Cowboy Down

He's big, he's bad, he's tougher than jailhouse steak. In fact, he is jailhouse steak. He's Reindeer Dippin', 1,550 pounds of snot-flinging muscle, a black-and-white meat tornado —among the meanest, strongest, most unridable bulls on the Professional Bull Riders' Built Ford Tough circuit. In 23 career outings only two riders have

managed to hang on for the requisite eight seconds.

Reindeer Dippin' is my new favorite sports superstar. Even better, his wife doesn't gamble.

An astonishing exhibition of livestock-on-man violence, pro bull riding—now on the cusp of becoming NASCAR with horns—is the only sport I can think of in which participants get hurt each and every time they do it: sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Sometimes they get face-planted from a great height and a ton of carefully bred insanity tromps all over them until delicate organs go squish.

Of course, you have to love any sport in which your very survival depends on clowns.

On a recent weekend at Anaheim's Arrowhead Pond coliseum—in what the PBR calls the "short go round," or finals—championship contender Guilherme Marchi straddled the Reindeer's coal-black back and laced his gloved hand into the bull rope wrapped around the animal's ribs. Reindeer was even less cooperative than usual, jumping and slamming Marchi around in the chute. Under his black hat, Marchi's face was tight with dread when he nodded and the chute gate swung open.

It was over in 2.6 seconds, an aerial spasm of beef, horns, hooves and testicles. Reindeer took a bounding, breaching leap out of the chute—high enough that if Marchi had been holding a basketball he could have dunked it—and then twisted in midair, kicking his rear legs sideways, wrenching Marchi from his desperate seat. Marchi managed to land on all fours and scramble away from the seething animal and onto a fence. Then, as the hard-rock music on the PA died away, Marchi climbed down, shook his head in disbelief and limped toward the gate. Reindeer trotted out of the arena. Another cowboy turfed.

It was by no means the worst crash of the weekend. Eighteen-year-old Travis Briscoe, who has already won two PBR events this year, was drilled into the dirt, suffering a concussion even though he was wearing a helmet. Another top rider, J.W. Hart, was stomped by a bull, fracturing a couple of ribs, an injury that barely merits a shrug in the PBR. Unless their arms or legs are hanging by bloody sinew, bull riders are expected to "cowboy up."

From humble beginnings in 1992, the PBR is now seen on three networks—NBC, Outdoor Life Network and Telemundo—and revenues are expected to top $100 million this year. It's seen in 46 countries. It's got its own documentary-style series on TLC called "Beyond the Bull." The night I attended in Anaheim, movie producers and scouts were prowling the place, looking for feature-film grist.

It's easy to see the attraction. Bull riding is pure American mythos, offering blood and mayhem unimaginable in stick-and-ball sports. It's the most red-state, culturally conservative, sponsor-friendly milieu in pro athletics—few are the riders who don't take a knee in a moment of showy post-ride, thank-you-Jesus piety. That is, if they still have a knee.

And the riders—young, wiry, cleft-chin dreamboats—walk around in chaps and tight Wrangler jeans. Not just women like that sort of thing. You want to see a PBR official go pale at the gills, say the words "Brokeback Mountain."

But what I like about professional bull riding—that is, the PBR, not the sick spectacles of animal abuse called rodeo—is that for once the animals have the advantage. Granted, I'm sure they would rather be left alone in a field to chase heifers, but given the circumstances, they are treated remarkably well—pampered like sultans, by livestock standards. In a sport where more violence equals more money, the bulls are bigger stars than many of the riders.

And on any given night these beasts have a better-than-average chance to knock the hell out of a human, exacting some measure of cross-species revenge.

Maybe it's just me that's pulling for the bulls, but I don't think so. Finally, a little payback. For every terrified deer run down by rednecks in pickup trucks, for every big-eye tuna hauled into a charter boat with an electric reel, for every dog chained and forgotten under a frozen night sky, for every majestic bull cruelly slaughtered by a preening picador in the ring, this horn's for you.