Those who caught our article in December covering the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Vegas would have seen a pretty familiar scene: wall to wall Wrangler-clad denim dudes in double indigo: beautiful, inspirational, but no great surprise.

However, we stumbled into something else that same week that kinda blew our minds; in between the bull riding, barrel racing and team roping is a relatively new sport that combines amazing outfits with a healthy sprinkle of danger: what’s not to like?!

Toby Inman, competing in the Las Vegas 2019 BFO competition, photo by Matthew Reamer

Don’t be put off by the name: Bullfighting today doesn’t involve animal cruelty and no blood is shed (at least no bull’s blood) but it’s a pretty scary sport that has turned what was essentially a necessity into one of the wildest events at the Rodeo. Let me explain:

Whilst sitting in the stands, all eyes are on the bulls and the riders, but down in the dirt of the arena, bullfighters are looking out for a different reason; their sole job is to protect the cowboy.

Once he’s hit the dirt, the work is just beginning for the bull and the bull fighters. Bullfighters are there to provide a distraction to the bull who’s attention is solely focussed on revenge: running right over its former rider.

It’s a long standing tradition in the rodeo which was originally inspired by the bull fighters and runners in Spain, luckily now with its own all-American, cruelty-free twist. The sport broke out into its own in the 1980’s and is operated today by two organisers: Shorty Gorham’s American Freestyle Bullfighting and Bullfighters Only.

Bullfighters backstage, anxiously awaiting their turn to perform, photo by Matthew Reamer

Today, bullfighters intentionally put themselves right into the path of the bull: they swagger, show-off, taunt and tease this 700kg horned beast into aiming itself straight at them and charging. Once they have the bull mid-charge their job is to artfully dodge that dude whilst getting as close as possible, risking serious injury. Athletes have 60 seconds in the ring to pull off as many tricks as possible; the more dangerous the moves, the more points.

Today’s bullfighters take inspiration from the original Rodeo Clown, a job that dates back to the beginnings of competitive rodeo in the early 1900s. Rodeo clowns were originally multi-tasking between entertaining the crowd and protecting the rider, a role that split into two in the 80’s: bullfighters who protect the riders from the bull, and entertainers who provide comic humour. However, today’s bullfighters take a lot of style inspiration from the rodeo clowns of the past: often donning clown makeup and a modernised version of the upsized overalls made famous by the sport in the early years.

Austin Ashley, donning a typical modern-day bullfighters look, photo by Matthew Reamer
Tucker Lane in rodeo clown makeup, photo by Matthew Reamer
A competitor rocking that modern day rodeo attitude, photo by Matthew Reamer

We were blown away by this sport: the bravery of the bullfighter is next level and the energy and genuine fear in the arena is palpable with not a dry palm in the place. The more daring competitors suffer pretty crazy injuries from being rammed by bull horns or tramped by heavy hooves.

But competitors look out for each other; as soon as things start looking a little hairy in the ring, they will jump in to do what they do best: attract the attention of the bull away and save their comrade from a nasty finish. There’s a whole team and community around this sport: the bull is genuinely cared for by a solid bunch of ranchers and happily trots backstage like a puppy when his 60 seconds is up. The competitors not only protect each other in the ring but we witnessed genuine friendship between them outside the ring too. It’s a family, a community and a lifestyle which reflects what we witnessed across the board at the NRF.

Bullfighter family vibes, photo by Matthew Reamer
Double denim ranch dude, his job is to care for the bulls. Check out those knee fades! Photo by Matthew Reamer
More bullfighter family vibes, photo by Matthew Reamer

So, cowboy hats off to this crazy bunch of bullfighters who took on the dangerous job of protecting bull riders and turned their inane skill into a sport of its own.

PS: Can we please get a shirt?