If you have never stood within spitting distance of a man ready to ride an angry and hungry bull there is no string of words that can make you feel the panic and buzz and gravity and absurdity.
The chute is so short the bull has to turn his head, so narrow the rider can grab each side without extending fully. This particular rider is 5-feet-7 and 135 pounds. The bull weighs 1,700 pounds — bigger than a grizzly bear, not quite as big as a Mitsubishi Mirage — and at the moment is screaming.
Bull screams are called bellows, and this bull’s bellow sounds a little like Chewbacca ready to throw a punch.
The brown-and-white bull’s name is War Cloud, and when he kicks the entire structure and the 30 or so men who crowd his chute shake. Some are judges for this Professional Bull Riders event at the Sprint Center on Saturday. Some are fellow riders, here to help. Others are bull owners, a few literally sipping soda and eating popcorn. It smells like a barn and feels like a prize fight.
Dakota Buttar has a name that sounds made up, but he is the real man on this very real bull. Moments like this decide his life. Moments like this decide the lives of all 35 riders here, from J.B. Mauney, the millionaire star, to Colten Jesse, making his debut at the sport’s highest level.
These men have more in common with UFC fighters than baseball players, more similarities to sky divers than golfers. Their lives are measured in these instants, none longer than 8 seconds. Their money. Their success. Their health. The sport is so fickle a weekend’s worth of work is no longer than 24 seconds, and so demanding it demands the rest of your week to recover and prepare for the next one.
This is as close as sports comes to a roulette wheel. In less time than it takes to open an app on your phone a rider can win thousands of dollars or be in need of an ambulance. A world champion once died after a successful ride. Nobody is safe.
Dakota rode his first steer before his 6th birthday. Stayed on, too, and he’s been hooked ever since. His dad rode, and his sister did barrel races. Rodeo is his life, and if you stand on the chutes with that panic and buzz and gravity and absurdity you have not lived his life. He did not just hop on War Cloud.
Riding an angry bull bred for his ability to buck professionals off his back is the product of a lifetime of work, the intervals from steers at home to bulls in front of 12,101 fans and a national television audience so gradual you hardly notice.
“This is what I do,” Buttar said. “You can’t be scared of it, but you have to have respect for it.”
Cord McCoy used to be Dakota Buttar. Before he started raising bulls, and before he and his brother went on “The Amazing Race” three times — known as the cowboys, obvi — McCoy was a short and skinny country kid addicted to the high of riding a bull and landing on his feet.
Buttar will tell you he’s been pretty lucky with his health, but a bull rider who’s pretty lucky with his health can still have a concussion (horn knocked him in the chin), torn elbow (slammed against the wall by a bull), and punctured lung (bull’s hoof bent his collarbone down) in the last year.
McCoy’s right arm broke more times than he can be sure of. Once, they put a plate and screws in, but it broke again, so they put a bigger plate and bigger screws in. He has trouble with airport metal detectors now. The worst McCoy got hurt actually wasn’t from a bull. It was a horse who bucked and kicked him in the head. McCoy woke up a week later. That was one of five times a doctor told him he could no longer ride.
“When you hear that,” McCoy said. “You find a new doctor.”
The truth is that every rider good enough to make it to this level has had reason to quit. For the ones who make it anyway, those reasons become points of pride.
The bulls on this particular night are younger, 3 and 4 years old, working their way up. But already, at least one has won more than a half million dollars. Some have sold for $150,000, with sperm samples that could go for much more.
This is big business. PBR recently sold for $100 million. The new owners also run Miss Universe, and represent The Rock. PBR counts 33 million fans nationwide. Saturday’s show in Kansas City came with pyrotechnics, cheerleaders with bare midriffs, and live country music from a man who doubles as “the patriotic voice of PBR.”
Most of the men who make it this far have stories similar to Buttar’s. They started young, often before kindergarten, and none could have known what would come.
There is more money in the sport than ever, but last season only one rider won more than a million dollars. The No. 2 winner took home $549,566, which is within a doctor’s bill of the minimum salary in major-league baseball.
Physically, these riders take a beating perhaps best analogized by football and mixed martial arts. Mauney is one of many riders who compete without an ACL or MCL and walk with a limp even without a new injury. He turned 31 last month.
The lifestyle can be brutal, too. Riders are responsible for all their own travel expenses, as well as supplemental health insurance. Buttar lives in Saskatchewan. That’s a two hour drive to the airport, a two-hour flight to Minneapolis, a four-hour layover and another flight to Kansas City. Every week is a different city, and this week Buttar had one hour at home — that’s not a typo — before he had to leave for the airport again.
All for a maximum of 24 seconds of action.
“You don’t think about it like this at the time,” McCoy said. “But now I look back, and it’s like, ‘Man, why did I do that?’ ”
Dakota Buttar wants to be Cord McCoy someday. Buttar loves riding. He obsesses on it. When he’s not riding, he’s almost always thinking about riding, but the career arc of a bull rider is not dissimilar to that of an NFL running back. McCoy quit at 33.
Right now, Buttar is PBR’s No. 13 rider. Of those ahead of him, only two are older than 30. Of the 10 immediately behind him, only Mauney and one other are older than 30.
Riding bulls is thrilling, and dangerous, and if you’re really lucky it can be a good living. But it’s not a life plan.
“I hope I have some more years of doing this,” Buttar said. “But you need something to fall back to.”
A year ago, he wondered if that would be accounting. He has three years of school in it, so he could someday be (presumably) the only accountant/bull rider in North America. When the injuries cluster more than the wins, accounting makes a lot of sense.
But that’s not what he really wants to do, no more than it’s what any of the other riders want to do. Buttar has a few bulls back home, a head start to transition from riding to raising.
“I’d definitely like to,” he said. “It’s a tough thing to get into, to get that quality of stock. But that’s something I’d like to have.”
This sport is flipped, then, in some fundamental ways. The bulls are often bigger stars than the riders, and without the wealth of other professional athletes the good life can often come after retirement. Ride well now, to earn money and make connections for a better way later.
Buttar has a lot on this, in other words, as he climbed over the chute’s top pipe and lowered himself onto the bull. The animal bucked up. It bellowed. It bucked again, Buttar desperate to absorb the ride.
The gate opened, and War Cloud’s first jump went roughly the length of a free throw. He turned to the left, which Buttar predicted after watching video, but the bull also stumbled a bit, which Buttar could not have expected.
The split second of awkwardness threw the bull’s rear end forward, Buttar along with it, his right hand momentarily slapping the fur behind the horns after 2.08 seconds. Buttar rode out long past 8 seconds, but his ride was disqualified when his off hand hit the bull. He earned no points, and no money, ruining his chance of winning.
“He just sort of tripped,” Buttar said. “(Stuff) happens.”
He smiled after those words, and what choice did he have? A week’s worth of travel, of thought, of prep, of cleaning gear and washing clothes and splitting a hotel room with a man known as one of the circuit’s loudest snorers, effectively made a financial loss because a young and ticked off bull couldn’t land on his feet.
This is the life Buttar chose. Another ride awaits.