The Brisbane Entertainment Centre smells like bullshit tonight. Somehow, the amphitheatre has been transformed into what looks like indoor rodeo, complete with metal pens that hold nearly 60 live bulls. Up close, the bulls are massive, majestic beasts, all muscle, fat and—this can’t be ignored—humungous genitals. Some bulls weigh 1000 kilograms, the weight of 10 obese men. There are bulls that are magnificently horned; others are pristine white and stare at you, god-like and knowing. Seeing them like this, you understand why the Hindus revere them.
The young men who have gathered here haven’t come to worship these bulls, but to ride them and hang on for dear life for money and glory. This is the PBR (Professional Bull Riding) Australian Cup Series’ Brisbane Invitational and riders have come from all over Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada to try their luck. Brisbane’s event is Round 2, and the match before the PBR National Finals in Sydney where the winner will score a sweet bonus $10,000 on top of any earnings they’ve made in these premilinary shows.
Australia is one of five territories united by PBR and bull riding. Besides the countries competing tonight, the sport is also huge in Mexico and Brazil. In the United States, bull riding has become one of the country’s top ten sports in terms of audience numbers and money players can earn (think: seven digits in a year). Beyond the competitions themselves, there are lucrative2 endorsement deals, and any Australian who makes it big in the US can become a household name, far more famous there than they’ll ever be here.
One of them was Troy Dunn, 45, the most successful Australian bull rider of all time and godfather to the sport here. He’s the only Australian to have been PBR World Champion and is now PBR Australia’s president. Dunn has an ageless face, wears a cap with sunglasses pulled over it and a polar fleece-lined vest with an embroidered red bucking bull logo over a red flannel. Dunn says he’s been pretty lucky when it comes to injuries: the worst was a dislocated hip after a bull threw him off and stomped down on his thigh, yanking it fresh out of the hip. “I’ve only broken toes and fingers, knocked teeth out, had that dislocated hip, chronic back problems and pulled groins and stitches, that type of thing.” It says a lot about bull riding that Dunn is actually known for being a professional bull rider who retired from the sport relatively uninjured.
For anyone who has reservations about the sport and animal welfare—this includes me—Dunn says it’s not an adversarial relationship between bull rider and bull. This is not Spanish bullfighting we’re talking about. Instead, Dunn says the relationship veers closer to love. “People probably don’t understand it,” he says, “but you ask any bull rider what their favourite animal is, they’ll tell you straight up it’s a bucking bull. I love the smell of them—when a bull runs up in the shoot and he’s got a big wide back and a nice set of horns—just everything about ‘em.” He almost sounds emotional.
Dunn says he’s notoriously bad for predicting winners of bull riding contests, but his tip for tonight is David Kennedy, a 27-year-old from Kyogle, NSW, who has has been twice PBR Australian champion and has represented Australia in Brazil and the US. His main competition is a barely-adult wunderkind named Lachlan Richardson. At only 19 years of age, Richardson has emerged as the dark horse threat of the competition, a kid who has seemingly come out of nowhere to spectacularly win Round #1 of this championship in Newcastle the week before.
Richardson is being groomed for success. Though he’s based in Cresford, near Newcastle, Richardson has spent most of this year riding and training in Texas. There are just more opportunities there. The third eldest in a family of seven kids, Richardson got on his first calf around the age of ten, so he has plenty of experience despite his age. He is often referred to as the Justin Bieber of the PBR, and with his boyish face he does vaguely resemble the tween superstar, except with shaggier hair, a thick drawling accent and an unmistakable teenage monobrow. He is a simple guy. In an ideal world, Richardson’s goals are: “Keep ridin’ bulls; be consistent; be world champion.”
For spectactors, bull riding is simple to follow. Riders must stay on the back of a violently bucking bull for at least eight seconds. If they don’t last eight seconds, they get no points. If they stay on, they are awarded points out of a possible 100: 50 for the bull’s performance; 50 for the rider’s. What you want is a bull that bucks violently and spectacularly, and for the rider to miraculously stay on without losing their grip or balance. Three bull fighters—who don’t actually fight, but distract the bulls from trampling the riders to death once they’ve dismounted—are paramount for safety.
When the show starts, there are an unexpected number of lasers, explosions and pyrotechnics. Over the years, bull riding has become an arena-style event with an atmosphere of a rodeo crossed with a casino spectacular. “Brisbane!” the American commentator announces. “This is the one and only … P! B! R!” Each of the bull riders are introduced like pro wrestlers, posing and taking their places on stage. The crowd roars with approval at each announcement, and each rider is introduced with fireworks or a puff of smoke. At one point, the front of the arena explodes in flame. There is a bull riders’ prayer (“As I live the Cowboy Way / Protection is what I pray”) followed by country singer Shae Fisher’s rendition of the Australian anthem complete with American twang. (It’s only later that I realise Fisher is Australian herself.) “Well the pageantry’s over,” the PA finally hollers, “so who’s ready to ride some bulls here on a Saturday naaart?”
Some of the Americans competing tonight have names that belong to the world of porn, like Chase Outlaw and Ryan Dirteater. Few wear helmets or any protective gear besides what looks like a thin bullet proof vest. When the bulls come out of the gates, I am convinced all the riders will die. The bulls—so placid before—buck like creatures possessed, performing a spastic, wild ballet. Some are violent and aggressive in their bucking; others are contemporary dancers, like a bovine Kate Bush. Ben Jones, a man missing several teeth and known as the Dancing Australian, rolls off his bull after eight seconds, and dances like a gumby for the crowd. One rider lies down for a brief moment as if reclining on a bed. Another is catapulted into the air and lands back on the bull gracefully in less than a second. Watching, I fear for all their testicles, and do not understand how they do this without being in exquisite, racking pain.
When David Kennedy appears, the PA says: “The pressure is on this young man’s shoulders if he wants to win a national championship title next week in Sydney. He needs to put some points on the board, it’s that simple. Let’s raaaahd!” Then Kennedy’s out of the gates with his bull, and is thrown off in seconds. “David Kennedy could not afford that to happen! That has opened the door for Lachlan Richardson …” A few riders later, Richardson is on. For the fist few seconds of Richardson’s ride, it is magic. Then his bull seems to tire suddenly, becoming a supermarket coin-operated version of itself. Because his bull doesn’t perform well, Richardson is given the option of a measley 72 points or the option of a re-ride. He takes the re-ride, but promptly gets knocked off. In the end, neither Kennedy nor Richardson last any of their rides to get into tonight’s final eight.
By the time the final eight ride, none of the bulls—who have names Insane, Suicidal, Bambi’s Blood and War Chief—are having a bar of it, and spectacularly knock the riders off their backs, one by one. It looks so easy for them, and it’s easy to understand why, especially in America, a lot of people follow the bulls instead of the riders. It’s the bulls who have won this evening, and as I walk out of the arena, they eye me off, sort of smugly, as if they know it too.