out, because that shows you’re not in control. You’ll lose points. I mean, hell, I’ve had my ass hooked a lot. Ain’t nobody coming to save me until I’m down. If they’re even a hair early, it’ll cost me.

The bull has to have you down in the dirt and going at you. When you’re balled up, and the bull’s on top of you, that’s when we jump into protection mode. Here comes the cavalry, as in, Hey, get him up before he dies.

Man, I’ve been there. But I’ll save those wrecks for another story.

Some people say bullfighting’s an art. I mean, maneuvering a 1,700-pound animal with a mind of its own, making him do exactly what you want him to do. Yeah, that’s art, if you’re wanting to look at things that way. Or maybe a dance.

Mom was tickled when I quit bull riding and took up protection bullfighting. I love keeping my buddies safe. But, I’m competitive. I want to know if I won or lost. I want to be the best bullfighter in the arena, so I took up freestyle. That’s when Mom started worrying again. She knows I’m a wild ass. I tell her, Mom, you don’t have to trust me. Just trust my feet. They’ll keep me out of trouble.

I’m part of a crew that’s trying to grow the sport of freestyle bullfighting. In 2015, fifteen of us launched Bullfighters Only. At first, BFO was a one-stop shop for anything a bullfighter needs—cleats, knee braces, paint, bandanas. We started putting on bullfighting competitions. Those events grew into an annual tour. Now, each December, we hold the Bullfighters Only Las Vegas Championship. We’re inspiring a new generation of freestyle bullfighters, fans and fighting-bull breeders. I'm loving every minute of it.

You might say I’m hooked.

 photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

 
 
 
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