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8 Seconds of Violence : It Takes a Special Breed of Hombre to Straddle a Stinking, Snorting Bull

Times Staff Writer

The most violent eight seconds in sports? How about trying to get Reggie Jackson’s autograph in a Milwaukee bar? Perhaps those moments when Tom Lasorda and Terry Forster simultaneously spot the last chicken drumstick on the postgame buffet table?

Both legitimate answers, to be sure. But even the guy in Milwaukee who claims to have Formica burns on his forehead following his alleged skull-vs.-table autograph session with Jackson last month would flinch at the sight of the most violent eight seconds in sport.

That would be bull riding. It makes the Hagler-Hearns middleweight brawl look as violent as those tense moments when Ward and June Cleaver would try to get the Beaver to eat his asparagus.

Start with the bull. Imagine nearly a ton of cheap, living steak with the combined social graces of Mr. T and an NFL linebacker. Add a set of horns.

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Now understand that there are certain things that bulls hate. Anything living, for example.

Then, take this giant package of stinking, snorting, angry animal and jump on his back. And just for laughs, attach a pair of metal spurs to your shoes and dig them into his sides, right into that area between the pot roast and the stew meat.

“It’s the most out-of-control feeling in the world,” said Mike Watson, who enjoys this type of activity.

Watson and 74 other cowboys lined up Friday night for the privilege of riding a bull at the Forum in a professional rodeo. For this privilege, they each paid $87 in entry fees.

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“When you get off a bull, the feeling is pretty great,” Watson said. “Those first couple of seconds after the ride--there’s no feeling like it in the world.”

The same can be said for the feeling you get when you stop slamming the hood of an Oldsmobile on your upper lip.

Watson, 30, who has lived in Sylmar for the past four years, began riding bovine very shortly after he stopped wearing diapers. By age 6 he was riding in rodeos atop 200-pound cattle. Around his hometown of Hilt, Calif., where his father owned a ranch that spread into Oregon, everybody rode.

His father, Homer Watson, was a longtime bull rider on the pro rodeo circuit. Mike’s brother, Art, also rides bulls on the circuit. A nephew, Kenny Watson, is a rodeo clown, luring the bulls away from fallen riders, preferably before the bull uses his horns to make human shish kebabs out of them or stomps them to death.

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Sometimes, despite their efforts, the bulls win. Five years ago, at the Forum, Mike Watson watched as a friend from Oregon, Mick Whitley, was killed by a bull’s hoofs during a rodeo. The next night, Watson was atop a raging beast named McClintock: The same bull that killed Whitley.

“I tried to block it out of my mind, but no question, I was pretty nervous,” Watson said. “But once you’re on the bull in the chute, there really isn’t much time to think. And once the chute opens, there’s no time to think. It’s just a reaction thing to what the bull is doing. It’s just out of control.”

Rodeo promoters try to lighten the mental burden with written descriptions of the bulls meant to be both informative and funny.

018: “This bull is so bad he hasn’t even got a name. He grew up in New Jersey but now lives in Elk City, Okla. This cat is bad. The only thing worth betting on is the order he’ll have them speared.”

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15 Titus: “This little bull is rodeo’s answer to the Vegematic. He slices, he dices. If he ever gets you down, be sure to phone home and let them know you’ll be late.”

Red Rock: “Unridden in six years, and we’re talking maybe 500 matches. Gentle in the pen or in the chute. He never hurt a cowboy. A real nice guy. Very good at what he does. He bucks off cowboys.”

But there really isn’t anything funny about those eight seconds needed for a qualified, legal ride. When he was 17, Watson suffered a punctured lung when a bull stomped on him and broke several ribs.

In 1977, his first year on the pro circuit, a bull threw him and crushed his right thigh, shattering the femur. Watson still has a steel rod in his leg as a reminder. He has also sustained a separated shoulder and numerous other bone fractures in his bull-riding career.

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“Luckily, I haven’t really been hurt,” he said. “We consider really hurt to be neck injuries, spine injuries, things like that. I’ve seen those injuries. Those injuries are scary.”

The riders get to know the bulls, which are supplied to the rodeos by stock contractors. The cowboys know that one bull is a bucker while another is a spinner. They say there are good bulls and bad bulls. The good bulls are the wildest, the ones that provide the most out of control ride and thus, the best chance to win the event, which is judged mostly by the rider’s ability to handle the craziest animal.

The hardest and most dangerous to ride are known as hookers. These bulls spin wildly, trying to pull the rider to the inside--into the “well"--and hook them with their horns.

“15 Titus is a really good bull,” Watson said. “I rode him once this year and three times last year. He’s thrown me half of those times. He will hook. He’ll get you down inside the well, bring his head back and really work you over. But I won a rodeo at Palm Springs on him last year, so I like to draw him.”

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When not being thrashed about by bulls, Watson is employed as a Hollywood stunt man. He worked as a bull rider on the appropriately named TV show “Trauma Center” a few years ago and has worked on such current TV series as ‘Simon and Simon” and “Hunter.” He falls off buildings, gets punched a lot and run over by cars. This, he says, is relatively good work, if you can get it.

“Compared to rodeo, it’s a nice break,” he said. “The money is great and there are people all over the place whose job it is to make sure you don’t really get hurt. Riding bulls, well, you’re on your own. No one is watching out for you.”

First prize averages about $1,500 in regular rodeo events. Corporate sponsorships have sweetened the pot with bonuses for victories. Watson won the $1,600 first prize in a rodeo at Hayward two weeks ago and also earned a $500 bonus. The Pro Rodeo and Cowboy Assn. national finals can bring the winner more than $50,000. But Watson says none of the riders are in the sport for the money.

“It costs about $1,000 a week to compete, with air fare and entry fees and hotels and meals and all, and if you break even on the rodeo circuit you’re doing OK,” he said. “But it’s never been the money for me. Bull riding is not something you do to get rich. You don’t like bull riding a little bit and do it. You’ve got to love it.”

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Watson said he’s made upwards of $20,000 a year riding bulls, but that was in the early part of the decade when he was ranked among the top 30 bull riders in the world and was entering as many as 80 rodeos a year. He was married four years ago. His wife, Jennifer, rides her horse in rodeo barrel races. Watson has cut his appearances back to about 35 or 40 a year.

“Marriage is rodeo suicide,” he said. “Riding all the time means being on the road all the time. Now that I’m married, I just don’t have the desire to ride as much as I once did.

“I probably am a better bull rider now than I was 10 years ago, but I don’t have the same desire. The picture business is getting more and more attractive, and, what the heck, you can’t ride bulls the rest of your life anyway.”

Unfortunately, some who choose this wild, frenzied way of life do ride bulls for the rest of their lives. Their short lives.

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“People watch us on TV riding bulls in rodeos and they think how dangerous it must be,” Watson said. “You know what? It’s just as dangerous as it looks.”

FO ‘People watch and think howd angerous it must be. You know what? It’s as dangerous as it looks.’


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