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Chicago Tue Jan 15 2013
Like most life-long Chicagoans, I've been indoctrinated by team sports since birth, and the only bull riding I've seen in person is the kind Chicago Bulls' coach Tom Thibodeau does with Luol Deng. The Professional Bull Riders visited Allstate Arena in Rosemont over the weekend for the Chicago Invitational and I was willfully roped into covering the event.
Chicago is universally perceived as a hard working city. We're blue collar in our white collar financial gigs. Our artists use their hands as much as their creativity and mouths. Coleman coolers are boiling to the brim with stews and coffee, then are empty and chilled before noon, on construction sites in gentrified neighborhoods. The city's journalists and bloggers work with Upton Sinclair tenacity to uncover simple truths. The workmen and women of the PBR (no not of the tall boy variety) fit right in with Chicago. Along with 9,107 paid attendees on Saturday night, I was fortunate enough to experience a wild ride of bull bucking, Ford truckin', and Rodeo Clown Krumping.
A half hour before the event began, the arena was three quarters full, and the energy inside was an amalgamation of the lines outside of an all-ages punk show at Reggie's Rock Club, the lobby of the Music Box during the monthly screening of the cult-comedy The Room, and the start of a Blackhawks game vs. the Nashville Predators that's tied 1-1 going into the third period. Anticipation was an airborne disease that was spread with ease.
The audience's attire had the men donning outfits ripped from an Alcala's mannequin, and the gals looking great from their Pantene Pro V-perfected hair to their cowgirl painted toes. Apparently I took the Blue Line all the way to the Rock Island County Fair. I comfortably acclimated to the new surroundings. I never leave Chicago's city limits on non-holidays so this was a much welcomed stay-cation.
The night's emcee announces it was 10 minutes until the CBS cameras were broadcasting this match live. The smiles are as bright as the neon yellow Pabst Blue Ribbons being served in the Pabst Party Zone adjacent to the media pit, floor level, where the bulls and riders dance. It smelled exactly how you would think a bull riding bout would smell. If it compressed into an Axe Body Spray can, it'd be called "Dirt, Dung and Drunk."
Boom. A pyrotechnic had a premature reverberation. The lights in the arena are still on and it startles everybody, not just me. Whew. Two minutes later: boom. A succession of air bursts, concussion blasts and comets went pow, blamph and sheer-pang, and we're live ladies and gentlemen.
Meet tonight's 35 riders. When their names are called, the cowboys offer hat tips, hand flicks and humble nods to the uproarious seat fillers. Crowd favorite, the baby-faced bad boy Chase Outlaw, lassoed the loudest pre-competition response. Enter "Mississippi Hippy," 1500 pounds of the baddest bovine you'll ever blink at. Hippy aggressively canters around the makeshift grounds, to warn all that he is tonight's Bonus Bull in the main event. Robson Palermo, 2011 Chicago Invitational winner, is a Brazilian who won the Built Ford Tough Series' first stop: the Monster Energy Invitational a week ago in New York City's Madison Square Garden. Palermo gets the opportunity to win $18,000 in the "Monster Money Bull" ride, if he successfully rides the Bonus Bull for eight seconds.
The rules of PBR are easy to pick up. Unlike the NFL, where you can challenge a play but if the official initiated the replay prior, said replay is disallowed and your team is charged a 15-yard penalty, bull riding rules are simple and as follows: The ride is worth up to 100 points: 50 on the bull's performance, 50 points for the rider if he successfully rides the bull for eight seconds. Four judges award up to 25 points to the bull and rider, then the scores are combined and divided by two. Rides are judged based on consistency of the ride. The rider can't, with his free arm, smack or touch the bull or he will be disqualified. Save for a yellow flag thrown by a judge, which indicates a "re-ride" if a bull hasn't performed to the level of the other bulls (bucking-wise) in the competition, one catches on pretty quickly. The scores from round one (Saturday) and rounds two and three (Sunday) are amassed and thus the rider with the highest tally is the winner.
Out the gate, the first rider of the evening is southpaw Ben Jones, who scores an impressive 87 points while paired with Shaky Waters. The rider and bull ebb and flow like a lava lamp in the hands of a boozehound experiencing a delirium tremens episode. The torque and grace speed up in slow motion. This is fun. I tweeted about being at this event and an animal rights focused friend of mine texted me, "Saw your tweet, bull riding is upsetting." Oh boy. You can take the sports blogger out of Chicago but you can't take his art-school bud/twitter follower out of the sports blogger's timeline.
But I love Chicago because of this. People care about things outside of themselves. I immediately turn to my press kit where I remember seeing a detailed animal welfare packet. After watching 19-year-old PBR sophomore Cody Johnson and eighth year veteran and Wyoming native Jordan Hupp ride their bulls, it is obvious the PBR handles the bulls with care and the bulls cooperate instinctively.
Entertainer and barrel man (or rodeo clown to y'all high-rise affluent folk), Flint Rasmussen is tasked with keeping the crowd engaged and, with the help of the three man crew known as the Dickies Durabullfighters, getting the bulls attention away from the vulnerable fallen rider.
As the night passes eight seconds at a time, the initial excitement has calmed 15 riders in. It's up to Rasmussen to do the heavy lifting of holding the crowd's attention spans in between each ride. Chicago is the city where humorists sharpen their tongues and cut their teeth in the grand comedy scene. Rasmussen uses comedy bits, dance routines and crowd work to occupy the audience with fun. First rule in comedy: know your audience. Rasmussen does. To comedy nerds like myself, his material was on par with that of a local comic who has a podcast, and his performance was just like the "extroverted" member of an improv team who asks the audience for a suggestion. To everyone in the Allstate Arena, Rasmussen was a rockstar comedian who even made this jaded comedy-curmudgeon laugh begrudgingly.
In April 1992, the PBR was formed by 20 cowboys who each put up $1,000 of their own printed worth. They believed in their sport, and it truly has evolved to something unique. It boasts storylines and entertainment like WWE pro-wrestling. Its non-invasive advertising is welcomed (there are no built-in TV time-outs), there's an element of danger, tons of pure athleticism, and it's a sport where the riders get paid based on how well they perform on a given night, not by what they've done in the past or could do in the future. Seeing the purses a rider could win -- in the five digit range -- made it all seem real. There's no room for a rider to perform well if and only if he's in a "contract year," because every ride is a contract year. You feel the importance of every second of action, which is refreshing, especially in a town that's seen multi-millionaire Cubs outfielders take off a play or 50.
Marco Eguchi, the helmet-less Brazilian, who recently had his eye temporarily paralyzed because of a bull riding accident in his home country, had the best ride of the night when he scored an 87.75 while riding the funniest named bull: Whiskey Cures Ugly. Eguchi would go on to leave Day One with the lead, and the video says it all. And to close the show, the aforementioned Robson Palermo came within half a second of winning the "Monster Money Bull" prize of $18,000.
After the competition, the riders and entertainers came from backstage for meet-and-greets, autograph sessions and to pose for pictures. The league's stars are utterly approachable. Bad puns aside, bull riding is approaching its golden age. Popularity is on the rise, ticket prices are reasonable, TV coverage is weekly and the fans, whether they recognize it or not, attend the event to have a great time. I watch the Chicago Bulls and I'm guilty of swearing at the TV when they struggle. I let Nate Robinson's defense get to me, and at times Kirk Hinrich's shot selection doesn't let me let basketball be the escape it's intended to be. If you follow the PBR, you root for the sport first, the health of fallen riders and bulls second, and the individuals third. To the NFL-MLB-NBA-NHL-loving Chicagoan, the PBR may be a fringe sport, but to its fan base, which just added a new member, there's nothing fringe about enjoying yourself and escaping for a night. I didn't grab the bull by the horns, the bulls and riders grabbed me.
Photographs by Eliaz Rodriguez