The Buck Starts Here
Aug 17, 2017 02:43PM ● Published by Alex Martinez
If bull riding is the world’s most dangerous sport, then a bull named Bodacious will forever be its champion. His legacy forever changed bull riding, not only in terms of its worldwide popularity but also in terms of how professional riders have to train for a chance at greatness.
In the 1990s, Bodacious rocked the bull riding world with his signature move: he’d buck the rider into the air, then violently snap his horns up as the rider tumbled downward. Lucky cowboys missed his horns and hit the ground. The less fortunate ones got smashed. Bad. Of the 135 riders who dared to mount “The World’s Most Dangerous Bull,” only 8 made it to eight seconds. The Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, which inducted Bodacious in 1999, described the bovine as “virtually unrideable.”
In 1995, one defining TV broadcast with Bodacious catapulted the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), an international pro riding organization based in Pueblo, Colorado, to the big leagues. That ride matched the notorious bull with Tuff Hedeman, considered the best of the best bull riders at the time. Two years prior, Hedeman received a near-perfect score on Bodacious, but their final ride at the PBR World Finals left him with a pulverized face just four seconds in. That jaw-plummeting moment drew an audience of 2.4 million, officially placing professional bull riding viewership among the ranks of NASCAR and the NHL. The sport hasn’t been the same ever since.
That same year, Bodacious was titled PBR’s World Champion Bull. Yet 1995 also marked the end of the bull’s run, culminating with an early retirement. By that point, even the greatest cowboys—including the legendary Hedeman—refused to ride him, their perfect techniques no match for the bull’s explosive frenzy. In a sport devised by some of history’s most daring men, it was a beast who became the ultimate victor.
But Bodacious’s greatest contribution to the sport wasn’t his infamy. It was his genetics.
Bodacious spent his remaining days as a sire, breeding some of the nastiest, most ferocious cattle beasts ever to rampage PBR. Although he maxed-out at 1,900 pounds during the peak of his career, he was considered small relative to the other bulls. It wasn’t his size that made him valuable to breeders. It was his cunning brutality, his ability to grow more dangerous with every ride. After all, the more buck, the better. PBR’s crowds want action, and mean cattle make for the most memorable rides.
“I know I’ve gotten on some bulls sired by Bodacious, but there’s never been a big-time sire out of him like himself,” says pro rider Nevada Newman, a 24-year-old rising PBR star coming to Colorado Springs next month for the Rumble in the Rockies competition. Most pro riders have likely tussled with at least one of Bodacious’s progeny. If they haven’t yet, they will.
With each new generation of bulls, PBR’s monstrous stock grows stronger, smarter, more agile. Since physical size is every bull rider’s limiting factor, these advances leave today’s cowboys at a stark disadvantage. The average bull in the pro circuits reaches well over 6 feet from head to hoof and weighs about 1,700 pounds. The biggest bulls can top 2,000 pounds, rivaling the size of a black rhinoceros. Compare that to the average bull rider, who stands between 5′6″ and 5′8″ and weighs about 150. If they are any heavier or taller, the inertia of their body trying to remain on top of a bucking bull becomes a liability rather than a boon.
Newman, at 5′8″ and 140 pounds, falls within the average range. His training regimen, however, isn’t what you would expect of an average professional athlete. “There’s a whole different kind of shape you need to be in to ride bulls,” says Newman. “It’s not a running-on-a-treadmill shape. It’s a muscles-you-don’t-use-every-day kind of thing.” That’s because a bull rider’s most important muscles aren’t in the hands or arms. The most important muscles are the adductors in the legs, groin, and hips, the cowboy’s points of contact with the bull.
Since bulking up is not an option for professional bull riders, they must incorporate cross-training to maximize their chances of victory. They can’t just rely entirely on raw strength, either. Bull riders require flexibility, a keen sense of balance, and the wits to recognize when it’s time to hop off and tip their hats. One misguided shift along the bull’s back can result in permanent damage—and slips happen often. According to a 2006 study from the University of Calgary, serious injury is 10 times more likely with bull riders than with football players. On average, they get badly hurt at least once every 15 rides. And Newman knows all about this: at the time of our phone interview, he was recovering from a shoulder surgery, his third surgery since he started riding professionally.
READY FOR BATTLE
Newman was born to ride. Raised on his family’s ranch in Montana, some of his earliest memories were of his grandfather’s local rodeo company. At age six, he started riding sheep. Then cows. Then horses. At 12, he mounted his first young bull. In high school, he hit in junior circuits, and continued riding through his college years. Now, Newman rolls with PBR, where he vies for a piece of the organization’s $11 million in annual prizes.
A cowboy through and through, Newman makes the ranch his training ground. Depending on the season, he spends the bulk of his waking hours calving and lambing, branding cows by the hundreds, feeding and grooming the animals, or raking and stacking bales of hay. These activities involve heavy lifting, careful balancing, and constant stretching for nearly 10 hours straight. According to the website CalorieLab, ranchers burn almost twice as many calories per hour than most construction workers do on any given day. Newman saves the weights and biking for those rare occasions when he isn’t ranching.
“I’ll ride my horse bareback to get that feel of the forward movement of an animal moving away from me,” Newman explains. “Bull riding is a lot of technique. You can take the power away from the bull if you ride them right. There’s one certain spot in the middle of that bull, and if you can stay in that spot, there’s hardly any power. But if you get out of whack, that bull on the PBR can really throw you, and you have to hustle to get back in that spot.”
Unlike Newman, not every rider resides in a homestead, and many outsource their ranching duties while they travel the world, raise their families, endorse name brand products, or manage businesses of their own. How do PBR’s other steadfast runts go toe-to-toe with untamed bovines over 10 times their size? It depends on the rider.
Take Brazil’s Guilherme Marchi. He holds the record for more rides than any other cowboy in the sport’s history. Marchi’s regimen is simple. He lifts weights, rides bikes, and jumps rope at least four days a week, even while traveling between events. His diet includes generous portions of eggs and chicken.
Or take Montana’s Matt Triplett, who ranked third place at the 2014 PBR World Standings. Triplett diligently follows a gym program much like Marchi’s, with the addition of some unconventional, cutting-edge practices. One of those is cryotherapy, which subjects an athlete’s body to extremely cold temperatures—far below freezing—for a few minutes to reduce muscle swelling and facilitate healing. The other is hot yoga, which involves yoga poses in a sweltering room to keep the muscles lithe and supple.
Then there are guys like Nevada Newman. When Triplett introduced him to PBR in 2014, he got a taste of the city-slicking workout practices of cryotherapy, hot yoga, and the gymnasium life. Even if Newman raised and sold cattle as a day job, the rookie needed careful preparation for PBR’s specially bred steers. Once he got into professionally competitive shape, he made the ranching lifestyle his full-time training regimen. “I have some friends who live and die in the gym,” says Newman. “I hate that stuff. I’d rather be outside doing something, like riding horses.”
However, workout plateau—when the body grows accustomed to the same exercise routine day-in and day-out—can stunt anyone’s game, no matter how hard they train. Athletes in any aggressive sport must spice up their grinds with something unusual every now and then. Otherwise, the training hits a wall and the body ceases progression. If plateau goes on for too long, the competitor may lose gains rather than maintain what he or she already has. Newman is just like every athlete in this regard. Ranching is an incredibly effective cross-training workout, but it can become repetitive, too. The gymnasium life may not be his thing, but he admits some of Triplett’s style rubbed off on him.
“If it’s going to be a long event, and I’m feeling sluggish, I’ll do some hot yoga the day before, to take off the edge,” he says with a chuckle. “You do sweat your ass off there.”